Features

High-tech divorce

National | Virtual visitation; PC stands for "pretty cheap"; and don't look now, but it isn't the sky that's falling

Issue: "Attack and dissent," May 19, 2001

You can't hug a computer
Divorce is tough, and technology may have just made it tougher. "Virtual visitation"-exchange of e-mail, instant messages, and digital photos between divorced parents and offspring-is gaining acceptance in America's family courts as a suitable substitute for face-to-face meetings. The issue came up in a New Jersey courtroom earlier this year when a man's ex-wife wanted to move to California with their 8-year-old daughter in tow. The court ruled that online visitations packaged with direct visits would be a "creative and innovative" way to keep in touch. The mom later decided against moving, but a novel precedent was raised in the family law arena. One father thrown into Internet-based parenthood is Jim Buie, a writer and Democratic Party activist from Maryland. His ex-wife lives in North Carolina, so he and his teenage son Matthew trade photographs, play chess, and chat over the Net. He says virtual parenthood is a poor proxy but better than nothing. "When I look at Matthew's life as a whole, I see some unmet needs," he says on his Longdistancefamilies.com website. "For me to try and fill them via e-mail, online chats, telephone conversations, monthly visits, on holidays and during the summer is unrealistic." Some legal experts say virtual visitation will become a useful tool for parents who want to move away from estranged lovers and spouses. "From now on, if I have clients who want to move, I'd tell them to offer to buy a [Web] camera and set that up," said Norma Trusch, a Houston family-law attorney. How low can you go?
What's bad for the high-tech industry may be good for consumers. A PC price war is on as manufacturers and dealers slash prices to stimulate demand from unenthusiastic customers. From October to March, overall major-vendor personal computer prices plunged 22 percent, according to computer researcher IDEAS International. Other figures, from NPD Intelect, report that the average retail price for desktop PCs was $880 in February, compared to $1,700 in 1996. Early this month, high-tech wholesaler Ingram Micro announced to Wall Street analysts that the outlook for the next quarter is "cloudy." The PC industry felt a rare revenue drop earlier this year, partially due to economic jitters and an oversaturated market. One major manufacturer, Micron Electronics, simply gave up and sold its PC division. Market leader Dell fought the tide by slashing prices over 30 percent, provoking responsive moves from competitors. As a result, even high-end computers are dirt cheap. A Dell Dimension desktop PC with Intel's top chip sells for $1,349, the price of a bargain machine just a few years ago. That chip, the 1.7-gigahertz Pentium 4 processor, debuted in computers late last month. Dell's current price just a few weeks after the Pentium 4 hit the market represents a 20 percent cut from its introductory price. Prices of memory modules, hard drives, and modems are also at all-time lows. "Everyone has accepted that automobiles get more expensive when they gain more features, but the computer industry has set the opposite expectation," said Roger Kay, analyst with International Data Corp. Low prices also mean budget cuts-and high-tech layoffs. Heavyweights like Compaq, HP, Gateway, and Dell have announced staff reductions this year. In the event of an actual emergency
Movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact treated it as fantasy, but some scientists raise the question seriously: What happens if an asteroid or meteor makes a crash course for planet Earth? The problem is not UFOs, but NEOs, or near-Earth objects. These are asteroids, comets, and debris 0.6 mile or larger in diameter and floating in space. Occasionally astronomers find one that may enter our atmosphere. Last November, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated that a piece of space junk named 2000 SG344 had a 1-in-500 chance of striking Earth. The estimated impact was like that of a nuclear blast. Soon other experts studied its orbit and determined it was no risk, so the warning was retracted. But such close calls lead space watchers to consider ways to handle these contingencies. Clark Chapman and Daniel Durda of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., along with Robert Gold of Johns Hopkins published a paper earlier this year about "The Comet/Asteroid Impact Hazard." They say the odds against a collision are high, but the unlikely event could have catastrophic effects. Also, public panic could be enormous. The scientists propose that astronomers make contact with civil and military defense agencies about how to handle NEO threats. Well-defined procedures would replace the "existing unbalanced, haphazard responses" given them today. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it would treat a collision like a hurricane or the impact of the Russian Mir space station.

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