The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

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D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

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A post-Graham Post

The spectacle of experienced, often cynical journalists getting a little weepy over the prospect of their paper’s ownership changing from a group of rich people to one exceptionally rich person might seem strange.

But it really happened this week when the Washington Post stunned nearly everybody, myself included, by announcing its impending sale for $250 million to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Post in winterWhat was so special about the Graham family owning the newspaper and the Washington Post Company behind it?

This: To us, their stewardship was our rock.

The family had shown it would take punches for the paper. Eugene Meyer bought the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, when it was the fifth newspaper in a four-newspaper town, then subsidized its losses into the 1950s. His daughter Katharine Graham took over after his son-in-law Phil Graham’s suicide and stood up to Richard Nixon and much of the military-industrial complexher memoirs show she was an Iron Lady well before Margaret Thatcher earned the title.

And even as the newspaper industry started to slide, the Post’s two-tier stock structure locked Wall Street out of voting control and, we thought, ensured the paper could be managed for the duration while others made cruel and stupid staff cuts to meet short-term earnings goals.

For me and many other under-40 Posties, the family’s role was personified by Don Graham, the paper’s publisher from 1979 to 2000, chairman from 2000 to 2008 and still chief executive of its parent firm. “Mrs. Graham” had her well-earned perch in the 9th floor executive suite, but Don was a constant presence in the newsroom who could be counted on to read every story in the paper.

If you did a good job, you might get a handwritten compliment via interoffice mail, later on an appreciative e-mail. And if you screwed up, Don could understand. In January of 2000, stressed over my aunt’s death the day before, I completely blew up at a cranky caller and hung up on him in a stream of curses, something I’d never done before and never have since; the guy promptly called Don, who heard him out, apparently talked him off the ledge and refrained from having me canned.

In and outside the newsroom, Don declined to play the part of a media mogul. He’d followed Harvard by serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, then in D.C.’s streets as a patrolman with the Metropolitan Police Department. He insisted he be compensated far less than his peers, with his salary frozen since 1991. It seemed normal that I’d have the occasional brief chat with him on the walk to Metro at the end of the day.

Up until maybe five years ago, working for the Post seemed one of the surest bets in journalism. But we weren’t doing as well as we thought–even as the apparent security of having the Grahams in our corner probably kept us from taking chances we should have. Circulation figures and ad revenues kept sinking, one round of buyouts begat another and another, and the newsroom leadership turned over more than once. Don Graham’s successors as publisher–Bo Jones from 2000 to 2008, his niece Katharine Weymouth from 2008 on–didn’t have the same newsroom presence.

I’ve wondered what the family members in charge thought about the steady erosion of their legacy. Now we know: Late last year, they began to explore the implausible: If we can’t escape a seemingly endless cycle of cuts and can’t find answers for the questions the newspaper business keeps throwing at us, maybe it’s time for somebody else to take over, somebody with new ideas and enough resources to fund the paper’s reinvention entirely free of the stock market’s concerns.

Since Monday’s news, I’ve been hearing anxiety from current and former Posties over what Bezos might have in store–from his history with unions to what Amazon’s done to independent bookstores. I don’t think you can overlook a deeper angst: that the Post is being wrenched off the foundation that had endured for over 80 years.

Accepting that change had to have been a crushing realization to the Graham family too–that you essentially must fire yourself from your life’s work. But it seems in keeping with the history I’ve read and the publisher I got to know. As my friend and fellow ex-Postie Frank Ahrens wrote in an eloquent note shared on Facebook: “After a lifetime of benevolent ownership, this sale is Don’s last great gift to you. He gave you a fighting chance.”

Don Graham’s work at the Washington Post may be near its close, but he remains one of the most decent, honorable people I have met. Thanks, Don.

This weekend provides an unfortunate reminder of our collective innumeracy

An Asiana Airlines 777 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport today, leaving two passengers dead and more than 100 wounded. That is terrible news all around, even considering how many of the 307 people on board seem to have walked away from a hull-loss accident, and upsetting in particular to this frequent SFO flyer.

OS X calculatorBut the really awful news about travel this weekend most likely happened Thursday–when, if recent trends continued, more people died on American roads than any other day of the year. That comparative statistic, or maybe just the average daily toll of 89 people, will get some mention as useful context in every story about the SFO crash, right?

Of course not. News coverage, political debates and popular consciousness tilts overwhelmingly toward the big and unusual disaster and away from smaller-scale but vastly more frequent calamities.

This mismatch is obvious in transportation policy–would that driving had a culture of safety close to what’s made commercial aviation the safest form of travel in America–but the effects may be worse in national-security issues.

Unreasoning fear of terrorism can lead to all kinds of silly rules, like the National Football League’s prohibiting fans from bringing all but the smallest non-transparent bags to games. (I had to observe that the statistics to date show that its own players represent a bigger threat than terrorist acts at NFL stadiums; that was unfair on my part, considering how many people drive to games and what state they might be in afterwards.)

But it can also lead us to accept the slow, silent erosion of our rights.

How else can you explain how politicians and pundits in or aligned with both parties keep defending the National Security Agency’s minimally-accountable surveillance of domestic communications–sometimes with a waving away of even the public’s need to know? Because 9/11, that’s why! Because we choose to view a hateful, contemptible and exceedingly rare crime as the existential threat it is not.

I don’t mean to get into a rant here, so I’ll close with what I hope is an uncontestable recommendation: Drive safely, please.

(Updated 9/7 with correct numbers about the SFO crash, another number about road safety and a few rephrased sentences.)

Raising a glass to liberty and justice for all

My last stop in New York Thursday evening before heading to Penn Station for the train back to D.C. was not a place I would have put on my itinerary anytime in high school or college: I’d decided I’d get a beer at the Stonewall Inn.

Stonewall NY PostThe day before, the Supreme Court had demolished that cruel exercise in bigotry called the Defense of Marriage Act. I’d despised that law not just for how it demeans the relationships of gay and lesbian friends, but also for what it says about straight couples like my wife and I– our marriage is so weak that it must be propped up by a law stigmatizing the unions of other consenting adults?

(It’s remarkable how many of my Georgetown classmates came out of the closet after graduating from America’s oldest Catholic university. I have no idea why that is.)

The logic of raising a glass to the demise of DOMA at the birthplace of the gay-rights movement in America seemed inescapable. I just hoped I wouldn’t be seen as barging in on somebody else’s celebration.

“Somebody else”… that’s a phrase that can come up a lot if you grow up in the majority culture. From a certain warped perspective, a Black History Month or a Susan B. Anthony quarter can seem like a prize for other people. Well, no. As I wrote in another context, our overcoming our worst instincts is part of our story as a country, and we should honor that.

(While I’m on the subject: My fellow white people, please get to know “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and it’s part of our story too.)

So I strolled down Seventh Avenue, crossed at Christopher Street, walked in (note that the current establishment is not the same as the one where riots broke out after a police raid in 1969) and asked for a beer. Did I fit in? You will be shocked to learn that… wait for it… I wound up talking about computers and smartphones with a couple of guys.

I look forward to some repeat of the experience closer to home when Virginia’s constitution is no longer stained by an amendment banning even civil unions for some of my fellow citizens.

How DVD Recording Got Paused (June 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one served as a belated correction to a few Post columns when it ran on June 6, 2012.)

Five years ago, a newspaper technology columnist heralded an overdue upgrade to a popular category of consumer electronics—adding a “record” button to the DVD player.

DVD recording“The DVD player has been around for more than a decade, but now it has finally grown up,” this writer declared. As proof, he cited an end to a squabble over recording formats (decried in a 2003 column by the same scribe) and these devices’ newly-gained ability to record over-the-air digital broadcasts.

The writer was me, and the forecast was wrong. DVD recording never took off or even picked up much speed on the runway.

CEA’s figures show U.S. sales to dealers of DVD recorders crested at 2.47 million in 2009 before ebbing to an estimated 797,000 last year. Meanwhile, combined U.S. shipments of DVD and Blu-ray players topped out at 34.04 million in 2011 and then dropped to 24.71 million in 2011.

I put my money where my words were, buying a Toshiba DVD recorder in 2009. But after a brief flurry of use archiving old videotape recordings to disc, we rarely employed it for anything but playing CDs and movies.

After a friend sold me his TiVo HD–fortunately, with lifetime-of-the-product service attached–we retired the recorder to the upstairs TV and picked up a Blu-ray player for our living room. (Note that after all of my earlier skepticism of 3-D TV, the under-$100 model I chose for other reasons happens to support 3-D.)

Our DVD recorder now sits alone and insert upstairs; I don’t even think I’ve plugged it back in after testing a Roku Web-media receiver with that set.

What did I miss? And are there any lessons to draw from my errant estimate?

Four come to mind.

It’s easier to survive a format war without competition. The debut of the DVD itself was held back by lengthy disagreements over its capacity and features, but viewers didn’t have an obvious, appealing alternative to VHS to buy.

That was not the case when manufacturers lined up behind opposing recordable formats: DVD-RW (often pronounced as “minus RW” by opponents), DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. It took a few years of dispute before the industry agreed to support both the -RW and +RW standards, leaving behind DVD-RAM.

(If you could redesign the format from scratch, you might pick DVD-RAM, which allowed much of the same play-while-recording flexibility of hard drive-equipped digital video recorders. But most existing DVD players couldn’t read those discs.)

This delay cost DVD recording more than I had realized in 2007. It allowed DVRs to cement themselves as the video-recording solution of choice.

Pay-TV incompatibility can kill video hardware. Aside from some models with “QAM” tuners for basic-tier cable and fewer, older models with CableCard slots, DVD recorders couldn’t record pay-TV programming unless their intrepid owners set up “IR blaster” controls for their cable and satellite boxes.

But why bother when a cable or satellite company will rent you a DVR that just works with its service? Nobody had a good answer to that question, and newer ventures in home video hardware—for instance, the Google TV hardware I tried in 2010—have run into the same problem.

So if you want to know why you still can’t buy a Blu-ray recorder for your TV in the U.S., there’s one answer.

Just because the features you want exist in separate products doesn’t mean they’ll all come together. I expected DVD recorders would soon gain the ability to record in “enhanced definition” 480p resolution—the same upgrade provided by progressive-scan DVD players and generally welcomed by viewers. That never happened, leaving DVD recording stuck in standard-def.

I also though it obvious to use the “TV Guide on Screen” metadata sent out with over-the-air digital TV broadcasts to provide a simple interactive program grid with one-touch recording. Instead, DVD recorders, our purchase included, required me to punch in start and stop times, as if I were still using the top-loading VCR my parents bought in the early 1980s.

Portability isn’t as important as I think. My advocacy for DVD recording was rooted in the idea that viewers would want a permanent copy of their favorite videos—say, the broadcast of their team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Digital video recorders, however, have generally left out convenient video-export features ever since ReplayTV declined to enable a FireWire digital-video output on its pioneering DVRs. And viewers seem okay with that, as long as they can at least transfer copy-restricted recordings from one DVR to the next.

That’s something to consider as home movie viewing shifts from discs to online streaming. I would like to think that some movies are works for the ages and merit safekeeping in physical media you can take wherever you go. But if you can pull up your favorite flicks online, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Which somehow seems a little sad.

Duly keynoted

SAN FRANCISCO–I set a personal record for keynote livetweeting with the 3.5-hour production that opened Google’s I/O developer conference here on Wednesday morning. That was by far the longest tech-event keynote I’ve sat through, but nowhere near the strangest.

I:O logo onstageFor that, I might have to give the nod to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ freakshow of a CES keynote this year that somehow included Steve Ballmer, Bishop Tutu, Guillermo del Toro and Big Bird. But I could also point to last year’s I/O keynote, capped off by a livestreamed skydive onto the Moscone West roof. Or what about the epic networking meltdowns of one of 2010′s two I/O keynotes?

The Microsoft keynotes that opened CES through 2011 were their own breed of weird, thanks to their history of random celebrity-guest appearances and technical meltdowns.

The keynotes Steve Jobs led for Apple were models of restraint in comparison. (I can’t speak to the live experience of those since his death, as I haven’t been gotten given a press pass to any of them.) Jobs spoke at a measured pace, the slides mostly consisted of white text on black backgrounds, supporting speakers didn’t come onstage to their own at-bat music, and the guests who didn’t work at Apple were almost always confined to executives at other tech firms cooperating with Apple on various projects–not random boldface names.

But the Steve Jobs And Apple Show made its own mistakes. The extended dissertation at Macworld NY in 2001 over how Apple’s PowerPC processors weren’t really slower than Intel chips was both legendarily dull and distinctly dodgy, given that Apple was already working on its subsequent switch to Intel. (Trivia: I think was also the one and only time a review of mine got favorably cited in an Apple keynote, when Jobs gave a shout-out to my iDVD review.) And was it really necessary to end each one by playing an ad for the new product not once but often twice?

I can’t think of too many other forms of creative output more in need of editing than the average tech-industry keynote. But if the people involved can’t do that, I have two lesser suggestions: Keep any slides with numbers on the screen a little longer, so we can jot them down correctly, and follow Google’s good example by providing power strips and Ethernet in at least the first rows of seats for the press.

Your device can be too small and too thin (July 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran July 27, 2012; it’s on my mind again after two recent stays with relatives who had broadband Internet at home but no WiFi router connected to it.)

For well over a decade, I’ve had the same wish list for each new gadget: smaller, lighter and thinner than its predecessors. But lately, I wonder if I should be more careful about what I wish for.

too-thin laptopI still appreciate carrying around devices that weigh less and take up less space than earlier models—preferably while running longer on a charge. But some recent devices I’ve tested or purchased suggest the costs of being too thin or too small.

Consider the connections around the edges of many new laptops, including the MacBook Air I just bought, but also many Intel-based Ultrabook PCs. The thinnest among them often leave out wired Ethernet ports and standard HDMI video outputs, requiring users to pack adapters.

That’s not a huge tradeoff for video. If you expect to plug a laptop into a monitor or an HDTV, you’re foolish not to bring your own cable, and one with a micro-HDMI plug at one end will take up less space than a full-sized equivalent. But with networking, you’ll need to bring an adapter supported by your operating system or trust that Wi-Fi will always work, no matter how many other people jam the airwaves near you.

And as just about anybody who’s gone to CES or any other tech conference can testify, that rarely happens. Veterans of these events know to look for Ethernet, and some companies have taken note: Google won compliments for providing wired Internet access in the press seats at its I/O conference last month.

The race to build the thinnest laptop, as opposed to the lightest, doesn’t make much sense from a usability perspective. An added eighth of an inch in thickness won’t make a laptop any more awkward to operate or carry. It’s not a thick phone that will break the line of a suit when tucked into a pocket.

Smartphones risk a different sort of miniaturization malfunction. Since the 1990s, phones using the GSM standard have used compact SIM (subscriber identity module) cards to store account data. This has made it easy to move a number from one phone to another and, with an unlocked phone, switch temporarily or permanently to a new carrier.

That’s given GSM a serious advantage over the competing CDMA standard, which doesn’t require any such physical separation of an account and a phone. (Trivia: Some CDMA carriers have employed a SIM equivalent called an R-UIM  or removable user identity module, but not in the U.S.)

In recent years, the SIM scenario has gotten a little more complicated with the arrival of micro-SIM cards. But you can still use a micro-SIM in place of a standard card (technically a mini-SIM) if you pop it into an adapter or position it so its contacts align properly in the slot (I’ve done it, but it took a few tries). And you can cut down a SIM to micro-SIM size.

Now, however, the industry has certified a “nano-SIM” standard that is smaller still and slightly thinner. So you won’t be able to shoehorn a micro-SIM into a nano-SIM slot, and using a nano-SIM card in phones designed for bigger cards will require an adapter instead of just careful placement.

Whether saving .0037 cubic inches of space over the already tiny micro-SIM card (in context, .1 percent of the volume of an iPhone 4S, considerably less in the current crop of big-screen smartphones) is worth that complication seems to have gone unexplored. Would we be better off if everybody had standardized on micro-SIM and let designers find other ways to condense phone hardware? We’ll never know.

Manufacturing ever-smaller gadgets also imposes costs we may not notice until later on. You may find that you can’t upgrade the memory on a new laptop—a serious risk if an operating system upgrade requires more memory than the last release. Are we ready to foreclose on the idea of upgradable hardware?

Repairing a tablet or a computer can also move from tricky to difficult once its components get tightly-packed together. The same goes for recycling a defunct device—although if a manufacturer provides its own, easily accessible recycling service for those gadgets, I’ll give it a pass.

The risk in making this kind of complaint is sounding like a grumpy old man, desperately clinging to his trusty old Ethernet cable and SIM card as he stands in the way of progress and the laudable goal of making computers simple, worry-free appliances.

But at a certain point, standards friendliness, repairability and expandability should outrank shaving yet another fraction of an inch or an ounce off a product. That would leave plenty of other things companies can try to beat each other on. Did I mention battery life?

About marathons and for Boston

If you want to know what determination looks like, go to the finish line of a marathon.

Marathon finisher's medalI realized this in 1999, when I dragged myself out of bed shamefully late on a Sunday morning, walked over to the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon and came home in awe of the agony and joy I’d seen on the faces of runners. Then in 2005 and 2007, I learned firsthand what it’s like to finish a marathon: triumphant, hands-in-the-air, yelling-out-loud elation, combined with a whole-body ache and stabbing pains in your legs that may lead you to crumple to the pavement after somebody hands you a finisher’s medal.

That moment caps months of training, possibly including waking up at 6 a.m. on weekends in July and August so you can run 13, 18 or 20 miles in the heat. Race day is, as people cheering along the course will remind you, your payday.

All this is to say that if anything could make the deliberate mass murder of innocents more vile, doing so at the finish line of a marathon would rank high on that list. The people who double-laced their running shoes this morning to make sure they wouldn’t come untied deserved that last sprint (or lurch), the final stomp on the timing mat at the finish line, and the giddy clutching of a shiny medal.

All of you who have clocked 26.2 miles, at some level you are my brothers and my sisters–so this feels like somebody went after my family.

It hurts further to see this happen to Boston. My brother lives just outside the city (and works only blocks from the finish line, but wisely chose to telecommute today); the Red Sox made a baseball fan out of me; I love visiting the place, and I really should come up with more excuses to go there on business. And at least two friends of mine have run the Boston Marathon. (My two MCM times were nowhere good enough to get me into Boston–but had I kept those paces today, I would have neared the finish line at about the worst possible time.)

Boston and runners, my heart aches for you tonight. But we will get through this.

Qualms Over QAM (2012 CEA re-post)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up or shed light on current issues. This one ran on Feb. 14, 2012;  the AllVid effort I mentioned at the end has gone nowhere since, but in October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow QAM encryption–with results that I’ll be discussing in this weekend’s USA Today column.)

This month’s telecom-policy squabble covers a TV technology that nobody seems to love–if they even know it exists.

The system in question goes by the name QAM, short for “quadrature amplitude modulation,” and it’s the only way to tune into digital cable without a box. But while “cable-ready” sets dealt fairly well with even premium channels in the mid 1990s, QAM’s horizons are far more limited.

Coax cableYou can’t count on QAM providing more than the “basic tier” of local broadcast stations plus public, educational and government channels. Forget ESPN or even CNN; to get those without a cable box, you need a CableCard-compliant device–which in practice means either a TiVo digital video recorder or one of a few add-on tuners for computers.

But it’s worse than that: As readers have testified and I’ve seen myself, QAM reception often presents a puzzling picture of your cable choices. Channels can appear under seemingly random numbers–and then move to new ones or disappear outright.

So the proposal now before the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable operators to encrypt QAM signals on all-digital networks–simplifying their systems while cutting off existing QAM hardware–might not seem like anything worth fussing over.

And yet for a small minority of users, QAM does work. Some use it on second or third sets (PDF); some resorted to basic-tier cable after failing to get adequate over-the-air digital-TV reception; some employ it to use computers as digital video recorders. And these subscribers don’t want it to go away.

How many people are we talking about? The Web-media-receiver vendor Boxee says that 40 percent of buyers of its new Boxee Live TV device use QAM to receive cable TV through that add-on. You could dismiss that as a figment of a small sample size; that $49 add-on has only been on sale since January. But a more established computer-video vendor, Hauppauge Computer Works, also cited 40 percent QAM usage (PDF) among buyers of its PC peripherals.

The Consumer Electronics Association has no stats for this segment of the market.

CEA has joined those manufacturers in their opposition to QAM encryption, writing in a November filing (PDF) that the FCC should decline this request unless it also moves forward on other, long-standing proposals to open up the market for TV hardware (more on that in a moment).

The cable companies’ arguments, as related over a call Friday with representatives of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, fall into three categories:

• Cable operators’ own figures suggest that almost nobody relies on QAM. Cablevision, which obtained a waiver from the FCC to start encrypting QAM after converting to all-digital service in New York, N.Y., reported that “less than 0.1 percent of subscribers” (PDF) requested a free set-top box or CableCard to decode it.

• Encryption will allow remote activation and deactivation, without sending a technician on a truck to somebody’s house. (NCTA realizes that people don’t like sitting through four-hour service windows.)

• Encryption will also stop people from tuning into basic-tier cable without paying. RCN, among other cable operators, reports (PDF) this is a growing problem among Internet-only subscribers.

It’s important to note that the the cable operators, while maybe not everyone’s favorite companies, have been way ahead of satellite vendors in the interoperability game. DirecTV users who wanted to plug in a TiVo could only wait for that service to ship its own “DirecTiVo” model; that recently arrived, years late, to complaints over its aged interface.

Meanwhile, CableCard finally seems to work as advertised–even if that’s happened too late for some pioneering CableCard vendors. Once-prominent TiVo rival Moxi Digital gave up the fight two weeks ago when its new owner, ARRIS Group, announced that it would only sell through cable operators.

There’s been a proposal afoot, against opposition from cable, to set a comprehensive pay-TV standard called “AllVid” that would work not just for cable but also satellite and fiber-optic services. It would allow every screen in a home network to tie into a simple gateway adapter–the video equivalent of the wireless router that links a cable modem and a laptop.

That’s what CEA has been asking for in return for giving up clear QAM. Boxee could also live with this tradeoff, said spokesman Andrew Kippen; Hauppauge CEO Ken Plotkin, however, was not to ready to make that deal.

Me, I think I could live with that bargain–if it included an assurance that current QAM users who will have to tolerate a new box and remote control won’t have to pay extra for them. (If encrypting QAM harms so few people and yields as many benefits as cable operators say, they should be able to afford subsidizing that hardware.)

But this is an easy thing for me to say, since I switched to over-the-air and Internet broadcasts years ago. If you pay for cable today, I’d rather know your opinion: Would you trade simple reception of entry-level cable today for easy access to a full lineup of channels a few years from now?