Why don't they . . .

If we could crack the Enigma code, we can surely devise appropriate means of making transactions involving Social Security numbers pretty well ironclad.

Apr 1st, 2003

In that semi-lucid condition that occurs when you wake before the alarm and can't sleep, I began thinking about ideas that seem obvious when you are in a soporific state but don't seem so wonderful in the cold light of day. Maybe someone can tell me just why we can't do these obvious ideas.

The first thought that wandered into my semi-dormant brain was why do we put up with different numbers for every single account we possess. I have different numbers for my home phone, my mobile phone, my newspaper subscription, my charge cards, my highway transponder, my car stereo anti-theft device, and so on for many more numbers than anyone might be expected to remember. But I was issued with one number, my Social Security number that stays with me for life and could be used as the basis for any or all of these numbers.

The standard answer is that using the same number would result in massive insecurity and equally massive fraud as Social Security numbers could be intercepted as electronic transactions take place. But, so what? If we could crack the Enigma code, we can surely devise appropriate means of making transactions involving Social Security numbers pretty well ironclad. As it is, when I dial into my bank's online system to find that I have forgotten my password (one of many), the automated voice routinely asks me for my Social Security number ("for verification purposes only"). Time was when the local bank manager would recognize your voice over the phone and make the necessary financial moves for you. Isn't voice printing a secure technology yet?

The second thing was why do we have two cars that sit immobile in a garage most of the time? Couldn't we devise a system of car sharing with far fewer cars on the road but a much higher utilization rate. Such systems already exist in some cities. The airlines have some pretty fancy software that allows them to predict flight reservations and alter prices, switch equipment, move personnel, and so on, in order to get the maximum use out of their very expensive hardware. Computer and wireless technology should be able to guarantee your getting a car, say, 90% of the time.

Now the standard answer here is that we become so used to the convenience of a personal automobile that we would not give that up at any price. And, besides, the insurance companies would have a fit. But in the world's major cities, people make these adjustments to use public transportation so why not have personal public transportation? London recently announced a program to charge single-occupancy car drivers to commute into the center city every day. You could adjust the fee according to traffic density so theatergoers, for example, would pay a lower fee than commuters. Again computer technology and wireless communications would make personal public transportation feasible.

The third bright idea I had was the wireless home. Why do I need separate pipes for cable and phone service to my home? In fact, why do I need pipes at all? Put a server in an underground location at the end of the street or the end of a city block and have WiFi connections to each subscriber who can choose from an extensive menu of services. I get 100 channels of cable at my home, 95 of which I never watch. But I'd be happy to pay for the ones with programming that suits my admittedly iconoclastic tastes. And don't tell me that this degree of choice would be too expensive. Fiberoptic technology makes expanding bandwidth cheap or even "free."

And why doesn't my computer recognize me, or my family members, and log each of us on to our own "Home Pages?" And why do I have to type this column on my PC? Couldn't I just call up PennWell's offices and dictate it into a program that would clear up the grunts and pauses and maybe make some suggestions for improving my lax syntax? And why don't they . . .

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor
jbairstow@pennwell.com

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