I’m about to give grandma the pill, as President Obama would say. In the case “grandma” is my piano. My parents first purchased this piano 51 years ago from Gimble’s department store in Pittsburgh. Department stores sold pianos in those days, usually from an upper floor. My grandfather gave them the down payment for it. I was 7 at the time, and had for some time been picking out tunes on any piano I happened by. Within a year I started lessons. Alas, I wasn’t destined to be Van Kliburn or Rudoph Serkin, but I still play and, basically because I show up and am not shy, I am in a band and have accompanied several amateur shows over the years. As Liberace used to say, I ain’t good, but I got guts.
Anyhow, the last time my highly capable tuner/technician stopped by, he cast a gimlet eye over the beloved old piano. “You know,” he said, “You’re better than this piano.” That is, the mechanism has worn quite a bit in a half century of use, so it’s not nearly as responsive as it could be. He pointed out how the keys had become uneven. Ever look at yourself in fluorescent light and suddenly every imperfection stands out? The tuner said he could get it in shape all right, but strongly implied it may not be worth the cost given that it was, after all, a 51-year-old department store piano. Hardly a vintage Bosendorfer.
Fast forward to last week, and my sister offered to give me her piano. They’re ready to start downsizing. It’s only 10 years old with very little playing mileage. It’s a Yamaha, a better instrument to begin with, and it just sits there. Soon in it will be on a truck from Massachusetts. That means the old one has got to go.
But still, it feels like casting out an elderly member of the family. You don’t sit and interact with a mechanical thing for 50 years without partially merging with it. Dogs use their noses to sniff out the emotional state of other dogs and people. So doesn’t it stand to reason that in 50 years of hard work at that piano, the wood might have absorbed the emotional emanations or pheromones I’ve produced sitting at it in times of joy and sorrow, triumph and frustration?
Lots of mechanical machines acquire personalities and become like partners. Like cars. C’mon, you know it’s true. Computers don’t. It has to have moving parts. Motorcycles do. Go to one of those tourist antique railroads, watch the steam engine and tell me it’s not living.
Look at these louts, the internet is full of videos like this, people having fun wrecking pianos that someone once purchased, full of promise and potential. Then there is the annual Baker Piano Drop, something they do at MIT. Shouldn’t a piano at least be disassembled peacefully, the metal parts melted down and the wood burned respectfully?
My mother is not quite as sentimental about the piano as I am. She told me, “Oh, it’s just an old piece of furniture.” My wife sides with her on this one.
And so the old Schroeder is about to go ignominiously on Craig’s List, unless you know someone who wants to give it a good home. “Console upright piano, 51 years old, lovingly maintained….Bach, Beethoven and Chopin don’t convey”
Not sure when it happened, but I’ve reached the point in life where I realize I’d better start getting rid of the clutter of decades of accumulating stuff. George Carlin’s stuff routine got it exactly right. I wander around my nine-room colonial and wonder, how do we end up collecting so much? My wife never fails to point out, it’s mostly my stuff. I say the difference between normal people and those horders on TV is a matter of degree.
My stuff is like an archaeological tel of my life’s successive passions. I was an audiophile, with a big LP collection. LP, you know, 33s. I still have the turntable, receiver, tape deck, and hardwood speakers from the 1970s. Today a vintage electronics scavenger came by, responding to our Craig’s List ad for the two speakers. Most of the drivers have rotted out, but they can be repaired or replaced, and he’ll probably resell them for hundreds. I took $50 cash. But it was a great stab against the clutter, getting rid of two boxes the size of small refrigerators. Still, I had a pang of regret. I still remember the moment I plugged all this stereo gear together and played a record on it. I can never return to that sound.
Photography and darkroom gear is another matter. That passion reined for 30 years. All of my gear is totally obsolete, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. It’s not the stuff, necessarily, so much as the time, effort and joy it represented. Maybe when (if) I retire I’ll take up wet, silver-halide photography again. I don’t even have to expose another piece of film — I’ve got 15 notebooks filled with thousands upon thousands of negatives.
I still have three manual typewriters. If the grid fails, I can still write. I’ve got news for you — they still make carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. Fishing rods? A half dozen and two tackle boxes.
The Swiss Army Knife and pocket AM radio I got for my bar mitzvah? Oh yeah, still got ‘em. They’re like new. So were the speakers. So is the receiver, except the capacitors are starting to break down. All technology eventually de-orbits into entropy.
Lately I’ve noticed a new form of clutter gliding into life. Digital clutter.
Here’s an example. I play keyboards in a geezer rock ‘n’ roll band. In fact, that’s another clutter story. Someone gave me a used keyboard 10 years ago, and now I’ve got a collection of five keyboards, plus stands, amplifiers and a big duffel bag full of cables, pedals, tambourines, lamps for dark venues, Lord knows what else. It weighs 50 pounds. Anyhow, to practice the old songs, we play along to YouTube videos. I never wanted or needed a YouTube account. But I have one anyhow, so I can have a favorites list and keep together the Tom Petty, Grateful Dead, Doors and Eric Clapton clips we try to emulate. It comes with a Google+ account. What is that? Another digital entity, something else to manage and take up solid-state hard drive space.
I’ve got so many online accounts for shopping, travel, social media, music, municipal parking, sports and applications I have a special app — no doubt linked directly to Russian cyber thieves — just to manage all of the account names, logons and passwords.
Among the three e-mail accounts I use daily, there is a total of 40,000 messages. Email is like a yard that never gets raked. I should bulk erase 99 percent of it, but what if I need some tidbit of information there some time? I’ve heard of people declaring “bankruptcy” and just deleting everything.
My contacts list is a big clutter. Because sync software doesn’t really work very well, contacts sort of self-multiply. People start appearing twice, three times, or just as an e-mail entry. There’s not enough time in a life to keep your contacts list scrupulously clean. I have probably a dozen deceased people in my contacts whom I can’t bring myself to delete.
Thinking about stuff, I realize it’s not the external value that makes us cling to it. Rather, it’s the associations, the history, the evidence it provides that we were here and we did this and that. Erase the past, and we erase ourselves. What more concrete manifestations of our egos and ids are here besides the items we once valued?
I’ll tell you what: It’s the good works we do with and for other people, and the relationships we establish and nuture. Ultimately, the stuff is just stuff, but because of the tactile history and the associations that go with it, we can’t seem to toss it. Ever notice how mentally easy it is to de-clutter someone else’s house?
Happy New Year!
So I’m in one of those tiny, big-practice medical examining rooms, waiting for the doctor. They used to keep copies of the Physicians Desk Reference in these rooms, which were fun to read, but I imagine that’s gone all digital. So I scan e-mail on my BlackBerry, get bored with that, then pick up and examine the football-sized model of the human digestive system. In real life, it covers a lot of yardage, if not exactly a straight line.
Result of the visit is, I have to take a pill every day. No biggie, I’ll add it to the statutory Lipitor. And the fish oil. And baby aspirin. And multi-vitamim. I’m no spring chicken.
For most of the world, there is no electronic medical record. This particular specialist has an iPhone and a notebook PC on a rollabout stand. The laptop seems to be connected to a WiFi network, but the doctor has several pages of written notes. Regardless, whatever he knows is unknown to my primary care physician P.C.P.). That practice, in yet another fancy building in Bethesda, Maryland is something like Jiffy Lube — it simulates personal care. But they know your body in the same way the grease monkey at Jiffy Lube knows your car. He’s seeing 50 cars on his shift. Not like the mechanic you grew up with who, when you were filling up, would call out, “Hey, let me know when you want to bring it in for those ball joints.” Heck, a checkup today, they don’t even unbutton your shirt to listen to your heart. You could be speckled with melanoma and your P.C.P. would never know.
Anyhow, basically sound as I am, it occurs to me that the P.C.P. ought to be aware that I have acquired a new pill habit that won’t otherwise show up on his records. The two practices don’t communicate. They would if some sort of EMR infrastructure existed in a meaningful way. But automated medical offices are stovepipes, lacking automated cross communication. The specialist wants two or three tests added to the next time the P.C.P. does my semi-annual blood workup. So I have a scribbled-on piece of paper to carry in the next time they draw blood. How’s that for sneakerware? This isn’t rural West Virginia, but a hub in one of the densest, most affluent suburbs in the hemisphere. The three miles between the two practices are clotted with doctors and facilities including the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and a big hospital with a helipad on the roof.
When I call the primary care place, I finally reach a somebody who agrees to take a message for the P.C.P. Yet I sense a blend of irritation and puzzlement in her voice. Like, “Why is this turkey calling us to tell us about a prescription from some other place?” The next time I go I’m going to test to see whether he is aware of the information. The incident brought out in sharp relieve, if only in a routine situation, the efficiency and better quality that and electronic medical records infrastructure could bring.
Yet I can see why — despite a two and a half year program of the federal government trying to bribe medical practices into adopting EMRs for “meaningful use”– so few practices have it. It’s mainly that they are too busy.
From the basement to the bedrooms, a house full of obsolete things.
A Bose clock radio bought on a special discount a decade or more ago at the now-defunct Comdex trade show. (It used to draw 100,000 people.) The radio has a built-in CD player. But it cannot read the MP3 format. Functional still for other CDs, but obsolete. On the wall opposite the bed, a 19″ tube TV with a semi-zapped-out sound circuit. Mounted on a state-of-the-art 1990 bracket that now looks like something in an old hospital room. Just haven’t gotten around to replacing with a flatscreen.
First floor, let’s start with the stereo. In 1978 I purchased a sweet Harmon Karden receiver, 40 watts RMS per channel, pure analog. Also a belt-driven turntable with a tone arm that moves in a straight line, to match the way vinyl records are cut. Cat’s meow. All the better to play the latest direct-to-disk recordings of the pre-CD, apex years of LPs. Plus two AR speakers in hand-rubbed walnut cabinets. When my son was small he put a tiny fistule through one of the woofers and I could still find a replacement. Now one of the midrange drivers has rotted away, and I’m wondering if the parts dealer still exists. My wife says, can’t we just toss out all of this crap?
In the closet: A collection of old film cameras. The mechanical shutters have grown sluggish as the grease congeals with age. Foam panels are drying to dust. It’s all basically worthless. I looked into a digital back for the 4 x 5 view camera. They make ‘em, but you could by a new Beetle for about the same money.
In the basement, wet-photography gear — tanks, trays, washing devices, a motorized enlarger disassembled for 20 years. I was going to get around to building a new darkroom when we moved here, but kids, career…So all sits moldering, still in the United Van Lines boxes. In the meantime, wet photography went the way of oil painting and engraving.
I even have three manual typewriters gathering cobwebs. I may go back to writing letters on them. Ding—zzzzzzzip! On my desk, next to the Lava Lamp, sits my Western Electric black rotary phone.
The thing about old stuff is that, when it was current, it gave a generation, sometimes two or three, of service. The Nikon F first came out around 1959 and stayed in production until the 1970s, when the F2 came out. But mechanical things are different from electronic ones, where the technology is still doubling capacity every 18 months. I used the Nikon F for 20 years after the F2 came out. But I’m on my third Mac computer in five years.
People have gotten so used to awesomely faster and better every year, that Apple’s stock fell because it called the new iPhone the 4S, instead of giving the “5″ designation. It’s 33 percent faster at this, 50 percent better at that, processes the other at twice the speed, and has umpteen new features. At which all of the analysts yawned.
Electronics also throws off junk. I’ve got baskets of leftover detritus from years gone by. A zombie’s spaghetti dinner of old USB cables, telephone cords, power supplies with every odd voltage and terminator, stands from long-ago monitors, serial and parallel cables, backup CDs from trashed computers, old hard drives. All mixed in with assorted knobs, button batteries, Velcro tidbits, stick-on rubber feet, assorted strain reliefs, cable ties, fasteners, clips, connectors, allen wrenches, 9V battery sockets, and a few guitar picks that got in there somehow. But it’s easy to throw out old electronics. Who gets sentimental about a Dell computer?
I’m not sure why I can’t get myself to sell or give away my mechanical and analog items. Sometimes I think I’ll just put it all in a big box and drop it off somewhere. I know I won’t. Probably because, like the played-to-death Meet The Beatles album in the dog-eared cover, their dust-gathering presence maintain a physical connection to when I was young. Plus, the stuff technically still works. The Nikon F and Mamiya C330 were built like brick shithouses. And I really miss the grip and mechanical interaction of typewriters and spring-powered cameras.
I can do the basics in Photoshop, but it’s doesn’t match the dark mustard-colored seclusion of a darkroom and the smell of hypo. Getting your hands in the chemicals and the washing trays. The magic of seeing a white sheet morph into a brilliant print. As long as the materials are still available, I still harbor the hope I’ll build that darkroom. And man, it will have the best sound system ever.
Two of the most dreadfully overused words these days are “innovation” and “job creators.” Politicians who talk about “job creators” ad nauseum mostly don’t have the faintest clue about what it takes to create even one job on a firm, sustained basis. That is, to cause wealth creation. They fail to understand that at best, government imposes only a small drag on people doing the work of the word. At worst, it smothers economic growth, using an array of blankets.
“Innovation” hardly means anything, when people apply it with the same breathlessness to some new web gewgaw as they would to a new rocket ship. Government, while it doesn’t itself innovate, can help create conditions in which innovation occurs. A case in point is the Global Security Challenge. A small agency called Technical Support Working Group, funded by the Defense Department, is behind this challenge. The challenge prize — in this case $500,000 divided between each of two winning companies — is provided by TSWG. BAE Systems also contributes to the process. The whole thing is staged by a contractor, OmniCompete of the U.K. It also stages challenges in other fields with other sponsors. In this case, the goals it to find great and promising new innovations in security.
I was a judge, one of five, for the U.S. East Coast regional competition in the Global Security Challenge. The competition took place at the Australian Embassy (with a reception afterwards up the street at the New Zealand Embassy). The chief judge was John Morgan, technology advisor to the Army Special Operations Command. We heard from two sets of five companies — small, going companies with revenue and startups, which mostly don’t yet have operating revenue. Each company sent one or two representatives give five-minute presentations, followed by 10 minutes of Q&A by the judges.
Talk about real innovation. And the potential for jobs creation.
All of the presenters were smart cookies. They ranged from brainy engineers to slick salesmen. Some were canny, repeat entrepreneurs who’d started and sold other companies. Several had long histories in the thickets of federal contracting and service delivery to military customers. Connected people. They represented technical developers from all over the world. Israeli engineering strength undergirded several entries. One company had its complex mathematics models programmed in Russia.
I found the range of innovations startling. One startup called WallEye developed a microwave camera capable of seeing through walls yet priced cheap enough to produce as a tool you will be able to buy at Home Depot. The secret? Reduction of wave propagation technology from expensive electronics to a plastic spinning antenna the company can produce for pennies apiece.
In the end, we chose as one winner a company called DefenSoft, whose software, it said, makes short work of planning the placement of communications towers, antennae, cameras and sensors in complicated campuses with difficult terrain. Its chairman, Kris Nybakken, was a founder of WebMD. Its CEO, Lawrence Cassenti, is a veteran of many border installations and defense communications projects. Our other winner was a startup called InView. It’s founder, an engineer named Bob Bridge, has replaced the receptor array in an infrared camera with a single, micro-mirror detector. This change drops the cost of an industrial infrared camera by an order of magnitude.
Some ideas were more impressive than others, and we argued back and forth before settling on a single choice in the two categories. That’s about all I am allowed to say about our deliberations. But in all cases, we witnessed the competitive drive of people producing new things because of their creative drive and desire to capitalize on their brains.
The winners from our D.C. regional event join winners of other regional presentations from all over the world. They convene in London for the finals next month.
Sprint and Verizon are in a pitched battle to sign up people for their fourth generation, or 4G, mobile wireless networks. AT&T seems behind the 8-ball on this, which may be why the next iPhone will still be a 3G phone.
I’ve been using Verizon’s 4G for data for several months. As I’ve written, it’s demonstrably faster than the company’s 3G data network, but it doesn’t work as fast as the 802.11G wireless network in my house that connects to a FIOS fiber connection. I can tell when I upload or download multi-megabit MP3 sound files to and from Federal News Radio using a PC in my house. Sometimes I can’t get more then two bars to show for reception strength, which may be why the 4G feels slightly sluggish in some applications. I haven’t tried Sprint 4G.
Recently I found one application where 4G makes a definitive difference. Comrex Corp. makes a funny-looking gadget that is a stable of radio stations, including my own, Federal News Radio, and our sister station, WTOP. The Comrex is basically a Linux computer with a coding-decoding circuit for transmitting analog voice by digital means. When we do live remote broadcasts, it connects the remote person — often me — with the mixer in the studio operated by the anchor. With the Comrex, you get the good sound that comes with high bandwidth. That is, it sounds as if the remote person is in the studio, as opposed to that over-the-telephone sound.Until this year, we’ve been using the Comrex with a 3G access card. It works, but there’s a noticeable delay, often one second or longer. This has made it difficult to carry on natural-sounding conversations between the field and the anchor in the studio. We’ve designed our remote broadcasts around this limitation. We conduct interviews entirely between the on-location subject and the on-location host (me). The studio anchor is just monitoring until the remote person signs off. It’s how we avoid the listener hearing the awkward pauses or two-at-once talking caused by the delay.
But using a Comrex equipped with 4G, it was possible to have a delay-free conversation with my co-host, Amy Morris, when I was at a remote location in the Washington, D.C. area. Nearly delay-free; there is still a very slight delay. But we overcame it with a couple of moments’ practice.
Now we’re equipping our Comrex units with 4G Verizon cards. Brian Oliger is one of WTOP’s top technical guys. He keeps tons of radio equipment running, from microphones to antennae high up on towers. He told me two kinds of delay occur when using the Comrex. The coding-decoding process can introduce delays of fractions of a second. But network delays can induce delays of up to 6 seconds. With the 4G, Oliger says, the network-induced delays have all but disappeared. WTOP/WFED owns 14 Comrex portables, all of which will be equipped with 4G by the end of the summer. (An additional three rack-mound Comrexes reside within the studios. A couple more exist at the stations’ transmitters, which are remote from the studios.) New Comrex portable models lack PCMCIA card slots, but instead have USB 2.0 ports to accommodate the new way carriers are delivering their networks to computers.
Oliger, an old hand at new technology, is reserving final judgement on the 4G until it becomes popular and there is competition for the bandwidth. Dropped iPhone calls on 3G networks are maddening. But in broadcasting they’re an application-killer.
I’ve always wondered why technology refreshes and upgrades in federal agencies take so much time and money. I shouldn’t have wondered, though.
Here’s my one-user tale. I tugged on a thread that started with my BlackBerry. By the time I was done I’d lifted my own wallet.
It all started because the BlackBerry refused to sync on my Mac using BlackBerry Desktop 2.0. Hours and hours with Research in Motion tech support. Vows to get an iPhone. E-mailing log file after log file. Forced to enter all my data in two places, machine and handheld, I was ready to go back to my old Palm Centro. Then I took the Mac itself, a Mini just three months beyond the extended warranty, to the local reseller. Turns out, a balky motherboard that had the habit of disowning its own USB connections. Apple hardware may look great, but it’s still hardware, assembled in the same Chinese factories as everybody else’s gear.
For me, a computer is an economic tool. I can earn more money using it than I save by not replacing it and fiddling endlessly with the old one. Anyhow, a new main board is about half the cost of new machine. So I bought a whole new Mini. By the time I was done adding the 3-year extended warranty, doubling the memory and having them load the 2011 version of Microsoft Office, the $699 Mini bulked up to a $1,200 purchase.
Of course, I had to buy a new backup drive. You can get a T-byte drive for a hundred bucks. Ka-ching.
The I discovered my Matrox DualHead2Go Digital monitor doubler wasn’t compatible with the new Mini, which has a mini DP monitor port, instead of a DVI port like the old Mini. Ooooookay. So back to CDW for the DP edition of the DualHead2Go. That set me back another $231 plus shipping. Plus another $150 or so for a 22″ LG monitor for the old Mini, since it otherwise still works fine.
Dumb me, when the Matrox device arrived, I realized all I have are two VGA cables for my twin monitors. The new DualHead has only DP ports, no VGA. And why convert only to get a lower resolution?
Matrox said get male DVI-to-female DP converters, then buy two regular DP cables. But they were out of stock on the converters. (Luckily my monitors have both VGA and DVI ports.) Then I figured, why not simply get male-DVI-to-male-DP cables and skip the converters. So back again to CDW for another $100 for two cables plus shipping. I’m waiting for them to arrive to I can test the new set-up.
So what started as an irritating sync issue and a radio shift’s worth of time on the phone with RIM turned into a $1,700 spending spree that left me with a near-perfect surplus computer.
One piece of good news is that OS-X Snow Leopard likes my five-year-old Dell color laser printer, with drivers that not only recognizes it but also supports duplex printing.
Ever notice how virtualization and cloud computing always seem to come up in the same federal breath? Also data center consolidation. They seem to exist in a kind of resonant triad. If you parse it out, it’s easy to see why. Virtualization is a ready-made way to effect data center consolidation, or even of cutting the size and cost of an existing data center through higher server utilization rates. Cloud also fits into the data center consolidation picture; just replace data centers with cloud services.
Aileen Black has noticed the connection between consolidation, cloud and virtualization. As head of VMWare’s public sector business, it’s her job to get federal agencies to buy VMWare’s virtualization platform. Perhaps not buy it directly, but approve it’s use. Black says 90 percent of VMWare’s sales are via resellers. Either way, she is a tireless champion of virtualization.
As Black sees it, virtualization is the “on-ramp” to cloud computing.
I agree. If you are buying capacity in a cloud, virtual machines will, all else being equal, use capacity more efficiently than the standard one-application-per-server approach. That’s sorta the point.
Whether you use the cloud as your backup or to host your production environment, you should negotiate pricing based on the number of VMs rather then the number of physical servers, consistent with service level agreements that ensure the cloud provider doesn’t get cute by stuffing too many VMs into a single server.
The backslope of high utilization is slower performance caused by disk swapping or crashes from over-committed memory.
Although cloud-first is a mandate, the policy hasn’t produced a wholesale rush to join the cloud generation. Agencies are going cloud, but just not fast and whole-hog. A survey commissioned by VMWare, and conducted by Meritalk has put some numbers on this phenomenon. One hundred sixty seven federal CIOs and IT managers responded.
The survey shows a somewhat reluctant group of federal tech managers. They know the virtues of cloud computing, with 64 percent reporting it will reduce costs and improve services. But 79 percent say they have not quite swung into the cloud-first column. Most plan on getting there within two years. And when they do, it won’t be with mission or enterprise applications, but rather with e-mail for the most part.
Why the slow adoption? No surprises — security, the budget needed to switch things over to the cloud, mystery about the FedRAMP process rank as top obstacles.
The reluctance to put mission applications in the cloud is understandable, but that doesn’t translate to reluctance to virtualize the machines running them. Black says lots of critical applications in federal agencies are virtualized. My research in following virtualization collaborates this for large enterprises in general. Virtualization is a mature technology with an ecosystem of third-party tools to support virtual system management, optimized backup and recovery, and capacity planning. And although it dominates, VMWare has competition. Microsoft, for example, also sells a suite of virtualization tools. For federal agencies, the leap of faith is not into virtualization but into the cloud.
Few federal agencies can match the National Security Agency for technology requirements. Insiders describe the NSA has totally cyber. Insiders such as the deputy director, John Inglis. Staff there basically lives in cyberspace, he said the other night at the FedSMC conference in Cambridge, Md. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, he couldn’t say much about about what the NSA actually does with all that technology. But I’ll wager there is a lot of digital data mining and analysis, much as the agency does signal analysis on analog traffic.
Every year the NSA spends billions — although here again the exact amount is classified. But NSA people aren’t shy about describing what it takes to do business with the agency. One of them is Mark Barnett, the director of NSA’s small business programs. He is regularly on the circuit. He boasts about NSA’s record of small business utilization. And in the same breath he describes how difficult it is to become an NSA contractor.
Part of the challenge is that contractors need top security clearance to work on a contract, but they can’t get a clearance without a contract. To overcome this catch 22, the agency runs a program called Provisional Industrial Security Approval, or PISA, under which up to five people in a small or disadvantaged business can obtain clearances for the purposes of business development. But there is only one chance for all the people to get their clearances. If one individual doesn’t pass, that’s the end of the road for the company. And no substitutions allowed, Barnett explained. Plus, NSA won’t accept a security clearance granted by another agency. If that’s not tough enough, Barnett said that clearances from NSA can’t be used to gain business development access at another agency unless meetings are attended by an NSA representative.
“We’re not all classified, just 98 percent,” Barnett quipped.
But, clearance aside, you can’t just walk up to the agency with a suitcase full of technology, according to Barnett. You have to be preapproved or recommended by someone pretty high up in the agency — program manager level or higher.
After clearing these hurtles, it can still be a long time — up to several years — before your company can expect to see anything resembling an order.
Yet for all that, Barnett said NSA awards 18 percent of contracts directly to small businesses. Adding in set-aside requirements for awards to large businesses, he said NSA would rank at the top of federal agencies for the number and percentage of acquisition dollars.
Occasionally, the NSA will reach out to a business with a particularly promising technology. Barnett said that poke won’t come from his office but from another group that scours the technology field literature looking for clues to real innovation.
Creation of new federal web sites under the Obama administration has reached warp speed. So much so that even the main federal portal, usa.gov, can’t keep up with them. For the most part, the new sites are of interest mainly to the hordes of interest groups that already keep tabs on this or that agency.
Two sites in the news recently got me to thinking. When it comes to one branch of federal online service, I would like to make the case for a single portal. If you go to USA.gov, within a couple of clicks you get to all of the consumer guides and protective links. There are 101 of them.
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission came out with its annual report on the complaints it received. Its collection site, Consumer Sentinel, logged more than 1.3 million complaints year about financial products and services.
Also last week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission proceeded with somewhat controversial plans for an online system for consumers to send in complaints about products under the CPSC’s jurisdiction, Safer Products.org. Commission chairwoman Inez Tannenbaum told me and Amy on The Federal Drive that she has sufficient staff to filter out complaints that will inevitably come in that don’t come under CPSP. She said they’ll redirect those posts to the agencies that to have sway.
Not that the CPSC didn’t anticipate this problem. The drop-down menu of product categories ensures that people don’t report something wrong with, say, chicken. Another drop-down tells consumers what is outside CPSC, with links to those agencies.
The president and the Government Accountability Office have recently pointed out that the multiplicity of agencies each having something to say about food safety is another area ripe for reform and consolidation.
It all gave me an idea. How about one big site called “Tell The Government” or “Federal Complaint Central.” It would have these characteristics:
- Simple online form with field for the product name, what it is generically, who the manufacturer is, name and type of store from which it was purchased, zip code, and a text field for the specific problem.
- A software analysis engine that, knowing what agencies oversee what, and backed by a database of retailers and manufacturers, could quickly sort and forward to the appropriate agency. It would be able to spot and block instances of repeat complaints or postings with identical wording coming from various URLs.
- The complaints would be forwarded to the manufacturer and retailer so they could investigate (as the CPSC does).
No longer would consumers have to wade through 101 or more web sites just to figure out where to complain. It would be up to each agency to decide how to handle the complaint according to its standard procedures.