The Buzz

Forty Acres for A School

Scarlett O'Hara's dad knew it. Anybody with a house on the market this spring does, too. In America, it's all about the land. So when President Bush included in his 2007 budget a proposal to sell off more than 300,000 acres of publicly owned forest property in 35 states to fund rural schools, he should have expected an uproar.

Sure enough, the plan to auction land in 120 national forests to bring in about $800 million has ticked off a host of Congress members, brought an angry letter of opposition from four former chiefs of the Forest Service and, as of the closing date for comments on the list of parcels, prompted 120,000 responses and counting. Even the president's nominee to head the Interior Department, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, came out against the idea during his confirmation hearing May 4.

The Forest Service protests that the land under consideration for sale costs a lot to maintain, is remote and in many cases is isolated from other national forest prop-erty. The agency also points out that it is less than 0.2 percent of the total National Forest System-193 million acres in 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands in 43 states.

So what's up with the schools? It seems that local governments have received a cut of the revenue from timber sales in national forests, but as logging there has declined, the money has been drying up. Payments to states fell from $1.5 billion in 1989 to $557 million in 1998, The Baltimore Sun reported May 5.

It's looking more and more like the sales plan is doomed. Perhaps the administration should consider another tactic. The entire episode is reminiscent of that 1960s bumper sticker: "Wouldn't it be a great day if the schools had all the money they needed and the Pentagon had to hold a bake sale to build a bomber?"

Flu Bucks

Today's jitters-inducing threat: the bird flu. More of us apparently are perched by the TV awaiting news that the first infected fowl has landed on our shores, sneezed, and the pandemic has hit home. Heck, ABC preemptively showed a movie May 10 about the catastrophe-to-be.

Federal flu hunters are handicapped by lack of a mathematical model of how infectious diseases spread. We just don't have a handle on how people interact and move around, carrying nasty bugs with them.

Well, money solves everything, they say, and in the case of disease tracking, it might just be true. Data from an Internet site,, which lets anyone register and track the movements of U.S. dollar bills, might have enabled researchers to crack the transmission code.

Using the travel patterns of the 50 million bucks registered on the site, researchers discovered that people don't move along evenly over time. While most dollars ended up within 30 miles of where they started in a week's time, a quarter of them really took off, landing 30 to 500 miles from their starting points. A few even made cross-country trips.

The researchers who came up with this brilliant idea published an explanation of sorts in the journal Nature in January. It's called "The Scaling Laws of Human Travel." Odds are, most regular folks won't be able to understand it, but the people who can likely will use it to drastically improve predictions about the geographical spread of epidemics.

Hard Cards

It's June, the Social Security Administration's deadline month for establishing new counterfeiting and fraud safeguards for Social Security cards. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act required improvements to birth certificates, driver licenses and Social Security cards. SSA was supposed to convene an interagency task force to set standards to prevent tampering, faking, altering and theft of cards, require verifying documents before issuing replacement cards and increase enforcement against card fraud. The security steps were to go into effect June 17, 2006.

In March, the Government Accountability Office reported that SSA had made a preliminary decision to issue improved cards, but only to new applicants. Though the cards regularly are used to determine employment eligibility, SSA didn't even require card applicants to present evidence of age, identity or citizenship until 1978. GAO has found that verifying employability is fraught with problems of identity theft and Social Security card counterfeiting. The 2005 REAL ID Act, which requires states to verify Social Security numbers and legal presence in the United States to get driver licenses and ID cards beginning in 2008, is supposed to help with the employment process.

Since the intelligence law took effect, GAO found that SSA had made some progress, reducing the number of times a card can be replaced from 52 a year to three times a year and 10 times over a lifetime. The agency set minimum standards for documents required to receive or replace cards and now verifies birth certificates before issuing cards for newborns.

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