Saturday, February 03, 2007
Notes from a Super Bowl Sunday with the TV B-Gone - Die, TV!
Friday, 02 February 2007
The TV-B-Gone, which fits in the palm of the hand, is a universal remote whose sole purpose and power is to shut down televisions. During last year's Super Bowl Sunday, it resulted in at least one thrown bottle, two near fist-fights, twenty-seven (by my count) disappeared Hail Marys, touchdowns, and tackles, one half-time show half-seen (or seen, rather, in a kind of slow motion shutter effect — I with TV-B-Gone closing the screen, the bartender mashing finger into the on-button like a man poking out eyes), and one near-hammering-into-pulp of a writer waving a TV-B-Gone.
I deployed across Brooklyn that fateful Super Bowl 2006 with a single unit for a test run, assaulting mostly sports bars and taverns and also one restaurant (where no one in the crowd, not even the staff, noticed the quieting of the television — for me, a key indicator). I have since been terrorizing televisions almost daily. I go nowhere without the TV-B-Gone. I have killed televisions in Charles de Gaulle Airport, in Heathrow, on the streets of Paris, in the restaurants of small Utah towns, in a Virgin Megastore on Manhattan island, and in countless Brooklyn bars.
Mitch Altman, the 50-year-old inventor of the TV-B-Gone, tells me that when he feels depressed he arms himself and heads into the streets. "It's almost a compulsion for me. When I see a TV going in a public place, I go out of my way to turn it off," he says. "Imagine a room where there's an uptight person wearing really bright clothing and jumping up and down and yelling. It's hard to be relaxed when that person is present. When a TV goes off, I notice people's shoulders and arms relax — the body language changes completely. When I'm feeling blue, I turn off a television or two and life just seems a whole lot better."
Altman is a California technophile, a computer whiz, a self-described "geek." He pioneered virtual reality technologies in the 1980s and early versions of voice-recognition software. He built disk drives that were always smaller and faster, and eventually co-founded a company called 3Ware, which perfects disk drive "controllers." He was also a television addict. "I used to collect TVs off the street," he says. "I had 50 TVs in my mom's basement. She was very patient with me. I watched TV every waking moment of my life. But even as a little kid, I remember watching TV and telling myself, 'I don't like this, why am I watching this?' I was five years old when I asked that question. But I kept watching. The one show that I really hated was Gilligan's Island. But it delivered just enough to keep me coming back for more. That is the process of addiction."
Then, in 1980, Altman was watching TV as always, and the question came up that had been dogging him since he was five years old, and suddenly TV was over for him. "I was watching Gilligan's Island — nothing against Bob Denver, but I just couldn't handle it anymore. I went cold turkey. And I've never had a TV since."
It wasn't just Gilligan's Island. It was the physical and psychological awfulness of the experience of watching television. It was the fact that Altman one day sat down in a restaurant with old friends he hadn't seen in years, "but there was a television playing nearby and we found ourselves watching the TV — unable not to watch the television — instead of talking to each other, being with each other."
TV is unique in the EEG activity it summons in the human brain, and unique as well in that it drastically reduces the metabolic rate of the human organism. When you sleep, you use more energy than when you watch TV. When you stare at a painting or read a book or knit or fart in bed, you use more energy. EEG activity during television-watching is marked by alpha waves, those dreamy, spacey waves that also exist between sleeping and waking — a passive state in which sustained intense critical thought is pretty much impossible. Alpha waves are also associated with coma.
The technology that Altman devised to counteract this horror was simple. The TV-B-Gone consists of a computer chip programmed with a database of all the power codes of televisions in existence that Altman could track down from the public domain. The diode eye uses infrared light, which makes it felicitous to zap through clothing or across window panes or from a distance. "The chip speaks 214 power codes that work on thousands of different television sets," Altman says. "The power code for a Panasonic is the same as for a RCA. The TV industry made it so easy on me! I'd love to have a Cell-Phone-B-Gone, a Bush-B-Gone. But those things aren't so easy to get rid of." I suggested a unit that expands and clarifies the purpose, a unit that permanently disables the offending television. "There's no remote control code for 'blow up the tv,'" Altman tells me. "You can always buy a brick. Certainly a bomb is a technology that's been around for a while." One possible avenue is the use of a concentrated electromagnetic pulse that would burn out the circuits. "But how," Altman asks, "do you make it directional enough that it wouldn't harm the button-pusher? That's the question." Researchers should get to work.
Since Oct. 19, 2004, when Altman launched his product, more than 112,000 units have been sold in every state and territory of the US, and worldwide in over 80 countries. In 2005, Altman traveled on a TV-B-Gone tour across Europe, appearing on BBC TV sixteen times in two days — ironic enough. "My main reason for going to Europe," he says, "was for field-testing on European TVs." In January, a host on New York's WBAI talk radio, which was giving away TV-B-Gones for its winter fundraiser, noted that enthusiasts are now suggesting ingenious modifications. For example, one might mount the tv-killing diode eye in a hat, with the clicker device linked by cable in one's pocket. Or you might build an amplification unit with multiple flood-eyes that literally, as Altman put it, "turn off televisions any direction you look."
Super Bowl 2006 was effectively my own field test. Why go after the Super Bowl? The Super Bowl by its attraction of those scores of millions of human eyes brings to bear what is arguably the most expensive and sophisticated marketing and propaganda apparatus in history, and therefore it represents television's awfulness par excellence. Also, there is the issue of the essential but unspoken pathologic weirdness of men who never exercise gathering to peer at other grown men who run around on a screen in a plastic box chasing a piece of leather and smack each other on the ass when they catch the leather (at which sight the men watching the ants on the screen in the plastic box clap and jump up and down and touch each other as well).
When employing the TV-B-Gone among lunatics such as this, immense care must be taken. Here are suggested rules for terrorizing the upcoming event on February 4. First off, when the TV goes out, the TV-B-Goner should scream the loudest in protest to deflect suspicion. This makes strategic comrades of strangers who otherwise will want to smash your TV-B-Gone to bits. Second, order your drink before you strike; otherwise, the bartender will be too busy fending off the apes protesting the darkness at noon on the screen. Third, be drunk, even if you're not; everyone else is. Fourth, frequently throw up your hands in cheers; you can also, to look normal, produce a steady black-pantherish fist to celebrate "your team" (pick one); this allows innumerable angles to grab the eye of the target TV. Fifth, and most importantly, do not stand up in the midst of the horror of the evening to announce, after too many drinks, that you and the TV-B-Gone are the source of the trouble and that the TV-B-Gone is just wonderful and you can buy it anytime at www.tvbgone.com.
Christopher Ketcham is a freelance journalist who has written for Harpers', Penthouse and Salon.com. He can be reached through his website: christopherketcham.com
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Chavez gets sweeping new powers
Critics say Mr Chavez is gathering powers in his own hands
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been granted new special powers after an extraordinary assembly vote in the main square of the capital, Caracas.
Mr Chavez will now be able to rule by decree for the next 18 months.
His planned reforms will affect the energy sector, telecommunications, the economy and defence, among others.
Mr Chavez has said the legislation will transform the country into a socialist society. Opponents describe the new law as an abuse of power.
In the open-air public ceremony in the capital, lawmakers voted unanimously to grant the Venezuelan leader the new powers, shouting: "Long live Socialism."
He has been trying to export his kind of radical populism and I think his behaviour is threatening to democracies in the region
US deputy secretary of state
Congressional Vice President Roberto Hernandez said the assembly passed the law so Mr Chavez could "urgently set up the framework for resolving the grave problems we have".
According to the so-called enabling law, the president can remake laws for "the construction of a new, sustainable economic and social model" to achieve an equal distribution of wealth.
Mr Chavez will be able to effect change by presidential decree in 11 broad areas.
It is expected that President Chavez will, in effect, nationalise the oil and gas industries, taking a majority share in their ownership.
Mr Chavez has huge assembly support after an opposition boycott
The move will involve companies like Exxon, BP and Chevron but it is uncertain what, if any, form of compensation those companies might receive.
Mr Chavez has popular support after his re-election victory last year, the assembly has been on his side since the opposition boycotted parliamentary elections in 2005, and Venezuela is reaping huge revenues from high oil prices.
He wants to scrap presidential term limits and rewrite the constitution to build what he calls "socialism for the 21st Century".
Officials say he has no intention of turning Venezuela into a communist state, arguing that freedom of speech and religion will all be safe.
But the US has again been critical of his leadership.
John Negroponte told a hearing to confirm his position as the new deputy secretary of state that Mr Chavez has not been a "constructive force in the hemisphere".
"He has been trying to export his kind of radical populism and I think that his behaviour is threatening to democracies in the region," Mr Negroponte said.
Spitzer’s First Budget Assails Health Care System
By DANNY HAKIM
Published: February 1, 2007
ALBANY, Jan. 31 — Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed to radically restructure aid to New York’s sprawling health care industry in his first budget Wednesday, saying that the system props up failing hospitals and too often overlooks patients’ needs, while consuming roughly a third of the state’s budget.
The health care changes were among several ambitious proposals that the new governor outlined in his $120.6 billion budget, which would increase overall spending by 6.3 percent — about double the rate of inflation — and cut $1.2 billion from existing health care programs. The cuts would offset billions of dollars worth of proposed property tax cuts and increased education aid.
Many of the governor’s ideas, which followed up on his campaign pledge to toss aside the conventional way of doing business in Albany, would indeed reshape the way the state operates. But they face tough going in the Legislature, where Mr. Spitzer’s brash style has already put him on a collision course with the top legislative leaders, prematurely ending the political honeymoon that often greets newly elected governors. [News analysis, Page B5.]
To control health care spending, Mr. Spitzer would hold the growth of Medicaid to 1.7 percent, compared to 8 percent growth rates in recent years, by cutting subsidies to hospitals and nursing homes, slashing Medicaid reimbursement rates and by stepping up efforts to combat fraud. Conversely, he outlined a plan to make low-cost health insurance coverage available to the state’s 400,000 uninsured children.
His budget also called for several other major measures.
One was an education plan that would increase state aid to schools by $7 billion annually within four years and throw out the complex formula used to distribute school aid around the state. New York City would receive $3.17 billion more annually within four years, with the expectation that the city stick to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to increase its own spending by $2.2 billion annually within four years.
But a new municipal-aid formula would favor impoverished cities and take nearly $350 million a year away from New York City.
The budget also includes a $1,000- per-child tax deduction for private school tuition. Similar proposals failed to pass under the previous governor.
Another was a $6 billion, three-year property tax relief plan that would focus new aid on middle-class homeowners, granting an average of $920 in relief for such families in the New York suburbs and an average of $512 upstate. The Senate has proposed distributing the same amount of money in two years in a more broadly based manner.
A third major proposal would increase the state work force by nearly 2,500, including 355 workers who would carry out new policies on civil commitment of sexually violent predators. The governor also proposed creating 166 new environmental and conservation jobs, and create an office specializing in climate change to look at ways to reduce global warming.
Mr. Spitzer, readying for a fight over the health care cuts and school aid, told lawmakers on Wednesday morning that he would take his case to the public. Polls show the governor is far more popular than the Legislature.
“I’m going to be out there talking to voters, citizens, homeowners, taxpayers, editorial boards,” the governor said in his speech to lawmakers. “I’m going to be speaking to anybody who will listen. This is not a debate that will be cloistered in the halls of this building. This is a debate that I plan to bring to the people.”
The Republican Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, a frequent ally of the health care industry, said he had “serious differences” with the governor’s proposals, and also took aim at his style.
“When you’re governing, it’s all about compromise,” he added. People who “draw lines in the sand don’t get on-time budgets. They don’t get results.”
In taking on the health care system, Mr. Spitzer is confronting the nation’s costliest Medicaid program, one that helps support an expansive but money-losing hospital industry with arcane financing rules often designed to keep state aid in place, no matter the effect on patient care.
The health care proposals drew a sharp and immediate response from two politically powerful interest groups, the Greater New York Hospital Association and 1199 S.E.I.U., the health care workers’ union, which, in a joint statement, said the governor’s health proposals were “riddled with inaccuracies.”
Those two groups have cultivated close ties to legislators and spent millions on political contributions, and in the past have defeated similar proposed cuts by saturating the airwaves with television commercials explaining their viewpoint.
The governor’s Medicaid proposals would freeze reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes, lower reimbursements to pharmacies and overhaul payments to hospitals to help them increase salaries.
But many advocacy groups were supportive, saying the proposals brought needed reform to a byzantine system of paying for health care. Michael Kink, legislative counsel of Housing Works, an advocacy and service organization for people with AIDS, said the governor “moves health care money towards patients and front-line care providers, and away from big institutions that don’t serve many Medicaid beneficiaries.”
For his part, the governor contended that “every patient will come out ahead in the long run,” adding that large hospitals and nursing homes “can afford it.”
“They are the ones who have received almost an unending supply of capital and cash over the last 10 or 15 years,” he said. “They will have to rationalize their own operations to make themselves accountable for those dollars they are getting.”
Kenneth E. Raske, the president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, said the cuts could hurt patient care. “He cuts us and we have to cut into the operations of the hospitals, particularly since no one has helped us by putting a freeze on our cost of doing business,” he said.
The governor’s proposed spending increases exceeded former Gov. George E. Pataki’s proposals in his executive budget a year ago — which were just over 4 percent for the total budget. But in his speech, Mr. Spitzer emphasized that his proposals were far lower than the final budget that the Legislature enacted, which increased spending over all by more than 9 percent.
Dealing just with the state’s spending of its own money, not federal aid, the governor is proposing to increase total state spending 7.8 percent, to $83.6 billion, or about three times the rate of inflation projected for the state.
Edmund J. McMahon, the director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, an affiliate of the conservative policy group the Manhattan Institute, called the proposed spending increase the largest in an executive budget “since Pataki’s first election-year budget.”
“Unless the normal law of physics is suspended, it lays the groundwork for a big increase,” in spending, he said.
The governor said he was not proposing any new taxes, but Republicans disagreed, pointing to $449 million in business-tax loopholes that the governor is proposing to close and $67.7 million in new or higher fees in the budget. The governor also said he would create a special commission to explore whether some of the state’s prisons can be closed.
The governor warned lawmakers not to spend more than he was proposing, a notion that made some lawmakers roll their eyes.
“I think it’s kind of naïve to think you’re going to give this budget to the Legislature and they’re not going to enhance it in some way,” said James Tedisco, the leader of Republicans in the Assembly.