The Circuit

Loose Connections

Meanwhile, over at the U.S. Customs Service, officials are experimenting with some neat technology to "untether" inspectors from their data systems, according to Woody Hall, Customs' chief information officer. In a recent video clip, Hall said the agency has been experimenting with using portable computers in various configurations. "You can wear them in slings, you can wear them in vests that look a lot like body armor," he said. Customs also has been working with IBM Corp. labs to develop a headband that has a boom mounted on it.

"The boom's got a thumbnail-sized screen that provides the same information you'd see on your monitor, except it's in the size of a quarter of an inch," he said, and the boom also has a microphone on it, so the user can give voice commands to computers. Hall said these gadgets may be ready for production within a year or two.

PDA at CIA

It looks like the CIA, that zipped-lipped organization based in McLean, Va., is loosening up a bit on technology. Spokesman Tom Crispell says the agency now allows employees to carry certain kinds of handheld computers as long as they cannot transmit outside the building.

Until now, all personal digital assistants were banned, and visitors had to park their cell phones and pagers at the reception desk. The reason: Any two-way transmitting device could be used as a bug to transmit conversations and data. Now the spooks have seen the light and lightened up. Not to worry — field agents have all sorts of technology, likely even a few gadgets we've never heard of.

IT Infusion

President Bush approved the White House's recent Web site redesign, but he cannot take advantage of the improved organization or reminisce with photo.graphs of tee-ball games from the comfort of his own desk. Tucker Eskew, White House director of media affairs, says the Oval Office lacks a computer, much less an Internet connection for the president to peruse his own site.

But other White House locations are getting an information technology infusion. The administration is outfitting the Roosevelt Room with high-speed Internet access, video.conferencing and other goodies that Eskew would not disclose. The upgrades should be done soon, he said, bringing that much-used meeting room into the 21st century.

NASA, Unplugged

What happens when satellite that measures the growing hole in the ozone over Antarctica costs too much to operate? Just pull the plug. That's what NASA is doing today, 10 years after the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite mission began. "We can't afford to continue to feed it, and we have other priorities with new technologies," NASA spokesman David Steitz said recently, citing $10 million in annual costs.

But some scientists say the move is a bad one. "It's a $1 billion asset we're throwing down the drain because we can't come up with a couple of million to keep it running," said Mark Schoeberl, the mission's former project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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