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News Editor

DARPA deserves better

Aug 04, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

Rarely does even the wackiest idea crash and burn so soon after liftoff – especially in Washington, where wacky ideas are what you want to be hiding under should there ever be a nuclear attack, since so many seem indestructible.

Not so the DARPA’s short-lived terrorism betting parlor. Dubbed the Policy Analysis Market (PAM), this attempt to apply the predictive powers of futures trading to the world of terrorism prevention fizzled so fast last week there really wasn’t time to bat it around on those screaming contests that pass for TV talk shows. It was here today, gone tomorrow, lamented by no one . . . with the possible exception of soon-to-be former DARPA head honcho John Poindexter, the former Navy admiral whose government career went down with this ship.

But now that PAM has assumed its rightful place on the lips of late-night comics – alongside that other recent DARPA debacle, Total Information Awareness (TIA) – there remains at least one important point to be made:

Pity the brilliant men and women who for decades have toiled to make DARPA synonymous with government-sponsored technological innovation. It must pain these people no end to see their baby become the butt of such jokes.

Pity, too, the Bush administration’s decision to so needlessly politicize DARPA by appointing the notorious Poindexter in the first place.

DARPA is best known for giving life to what we now know as the Internet, of course, but more recently the agency has applied brain cells and government dollars to the likes of wavelength division multiplexing and Gigabit Ethernet.

Before his foray into terrorism futures, Poindexter was best known for having skirted the consequences of his Iran-Contra felony conviction only through the good graces of congressional immunity.

PAM and TIA would have attracted howls of protest with or without Poindexter’s fingerprints being on them. His involvement, however, all but assured that the missteps would blow up into major scandals for DARPA.

As this column was being written, press reports were making clear that Poindexter would walk the plank over this.

At least it can never be said that PAM and TIA failed to produce benefits: DARPA deserves this chance to get its good name back.

Telemarketers are overacting

Death throes are not normally considered high entertainment, but one must be forgiven for taking delight in such ghoulishness when it is the telemarketing industry that is purportedly doing the dying.

The telemarketing industry isn’t actually dying, of course; its practitioners merely are acting the part of the mortally wounded in response to the predictable popularity of the federal government’s do-not-call registry. The Federal Trade Commission reports that more than 28 million people in the U.S. have signed up to have peace restored to their dinnertime hours – go figure – and that the number is likely to rise to 60 million by next summer.

Enforcement of the list begins Oct. 1 unless lawyers unleashed by the telemarketers succeed in stopping the launch. They were in a Denver court recently seeking to block the FCC regulations that put this blessed relief within reach.

The industry’s First Amendment case appears no more compelling than your typical telemarketing pitch.

As for the industry’s sob story – it predicts 2 million lost jobs – call me heartless. It’s almost certainly true that the industry will need fewer telemarketers once its list of available phone numbers shrinks to the size of my city’s white pages. Some of those folks will have a hard time finding work. However, the majority simply will make the transition from a menial job that annoys innocent bystanders to a menial job that does not.

They’ll sleep better.

Do not call . . . write. The address is