Saturday, January 31, 2009

Making the Digital Switch Soon

By the middle of the year, the United States will be an all-digital TV nation. The exact date of the switchover will be either February 17 or June 12, depending on whether or not Congress decides to delay the conversion. As of this morning, January 31, the switch is still scheduled to take effect February 17.

I say let’s keep it that way. A delay will do nothing more than add to the confusion of those who are already confused.

The world has been planning a switch to digital television for a decade. Some countries, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, and Sweden to name a few, have already made the switch. Others are in the process of switching now.

It has been two years since Congress passed the law mandating that the conversion to digital take place on February 17. Since then, consumers have been able to order coupons to help defray the cost of purchasing a digital converter box. But you only need one of the boxes in the event that you watch television using rabbit ears or an outside antenna and the TV is more than three years old.

If you have a newer television, manufactured since 2005, or if you get your programming from cable, telephone, or satellite providers, then you don’t need to do anything. You’re already set for the change.

Those who are pressing for a delay, including Pres. Barack Obama, say that as many as six million Americans are not yet ready for the switch. They point out that the government has been slow in sending out the coupons and that money has run out to continue the coupon program.

Well, tough. Procrastinators are often left behind and suffer the consequences for their slow action. I can’t imagine anyone with a television who hasn’t been bombarded dozens of times a day with announcements from local TV stations about the coming change. It started way more than a year ago and has been incessant. If you don’t know by now that the changeover date is February 17, then you probably don’t watch TV often enough to be affected much.

The current date set for the change represents at least two previous delays. Another delay will mean very little to those who are going to be affected; they would be affected if you gave them another 10 years.

Wilmington, NC made the switch last September. There was some degree of chaos, but it quickly got ironed out. Hawaii made the switch January 15. A few states and cities are making the bold move of turning off analog signals early. But in the long run, they will be ahead of the game.

The FCC has already auctioned off the frequencies that are to be made available when TV becomes all digital. Television stations are losing money by simulcasting all their programming in both digital and analog. Let them use that money to help develop the clearest high-definition picture possible, the upcoming 1080p standard.

When the switchover is made, whether on February 17 or June 12, there will be those left without a signal. There will be those who are confused and angry. But that will happen no matter when the switch occurs. Let it happen. I guarantee those who are really at a disadvantage when the analog plug is pulled will make all haste in upgrading their equipment, something they should have been planning for years.

Within a month or so, everyone will be back on the couch again, enjoying their favorite programs, in digital. It might as well occur sooner as later.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

One Billion Served and Counting

I have been online longer than most people. I feel confident in making that sweeping statement because, to most people, being online means being hooked to the Internet. I was online almost a decade before the Internet started to become a serious contender in online communication and file sharing.

And I wanted to be online even before that. Back in the days when The Source and CompuServe were the only major players, I bought a series of cheap, hobbyist computers that I felt would get me to my dreamt about cyberspace. But, alas, in the days when even a tiny computer with 1 kilobyte of RAM and a membrane keyboard was barely affordable, I discovered that you needed more than just a computer to get online; you also needed a modem.

I saved my pennies and finally bought a modem for my Texas Instruments computer. Now I could get online, or so I thought. As it turned out, I also needed something called a terminal emulator. The software cost as much as the modem.

All this took place back in the early 1980s. I owned several computers back in those days, none of which had any actual functionality. Some could play a game or two, and I could hone my BASIC programming skills, but as far as productivity, forget it.

But sometime around 1984, I found a deal on a Tandy computer from Radio Shack. It cost less that $500, which was a hundred dollars cheaper than my first computer, the TRS-80. And it used these new-fangled 3.5-inch floppy discs. The computer came with 284 kilobytes of RAM, which I quickly upgraded to the maximum 640k. And, even though it set me back another 50 bucks or so, I went to Radio Shack and purchased my first real modem. It was a 300 kbps model.

With the software that came with my new PC called Deskmate, which included a trial subscription to the online service, PC-Link, I could now, perhaps, get online. So I plugged the modem into the computer slot, booted it up, and ran the PC-Link software. I actually didn’t expect it to work, but it did. In a few seconds, I was actually connected to a server, somewhere in the U.S. for the purpose of doing things like chatting live, sending e-mail, and looking up stuff on the online encyclopedia. I was thrilled.

It didn’t take me long to discover other magical services I could access with my modem. I could connect to computer bulletin board services, called BBS’s. They had forums and files to download. I also bought some software that would allow me to download the latest weather radar image from my area, or anywhere else in the country. They were low-resolution images and were updated no more often than once every 30 minutes, but it was pretty cool stuff back then.

Then, sometime around 1988, I discovered CheckFree. It was a service I could use to pay all my bills online. I was hooked. I haven’t written a check for a bill since then, although my online banking is now Internet based.

Throughout the early 1990s, I explored other online services such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and GEnie. They were mostly text-based, except for prodigy. But it was limited in what it offered.

I was introduced to the actual Information Superhighway as they called it back around 1995. My access back in those days was text based. A friend of mine who was superintendent of my local school district was a big Internet fan, an early adopter. He was always excited to explain to me about how the Internet worked and what you could do on it. He explained things like Gophers, Archie Searches, and Telnet. But it took until I installed my first Web browser, Netscape, that I understood what the Internet was truly capable of.

Over the next couple of years, I noticed businesses were all starting to include Web addresses in their TV commercials. The Internet was becoming a place where you could find information about anything, not just porn.

This morning, I read where monthly Internet usage surpassed one billion users for the first time. That was for the month of December. I was pleased that half a million of those users visited my site, It’s no juggernaut, but since I came online in 1997, my site has served up 12.5 million visitors. I was thrilled to get 100 visitors per day back in the early days.

I, and many others, now use the Internet daily to perform tasks we wouldn’t have dreamed of doing online 15 years ago. I order pizza, buy Christmas presents, do all my banking and bill paying, buy postage and print shipping labels, check up-to-the-minute high-resolution weather radar, get travel directions, find maps to almost anywhere, look at my neighborhood from space, take a virtual driving tour of a city, and monitor my home from anywhere I am.

With all the Internet can do, it’s not surprising that there were a billion visitors last month; what’s surprising is that there were only a billion.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Traditional System does not Measure Up

I woke up this morning and went downstairs to brew a pot of decaf. But much to my chagrin, I noticed the bag was empty. So now I needed to decide something. Should I get dressed and drive the five-kilometer trip to the grocery store in order to purchase a half-kilogram bag of coffee or should I just go to the coffee shop down the block for a quick 500 milliliter cup? Either way I would have to go out in a cool drizzle, because the temperature was hovering just above freezing at 2 degrees.

Actually, I just made up that story in order to show a point. Did you notice all the measurements I used were in the International System of Measurements, that is to say, metric units? If you are reading this as a resident of the United States, it probably sounded unfamiliar. If you live anywhere else in the world, you probably thought nothing about it.

Ever since 1875, the industrialized world has officially used the metric system. In fact, the U.S. was one of the original signatories to the so-called Treaty of the Meter, which standardized metric units and formed the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.

The British were among the last of the European nations to use the metric system. In 1965, they began the conversion from the old British system of measures to the new SI (International System) units.

Canada is a British commonwealth, so it, too, has switched entirely to the metric system. Travelers crossing the border into Canada are met with road signs that give distances in kilometers and speed limits in kilometers per hour and bank thermometers that display the temperature in degrees Celsius. There is no duel system in place. The bank signs don’t go back and forth between Celsius and Fahrenheit; the road signs don’t give kilometers and miles. It’s all just in metric.

Back in the U.S. the states that border Canada might have road signs that give duel measurements. And along some stretches of Interstate highway in other states there might still be duel measurements given on signs that were part of a test back in the ‘80s, but for the most part, we still measure distance in miles, temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, and speed in miles per hour.

We pour milk from gallon jugs, order 16-ounce cups of coffee, and buy butter by the pound. We measure height and room sizes in feet and waist sizes in inches.

We, as Americans, are not unfamiliar with the metric system. We even use it for some things. It would sound strange to hear someone say they just purchased half a gallon of Diet Coke. We all know that soft drinks come in two-liter bottles. A liter is a metric unit of volume. In the days of film cameras, we bought 35-millimeter film. And we measure tire tread depth in millimeters, but we measure the tire’s air pressure in pounds per square inch.

Our recipe books are still largely printed using cups, ounces, and tablespoons instead of liters, milliliters, and grams. But our medicine is dispensed in grams and milliliters. When it comes to measuring, the U.S. is kind of schizophrenic. But the traditional measuring system is clearly the dominant personality.

All school children are taught the metric system, with its use of simple base units and prefixes as multipliers. Students learn quickly how to convert one unit to another. It’s all based on the decimal system. The traditional system is based on, well, nothing. It’s arbitrary and makes no sense whatsoever.

It’s easy to remember that there are a thousand grams in a kilogram and a thousand meters in a kilometer. But why for goodness sake are there 12 inches in a foot, three feet in a yard and 1,760 yards in a mile? Why are there 16 ounces in a pound and 2,000 pounds in a ton?

And on the Celsius temperature scale, water freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100. But using the Fahrenheit scale, water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212. Metric units are clearly easier to convert from one to another. They are based on things that make sense. Traditional units are not.

The U.S. government has taken some steps to encourage conversion to metric. The medical and scientific fields have been using exclusively metric units for decades. Most manufacturing plants that do business globally also use metric units. But the general public hasn’t caught on yet.

Our traditional English measuring system is internalized at an early age despite what we learn in school, because the weatherman still tells us the temperature in Fahrenheit and road signs tell us the distance in miles.

But in this age of global communication and a world economy, Americans will find that it makes more sense to leave the old system behind and join the rest of the modern world when it comes to measuring things. And we don’t need a lengthy process of using both systems together for comparison. We just need to go cold turkey. It might be a bit painful and confusing at first, but we will very quickly adapt. And we’ll be happy we finally made the switch.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bible Verses to be Sworn in By

When President-Elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20 he, like every other president before him, will have his hand resting firmly on the bible. Incoming presidents get to pick which bible they want to use and even the verse to which the bible will be opened.

Obama will be sworn in using the same bible that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861. But which verse will he single out as the one that best describes his hope for the country?

He could use one of the standard bible verses that other presidents have used. II Chronicles 7 – 14 has been a popular choice in the past, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

But Obama, being a consensus builder, would probably shy away from calling for America to turn from its wicked ways. How can a president lead a nation of wicked people?

If he actually decides to have the bible open to a particular verse, why not make it one that no other president has used? His election was groundbreaking. Maybe he should continue that trend by being sworn in holding his hand on a verse that better reflects his political platform.

Obama ran as a pro-choice candidate. So, scouring the bible for verses that support the pro-choice position, and yes there are some, we find this one from Jeremiah 20: “Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, ‘A son is born to you,’ making him very glad. Let that man be like the cities which the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great.”

Or maybe, since he has a sense of humor, he could place his hand on a verse that flies in the face of the man he is replacing in office. A little tongue-in-cheek humor at the swearing in ceremony might be fun and original.

For example, if Obama were a vindictive man, which he clearly is not, he might remind his predecessor that he ran on a platform of family values. So what does the bible have to say about family values? He might pick this verse from Genesis 19, “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.”

What’s that? It’s the Old Testament you say? Well, what about this family values jewel from the New Testament, Matthew 10: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household.”

Obama is nothing if not a rational man. Although he confesses to being a Christian, everyone knows that if you’re not a professed Christian in this country you have a ghost of a chance of succeeding in politics. But regardless of his official affiliation, he still wreaks of rationalism, so it might be fitting for him to be sworn in with his hand on one of the few rational bible verses. This one is from Ecclesiastes 3: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place, all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”

Obama might also want to remind his predecessor that the bible says it is perfectly ok to divvy up the booty after overthrowing a government and killing its citizens. Numbers 31 has a beautifully-phrased directive from Moses himself that he gave after plundering a tribe: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

So Bush might have opted to take the oil from Iraq, not its young girls, but it’s the same idea and it would certainly have been sanctioned by his beloved bible that he lives by.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it command a president to be sworn in with his hand on the bible. But that tradition was started by George Washington and has continued to this day. When one swears on the bible, he is swearing on all its verses, not just the good parts. Might it not be a better idea for an incoming president to take the oath with his hand on a copy of the Constitution of the United States? That document, after all, is what he is swearing to uphold.