Monday, December 22, 2008

Digital TV conversion confusion

It's interesting to read article after article about how supposedly confusing and poorly-managed the 17 February conversion to all-digital broadcast television in the US has been. I realize I'm a geek and that any technology more complex than a Zippo seems like magic to many people, but I think reporters are just having withdrawal after the election and need something that sounds scary to write about.

In this article in the New York Times, one can see that even people who are supposedly writing to clear up the confusion either don't write well or don't fully understand the situation. In his very first paragraph, Mr. Taub writes that after 17 Feb 2009, "Old TV sets will no longer work." It's not until the 4th paragraph that he even mentions converter boxes, and then he's not altogether clear on the topic. In the 9th paragraph he writes that "Anyone who gets their TV signal over the air — whether through a rabbit ear antenna on top of the set or an antenna on the roof — will need to buy a digital-to-analog converter box in order to continue getting a signal. Some people may also need a new antenna." This is at best an overstatement, since many people who get their TV signal over the air already have a set with a digital tuner... nearly every flat-panel television has an ATSC tuner, as do many CRT sets people have purchased over the last 4 years or so. I suppose most people with an ATSC tuner realize they have one, but the article is still leaning toward fear-mongering.

It's really pretty simple... if you don't have cable or satellite and haven't bought a TV since the Brady Bunch was in primetime, or if you're still watching a Sony that looks like the one from Poltergeist, you'll need a cheap converter box. Wal-Mart has them, go get one soon (I'm sure they'll be temporarily sold out on 18 February.) If you're already watching TV over an antenna, the concept of an antenna is nothing new, and probably the idea that different antennas are tailored toward different signals isn't new to you, nor is the need to adjust a directional antenna to improve your reception. For those already practised in the black art of optimizing over-the-air TV reception, the only real adjustment will be that they have to find their new tuner's signal-strength display instead of looking at the picture and guessing where the best signal is.

The fact that most TV viewers don't know how digital tuners work shouldn't enter into it... they don't know how analog tuners work either, and they've been using them for years. Only people like me with OCD issues actually want to know HOW things work, most people are quite content if things just work. Perhaps part of my cynicism about this stems from my social-Darwinist attitude... if people can't bother to learn anything, they can just roll the dice and hope it comes out okay. Of course, just to be a bit introspective about the futility of all this... anyone who's reading this probably can figure out how to obtain and connect a digital converter box.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bailout bozos

I realize that a great many people were opposed to the banking bailout under any conditions, so they have no cognitive dissonance when they diss the automotive bailout. I wonder at others who think the $700-billion banking boondoggle was "essential," yet they'd let the US auto industry wither and die before they'd LOAN them 5% of that amount.

I think both industries are important to our economy and that of the rest of the world, but NEITHER industry is so important that we should just give them sacks of public money without restrictions and oversight. At the risk of sounding like a Republican bitching about "media elites" I've read articles such as this one by Joe Lauria advocating "ditch(ing) the automobile altogether." The man thinks everything will be okay if we just let people who have the temerity to live somewhere that's not served by a subway walk, or drive a Toyota or a Volvo, even though they are "slightly more expensive." Surely Toyota would sell at exactly the same price without competition from US manufacturers, no? And the fact that Volvo is currently owned by a US auto manufacturer escaped Mr. Lauria altogether. That lends him great credibility in commenting about US auto manufacturers!

A well-structured package of loans or equity positions that the car companies could buy back on terms favorable to the people would be a better use of our money than the disgusting waste that is the hundreds of billions thrown at the financial industry with few restrictions and less oversight. The fact that the gifts to the financial industry were done stupidly doesn't mean that the government couldn't offer useful assistance to the manufacturing sector that could benefit both the public and corporate situation.

If we allow the US manufacturers who sell MILLIONS of vehicles to disappear, Toyota et al will have fewer competitors and will probably become more than "slightly more expensive." Ford, if you've been paying attention, feels that they can actually operate for quite a while without government assistance, and GM has in the last 5 years begun to significantly turn their product line around, and they currently offer some competitive and desirable products. Chrysler may be beyond help... they have little in the way of competitive products, but they are in a different position as a privately-held company, Cerberus could sell them at firesale prices to PSA or perhaps a chinese auto maker that wants a foothold in the US.

Mr. Lauria thinks that if we offer the US manufacturers any assistance, it should be for the government to take them over and force them to make electric cars (because I suppose he approves of electric cars.) It's possible that in 10 years all-electric cars may be viable for extraurban transportation, but the best bet for a truly usable electric car comes from a company he's already written off, GM (the Chevrolet Volt.) All-electrics aren't up to snuff yet.

MANY public transportation projects could significantly improve the state of transportation in certain areas of the country, but the wholesale squandering of vast sums of public money to build a network that would be largely unused in huge parts of the country would be a bigger boondoggle than making well-structured loans to or buying equity stakes in the viable parts of the auto industry.

Mr. Lauria claims he doesn't want to outlaw the car, but still leaves the impression that he thinks the automobile is useless. Considering the scale of the 2 bailouts, I think we'd save more of the people's money by applying some constraints to the financial industry than by ignoring the US auto industry, leaving millions unemployed and further damaging the economies of dozens of American cities. The numbers being bandied about are about 5% of what was tossed to the financial wizards who torpedoed the world's economy in the first place. We need to cut off the free gifts of billions to the financial sector unless and until they promise to use it wisely and responsibly. The billions Mr. Lauria would dump into mass transit would be useful in the densest metro areas and an utter waste in the majority of cities.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Why do some cars still suck?

Here we are with 2009 just around the block, and there are still American cars in production that are absolute crap. Why is this? Better yet, why do some people BUY the bloody things?

Several weeks ago some cell-phone-addled operator of a motor vehicle managed to scratch up the bumper of my Legacy Wagon in the post office parking lot. If they even noticed the contact between the 2 vehicles, I'm guessing they didn't stop to look for damage or decided they could get away with it, so they buggered off. I wish them a plague of boils.

At any rate, having that repaired gave me the "opportunity" to sample one of the worst cars I've driven in years. While my insurance company was willing to pay for a car like a Fusion or a Malibu, the best that Enterprise had available (without forcing me to pay extra) was a 2008 Chrysler Sebring. This was a relatively fresh car, with about 10,000 miles on the clock.

Let me start by saying I've never been a fan of the current Sebring's styling, and I think the automotive press is unanimously behind me on that front. The car is ill-proportioned with some strange detailing, like the longitudinal lines in the hood that were a much more coherent design element on the Crossfire when it was designed EIGHT YEARS AGO. Not every design element on low-volume halo cars constitute a styling signature for the company. There are, however, some frumpy-looking vehicles that turn out to be quite decent cars. The shoe-box styling of the previous generation Malibu hid a car that was at least efficient and functional, even though it wasn't going to excite anyone. The equally frumpy Ford 500/neo-Taurus is also a much better car that its looks make you think.

The Sebring isn't hiding an automotive gem under its clunky styling, though. Clunky is in fact an excellent adjective for it. The flaccid automatic transmits power delivered in a groaning, wheezy manner to tires offering all the traction of teflon on cowshit. The suspension manages to be both floaty and coarse, and I'm still trying to figure out HOW one does that. The trunk was adequate in size, but ridiculous in access since the lid is proportioned almost like a mail-slot... the back window extends so far rearward that almost all of the trunk space is inconvenient to reach, and there wasn't a single hook or cubbyhole for securing the silly kinds of things people carry in the trunk of their cars, like GROCERIES.

When I look at the problem from an intellectual point of view, I realize that there would be a very negative impact on the economy to let Chrysler fail. When I look just at the merits of what they're offering for sale these days, I think there would be a net positive effect on the mix of CARS available for sale. Sell them to PSA Peugeot Citroen and let them bring us some interesting French strangeness... sell them to a Chinese company and let them at least build cheap bad cars instead of bad cars masquerading as decent transportation. Just don't make me DRIVE one again.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Pocket proJector

Imagine if you will a digital projector, about the size of a Palm Centro. If you imagine it with a 480x320 resolution and the ability to project a clear image between 8 inches and 8 feet, you might get something like the Optoma Pico, described here by David Pogue. Looks like a cool toy.

VIVACE: slow water movements generating electricity

I find this one to be a very interesting possibility. Vortex Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy (VIVACE) uses the way fish swim to generate energy from slow tidal or water current motion, and does it in a way that can be submerged so that it doesn't obstruct the waterway. The estimate in the article is that recovering 0.1% of the energy available from tidal motion of the oceans would supply power for a population of 15 billion.

Read the Science Daily article about VIVACE here.