The Office of Consumer Affairs
July 1998 Report
DOC Consumer-Related Activities
The following agencies are included in this report:
BUREAU OF THE CENSUS
Black Population Surpasses 34 Million:
-- African Americans numbered 34.2 million in 1997, making up 12.8 percent of the total population.
-- In 1997, there were about 8.5 million African American families, 46 percent of whom were married-couple families.
-- In 1996, African American families had a real median income of $26,520.
For questions about the data, contact Kymberly DeBarrow or Claudette Bennett (301-457-2402). For more information, see The Black Population in the United States: March 1996 (P20-508). For ordering information, contact Customer Services (301-457-4100). The Internet address is: http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/race/black.
Nearly 70 Percent of Elderly Widows Live Alone:
-- Almost half the women over 65 years of age in the United States in 1997 were widows.About 7 in 10 of these women lived alone.
-- About 109.2 million adults, more than half the adult population (55.9) percent), were married and living with their spouse in 1997.
-- Approximately 19.3 million adults, about 10 percent of the adult population, were divorced at the time of the survey.
-- About 85 percent of children with a single parent lived with their mother. Of those, about 4 in 10 lived with mothers who had never been married.
For questions about the data, contact Terry Lugaila (301-457-2465). For more information, see Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1997. For ordering information, contact Customer Services (301-457-4100). The Internet address is http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/ms-la.html
Selected Consumer-Related Information
Consumer prices rose 0.2 percent in July following a 0.1 percent gain in June and a 0.3 percent rise in May. Over the last 12 months consumer prices have increased only 1.7 percent. The core rate of inflation (prices excluding food and energy) also increased 0.2 percent in July and is up 2.2 percent over the past 12 months. Over the same period energy prices dropped 5.6 percent and food prices were up 2.2 percent.
Income after taxes (also referred to as disposable income) increased 0.2 percent in June following revised increases of 0.3 percent in the two prior months.
Consumer spending was up 0.6 percent in June following a 0.9 percent jump in May and 0.4 percent gains in the two prior months. The acceleration of spending in May was due largely to increased outlays for durable goods.
Automobile sales dropped 18 percent in July as the General Motors'strike effects adversely affected supply. The strike-related decline followed increases averaging nearly 2.5 percent in April, May and June. Light truck sales showed a similar-sized decline following increases averaging 3.9 percent since February.
Housing starts increased 5.7 percent in July following an equal increase in June, and reached their highest level since March 1987.
Mortgage commitment interest rates moved below 7 percent level in August, compared to 7.5 percent a year ago.
Consumer Bulletins: OCA released its second bulletin about electronic commerce on the Department of Commerce web site. This bulletin, Electronic Commerce: Addressing Consumer Concerns,@ discusses such consumers issues as confidence in the source, security of information provided, levels and standards of customer service, and fraud in cyberspace. A later bulletin will address privacy issues, a major consumer concern regarding electronic commerce.
Constituent Contacts: During July 1998, OCA responded to 129 requests from constituents. The top three areas of complaint concerned automobiles, banking and credit, and housing.
Global Wireless Marketplace: The United States is the world's largest wireless equipment market and a world leader in the manufacture of state-of-the-art wireless equipment, from turnkey systems to specialized products for system operators. The following three relevant articles appear in the June 1998 issue of Business America, the ITA magazine of international trade: "The Global Wireless Marketplace: Advancing U.S. Interests through a Public-Private Dialogue;" "Advancing Interests through a Public-Private Dialogue," remarks by Ambassador David L. Aaron, Under Secretary for International Trade, U.S. Department of Commerce; and "Wireless: Industry of Today and Tomorrow."
NIST Machine to Aid in Making Better Artificial Joints: The material of choice for longer-lasting orthopedic implants--such as joint replacements for hips and knees--is ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene paired with an alloy of cobalt and chromium, a combination that has proven to be durable and compatible with the human body. But even joints made from these components last only about a decade, prompting industry to search for better materials.
Innovative devices have been needed desperately to speed up the screening of new materials for orthopedic implants; it takes about six months for conventional equipment to simulate the natural wear of artificial hips. Such a long testing period results in higher research and development costs for companies trying to bring better products to market.
So, NIST and four companies teamed under cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA) to design and construct a new apparatus to do the job. The resulting machine can evaluate a diverse combination of materials, produces debris and changes in surface texture resembling the wear that implants get in the body, and can complete a screening in about one week.
Now that the device has been tested successfully, the next step in the industry/government collaborative effort (the CRADAs soon will be extended for two years) will be to use it to study how potential, alternative implant materials hold up under the effects of motion, environment and a variety of stress-loading cycles that represent the physical routines of different people).
The four companies that supported the development of the accelerated wear device and intend to extend their CRADAs with NIST as part of the Orthopedic Accelerated Wear Resistance Consortium are Biomet Inc., and Zimmer Inc., both in Warsaw, Indiana; Johnson & Johnson Professional Inc., Raynham, Massachusetts; and Osteonics Corp., Allendale, N.J. NIST researchers involved in the development of the new machine are John A. Tesk, Ming Shen, and Steve Hsu.
Public Inquiries Number Now a Snap to Remember: Members of the public, industry personnel, and others with general questions about all aspects of NIST, its programs or publications, now have an easier-to-remember, one-stop phone number at their service. The new general inquiries line is (301) 975-NIST (975-6478). Electronic mail inquiries still may be sent to email@example.com, while the number for faxed requests for information remains (301) 926-1630.
NIST Helps Insurers Evaluate Year 2000 Preparedness: Concern over the Year 2000 "computer bug" problem--the failure of a computer program or system because the "00" year designation is mistaken for "1900"--has many businesses seeking Year 20000 liability and business interruption insurance.
The insurance industry, in turn, wants to be able to evaluate how effectively companies are fixing the problem before issuing policies. A new industry/government project is meeting the need.
The project offers insurers a standardized way to measure how rigorously a given company is developing or converting its software systems to preclude computer system failures. Software diagnostics and testing experts from NIST's Information Technology Laboratory provided technical advice at the request of Software Testing Assurance Corp., a company in Stamford, Connecticut, that is leading the insurance industry's risk assessment efforts. The Software Productivity Consortium of Herndon, Virginia, also is supporting the work.
NIST has developed a variety of projects designed to help both small and large companies in the Year 2000 conversion process. The projects are part of a larger effort that is being coordinated by the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion.
October Workshop to Write Next Chapter in Publishing: Several recent technological advances have converged in a way that makes electronic books both technically and commercially feasible. Compared to conventional books, these hybrids combining the printed page and the computer take up less space, are more portable, last longer and permit special editing features.
The rapid progress toward widely commercialized electronic books is due to manufacturers taking advantage of recent developments in information technology such as improved flat-panel displays and increased computer storage capacity. For example, touch screen display technology allows an electronic book reader to touch an unfamiliar word to get an immediate dictionary definition, make the print larger or smaller, or highlight a section without the use of a yellow marker.
To help the emerging industry get off to a solid start, NIST will host the first meeting in history to bring together publishers, portable storage manufacturers, display manufacturers, touch-screen manufacturers, online booksellers, information technology experts, teachers, electronics executives, and others involved. The workshop=s goal is to illustrate the capabilities of hand-held electronic books and identify issues that must be addressed for their successful commercialization. Topics to be discussed include electronic book concepts and prototypes, software and interfaces, storage/content providers, standards and interoperability concerns, and application of flat-panel displays for electronic book readers.
"Electronic Book '98 Workshop: Turning a New Page in Knowledge Management" is being cosponsored by NIST's Information Technology Laboratory and the Video Electronics Standards Association, at NIST's Gaithersburg, Maryland, headquarters on October 8-9, 1998.
Engineers Are Working Toward Designing A Better Handcuff: James Worthey does not aspire to be the next Houdini. But law enforcement officials might want to catch his act the next time they happen to be visiting the NIST in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Worthey, an engineer in NIST=s Office of Law Enforcement Standards (OLES), shows how easy it is to pick a conventional handcuff with an ordinary paper clip. The problem is well known to police officers, and to many prisoners. A few years ago, sheriff=s officials in California came to the National Institute of Justice, OLES=s sponsor, asking for help in designing more secure handcuffs.
Worthey developed a computerized instrument based on a force-torque transducer, a device that can measure small forces, such as those required to lock and unlock a handcuff. It also will be used to measure the larger torque necessary to break the handcuff. The instrument can display data graphically and save them in a computer. It is now on loan to Touchstone Research Laboratory, Inc., in Tridelphia, West Virginia. Under contract with NIST, Touchstone will measure and analyze a variety of handcuffs and offer ideas for improved future designs.
"DNA Chips" and Tiny Tubes Make Genetic Studies Practical: Powerful technologies that offer extraordinary advances in the speed and convenience of DNA analysis are boosting our abilities to decode genes, manage diseases, discover new drugs, and cut costs in the trillion-dollar U.S. healthcare industry. These systems are initial spin-offs of an ongoing joint venture co-funded by the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) of the NIST. The project is aimed at making low-cost, hand-held diagnostic devices for quickly analyzing DNA samples in doctors= offices.
The devices will feature a combination of the technologies developed in the ATP project by two small biotechnology firms in California: Affymetrix Inc. and Molecular Dynamics. The ATP funding has enabled advances in sample preparation and data analysis and has helped validate components. ATP-funded work continues to combine and miniaturize features and make the resulting devices easy to produce.
Affymetrix, Inc., adapted a photolithography manufacturing process to make postage stamp-sized DNA chips, which contain hundreds of thousands of gene sequences that detect matches in blood or tissue samples up to 100 times faster than conventional methods.
Molecular Dynamics recently introduced a system that sorts and sequences DNA in 96 tiny capillaries (tubes the size of a human hair) faster and more efficiently than traditional methods.
New Web Museum Exhibit Describes History of the Meter: Between Barcelona, Spain, and Dunkirk, France, the meter--the international unit of length--was born, albeit somewhat illegitimately. Tasked to measure this segment of an imaginary arc, or meridian, extending over the earth=s surface, a team of surveyors missed their mark. Nonetheless, their measurement provided the raw data used to calculate one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the equator--the definition of the meter decreed by the new Republican Government of France in August 1793. With this calculation, the French fashioned a platinum bar, that from end to polished end was intended to be the physical replication of the meter.
After the surveyors= mistake was discovered, the meter was redefined to be the platinum bar, despite its tenuous connection to the original definition.
Thus begins the tale of the meter as distilled by Howard Layer and William Penzes in a new feature that appears on the home page of NIST on the World Wide Web. In narrative and chronology form, the researchers trace the evolution of the meter, one of the original cornerstones of the International System of Units, from its somewhat confused beginning to its current incarnation as the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. For the full-length version of ALength@ and ATime for the Definition of the Meter,@ surf on over to http://www.mel.nist.gov/div821/museum/length.htm.