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