Saturday, November 8, 2008

Future History

Getting my mits on a commemorative copy of the Washington Post's election special edition was my obsession this week -- especially after someone swiped Wednesday's newspaper from our driveway. The Post is now selling "limited edition" copies online for $9.95, although I bought a copy for $4 from a vendor at a Metro station this evening. The Post also is selling front-page reproductions on T-shirts and coffee mugs, as well as fancy reprints that are suitable for framing.

I understand the urge to keep a little piece of future history. Screen grabs of historic homepages just don't have the same impact, although I am happy I still have this series of three homepages from election night 2000. The images were snagged at 3, 3:30 and 4 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 8 (use controls at the bottom of the window below to advance the slides).....

Election Night 2000
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My copy of this Wednesday's print edition will go into a stash of consequential front pages that I have saved since at least the mid-1980s. Among them....

* "FBI's No. 2 Was 'Deep Throat'" (Post, June 1, 2005)

* "Presidential Cliffhanger Awaits Florida Recount" (Post, Nov. 8, 2000)

* "Clinton Impeached" (Post, Dec. 20, 1997)

* and "Space Alien Meets With Ross Perot" (Weekly World News, July 14, 1992)

I was always surprised that last story didn't get more pick-up.

How did other newspapers present Tuesday's election results? The Newseum here in Washington has posted a collection of hundreds of front pages from around the world. (Thanks for the link, Bill Schrier.)

UPDATE (11/9/08): Speaking of instant history and historic Web pages, my friend Mark Potts over at Recovering Journalist posted a set of "Obama Wins" screen shots from major online news sources -- on election night, no less.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

CNN's Hologram: 'Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi...' (Updated)

In case you missed it, CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin "beamed" onto the news network's election night set from Chicago for a four-minute, live "holographic" conversation with anchor Wolf Blitzer in New York (video embedded below).

Yellin explained that she was reporting from a tent near Obama headquarters, surrounded by a ring of 35 high-definition cameras that created a 3D-ish composite image of her. The cameras moved in sync with the cameras in New York, allowing her to appear on set with Blitzer. Engineers spent two weeks assembling the set up in Chicago.

"It's like I've followed in the tradition of Princess Leia," Yellin (complete with a bluish outline) said.

"You're a terrific hologram," Blitzer assured her.

Why it was worth all the expense and trouble to have a live, on-the-scene TV report that omits the, um, scene was unclear.

Clearly the gimmick is a contender for the Best Special Effects award when the "Waltys" for election coverage are handed out next year. But I am not sure it served any purpose for viewers. A quick Twitter search immediately after the segment generated a wide range of reactions, including "DUM!," "cool," "hilarious," "star warseque," "lame," "neat," "pathetic," "silly," "cringeworthy," "SIKKKK!" and "weird."

So how will we see this nifty new tool used next? Sportscasters beamed into the middle of instant replays to point out a fumble? War correspondents beamed into replays of fire fights to explain the action?

Here's last night's CNN video....

UPDATE (11/7/08): Here's a little more on how this was done from CNN. Turns out out that sports coverage was in fact exactly the kind of programing this system was designed for....

"The technology in play was originally developed by Israeli-based company SportVU (pronounced 'sport view') as a new way of filming soccer games.

"Gal Oz, a SportVU designer who came to the United States to work with CNN on the endeavor, said it was originally designed 'to create a matrix effect in sports' -- in other words, to provide 360 degrees of perspective for instant replays. "

In a segment on Blitzer's "Situation Room" Wednesday, CNN Senior Vice President and Washington bureau chief David Bohrman said he's been trying to do something like this for a dozen years. "I've basically been a crazy mad scientist trying to get it done."

So does Bohrman think holocoverage has a future?

"We'll see. It was a little ornament on the tree.... But television evolves, and how we do things evolves, and at some point -- maybe it's five years or 10 years or 20 years down the road -- I think there's going to be a way that television does interviews like this because it allows for a much more intimate possibility for a remote interview."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

More on E-Voting: The Human Element

It's too early to say whether the polling place issues that have emerged in the first hours of voting today will add up to serious problems in the final election counts. Among these preliminary reports you'll see that several voters in Shaker Heights, Ohio, received paper ballots that left off the presidential race. And a precinct in Raleigh, N.C., did not open on time this morning because its chief judge's grandson drove off with the ballots in his pickup truck.

Mistakes will happen. But it's hard to read these and other accounts and not be amazed that people still think paper is the key to secure, fair and accurate elections. Electronic voting certainly has its problems too, but is paper the answer?

I ask because my recent CQ column on the obstacles to Internet voting in the United States (reposted here last week) generated some interesting comments, mostly about online security.

One writer, a former colleague of mine, asked about the online voting system in Estonia that I wrote about in the column. "How would the Estonian e-voting have gone down if had happened during the Russian cyber attack in May of '07?" he said, citing a Guardian article on the incident. "Assuming we kept something along the lines of single voting day and didn't open it up to a voting month... couldn't a denial of service attack plus a strict reading of/adherence to voting laws ('deadlines are deadlines') lead to as much or more trouble than single voter ID fraud?"

My answer to this and other comments was that online voting has many potential vulnerabilities, a denial of service attack or some kind of other cyber assault among them. But our current offline systems for managing elections also are vulnerable to all manner of disruption too. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened to be on primary day for New York City's 2001 municipal elections; voting was postponed, needless to say. That is not an argument for or against Internet voting. But the tendency to see vulnerabilities in electronic voting systems (whether online or systems at the physical polling place) as significantly different from non-electronic systems (missing paper ballots or manual manipulation of registration rolls) is interesting, if not mysterious.

Any process involving humans is vulnerable, and I am not convinced that current offline election practices are especially efficient, reliable or secure. My wife and I waited 70 minutes to cast absentee ballots in Fairfax County, Virginia, one night last week. The main hold up: Election workers had to read each paper absentee voter application and call someone on the phone to verify details. Much of the time we were there, the six available voting machines were idle while the harried poll workers managed the line and the phones. Not so efficient.

On the other hand, the very next afternoon the state board of elections Web site let me use my name and the last four digits of my Social Security number to verify that I had indeed applied for an absentee ballot and cast my vote in-person the previous evening. While that online confirmation message gave me great confidence that my vote had in fact been counted, others just as easily might have found it creepy. In a society in which people are perfectly comfortable swiping credit cards at kiosks to get boarding passes at airports or conduct other private-sector transactions, many Americans still seem to distrust government use of technology for equally routine purposes.

That kind of anxiety may reflect more how Americans feel about government than they do about technology. It's an emotional reaction, understandable in a country built by people who largely fled other forms of government. And that innate anxiety and distrust will continue to drive our future decisions about voting systems and processes -- perhaps far more than technological considerations alone would merit.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

One Click, One Vote

Adapted from my "Futurist" column in the Oct. 27 issue of CQ Weekly.

The lines for early voting have been long in North Carolina, one of this year's unexpected electoral battlegrounds. With just days to go before the election, about a third of the state's registered voters, or roughly 2 million people, had already cast their ballots.

Among those voters were hundreds of Wake County residents, including my father, who waited for an hour to cast their ballots a couple of weekends ago at the Cary Town Center shopping mall, a short drive from the state capital in Raleigh. That must have been a galling experience for those busy suburbanites, many of whom work for the "Research Triangle" area's numerous technology firms. In an age of instant online access to so many public and private services -- including all of the Web-based storefronts of the same retailers that have shops in the Cary mall -- how is it that people were still standing in long, winding lines to vote? Aren't lines just for roller coaster riders and airline passengers?

So why not vote on the Web? That's not a new idea, but Internet voting is a long way from reality -- at least in the United States. Pilot projects during the past decade in this country have focused almost entirely on voters who live and work overseas, particularly people in the military. For these voters, the realities of international postage delivery are often at odds with state and local deadlines and processes for requesting and returning absentee ballots, so e-ballots make sense.

Electionline, a Pew Center on the States project that tracks voting trends, notes that seven states now permit military and oversees voters to use e-mail to send in absentee ballots -- the Internet-age equivalent of faxing in the documents. (See ElectionLine's 2007 report on overseas voting.) And a few state political parties, including the Democratic organizations in Michigan and Arizona, have dabbled in online voting as part of their presidential nominating caucuses. But real-time voting via the Web just has not taken off here.

The technological concerns about Internet ballots are the same that some voters have with electronic voting machines: accountability, security, privacy and redundancy. But the highly federated systems of administering elections in this country, and of keeping tabs on the population, are major obstacles to online voting as well.

Voting experiments in other countries help underscore the distinctive challenges for American election officials. Take Estonia, the small, young Baltic democracy that has been a global innovator in e-government services. In 2005, the former Soviet republic allowed nationwide Internet voting in its local council elections. More than 9,000 voters, including the prime minister, used the service. But most of the country's roughly 1 million registered voters were eligible, as long as they possessed a new national ID card and had access to a device that allowed a computer to read the card's embedded electronics. In combination with a private, government-issued PIN, this system made voting via a secure Web connection as easy as a transaction at a bank teller machine. And in parliamentary elections last year, three times as many Estonians cast their votes online -- 30,275 out of 897,243 eligible voters. (See stories from the BBC, CNET and Wired for more on Estonia's e-voting efforts.)

Compare all that with a new online voting experiment in Arizona. Also a pioneer in online government, that state was the first of only two that allow voter registration on the Web. Since the United States has no national ID card, Arizona's system depends on driver's licenses or official state identification. Easy enough. And, in fact, this successful system served as the entry point for about 60 percent of the people who joined the voter rolls this year before Arizona's Oct. 6 registration deadline.

Now the state is taking the next logical step: Internet balloting for overseas voters. But this system is not quite as simple. First, voters need to obtain log-in information and passwords from their home counties. After that, they can download ballots, as well as affidavits that require their signatures. The completed documents can then be scanned and uploaded to the state via a secure Internet connection. The state transmits the files to the counties, which validate the signatures and registration information before sending the ballots along to be tabulated by local vote counters. Got it?

A news release by Secretary of State Jan Brewer's office notes that Arizona's Internet voting system is based on "the same type of security used for online banking and credit card transactions." However, if online banking were in fact done this way, customers would write out checks, scan them into a computer and then upload the images of those check to their bank, which would then make disbursements from a local branch office.

Arizona's online voting system carefully and cleverly preserves its counties' official role in administering key parts of the election process. But it also illustrates the challenge Brewer and other officials face in creating simple Internet voting processes that comply with this country's hodgepodge of state and local election requirements.

Inevitably, online voting will become a trusted way of exercising democracy's most fundamental rights. But, in part because of the quirks that distinguish American democracy and culture, the United States is unlikely to lead the way.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Just Browsing

Have you downloaded Google's slick new Chrome Web browser yet? Or the latest version of Firefox? Or perhaps you're test-driving one of the beta versions of Microsoft's next Internet Explorer upgrade. Heck, are you even using the current version of IE, which celebrates its second birthday this month?

The Web browser wars are heating up again, giving Web users a variety of choices in the tools and features they can use to surf from site to site. The latest browsers offer significant improvements in speed, security and compatibility.

So why are some government tech shops slow to deploy even the latest versions of the tools to the staffs they support? I try to explain in the October edition of GOVERNING's Managing Technology e-mail newsletter. One major obstacle to upgrading: legacy applications, such as an online employee payroll system used by the state of Utah that turns out to be dependent on Internet Explorer 6.

Reporting this out helped me figure out why we we're continuing to see so many IE6 visits on our Web site,

Monday, September 29, 2008

One High-Flying Business

The Chinese space walk got more attention, but this past weekend marked another milestone in space flight when a low-cost commercial rocket lifted off from a small Pacific atoll and successfully placed a 364-pound dummy payload in orbit. The launch followed three glitchy attempts by privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to reach orbit with one if its Falcon 1 rockets. (The image above is from SpaceX, which also has posted video from the flight.)

SpaceX was established in 2002 by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and the Zip2 Corp and Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. Musk has big plans for his El Segundo, Calif., rocket company, beyond its already busy manifest of unmanned military and commercial payloads. Under a contract from NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, SpaceX is developing a spacecraft that could be used to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station after the shuttles are retired. The SpaceX contribution to this government-funded competition is Dragon, a spacecraft designed to carry up to seven astronauts. The Dragon capsule would be orbited by a heavy-lift Falcon 9 rocket, the first of which SpaceX plans to test from Cape Canaveral next year.

In an online Q&A with last week, Musk mused about some other long-term plans, including the possibility of using one of his boosters to launch interplanetary space probes. "My interest is very much in the direction of Mars, so a Mars lander of some kind might be the next step," he said. He also answered a question about using Dragon for a flight around the moon -- an idea Musk called "conceivable."

Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of The Space Review, summed up the significance of Falcon 1's first orbital success to the future of privately funded space ventures:
"SpaceX, and other NewSpace ventures like it, carry the promise of dramatically changing the space industry with low-cost orbital and suborbital launch options that open up new and potentially lucrative new markets. That promise, though, has remained just that -- a promise, not a reality -- since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize four years ago. Sunday's launch was perhaps the biggest milestone since then in demonstrating what NewSpace can offer."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ground Control to Commander Zhai

Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang (above right) climbed outside his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft this weekend in an experimental $4.4 million spacesuit. Aided by crew mate Liu Bomingalso, who stood in the open hatch wearing a proven Russian spacesuit, Zhai waved a Chinese flag as he hovered over the airlock. China's first spacewalk was being beamed on live TV across their country and around the world.

China's third human space mission ended this morning when the Shenzhou reentry vehicle parachuted safely to Earth in a grassy Mongolian plain. The mission's success sets the stage for a series of more ambitious flights in the next few years, including plans for a modest orbital laboratory. I wrote some about China's space plans in a column earlier this year. Here's a brief update.

A Congressional Research Service report says China's next two flights, Shenzhou 8 and 9, will ferry the module to orbit and allow the country to test rendezvous and docking procedures. The crew of Shenzhou 10 will then visit the orbiting laboratory. Those missions will give China the know-how it needs to operate an even larger space station, similar to a series of Salyut orbital outposts operated by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. China plans to orbit a Salyut-like outpost by 2020, after it completes development of a new, more powerful launch vehicle -- the ChangZheng (or "Long March") 5.

The CRS report also notes that China's Shenzhou spacecraft could eventually be used to ferry crews to and from the NASA-led International Space Station -- "if that becomes politically feasible in the future." That kind of partnership would indeed be tricky politics, but the looming U.S. dependence on Russian spacecraft after NASA's space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010 could make that a more attractive option in the next couple of years.

What about sending taikonauts to the Moon? NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has publicly speculated about a possible circumlunar flight -- no landing -- perhaps sometime in the next decade. Chinese space officials have denied they have any specific lunar plans, although they float the idea from time to time. Just today a spokesman's for the country's space program told reporters that the extra-vehicular activity on the Shenzhou 7 flight was a necessary stepping stone for a moon landing. But the spokesman quickly noted that "more investigation" was needed before China commit to any such course.

Here's a video from this weekend's EVA....

(Photo up top from China's official Xinhua news agency)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Different Digital Divide

Adapted from my "Futurist" column in the Sept. 29 issue of CQ Weekly.

The child of a science writer I know once hopped into her mother's lap and took control of the family computer. My friend was amazed to watch her daughter, who was 3 at the time, use the wheel on the mouse to scroll down the screen. "Oh," the science writer said, "that's what that does!"

Perhaps John McCain has felt just that kind of wonderment this year, as his staff and family have taught the 72-year-old Arizona senator how to browse the Web and read his daughter Meghan's campaign blog. The Republican nominee has described himself as a technological "Neanderthal" and computer "illiterate." And now his Democratic opponent has turned those comments into a campaign ad that paints McCain as "out of touch." ( truth-squaded that ad earlier this month.)

The ad is a way for Barack Obama's team to raise the age question -- "Is McCain too old to be president?" -- without having to ask it in so many words. That's politics. Yet McCain's comments also illustrate a greater intergenerational challenge for all policy makers, even the 47-year-old Illinois senator: How to keep up with unfamiliar, fast-changing technologies -- especially those with political, legal and regulatory implications.

McCain earned a little of my sympathy on this point a few weeks back, when work required me to bumble through a virtual world that tested my own online agility. My assignment took me to Second Life, a vivid online community where inhabitants create animated electronic stand-ins called "avatars" to play and do business in a bustling, game-like 3-D environment.

Despite more than a dozen years of working in digital media, my visit to the much-hyped service was humbling. I was able to quickly create a cookie-cutter avatar and then "teleport" to a recruiting center built in Second Life by government officials from Missouri to help fill real-world jobs in the state's technology division. But I was hardly graceful. Using my mouse and arrow buttons, I managed to wander through the state's displays and even collect a free T-shirt to add to my avatar's electronic wardrobe. But I also bumped into walls and struggled to figure out how to make basic moves, like sitting down.

All of this would have been child's play to my nephews, ages 8 and 11, who I've seen master complex new game controllers within minutes of removing them from the package. In fact, the difference between their natural ability and my own klutziness is the difference between what some experts in online learning and behavior describe as "digital natives" and "digital immigrants."

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser popularize the idea of online natives and immigrants in their accessible new book, "Born Digital", although educational game creator Marc Prensky is generally credited with coining the terms. In 2001, he described how technology was rewiring the brains of this generation of children to "think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors." Digital immigrants, on the other hand, "adapt to their environment" but "always retain, to some degree, their 'accent,' that is, their foot in the past."

That accent can be particularly thick when it comes to setting policy, which may explain why government leaders have been so tongue-tied in trying to address critical technology challenges for more than a decade -- from modernizing intellectual property laws and updating security practices to establishing policies that foster competition in telecommunications and increase reliable and affordable access to faster online services. Technology also creates new expectations for transparency and accessibility.

In that context, comments such as President Bush's past musings about "rumors on the Internets" and using "the Google" to view a satellite image of his Texas ranch deepen the divide between the immigrants and natives. Garrett M. Graff, in an essay in The Washington Post last year, argued that the press and the public were being too easy on digitally illiterate politicians in a way that would be unacceptable on questions of foreign policy or macroeconomics. "Why is it," he asked, "that we blithely allow our leaders to be ignorant of the force that, probably more than any other, will drive and define the nation's economic success and reshape its society over the next 20 years?"

Obama's ad mocking McCain's tech savvy offers no such allowance. It aims to make the Republican seem out of step with online immigrants and natives alike by reminding them that he "admits he still doesn't know how to use a computer" and "can't send an e-mail."

In truth, McCain has said he's only made tentative forays into the digital world. He told The New York Times in July about several blogs his wife and staff have shown him -- and he promised he was "learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon." He described reading messages on other people's BlackBerrys but noted that he "never felt the particular need" to send e-mail messages of his own.

All of that may have sent an entirely unintended message to digital natives. The message to other political leaders: It's time to log on.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Finding Real Work in Virtual Worlds

Adapted from the September 2008 edition of my Managing Technology e-mail newsletter. (subscribe here)

Meet one of the newest employees in Missouri's Information Technology Services Division. That's him above, the cute gray cat in the red bow tie. Well, that's what one of his computerized "avatars" looks like anyway.

Avatars are stand-ins for people who use virtual worlds such as Second Life, the popular, almost game-like online universe where Missouri opened a modest recruiting station more than a year ago. And the state's very first Second Life recruit was the small cat whose real-world identity is Ben Rhew, 27.

A 2003 graduate of the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Rhew is exactly the kind of young computer engineer many state and local employers are trying to lure to government work before a looming wave of retirements depletes their ranks. On average, 1 in 4 state government IT employees are expected to retire within five years, according to a survey by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

Government leaders have a mediocre track record when it comes to recruiting the next generation of workers into public service. (See: The Young and the Restless, from Governing, Sept. 2007). But virtual worlds and online communities such as Second Life may offer promising new hunting grounds, especially for young, up-and-coming techies.

Rhew describes Second Life as a "3-D chat room" where "you can pretty much do anything you want" -- especially if you have the right combination of basic programming skills and imagination. The mix of stores, homes, clubs and other hang outs is as diverse as the population of on-screen characters, any of whom can walk, fly or even teleport from one hot spot to another.

Transactions are done in "Linden dollars" -- a currency named after the service's parent company, Linden Lab. But favorable "exchange rates" mean actual U.S. dollars go a long way. Dan Ross, Missouri's chief information officer, estimates that all of his organization's "in-world" recruiting has cost a little more than $200 in taxpayer money so far.

Ross' office was among the first major public-sector employers to use Second Life to search for talent. A large rotating state seal marks Missouri's online outpost. "IT Jobs Now Available," a sign at the entrance announces. "Come in and browse." Inside, visiting avatars can click on screens with Web links to information about the kinds of technology work the state needs done. A kiosk collects contact information for state recruiters to follow up by e-mail. There also are free T-shirts for visitors to add to their avatar's online wardrobes.

Missouri's presence made a big impression on Rhew, a self-described Second Life addict who has created multiple avatars for himself and others. Rhew says he first heard about his state's innovative online recruiting efforts when he began looking for a new job within commuting distance of his home in the Rolla-St. James area. After one brief visit to the recruiting station earlier this year, he returned to attend a "job fair." Other attendees nearly sat on Rhew's diminutive feline avatar, which is only about the size of a typical character's foot. But Rhew made an impression anyway. A rapid-fire series of real-world interviews quickly turned into an offer to work on applications development for the Department of Natural Resources. He started work at his new Jefferson City office last week.

Rhew is as surprised as anyone that his online pastime would help land him a job working in state government. "I never expected this to happen," he says. And he certainly will not be the last Second Life recruit to end up on a public payroll. Whole blogs have popped up devoted to recruiting in virtual worlds. And with many large, technology-oriented corporate employers looking to Second Life and other online communities to identify and compete for talent, government leaders may have little choice but to create their own avatars and follow Missouri's lead -- unless this just turns out to be a fad.

Even Ross -- whose avatar you might be able to identify by his sparkling shoes -- thinks it's too soon to say how important these emerging avenues of communication will be going forward. Nonetheless, the CIO and his management team are working with the staffs of other agencies to examine possible uses beyond recruiting, as well as the right rules of conduct for state employees whose work takes them into this alternate dimension.

So where to start? Second Life's Wiki offers some examples of what various government organizations are up to, while David D'Angelo's blog Recruiting in Second Life is a good source for information on how employers in all sectors are using the service specifically for h.r. purposes. Video links on David's blog (on the right side of the page) also will give people who have never visited a virtual world a sense of what the experience is like.

For those who are ready to take the plunge and try it out, the Association of Virtual Worlds offers a group for newcomers. And once in Second Life, users can find Missouri's recruiting station on "Eduisland 3." As it happens, the state is making plans to renovate its site -- and has posted an opening for a student intern to help.

Some online recruiting is less direct. Governing's May 2008 special report on what Web 2.0 trends mean for state and local government included a section on how a southern California hospital district used Second Life to build a working online model of a planned $850 million facility. The virtual model showcases the administrators' plans for using cutting-edge medical technology, in large part to help the new hospital gain "competitive advantage" in attracting the most qualified doctors and nurses. Here's a video of the simulated hospital.

Apparently virtual reality isn't just for recruiting computer engineers anymore.

(Many thanks to Ben, who goes by Lomgren Smalls in Second Life, for sharing the image of his avatar above.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Virtual Crime Wave

Case closed: e-government increases crime. At least that's what seems to be going on here in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The affluent D.C. suburb where I live has seen significant jumps in the numbers of serious crimes reported in recent years. But local police attribute the increase at least in part to their efforts to promote an upgraded system that makes it easier for victims to report some crimes online and by phone.

This kind of marketing success could easily turn into a twisted argument against making government services more convenient and accessible online, as I mentioned in a longer look at this story over on GOVERNING's blog:

Local leaders could easily misread a story like Fairfax County's as an argument against providing a system like this: Make it easier to report crimes and the crime rate goes up, providing statistical fodder for negative headlines, public criticism and perhaps political attack. Sign me up. But hopefully officials in Fairfax -- and elsewhere -- won't be tempted to shoot the messenger....

I've already heard an example of such thinking at a GOVERNING technology conference in Seattle a few months ago, during a daylong workshop on municipal 3-1-1 telephone lines. One official from a medium-sized northeastern city lamented that providing 3-1-1 was only increasing demands and expectations for government services in his community -- from filling potholes to disposing of roadkill. "If we miss one dead dog we get creamed," the official said.

Fairfax, on the other hand, takes great pride in its online offerings. Its e-government efforts have been ranked among the best in the country by the Center for Digital Government and the National Association of Counties in their annual Digital Counties Survey. Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax board of supervisors, once said that recognition was "an excellent reminder of how technology can connect residents and their local government." So I'll be watching to see how he and other officials respond if the crime data becomes an issue in a local congressional race, in which Connolly is a candidate.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Searching for 'Printosaurus Rex'

What or whom will history blame for the extinction of traditional print media? The looming comet of global online adoption? A climatic shift in generational tastes and information habits?

Both certainly would be factors. But media consultant (and "Recovering Journalist" blogger) Mark Potts also would guide future paleontologists to another culprit: the fossilizing remains of Printosaurus Rex, a pernicious breed of newspaper executives who "continue to hold back intelligent, aggressive digital development." The P. rex -- whom Potts also calls "printies" -- tend to "rhapsodize about how nice it is to be able to hold news in their hands," "declaim about never reading blogs," and still "print out their e-mail."

(Image of "Sue" the T. rex from Chicago's Field Museum)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Spinning the Web

What does it take to run a modern government p.r. and media relations operation?

Ric Cantrell, chief deputy of the Utah state Senate, offered his take last month during a panel I moderated at the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual meeting in New Orleans. Ric spoke in detail about how emerging technologies are changing the way lawmakers in his state communicate with each other, with politically engaged citizens and, more than anything, with the media. From an always-on webcam in Senate President John Valentine's office to frequent Twitter "tweets" and mobile text messages sent during the legislative session, new tools are quickly replacing the traditional ways of reaching out.

Nothing told that story better than this somewhat blurry camera phone image of a white board in Ric's office, which shows a checklist that guided him and his staff when setting up news conferences....

You can click on the image above to enlarge it, but here's the full list, reprinted in order:

That's right: The venerable old news release is just a maybe -- and only after the event has already been blogged, text messaged, streamed and podcast.

Whether huge numbers of citizens or reporters are yet logging on for all of this online information is beside the point. Making legislative events and information available in so many formats is a step toward more accessible, on-demand government.

Ric's emphasis on transparency made me think about the Reichstag Building, home to Germany's parliament, or Bundestag. Lawmakers meet in the Berlin building's airy plenary chamber, with floor-to-celing windowed walls and a 70-foot high dome of glass and mirrors overheard (right). The Reichstag Building was closed as the country's parliamentary meeting place in 1933 by an arson blaze that gave the Nazi party its opportunity to suspend most civil liberties. Renovated and reopened in 1999, the Reichstag's new see-through halls of power are an intentional reminder of the importance of open deliberation and decision-making -- whether the public is paying attention or not.

Ric's work in Salt Lake City sends the same message to citizens and government leaders alike -- just by new means.

(Ric Cantrell was one of three speakers at our NCSL panel, "A New Life for Online Government." Here's the video of our 90-minute session in the Windows Media video format -- with an unfortunate audio glitch in the recording during the introductions. Ric speaks right after my extended intro. Following Ric's talk about p.r. 2.0, Alabama Homeland Security Director Jim Walker talked about his state's impressive "Virtual Alabama" project and TheSLAgency's Leigh Rowan spoke about public sector uses of virtual worlds, such as Second Life.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Managing by Emoticon

(Adapted from the August edition of my Managing Technology e-mail newsletter for Governing...)

An online essay by Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark has made me self-conscious about my use of emoticons and exclamation points. Roy's advice: "If you want to be considered a serious writer, never, ever use emoticons in e-mail messages. The occasional exclamation point is fine." (See: The Thinking Writer's Emoticon)

A clear writing edict like that has a way of focusing attention on one's lapses. Turns out I am a serial user of winks, frowns and smiley faces, especially when trying to sand down a jagged edge in a work e-mail that otherwise might sound harsh, humorless or unsympathetic. A search of my sent mail revealed at least a dozen winks in July alone. Gag!

But an academic study, in the journal Social Science Computer Review, made me feel a bit better about my emoticon habit. A team of social and organizational psychologists in the Netherlands tested a variety of e-mail samples with 105 secondary-school students to try to gauge their perceptions of what various emoticons conveyed about the senders' motives and intentions. The findings of this 11-page (yes, 11-page) study:
"We conclude that emoticons do have a certain impact on message interpretation and that they can serve some of the same functions as actual nonverbal behavior. In terms of the known relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication, the emoticon can possibly serve the function of complementing and enhancing verbal messages."
Well that's a relief. ;-)

Here's the abstract. And for anyone who do not know, the digital smiley face was invented a little more than 25 years ago by Scott E. Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist.

(Image above is from's list of smiley face water towers across the country.)

Friday, August 8, 2008

Trends or Fads?

  • Virtual windows and skylights. Every cubicle can be a corner office in the future! This could go over big in rainy old Seattle. The photo above is a "SkyCeiling" marketed by an Iowa company called The Sky Factory.

  • Co-ed college dorm rooms, also know as genderblind or gender-neutral housing.

  • Hypermiling, which a Washington Post story earlier this summer defined as the practice of "changing your driving behavior to coax better gas mileage out of your car." Common techniques include driving slowly, braking as little as possible and limiting AC use. Gas prices have guaranteed this movement all kinds of ink, pixels and air time this summer -- positive and negative.
  • Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    Exploring Middle Age: NASA at 50

    The U.S. space agency celebrated its first half century on July 29 -- the same day I marked my 25th anniversary as a journalist. In fact the oldest, yellowing article in my "clip file" was a story for Congressional Quarterly's Editorial Research Reports (now the CQ Researcher) on NASA's first 25 years. I was 15 at the time, but my mother was the managing editor, so I had an in. And I was thrilled when the article was reprinted in the Kansas City Star -- the newspaper where Ernest Hemingway began his writing career at age 18.

    I've had some success in journalism since then, although hardly the Hemmingway-like career I once daydreamed about. Then again, the future rarely lives up to its advance billing. Just ask NASA.

    In the late 1960s, the space agency's heyday, rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun was pushing bold plans for manned missions to Mars. And a 1969 task force led by Vice President Sprio Agnew concluded that NASA had "the demonstrated organizational competence and technology base, by virtue of the Apollo success and other achievements, to carry out a successful program to land man on Mars within 15 years." In other words, by 1984.

    But by then, when Van Braun and others had imagined astronauts planting flags in the red dust of another planet, NASA's vision had turned far more myopic. Or was it just down to Earth?

    When NASA celebrated its 25th in 1983, the agency had recently launched a space shuttle for the seventh time -- a Challenger mission on which Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to fly in space. (Two Soviet women preceded her.)

    Astronomers eagerly awaited the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, a wait NASA had to extend seven more years after the 1986 Challenger accident grounded the shuttle fleet. Manufacturing defects in Hubble's main mirror were not detected until after its much-delayed deployment by shuttle Discovery in 1990, so its productive life did not begin until after a repair mission a few years later.

    NASA's most far-reaching missions at the time involved long-range robotic space probes. Pioneer 10 had just become the first man-made object to pass the orbit of Pluto -- then still considered the solar system's most distant planet.

    What did America's future in space look like 25 years ago? NASA's next logical step was a space station on which astronauts could learn what it would take to live and work in zero gravity for many months -- a necessary stepping stone for the long round trip to a place like Mars. But without committing to such a long-term vision, the purpose of building such a facility was less than clear, as I noted in my 1983 article:
    "How space dollars should be spent is [an] area of disagreement. A survey conducted by the National Space Institute, a private, Washington-based group that promotes space activities, found that its members wanted to see a continuously manned space station in orbit by 1990, a goal shared by many NASA officials. Presidential science adviser George Keyworth at first labeled the space station idea an 'unfortunate step backwards.' But support for it is stronger in Congress than the in the White House , and the [Reagan] administration has indicated that it might be willing to back the idea."
    As it turned out, the first component of what became the International Space Station did not make it into orbit until December 1998. By then, the Soviet-Russian space station Mir was nearing the end of a decade of continuous crew operations, including extended visits by seven U.S. astronauts. Continuous operations on the NASA-run space station began in 2000.

    Considering the prospects for NASA's current plans for returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and, from there, setting out to explore Mars, one can't help but feel the same gravitational forces that have held back many of the agency's boldest plans in the past -- lukewarm public support, political realities and federal budget limitations.

    And yet no shortage of people were interested in applying for the astronaut jobs I wrote about here last month. The H.R. people were still counting when I called the Johnson Space Center in Houston two weeks ago to see how many people had sent in their resumes. At least 3,000 was their best estimate. [Update: Final tally was 3,535. -- M.S., 8/13/08]

    My July 21 CQ Weekly column looked at the kind of work NASA's next group of astronauts can expect to be doing, especially after the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. That's when construction of the International Space Station is scheduled to be completed. At that point U.S. astronauts become "infrequent flyers" -- making fewer, but longer-term space station visits. Those astronauts will be dependent on rides aboard Russia's three-person Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft to reach the station, at least until NASA's next-generation Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares I launcher begin flying, possibly by 2015.

    NASA also has considered using modified versions of commercial spacecraft being developed to deliver cargo to the space station as an alternate way to transport crews too.

    (Today's online edition of The Space Review takes a look at the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program. An older two-part series on the history on NASA's post-Apollo vision thing also is worth a look.)

    Perhaps by the time NASA turns 75, some of the agency's newest astronauts will already have been among the first to take "small steps" onto the surface of Mars, claiming their places in the history books -- or whatever it is we'll be reading or watching in 2033. But history suggests that NASA's plans for exploring the solar system will involve many unexpected course corrections. In that sense, the space agency's journey is much like our own.

    (Birthday cake image above taken from Creative Confections by Kim)

    Sunday, July 20, 2008

    Floating an Old Idea: Airships

    The airline industry's altimeter indicates that it is approaching the bottom line at rapid speed. Are there any clever ideas for upgrading the experience for passengers while helping the airlines regain financial altitude?

    BusinessWeek's Dean Foust recently asked readers that question on his "Traveler's Check" blog. Foust posted some of the best ideas he heard ("as well as some of the most whimsical") online and in the July 28 issue of the magazine. My personal favorite came from a reader who offered up a century-old solution: passenger airships....
    "There is no way the airlines can continue to loft that much metal across the skies at the rate of oil depletion we are witnessing. The only way to keep air travel viable is to lessen the fuel required, and the only way to do that is with airships, or dirigibles. They are slower, but use far less energy to carry a greater load."
    As it happens, Boeing recently announced plans to begin building a huge new airship for SkyHook International Inc., a privately held Canadian company based in Calgary, Alberta. But the helium-filled Jess Heavy Lifter, or JHL-40, is for hauling cargo rather than passengers.

    The proposed airship would be 300 feet long and 210 feet wide, with four helicopter engines to help it lift 40 tons of cargo (80,000 pounds) and carry it more than 200 miles without needing to refuel. SkyHook's Web page includes an information sheet, as well as numerous annotated conceptual illustrations (like the one above) showing the ship lifting tractors and lumber, helping erect tall electrical transmission towers and fighting forest fires. "SkyHook services will first be offered in remote regions of the world where conventional transportation infrastructure doesn't already exist or where building such infrastructure is difficult, costly and environmentally unfavourable," the site says.

    The vehicle is designed to be operated by a crew of three with room for two complete crews for long-distance hauls -- but "no passengers, essential crew only."

    We'll see if this big idea gets off the ground, unlike other ventures with designs for huge new cargo-hauling airships. One of most notable recent failures was Germany's CargoLifter AG, which went under before it could realize its plans for a vehicle designed to carry four times as much as the proposed Boeing-SkyHook ship. (Some of CargoLifter's shareholders have established a new company to try to revive the idea, but apparently on a less ambitious scale.)

    Another German company, Zeppelin NT, has been building and operating passenger airships for tourist excursions. The Federal Aviation Administration recently approved flying Zeppelin NT's cigar-shaped craft over the United States and U.S. corporate partner Airship Ventures hopes to begin operating in the San Francisco area soon.

    Meanwhile, one of Zeppelin NT's dirigibles is spending this summer flying tourists over London. The 30- to 60-minute flights carry passengers up to 1,000 feet over the city. The price is high too (£185-260, or about $370-520), but reports and photos in the Times, Daily Mail and Guardian still made me jealous. (I saw one of these vehicles flying over Friedrichshafen, the German company's home base on Lake Constance, when I visited the zeppelin museum there six years ago. Alas, it was a last-minute visit and the tickets for zeppelin rides needed to be booked far in advance.)

    The timetable for the Boeing-SkyHook venture is a bit more up in the air. Boeing plans to build two production prototypes of the JHL-40 at its Rotorcraft Systems facility near Philadelphia. Company officials told Aviation Week they expected their airships to be ready to fly sometime in late 2012.

    Robert Breidenthal, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington, shared some thoughts with Xconomy Seattle on obstacles that Boeing and SkyHook will face. Among them: dealing with turbulence and aerodynamic control. Another challenge, Breidenthal said, is the price of helium -- which, it just so happens, is going up.

    Sunday, July 6, 2008

    Segways on the March

    When inventor Dean Kamen unveiled his world-changing "magic sneakers," better known as the Segway, this may not have been the image he had in mind. The photo above from China's official Xinhua news agency shows police in a July 2 anti-terrorism drill in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province.

    Kamen, a National Medal of Technology winner for his inventive medical equipment, first revealed his heavily hyped secret personal-transportation gizmo (code named "Ginger") to some mild disappointment in December 2001. "It is not a hovercraft, a helicopter backpack or a teleportation pod," began a New York Times article at the time, capturing some of the overwrought speculation that Kamen had skillfully engineered over the proceeding months.

    What followed was a perfect laboratory demonstration of Newtonian marketing theory: What is hyped must then be un-hyped. "It would be premature to call the most talked about scooter in the history of humankind a huge bust," Gary Rivlin wrote 15 months later, under a Wired magazine headline that seemed to say just the opposite. "Segway's Breakdown," the headline read. "Inventor Dean Kamen promised that his superscooter would change the world. Then reality hit -- hard."

    Segways have not caught on at the pace Kamen originally envisioned, but they certainly have made headway over the past six and a half years. Walking around the National Mall or other sightseeing destinations here in Washington, D.C., one has to be alert for fast-moving squadrons of Segway-borne tourists. And Segway-riding police and security personnel are now common sights at airports, on college campuses and even in some downtowns. More than 750 police and security customers use them, according to the Segway corporate Web site. This promotional video explains the sales pitch....

    The manufacturer also has long had its eye on military applications, including Segway-derived robots.

    So perhaps the scene of a formation of Segways carrying machine-gun-toting Chinese security personnel was not such a shock to the Segway inventor after all. ("You build a car and it can either be used as an ambulance, or it can drive your troops around," Kamen told the Associated Press five years ago.)

    But we're still a long way from a police-carrying jet pack. I'm holding out for one of those.

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008

    Job Opportunity: A New Life Awaits You in the Off-World Colonies

    You still have a few days to apply for a job hauling freight into orbit or perhaps the Moon. The deadline for applications to join NASA's 2009 Astronaut Candidate Class is Tuesday, July 1. The new group of space travelers will be announced early next year after a six-month selection process.

    A news release from the space agency details the qualifications: a bachelor's degree in engineering, science or math and three years of relevant professional experience. Most successful applicants "have significant qualifications in engineering or science, or extensive experience flying high-performance jet aircraft." Educators, including teachers at the K-12 level, also can apply.

    Rats. Nothing about overweight, out-of-shape journalists. Wonder if my undergraduate degree in Russian studies would help? Perhaps if I'd actually learned to speak the language.

    The full job description on notes that applicants must be U.S. citizens. Other qualifications: "Creativity. Ambition. Teamwork. A sense of daring. And a probing mind."

    The salary is not bad -- $59,493 to $130,257. But be warned: "Frequent travel may be required."

    (Image of Astronaut Mike Fossum from NASA's Image of the Day Gallery.)

    Sunday, June 22, 2008

    Fear Factor: Your Social Insecurity Card

    "We don't want to scare them."

    "They" are the more than 40 million Americans who carry Medicare cards. And the comment above is one of the reasons Charlene M. Frizzera, chief operating officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, says her agency does not want to remove Social Security numbers from those cards, even though an inspector general's report has warned that they make participants in the federal health program vulnerable to ID theft.

    Cost is another reason for not removing the Social Security numbers, officials from the federal health program tell Robert Pear of the New York Times. Creating new Medicare cards would be a "huge undertaking" that would take eight years and perhaps cost $500 million, the officials said.

    As it happens, bipartisan legislation approved by the House Ways and Means Committee last year would force Medicare administrators and others in the public and private sector to do more to protect Social Security numbers.

    However, as I point out in my latest "Futurist" column for Congressional Quarterly (Your Insecurity Card, CQ Weekly, June 23) the widespread use of the numbers over seven decades makes such efforts a bit like trying to put salt back into a shaker through the little holes on top.

    The Ways and Means bill does take a stab at a more complicated notion: banning the use of Social Security numbers as an way to "authenticate" identity.

    Using Social Security numbers for authentication is the equivalent of trying to use one's name, phone number or other equally obvious or accessible piece of personal data as a secret password. But plenty of organizations continue to do just that. As an example, I mention my local cable provider, which asks subscribers for the last four digits of their Social Security numbers as part of an automated process for contacting technical support over the phone.

    The Ways and Means measure calls for the National Research Council to examine such practices and evaluate alternative forms of authentication. My column mentions a couple of options, some of which are widely used today.

    By the way, that $500 million price tag offered by the Medicare officials in the New York Times story is questionable. A Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Ways and Means bill estimated the cost of issuing new Medicare cards without Social Security numbers would be $25.5 million over four years. That estimate assumes that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would continue using Social Security numbers behind the scenes to process and pay claims, even after it removed the numbers from the Medicare cards. CBO did note that changing Medicare computer systems in order to stop using Social Security numbers entirely "would be more expensive than removing the claim number from the card," but the report does not say by how much.

    Other good resources on issues related to protecting Social Security numbers include the Electronic Privacy Information Center; congressional testimony last year from the U.S. Government Accountability Office; and a 2005 AARP research report: "Protecting Social Security Numbers from Identity Theft."

    (Social Security card image above: House Ways and Means Committee)

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Wi-Fi Update: A New Chapter in the Philadelphia Story

    Were my obits for Philadelphia's municipal wireless network premature? Maybe so.

    A group of local investors said today that they will take over the city's struggling Wi-Fi service. Not only that, the investors plan to drop the network's modest subscription fees and provide free citywide Internet service supported by selling ads and other telecom services.

    Original network owner EarthLink announced last fall that it was abandoning its municipal wireless business. EarthLink has been charging subscribers $20 a month for Wi-Fi service in Philadelphia -- half that much for “digital inclusion” customers with limited incomes.

    The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Tuesday morning that the network's new ownership team includes Derek Pew, a lawyer and former investment banker who previously served as Wireless Philadelphia's interim CEO, and Mark Rupp, a former Verizon executive. In addition to selling ads, the new owners plan to fund the service by providing "integrated wired/wireless telecommunications services for large customers such as hospitals [and] universities," according to Tuesday's news release announcing the deal.

    We'll see if that business model works where the previous one failed.

    My CQ column last month (and an earlier blog post here) focused on why the city's much-heralded effort to offer low-cost Wi-Fi access to its citizens was in such trouble. A far more detailed analysis by consultant Karl Edwards of Excelsio Communications, writing a guest commentary for the MuniWireless blog, also looked at why the Philly model failed there and in the other communities that copied it.

    So what about the new model?

    I'm suspicious about the ad business personally. But a fairly upbeat audio analysis by Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Network News focuses on the "predictable income" the new investors might reap from providing wired business service to "anchor tenants," perhaps even the city itself. "It's not the same old thing," he says. "This is private enterprise.... There's some potential this could succeed."

    Talk that a group of Philly-area investors might be willing to step in and keep the $17 million network EarthLink built up and running first surfaced last week.

    Friday, June 13, 2008

    The Perils of Prophesy

    Two predictions I've made in the past few years call into question why you're bothering to read this blog. Fortunately neither were published anywhere, so my credibility was safely in the hands of a few close friends and family. Well, until now anyway.

    The first prediction was that Hillary Clinton would not run for president -- that she would do a Mario Cuomo, ducking out of the race early in the election cycle. In that case, I think my reasoning (which was all about positioning herself to be an LBJ-like Senate leader while avoiding a potentially damaging and draining White House campaign) was better than hers. But my prognosticating was obviously wrong. Journalists are almost always better off covering the news than they are predicting it.

    My second lame prediction -- in a running e-mail argument with my friend Mark Potts early last year -- was that the Apple iPhone would be a flop. My contention was that the much-hyped devices were too expensive for normal gear-heads ($499-$599 when they debuted) and that AT&T's slow network and the inability to fully integrate with most office e-mail and calendaring systems would be a turnoff for those who could afford a gizmo in that price range.

    Needless to say, history proved me wrong yet again.

    I was thinking about both of those failed forecasts today when I sheepishly visited the AT&T store across the street from my office to ask about the cost of various voice and data plans for the newly announced second-generation iPhones, which go on sale next month. Access to a faster 3G data network and new enterprise software designed to tap commonly used office applications promise to solve the problems that I thought would sink the first-generation versions -- insurmountable as those "problems" turned out to be for poor Apple.

    For the record, by this time a year ago, Hillary Clinton was nearing the end of her second-quarter fund-raising drive. When the quarter ended July 1, she had raised enough money ($52 million) to buy approximately 104,000 8-gig iPhones, which first went on sale two days earlier. But by then Barack Obama had a narrow 7,400-iPhone lead over Clinton in the fund-raising race. So by that measure, I can claim some sliver of vindication.

    Thursday, June 12, 2008

    Can Caffeine Bridge the Digital Divide?

    The power of coffee is something I strongly believe in. But in a posting on's blog I somewhat skeptically ponder a proposal -- coffee in hand, of course -- to achieve citywide broadband access by mandating that local coffee shops provide free Wi-Fi service.

    It's also worth noting that Wireless Philadelphia is reportedly in talks with a group of local investors about possibly taking over the city's wireless network from EarthLink, which had planned to pull the plug on its $17 million investment there today. (I wrote about the apparent demise of Philly's network in an earlier blog post here and on the, as well as in my most recent "Futurst" column for CQ Weekly).

    (Coffee image above: ShareAlike 2.0)

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    Russia: Cradle of Democracy?

    "Even if you bring together the nine best women, they cannot give birth in one month. Americans' biggest misconception is that you can create American democracy in one year. It may take until the end of the 21st century."

    -- Sergei Khrushchev, the son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, on the evolution of democracy in Russia. Sergei Nikitich, now a senior fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies and a U.S. citizen since 1999, was interviewed by Williamette Week in advance of a speech he gave in Portland last week.

    Monday, June 9, 2008

    Faster, Robot, Kill, Kill!

    "Wait a minute. We haven't even gotten robots to be our slaves yet and they're already taking time off to go dancing?"

    -- Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," who has faithfully chronicled Japanese innovations in robotics over many years.

    Some of those segments are available now in a section of "The Daily Show" homepage labeled "Saluting Our Future Overlords." Here are four of Stewart's robot reports presented chronologically for future historians to ponder:

    January 24, 2000

    April 1, 2002

    December 17, 2002

    Sept. 15, 2005

    Saturday, May 31, 2008

    Peeking at Boeing's Mammoth Hatchery

    "Human workers will always be an important part of the production of aircraft. The workers have been omitted in this animation to help provide a better view of the advanced tools that may be used in future factories."

    That awkward, if not creepy, disclaimer is from a short 3-D film about how modern jetliners are built, which you can see for yourself at Boeing's Future of Flight Center near Everett, Wash., about a half-hour north of Seattle. But even a clunky reminder about the importance of humans is helpful when trying to convey the inhuman scale of the aircraft company's nearby assembly plant for large commercial planes.

    The voluminous plant, which I toured this week, will be an awe-inspiring find for some future archaeologists -- a 20th Century temple designed to serve as a hatchery for huge flying machines. One way to appreciate the size of this operation is to compare the building in the picture above (snagged from Google Maps) to the tiny aircraft in the bottom left corner of the image. That plane, enlarged here, is actually a mammoth "Dreamlifter," a cargo-carrier derived from an old 747-400 to haul large components for Boeing's new energy-efficient 787 "Dreamliners." The cargo plane's wingspan is 211 feet.

    A tour guide told my group that the 12-story, 98-acre building was large enough to hold Disneyland. But my colleague Bill Adair, who visited the plant when he covered transportation for the St. Petersburg Times, really put the facility into perspective when he called it "one of those stunning human achievements."

    "It's one thing to see a 747 or a 777 at an airport," Bill wrote in an e-mail after I told him about my tour, "but it's even more amazing when you see a dozen of them being assembled in the same place."

    Boeing first built the plant in the 1960s to assemble 747s, now the granddaddy of jumbo jets, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. More than 1,400 of been made here and orders for new ones are stacked up for years to come.

    Two expansions created room to also nest Boeing's 767s, 777s and much-delayed 787s. The first 787 is nearing completion, with several more lined up behind it inside an assembly bay at the east end of the building. Unveiled publicly at a ceremony last July, it is now encircled by busy engineers. And as Aviation Week's Michael Mecham and Guy Norris recently reported, the final assembly line "still looks like a hospital emergency ward." If the 787 goes into service as currently planned next year, it will be Boeing's first new airliner since 1995.

    Tourists are not allowed to carry cameras inside the building, as an armed guard reminded my group after we boarded a bus for the short ride to the plant. But this Boeing image from the 787 production line (left) gives you a sense of what the place looks like.

    After the Boeing visit, my aviation tour of the Pacific Northwest continued at the Museum of Flight, just off I-5 near the Seattle-Tacoma airport. The first 747, a 1969 prototype, is on display there, next to a retired supersonic British Airways Concorde that visitors can walk through. Supersonic jetliners have been a personal fascination since 1976, when my third-grade class at Dogwood Elementary in Reston, Va., stood in an athletic field behind the school one day to watch a Concorde fly overhead on the way to its first U.S. landing at nearby Dulles airport.

    My January CQ column was about the next generation of high-speed passenger planes, which are likely to be relatively small, faster-than-sound business jets rather than large-scale airliners like the Concorde.

    Speaking of fast planes, a future aviation tourism stop will be the Hiller museum in San Carlos, Calif. Its holdings include a portion of a full-scale mockup of a Boeing B2707-200, a federally subsidized program to build a U.S.-made supersonic passenger jet (also known as a supersonic transport, or SST). Congress canceled that program 37 years ago.

    And speaking of big aircraft and the bigger buildings needed to house them, an additional stop planned for my current trip out west is the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore., home of the Hughes HK-1, better known as Spruce Goose, one of the largest airplane ever made. We also have planned a seaplane tour of the Seattle area.

    (Images above: Google, Boeing. I should also note that Bill Adair, quoted above, is the author of The Mystery of Flight 427: Inside a Crash Investigation", which is about a Boeing 737 accident.)