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3/1/2002
02:53 PM
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Business Technology: We're Up To Cleaning Stables

An E-mail message from Coffee Safety re: whiteners says 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths occur each year due to contaminated foods and beverages. A nonprofit research organization with 2,000 employees says the National Science Foundation has just given it $2.1 million to develop virtual humans. Alan Greenspan says economic activity is firming but the anticipated recovery's speed is likely to be moderated by influences unique to this business cycle. Jeffrey Skilling, after a bout of near-total amnesia, remembers he's not an accountant, and to help himself be able to remember that he knows that, he says it out loud many times after other people ask him questions. And in a development intertwined with that one--by aromatic atmosphere if not signed contract--one of those increasingly popular shell-game E-mail solicitations from Nigeria (subject line: "For Your Most Urgent Attention Needed") branches out magnificently into Greek mythology with this sentence into which is woven one of the labors of Hercules: "Having cleaned the 'Augean Stable,' we intend to transfer the balance of the U.S. $41.5M presently floating in our apex bank of Nigeria to our own benefit and advantage."

And all this happened in one day! Just one little spin around the Earth's axis, and all these evidences of a world gone dangerous, or ambiguously ambitious, or optimistic, or incredible, or bizarre. But where, oh, where, in all this day's happenings, is the common ground? Why do I juxtapose these eye-openers? These apparently unrelated things struck me in a particular way because they are each, in their own way, unique and extraordinary, disturbing and frightening, spurred by technology but colored by human nature, and in the long run will turn out to be simultaneously both less and more important than we think they are. Let me try to explain the nonsense I've written so far:

The death and disease stats from contaminated foods are shocking. How can that happen in this country, in this day and age? Into the breach runs an outfit with a Web site called CoolMoo, touting a container that keeps coffee whiteners cooler longer. With one E-mail blast, the word is out and perhaps some digestive disturbances will be avoided. Are you feeling safer already? Meanwhile, as the world wrestles with the impact of technology on all aspects of our lives, Research Triangle Institute, or RTI, will use the NSF money "to develop virtual humans: applications include training in law enforcement, airport security, emergency medicine, and response to bioterror." RTI says it already has "deployed a virtual human application that allows police officers to interact with a virtual mentally disturbed individual." Wow, the safety thing again. I'm a bit puzzled by the virtual human thing, though. Is this cranked-up virtual reality? Is it software? And who is expert enough to build a virtual mentally disturbed human and be trusted? As for Mr. Greenspan, he continues to tout the remarkable role that IT played in the economy before the recession, the role it played in perhaps spreading the word that we were cycling into a recession and thereby perhaps accelerating its onset, and the part it's now playing in perhaps leading the way out of the recession. Can IT maintain this role of stabilizer, accelerant, medication, and growth hormone? And since no one lives forever, can RTI make a virtual Alan Greenspan for posterity?

Ah, and then there's Jeffrey Skilling and company. Let's remember one thing: He's not an accountant and doesn't understand accounting stuff, despite the fact that his company's entire strategy was predicated on extremely complex financial maneuvers and transactions. Which leads us to the E-mail scam in which the scammer hilariously (because it's so unintentionally appropriate) brings up that long-ago project headed by Hercules, the mucking of the Augean stables, defined as "an accumulation of corruption or filth almost beyond the power of man to remedy."

It's a curious world out there, no doubt, but it feels as if we're making important strides in vital areas. In spite of our mistakes, we're learning to ask the right questions and carry the lessons forward. The stables are far from clean, but I think we're up to the tasks at hand.

Bob Evans
Editor-in-Chief
bevans@cmp.com


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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