Monday, January 26, 2009

Incentive to be obsolete

If you have a television with an antenna that you use to watch broadcast American channels, then you know that on February 17th, all full-power TV stations in the United States will stop analog NTSC broadcasts, rendering your analog television set obsolete (See full info at the Commerce Department's web page).

This is not a tragedy. The government giveth what it taketh away. Many manufacturers sell digital converter boxes that can catch digital ATSC broadcasts (which the TV stations are already transmitting) and output a signal suitable for your TV. Since Congress mandated the switch to digital, it has tried to compensate consumers, by making available $40 coupons, maximum two per household, which you can use toward the purchase of such a box.

So far, so good. Boston Brahmin does have an analog TV set, which gets used on occasion (for example, Barack Obama's presidential inauguration). Believing in being prepared, and not wanting my tax dollars to go to waste, I applied for one of these coupons. But I discovered a small and annoying hitch in the government's program.

The government's coupons cannot just be used for any converter boxes:
TV converter box models must meet technical and performance standards determined by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in order to qualify for the Coupon Program.
And the NTIA has decided that if your converter box provides even a single high-quality output suitable for high-definition (HD) televisions, for example, HDMI or component video connectors, then your entire box does not qualify for the coupon and you must pay full price.

Their reasoning is understandable: Congress's program is targeted toward households that depend on their analog television sets to get important information over the air, and not toward consumers who have the money to shell out for an HDTV.

Understandable, but not valid. They are ignoring the economics of how rational consumers should actually buy components of a system. Today, a converter box that can output HD signals is no more expensive to make than one that outputs only standard definition (SD) signals. In fact, they have the same underlying electronics. In order to become an "eligible" converter box, manufacturers have essentially disabled their boxes so that they cannot output HD signals. Ideally, given a choice, you should always buy an HD-capable box, because when you get an HDTV, you could start using your box's HD outputs and enjoy the better picture and sound. In a few years, when your television can be expected to go kaput, you would probably have to buy an HDTV, anyway, since even if there were any standard definition TV's to buy, they would probably not be any cheaper.

Yet, because of this perverse incentive from the government, consumers are being forced to buy maimed technology that limits them to a standard definition picture, far into the future -- or waste lots of money, their own and the government's. Oh, well.

By the way, I bought the Insignia NS-DXA1 box, retailing for $60, which is the same device as the Zenith DTT900 except for the logo. It has an excellent picture, sound, and on-screen menu. When I hooked it up to my old rabbit-ear antenna, it discovered well over a dozen Boston-area broadcast channels in all their digital perfection.

Friday, January 23, 2009

You had me at Hindu

President Obama (it feels good to write those two words!) said in his inauguration speech:
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.
This line made Boston Brahmin's day.

It's nice to be acknowledged by the president that I am American, too. I will never forget what then-Vice President George H.W. Bush said to a reporter in 1987: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots." And I will never forgive.

In India it's a common sentiment to respect all religions. Every neta worth his salt knows to sprinkle it in his speech. The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1964), was an agnostic. Even the right-wing BJP respects and celebrates the "Indian traditions of the Muslims, Christians and Parsis" (link to their manifesto).

But the Land of the Free is far more conservative and backward in this respect than India, and many powerful people, particularly in the Republican party, still consider this a Christian nation. It is unprecedented for a Presidential inaugural address to include the words Hindu and non-believer. As both, Boston Brahmin has put up with a lot, including a "National Prayer Service" at the "National Cathedral."

Given that God's Own Party (see Kevin Phillips's article) would count even worshipping Hindus as "non-believers", and therefore unpatriotic, I find it difficult to understand how any Hindus can ever support a Republican candidate in any election. But I know there are such people, proving that the world is full of mystery.

Obama was speaking to all of us who don't follow any Middle-Eastern religion, acknowledging our American-ness. Whether he meant by "Hindu" a follower of Sanatana-Dharma, or just any South Asian generally, this is a great step forward. In any case, the guy walks the talk of a new inclusiveness. Congratulations, America! We're at last catching up to where India was sixty years ago.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Slumdog hit the trifecta

NPR's OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook today had an hour-long segment on Slumdog Millionaire. (You can listen on their web page.)

There was a question whether Indian movies deal with the poverty and the realism in the same way. Somebody asked whether the Indian government will be upset about the police brutality. There have indeed been many Indian movies that showed poverty, police brutality, and the universal urge to get ahead. An example, in addition to Madhur Bhandarkar's Traffic Signal, was Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya (1983). Commentators who claim that India does not produce such movies are simply wrong and are being unkind to Indian directors.

But such movies have not done well at the box office in India, and I doubt that Slumdog will do well there, either. What makes money with Indians (and the Indian diaspora) is the dream-like melodrama with songs, hot dances, and a poor storyline.

Slumdog hit the trifecta: it dealt with the hard subject matter as part of an uplifting story (Simon Beaufoy gets the credit here), it has excellent production values and a clear vision that can hook in Western audiences (Danny Boyle is primarily responsible for this), and it was backed by a Hollywood studio (both Warner and Fox Searchlight picked it up), which gave it the exposure.

So now, it's showing on many more screens. Go see it. And even if the first few scenes are hard to take, just sit through them.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Never enough for a desi parent

Aasif Mandvi rocks. He is hilarious in his Daily Show segment about Dr. Sanjay Gupta possibly becoming the next Surgeon General:
Daily Show with John Stewart (video)

Mandvi acts like an exaggerated desi parent, for whom no achievement is ever enough. Here are the three things about the segment I liked:

1. Let's face it, the selection of the glamorous Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General, good or bad, is fertile ground for comedy.

2. Aasif plays on the prototypical desi insistence on competition (race is, let's face it, a race! China, Japan, India -- let's see which Asian superpower wins!), and love of titles and labels "actually, Jon, it's DOCTOR Aasif Mandvi..."

3. Fine gradations of status are vastly important: "You mean it's a position BELOW the cabinet?" Utter disappointment!

This segment reminds Boston Brahmin of some British TV sitcoms that feature people of Indian origin. I had never before seen such knowing fun being poked at desis in the United States. Another first for The Daily Show by Jon Stewart. Totally cool!