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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM


I enjoyed Brock Meeks's column, "Bad Moon Rising" (Jun. 2000, p. 19). I was particularly amused by AOL's Steve Case's quoted comments that "all competitors would be welcome on the AOL-Time Warner system." In keeping with Meeks's grave doubts, Time Warner is already violating these precepts.

Many RCA televisions have a built-in feature called the "Guide Plus On-Screen Guide." Free of any monthly service charges, it receives data embedded in the PBS signal, providing viewers an onscreen guide of current and upcoming programming, along with program notes, search features, and program categorization. These features led me to buy my particular TV, which I used extensively with my Time Warner cable service. A few months after I bought it, Time Warner announced availability of new digital cable, an optional upgrade to its standard cable service. One of the benefits of digital service isyou guessed itan onscreen programming guide. But you have to subscribe to digital cable to receive this benefit. To induce viewers to upgrade their cable service, Time Warner filters out the free program information from the PBS signal. This renders Guide Plus useless. When Case says Time Warner welcomes all to its system, I guess this means as long as its competitors do not implement a superior business model that would diminish AOL-Time Warner's business.

John Letaw
San Diego, CA

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Repeating SDI Myths

I am in sympathy with most of what Les Earnest wrote in his "Viewpoint" (Jul. 2000, p. 27). However, it was amusing to see him repeat the old myth that "the Strategic Defense Initiative ... expend[ed] several billion dollars without producing anything tangible, courtesy of President Reagan's rampant imagination and reportedly the bogus advice of Edward Teller."

I would hardly characterize (1) the breakup of the Soviet Union, (2) the liberation of Eastern Europe, (3) the opening of archives that exposed Communism to the world as a cruel failure, and (4) the ending of the cold war as not "producing anything tangible." Maybe Earnest should ask the Hungarians or the Czechs if they think SDI produced anything tangible. If he means we have yet to produce a working ballistic missile defense, he is, of course, correct. So what?

What Earnest and many others fail to realize is that it wasn't necessary for SDI to "work" in order to achieve President Reagan's strategic aims. It wasn't even necessary for the Soviets to believe it would work. It was necessary only that they fear it might work. They did, and it was their undoing, because their socialist economy, even with two-thirds of its output directed to the military, couldn't stay in the race. Don't take my word for it, ask Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mark Wallace
Los Angeles, CA

Les Earnest Responds:
I am pleased to see that Mark Wallace agrees with most of my points, but I'm puzzled by his claim that the breakup of the Soviet Union was caused by the Strategic Defense Initiative. Just imagine the Soviet leaders sitting around a table saying, "Our scientists tell us that this Star Wars thing won't work, but given that the U.S. is spending a lot of money on it and it might be able to intercept some of our missiles, we might as well go out of business." Does this sound plausible?

Could it be that the members of Congress shared Wallace's sly theory that pretending to develop a missile defense system would be sufficient to make the Soviet Union collapse? Not likely.

A more plausible explanation is that most politicians have great faith in their power to change the world and do not understand technical arguments. Lacking such understanding they willingly accept claims that any problem can be solved with enough funding. Most of those who supported SDI probably still support the ongoing ballistic missile defense fiasco. The laws of physics are of no concern to them.

This is a very old problem, of course. President Eisenhower was one of the few people in government to warn about the power of the military-industrial complex, and he did that only as he was leaving office. Power feeds on paranoia, which is in turn nurtured by those who will profit from it.

I believe the decision of the Soviet leaders to change directions was based on an obvious fact that has been demonstrated in a number of places around the world: Centrally planned economies cannot compete with market economies. It is curious that we persist supporting a very large and parasitic military-industrial establishment that operates as a centrally planned institution with poorly defined goals and little oversight.

This process is sustained by national paranoia. Given that the Russians now appear to be less threatening, it has been necessary to build up new bogeymen, such as the North Koreans. If they fall into decline, our military-industrial establishment will find others, with the continuing blessing of some politicians.

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Better Word Processors for the Vision Impaired

I am legally blind. My problem became apparent a little over 10 years ago, due to macular degeneration. My vision is worse than 20/200. I once had exceptional vision, better than 20/10, until I reached the age of 50. So it was a shock when I started losing my vision. I suspect that many people with poor eyesight are intimidated by computers. But people need computers to access the Internet. And the Internet is becoming a very important mode of communication. For a sizable segment of our population to be left out in the dark is a shame. Presently, the only practical way for a visually handicapped person to access the Internet is through a computer and its word processing application.

Determined not to be stopped by my problem, I use an enlarging system called Super Vista, made by Telesensory Inc. It enlarges text 1.5 to 15 times, and the degree of enlargement can be varied for the vertical and horizontal axes. I normally set Super Vista at an enlargement of 2. I use Microsoft's Word 2000 for further enlargement. It is set to use 14 points and increase the spacing between letters to 1.5 picas. I cultivated the habit of using two spaces between each word. Bookman Old Style font is set as the default font, which is only a slight improvement over Times New Roman. Thus, I can compose a message using Word and copy and paste it into my Internet browser, Netscape, then send the text as email. To read a message in Netscape, I reverse the procedure and read the message using Word 2000.

Still, there are many inconveniences. The grammar checker insists on stopping at the first two words of every sentence and displaying the message "Extra spaces between words." Word Perfect is even worse. The extra spaces must be erased before a sentence can be checked for grammar.

I remember about 25 years ago I read a book in which the publisher was proud of the new font used in the book's printing. I noticed that the spacing between characters was slightly increased. But I also noticed that the spacing between words and between sentences was not similarly increased. At that time I just sniffled. But now I believe all word processors ought to allow for increased spacing between characters, words, and sentences so as make the Internet accessible to everyone, including those with vision poorer than 20/20.

Peter Neely
Lawrence, KS

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