TCS Daily

The Week That Was, An Energetic Future, and Pervasive Computing

By James K. Glassman - November 12, 2001 12:00 AM

NEW YORK, Nov. 11 -- It`s exactly two months since the terror attacks on the World Trade Center here and on the Pentagon in Washington, and, it now appears, anti-Taliban forces have captured Mazar-e-Sharif.

It`s been a week of good news, of tough, smart speeches by President Bush in Atlanta (in which he showed live, exciting, loving human lives while at war) and at the United Nations (where he reminded all countries that they are the targets of terrorism: that civilization itself is what the radicals want to destroy), and of the victory of Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York.

The Fed cut short-term interest rates down to just 2 percent. The Dow rose to a level higher than where it was before the attacks (the Nasdaq did that a few weeks ago and is now up about 6 percent). A few recalcitrant, publicity-seeking attorneys general are the only holdouts in a sensible settlement to the Microsoft case. Amazing stuff.

Energy Now and in the Future

Also, by chance, last week I was in Dallas, the headquarters of ExxonMobil, when news came that an appeals court had rejected a previous $5 billion punitive damage award in the Valdez oil spill case. This nation badly needs a reasonable energy policy for an era when supply in the Mideast is so threatened, and most Americans understand now -- if they did not earlier -- that throttling the companies that spend billions in the risky search for oil and gas is a foolish way to build a secure America.

And, while we`re at it: what about a forward-looking policy on coal? The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal. We are blessed with a 300-year supply. Rather than trying to outlaw it, we should be looking for ways to burn it cleaner and more efficiently.

Pervasive Computing

David Ignatius, editor of the International Herald Tribune (which has carried my financial column for many years, so I have an interest here) and a journalist and novelist who has concentrated on matters of intelligence and security, has written an important column in Sunday`s Washington Post. He points out that Osama bin Laden has "pushed the global economy toward a truly networked world -- one where pervasive sensors can detect and disrupt terrorist attacks."

Pervasive computing, as it`s called, really has not found a reason for being -- not until now. "These were visionary products in search of a real-world market. After all, would anyone actually pay money so his refrigerator could talk to the grocery store and order more milk? Did anyone really want an instant update on special discounts available at Wal-Mart the moment she happened to be passing in her automobile? Of course not."

But now, Ignatius says, pervasive computing has found its use: increasing security in an age of terrorism. "Sensors can be tuned to search for almost anything -- from radioactive material to anthrax spores. If people decided they were willing to pay the price in loss of privacy, a pervasive network of sensors could detect every human being present in a defined environment, and instantly signal an intrusion by someone lacking appropriate identification." The system would have two elements -- sensors and a telecommunications infrastructure. That infrastructure is only half-built, and it is more important than ever for public policy to address the lack of competition in the broadband arena that is absolutely necessary to making high-tech telecom pervasive.

Ignatius suggests, as further reading, a study by two Rand Corp. authors, David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla: "Networks and Netwars." . Of course, there are important questions of privacy raised by pervasive computing, but those vexing issues are no reason to stall progress on a system that can keep us much safer.

The Human Imagination

Especially today, no one knows what the next hour will bring, but let me suggest enjoying the gifts the human imagination has produced, like the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, now at the Whitney here in New York. Or, easier, rent "It Should Happen to You," George Cukor`s blissful movie that starts with a woman (Judy Holliday -- the greatest ever) putting her name on a billboard at Columbus Circle. It was Jack Lemmon`s first movie. I`d like to lock the Taliban creatures in a room for a week and brainwash them by forcing them to watch every George Cukor, John Ford and Francois Truffaut movie ever made. Teach them what humanity is all about. On second thought, we shouldn`t bother. Kill them and start over.

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