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Tracking Cell Phones for Real-Time Traffic Data 125

stillgoogling writes to tell us the Associated Press is reporting that the Missouri Department of Transportation is stepping up a project to track the mass movements of cellular phones. This project is designed to use the movements of cell phones to map real-time traffic conditions statewide on more than 5,500 miles of road. From the article: "Officials say there's no Big Brother agenda in the Missouri project -- the data will remain anonymous, leaving no possibility to track specific people from their driveway to their destination."
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Tracking Cell Phones for Real-Time Traffic Data

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  • by dago ( 25724 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:35AM (#13802331)
    It seems that INRETS (= National Institute for Transport and Safety Research) teamed up with SFR (one of the mobile operators) to do just that.

    I can't find any direct link to the paper, altough somebody with an IEEE account could probably find some. It is also cited on University of Virginia Center for Transportation studies [].

    If somebody can link to more info ...
  • by sopuli ( 459663 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:35AM (#13802332)
    This was done in Finland a long time ago. Even made it to slashdot [].
    • This was done in Finland a long time ago. Even made it to Slashdot []

      And this being Slashdot even that was a dupe []

    • A similar project was recently done by a group from MIT. Made it to Slashdot [] as well...
    • The real intentions are closer to Every Road a Toll Road []. Ten years ago, when I worked at the Louisiana Transportation Research Center, the trade magazines were full of this kind of thing.

      After some thought, most reasonable people conclude that the current method of taxing gasoline works better. It's anonymous. It's cheap and easy because prices must be computed per gallon when you sell gasoline anyway. It taxes you for how much you drive and imposes no burden on those who don't use the roads.

      Why do s

      • The American phone companies introduced the E911 [] feature, a GPS receiver inside every phone, ostensibly to provide your precise whereabouts when you dial 911, the national emergency number. I don't recall people complaining about this too much, but it's a clever way to get the tracking feature implemented without too big a hue and cry from the populace.

        I don't have a cellphone, and the more spy stuff that gets attached to them, the less motivated I am to get one.

        • The nature of cellular makes it quite easy to track you without GPS or anything fancy. Every time you enter a new "cell", your phone announce itself to the station. If the records show you entering and leaving cells along a major highway, you are most likely driving down that highway. Aggregating this data for traffic monitoring doesn't really introduce any privacy problems.

          This approach was used to find OJ Simpson's White Bronco ten years ago, so it's nothing new.
          • Aggregating this data for traffic monitoring doesn't really introduce any privacy problems.

            This approach was used to find OJ Simpson's White Bronco ten years ago, so it's nothing new.

            Was this sarcasm? Seems to me that this could be a serious privacy problem.
            • Not really, the point was that pinpointing your general location is inherant to cellular phones, and a privacy risk you accept as soon as you turn one on. So when you get into your White Bronco to run from the cops, it's wise to turn the phone off. If the phone company reports "5000 people drove down this strech of freeway with their phones on", they are simply making use of information that people have chosen to offer.
      • Privacy issues aside, different rates for different people make sense. This is because different cars based on their weight do different amounts of damage to the road. Thus heavier cars should be taxed more than lighter cars. Likewise hybrids could get a tax exemption (they damage the roads too, but we should be encouraging people to buy them). Also what about people that use gas but don't travel much on public roads?

        Granted heavier cars use more gas, but I don't believe the difference used makes up for
  • 1984 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kcyber ( 652633 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:40AM (#13802352)
    I don't think that the state will invest money only for traffic control purposes. Traffic was also the excuse for installing cameras on roads during the 2004 olympic games in Athens but were used to track people during demonstrations...
    • Yeah, this system would be just perfect to catch those who exceed speed limits -- and this is just a start.
      • While I agree that government surveillance is a potential problem here, I am not in favor of people exceeding the speed limit anyhow. A system such as this would also be perfect for balancing traffic around congestion, thus limiting traffic issues such as those around where I live. So the potential good from this is enormous. I just hope we continue to preserve the anonymity.

        Unfortunately, you know that what will really happen is that a huge database tracking literally every cell phone's' movements wi

        • Re:1984 (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @02:23PM (#13804488) Homepage
          Anyone know what ever happened to the ECHELON project, which is a system intended to monitor literally every piece of human communication on the planet and mine it for analysis later?

          Paranoid nutcases with little knowledge of basic electronic intelligence strategy have flooded the internet with hysterical rants and lunatic ravings about ECHELON. It's almost always traceable to a specific error in reading comprehension, i.e. the failure to distinguish between "capable of monitoring any communication" and "capable of monitoring all communication". The former is true. The latter is not. There does not exist enough electronic analytical capacity to monitor all communications. Anyone who has worked in electronic intelligence knows that one of the primary focuses is tasking: knowing when and where to apply limited collection resources. 99.99% of the electronic communication in the world is inconsequential chatter, and is very easily identifiable as such. NEWS FLASH! The NSA knows your 90 year old grandmother's phone calls aren't worth listening to, so they don't! I speak from experience as a former Signal Intelligence Analyst with the US Army-- they spend most of their time trying to RDUCED the amount of stuff they have to analyze. Really, the theory of "ECHELON listens to everything, all the time" fails the common sense test on so many levels, it boggles the mind why anyone would take it seriously. So the computer flags (say) every utterance of the word "bomb" and "embassy" or some such, eh? Well THEN what? Who goes through the enormous daily log of such flagged conversations? The obvious answer is that they cut down the log by not bothering to monitor communications between irrelevant parties. The tin foil hat crowd thinks the government is listening to them, when the truth is the government doesn't give a shit about them because they don't matter.

    • Write, e-mail, or call the Missouri Department of Transportation & tell them what you think.

      Missouri Department of Transportation
      105 W. Capitol Ave.
      Jefferson City, MO 65102-0270
      Phone: 573-751-2551
      Fax: 573-751-6555
      Toll Free: 888-275-6636 []

    • by oneiros27 ( 46144 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @07:07AM (#13802425) Homepage

      But you forget -- in some regions, traffic is a major issue. (eg, the Washington, DC metro area) -- if legislators can get get traffic issues cleaned up in an area that has major problems, it could mean an easy re-election for them.

      If they're actually thinking about the general population, and not themselves, they'd be looking at the other benefits that something like this could provide --

      • Cheaper ways to estimate traffic growth, and determine where to allocate money for capacity improvements.
      • Faster detection of accidents, for improved emergency response.
      • The ability for the population to better plan their routes to work, resulting in a happer, more productive workforce.
      • The ability for trucking companies to better plan their routes, possibly making it more likely for them to route through the state (resulting in sales from diesel, food, lodging, etc)

      Yes, there are potentially less-than-ethical reasons for wanting a system like this, but there are pleny of reasons why something like this is a benefit for the general population -- now, is the money for this project worthwhile? For all we know, it's being done because one of the politicians is getting kickbacks, and they're spending too much, as compared to other, more worthwhile projects for their state (in terms of Benefit/Cost Ratio or some other measure used to determine project viability)

      (I didn't read the orginal article, so some of this may have already been covered. Of course, there wasn't a link to it, so everyone has an excuse this time. This might also show how much work some of the editors do to look at articles being linked to ... as opposed to looking for articles that are controversial and/or don't hold up, to result in 'animated discussion []')

      • The Minnesota Department of Transportation has real-time traffic tracking capabilities ( freshmap.html []) in the Minneapolis-St.Paul metropolitian area that are completely anonymous. Mn/DOT embeds detectors in the pavement down the center of each lane of the freeway and on every entrance ramp to measure volume, occupancy, speed, and flow. They use this information to control the freeway entrance meters. We are one of the few metro areas in the U.S. that effe
        • by bluGill ( 862 )

          That is great - where they put the sensors in, and the sensors work. However it costs money to put the sensors in. Then the sensors have to survive freeze-thaw cycles (which are particularly bad in MN). Then you need to account for the weakening of the road by the sensors (may or may not be a factor, I don't know). Then account for the cost of all those wires running around the city to collect the data.

          Now the cell phone towers have issues of their own. However people want cell phones, so they wi

    • Oh yes they will track individuals [] with this technology. You heard it here first.

      It starts with the first time some police officer gets the bright idea in his head, and from there it never ends.

  • by Jace of Fuse! ( 72042 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:42AM (#13802356) Homepage
    "Officials say there's no Big Brother agenda in the Missouri project (outside of the obvious)-- the data will remain anonymous (Unless we want to watch a specific person), leaving no possibility to track specific people from their driveway to their destination (without a reason, though any reason at all will do)."
    • Exactly. The fact is that the data is not anonymous, so it will end up being usable to track people. Not a problem in most societies... but when you can get a visit from the Secret Service for making an anti-Bush poster [] then I think anyone's correct to be asking questions...
      • I think anyone's correct to be asking questions

        A very few things are explicitly excepted from free speach in the US - advocating violent overthrow of the government or threats against the person of the president. It is the job of the secret service to investigate these threats against the president, and it has been doing this for a long time without any history of abuse of power. I don't think this poster incident is at all outside the scope what they should be doing considering the history of presidential
        • by keraneuology ( 760918 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @10:46AM (#13803211) Journal
          It is the job of the secret service to investigate these threats against the president, and it has been doing this for a long time without any history of abuse of power.

          Acting on a tip from a Wal*Mart photo clerk, the Secret Service visited a high school and confiscated a posted depicting a student giving a "thumbs down" gesture to a photo of Bush. The last time I checked the confiscation of personal property required due process and expressing dissatisfaction of either government in general or even specific officials was explicitly allowed. I'd say this counts as a fairly obvious abuse of authority.

          Other sterling examples of abuse of power on the part of the secret service include:

          The arrest of husband and wife Nicole and Jeff Rank for wearing T-Shirts that read "love America, hate Bush" (who were otherwise not disruptive)

          The official policy of the Secret Service (since rescinded) of segregating and concealing protesters at public appearances

          Janet Voorhies and two companions were denied entry to a Bush event on the grounds that they were wearing T-Shirts that read "Protect Our Civil Liberties"

          Perry Patterson was arrested for simply saying "no" when Cheney declared that Bush has made our world safer

          No history of any abuse of power? According to official accounts the secret service has a 0% rate of abuses of power within their ranks. This is simply impossible: no agency can make the correct hiring calls 100% of the time and any claims to the contrary displays an abuse of power by covering up mistakes - at the expense of those who were violated.

          Having a perfect track record is impossible: having a very public record of swiftly correcting any problems isn't.

          • The arrest of husband and wife Nicole and Jeff Rank for wearing T-Shirts that read "love America, hate Bush" (who were otherwise not disruptive)

            Here are news articles describing some of these events:
            CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Two Corpus Christi residents were arrested during President Bush's visit to the West Virginia Capitol to honor the country's veterans and gather support for invading Iraq.

            Nicole and Jeffery Rank were taken out from among the crowd of about 6,500 packed into the Capitol's
            • Your point is valid in many cases - the Secret Service is usually a very professional bunch, but I believe in the case of Janet Voorhies, she was approached by several people from campaign operations who had presented themselves as Secret Service, so that's a grey area. They never stated it but, dressed and acted the part. Secret Service answered to them, as well.

              Actual charges can be dropped or dismissed, but the ability to arrest and expel someone under threat of force is itself. Drug laws for example
            • These incidents you describe were clearly not the work of the Secret Service but rather Bush campaign operations. So I would advise you to stop slandering the Secret Service and rather get your facts straight.

              Please consult your nearest dictionary regarding the difference between slander and libel. That said, please refer to the 329,000 hits returned by google for this search []

              A couple of blurbs that stand out follow:

              As stated by one of its own procedure manuals, the Secret Service is not supposed to se

              • Please consult your nearest dictionary regarding the difference between slander and libel.

                Please consult your dictionary for the difference between truth and lie.

                Your searches and incident 'reports' are extremely one-sided and do not come from politically neutral sources.

                Here is a fact. The ACLU has brought several lawsuits against the Secret Service as a result of these claims. On going to trial these suits have been universally dismissed (as far as I can tell) in court based on actual evidence rather tha
  • Old Tech (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:42AM (#13802358) Journal
    Our company has been experimenting with this idea since a year or two, to measure the traffic on smaller "B" roads, that unlike highways do not have traffic measuring equiment built into the asphalt. Here is a short article [] (In Dutch, use Babelfish), and the site with the traffic information [] (Type in the 6 digit number shown into the "log in" box). They obtain phone location data from one or more GSM providers. The data has been filtered so they only get generic location data; no phone numbers or other identifiers are provided.
  • by n0dalus ( 807994 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:56AM (#13802400) Journal
    I have a theory which states that traffic, when essentially quantized (grouped into bunches of vehicles moving between traffic lights), exhibits several quantum mechanisms.
    For example, whether or not a quantum of traffic (bunch of cars) reaches their intended destinations, the affects on the traffic of that area are the same as if they really did reach their intended destinations. This is essentially because people generally choose routes which they think will be the fastest or easiset, and people think "Oh it's Friday afternoon on the start of a long weekend, lots of people will be going out of the city for holidays down highway X, I'll go a different way." Hence whether or not a quantum of traffic is going somewhere, people avoid them just the same.
    This can be simulated by a computer in a combination with this kind of system, to very accurately time traffic light sequences so as to reduce the average waiting time per vehicle across a large area. In theory it is possible to quantize traffic (eg, stop/allow single cars until they end up in a bigger group) and time traffic lights so that almost no waiting at traffic lights is needed. As long as you travel within one of the quanta you would have green lights all the way.
    • Yeah, that works until you have actual capacity issues like we do in Boston: there simply isn't enough road space for all the cars that want to travel on a given route at a given time. Boston traffic is a Blotto bag: 5 lbs of shit in a 4 lb bag.
    • It already in operation, in most cities in some form.

      Good description of UTC [] and SCOOT []

      Basically SCOOT (Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique) is adaptive and responds automatically to traffic fluctuation. It slipts traffic into platoons.

      London,UK runs mainframe computers to change the Traffic Signal timing every second.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:57AM (#13802403)
    "Officials say there's no Big Brother agenda in the Missouri project -- the data will remain anonymous, leaving no possibility to track specific people from their driveway to their destination." Maybe for the trial run & to get approval it will remain anonymous - but just like the video cameras put up on american taxpayer paid roads and intersections "for traffic purposes", it won't take long before this technology, pitched as one thing, will be used for another. Coming from a friend in law enforcement - those video cameras are used for whatever they want.
  • by Ron Bennett ( 14590 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @06:59AM (#13802407) Homepage
    Simple solution is to power off the cell phone; some newer models are rumored to never truly power off - simple work-around if unsure / paranoid is to then place the phone into a shielded bag similar to what is provided to folks who use EZPass.

    Cell phone tracking is already so prevalent that use for traffic monitoring is merely another extension of the extensive data collection that's already being going on for quite some time from cell phone users, including actual data, such as text messages sent/received.

    On an aside, most folks have no real need to always have their cell phone on when driving - let the voice mail take calls and help keep the roads safer; due to lawsuits some companies forbid use of cell phones while driving, so why even leave the phone on...

    Ron Bennett
  • ...and they'll want the whole mileage you make. whould any goverment official really SAY they are planning to spy on the poulation?? Does anyone remeber ANY government that announced such a spying plan BEFORE putting it in place?? seriously, this is just the infrastructure necessary to actualy get to the big brother level. the people putting it in place won't be the ones who get to use it to spy: this is just unlocking the door...
  • As if by magic (Score:3, Informative)

    by James Crid ( 568495 ) <> on Sunday October 16, 2005 @07:07AM (#13802424) Homepage
    a Wired article [] appears...
  • by oneiros27 ( 46144 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @07:15AM (#13802444) Homepage

    When an editor decides to rewrite the copy, it helps to make sure the meat is still there -- in this case, the actual link to the article.

    So that other people don't have to waste time like I did, here are a few assorted articles on the topic (some are marked as specifically from the AP):

    • and there is a similar story today in The Observer about a plan by the UK government to monitor traffic flow by license plate recognition []. (In the UK, we call them 'number plates', if you wonder what the article is going on about).
    • I know. I submitted this too and I actually included links, even one to the official website of the company contracted to do with work which specified some technical details. Why did they choose this briefer version which leaves out key details? They also forgot to mention that it doesn't use GPS capatabilities in cell phones, it uses signal analysis of the cell phones as they pass from tower to tower and overlays the data over maps to get an idea of traffic flow. In other words, they can't pinpoint exa
  • by Bob Cat - NYMPHS ( 313647 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @07:30AM (#13802479) Homepage
    Just count the fucking CARS!!!
  • by bhmit1 ( 2270 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @08:00AM (#13802541) Homepage
    So what happens when someone forgets to turn off their phone on an airplane?

    "Wow, traffic is really flying on the I-95 corridor"
  • and there's a fork in the road. If they see that 99% of people go left and 1% goes right then they'll know 99% chance I'll go left.

    So. Then I think they think I'll go left, so I'll go right.

    But they think that I think that they think I'll go left to go right so they go left.

    But I think they think that I think that they think .... I'm confused.
  • ...Until further notice. Please check the 'I agree' box next to your signature to show you have read the contract agreement (which we know you didn't).
  • It's got to be more cost effective than placing all of the speed sensors like they've done in Georgia ( available on

    Jerry []
    • It's got to be more cost effective than placing all of the speed sensors like they've done in Georgia ( available on

      An article in Wired [] says:

      Missouri expects to spend less than $3 million a year on the service, Rahn said, although the exact price won't be known until the contract is finalized. Maryland is spending $1.9 million, although the entire Baltimore project costs nearly $5.6 million, said Mike Zezeski, director of real-time traffic operations for the Maryland Departme

  • Patented Long Ago (Score:3, Informative)

    by junge_m ( 410514 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @09:05AM (#13802759) Homepage
    This approach has been patented long ago. The latest US Patent on is 6,577,946 [] which has references to all the olds one covering basically the same stuff.

  • Wow, could there be any larger in your face privacy violations then this? "Hey we are going to track all our citizens in real-time. Don't worry its only for traffic... until a divorce lawyer subpoenas the logs for his case"
  • by ewg ( 158266 ) on Sunday October 16, 2005 @09:09AM (#13802768)
    The next invasion of privacy will be requiring every automobile to be registered with the government. Armed law enforcement agents will compel any vehicle not displaying its government id to stop.

    Oh, wait a minute...
  • Maybe it's different in the USA, but here cells are just too big to meaningfully equate cell transitions into traffic movements on physical roads.

    Motorola did a lot of work with UK company Trafficmaster on their Smartnav [] product, where most of the traffic data comes in realtime from roadside cameras and sensors on Motorway bridges covering 9,000 miles of UK roads. When you push the button on the unit, the mobile phone rings into a call centre with the current GPS position encoded in the Caller ID of the p

  • ...does Mapquest not have to hire two guys to drive around and map out the entire North American road system (just track all the cellphones and map out the roads from there...but beware of underground parking lots and off-road adventures)...okay, maybe they still need the two guys for the boonies.
  • A customer of ours has an older cell phone. He likes it and deosn't see the need to upgrade. He's firmly in the "a phone is a phone" crowd. His contract came up for renewal this month and the sales rep told him that there were new Homeland security rules in place and, since his phone didn't have GPS, they could not renew his contract. Has anyone else heard of this? It sounds like bunk but....
    • His contract came up for renewal this month and the sales rep told him that there were new Homeland security rules in place and, since his phone didn't have GPS, they could not renew his contract.

      I haven't heard that, but I can confirm that Verizon (and presumably other carriers) say there is an FCC requirement in place such that they cannot (re)activate phones that don't have the GPS functionality. This notice was on a few of my previous bills:

      To meet FCC requirements, as of June 5, 2005 Verizon Wirel

  • The simple fact is we gave up any right we had to privacy in this area when we caved in to the E911 movement. Big Brother already can, will, and does track our movements through our cell phones. I see no reason not to use the info that can already be used to an individual's detriment for the common good. The only real concern here is that this information will be more publicly available. Special care should be taken to insure that only enough information is collected to meet their advertised purpose.
  • Making this system "opt-in", rather than universal (and usually undisclosed, especially to the unsophisticated mass of users), would go a long way to reassuring us that Big Brother's agenda isn't driving it. And publishing the source to the software that runs the dataprocessing will make sure that Big Brother isn't hiding in the details. Then an anonymous system that people join because they want to subscribe, so they publish, can be trusted - and popular.
  • When they passed the seat belt law in Washington State they said they'd never use it to pull people over, it was a "secondary infraction only."

    Now of course they routinely pull people over for not appearing to have their seat belts on. Which then leads to things such as "I've pulled you over because you didn't have your seat belt on" "But I do have my seat belt on!" "Sir, you clearly don't have it on right now" "But I took it off when you pulled me over." "Sir, did you realize you don't have the legally req
  • The fact of the matter is, THEY can track you by your phone if THEY want to. THEY have been able to track you a bunch of other ways before this, if THEY wanted to. Maybe not your exact location right now, but close enough to go get you if THEY wanted to.

    Then again, is it worth all the time worrying about THEM tracking you when most of the time THEY dont give a good goddamn if you're even alive, much less where you are at any given point in time, so long as you don't do anything horribly wrong.

    I really can't see why people worry about this so much
    Things THEY could do to use the cell phone system more:
    THEY could even use it to tell the highway partol where to put the speed traps now and start giving out a grip of speeding tickets. This would give an economic boost via court fees and fines, not to mention generating income for traffic court lawyers, whoc would then kick that back into the economy in the form of buying luxury items. Then we get a surplus of money in the government coffers, and they kick it back to the population of their respective states as a rebate every year, redistributing wealth from the people who can't seem to follow traffic laws to everyone else. (What? Have to speed to get where you're going? Sorry. Allow yourself more time to get where you;re goinig. Live closer to where you work. Your choice.)

    Get stopped for doing something wrong and give the cops some fake id... lets check that against your cell phone, just for fun. "Sir, not to racially profile, but your cell phone says youre Eunice Witherspoon. You sure don't LOOK like a Eunice Witherspoon, being a man and all."

    Or, like it has beeen said a million times already - you don't HAVE to have a cell phone. Carry a bunch of quarters and some disenfectant on you and use payphone!

    (hey, new submission posting form!)
  • "Officials say there's no Big Brother agenda in the Missouri project -- the data will remain anonymous, leaving no possibility to track specific people from their driveway to their destination."

    I remember that officials said the same of EZ Pass-like systems, then divorce lawyers found that they could successfully subpoena the information they want.
  • here-

    If they say they will keep it anonymous, there is still the fact that they got the data, and then there is not a long way to imagine them using it for some sort of "anti-terrorist" action or something of the sort. IMHO this is a very scary thing if it get implemented, since the gov. gets access to data they can use with less than a good reason in their "fight against terror".
  • Australiand and Indian governments suggest surgically removing the eyes of Australian and Indian citizens. "Those are high resolution, stereoscopic imaging devices coupled with virtually infinite amount of memory. They sure can be used to scope out future targets, therefore in the interest of national security these tools of terror must be removed at birth, and retroactively for all citizens who have not yet undergone the procedure", an Australian official was quoted as saying. Complete removal of cerebral
  • Are they tracking individual phones? Or just checking the control channel load on towers along the routes?
  • Hey, Missouri traffic jams are better compared to most cities.
  • I work at a state department of transportation as a modeller, and I wonder if this data might be useful for long range transportation modelling purposes. Any time we want to measure traffic in a specific area, we have to send someone out to put out mechanical counters or sit there and count the intersection manually.

    If we want more accurate information to generate a better model, sometimes we hire consultants to go out and do origin destination studies, which used to involve stopping traffic to ask them

  • Don't work for the cellphone builders anymore....OUTSOURCED... but .... in my infinite archives likely still have a somewhat working set of the software somewhere. (not that it would work with current equipment) It was good enough to handle all calls and data plus in the biggest cities in the world... Dice and slice anyway you wanted... We spent 2.5 mil to prototype 10 working models. Just a matter of data mining. heh!

"If you lived today as if it were your last, you'd buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn't you?" -- Garrison Keillor