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Published: Saturday, 8/16/2003

Smell tests and peanuts? It must be August

WASHINGTON - It's August. Do you know what your government is doing?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the infamous Pentagon unit that recently came under fire for proposing to set up a betting system for likely terrorist attacks that many in Congress branded “incredibly stupid,” has a $3.2 million program aimed at cataloguing people by how they smell. The idea is to track them better. This smacks of the federal program that employed underarm sniffers to see if deodorants worked.

Equally smelly, says the Congressional Budget Office, is the administration's forecast that the deficit for fiscal 2003, which ends Sept. 30, will be $455 billion. The CBO estimate is “only” $401 billion, still the largest in U.S. history but substantially less than White House estimates. The major reason? CBO says it's just not possible to spend as much for the Iraq war, international aid, and homeland security as the administration says it intends to spend in the next month and a half.

The Food and Drug Administration this month approved a wheelchair that lifts its occupant to a standing position, uses gyroscopes and sensors to climb up and down stairs, and shifts into four-wheel drive to climb hills. It has to be prescribed by a physician and costs $29,000.

Called the iBot, the chair was tested by the FDA, which said that three testers fell out but none was seriously injured.

The Department of Agriculture announced this past week that soon doctors may be telling you to eat more peanuts to keep your heart healthy. Federal and private researchers said they have come up with peanuts that have more oleic acid than today's peanuts, and oleic acid promotes “good” cholesterol that helps keep arteries from plugging up.

Unfortunately, the new peanuts still contain 20 percent saturated fat, which clogs arteries.

But forget peanuts; try doughnuts. The U.S. Postal Service, an independent federal agency that delivers mail to 140 million addresses every day, sent out a press release last week touting its new rule that permits mail solicitations in all shapes and sizes. The old rule said mail had to be in the shape of a square or rectangle. The press release proudly notes that the folks at Krispy Kreme doughnuts are sending thousands of Californians advertisements in the shape of its half-opened green-and-white box of 12 doughnuts.

The postal service boasts: “Donuts are just the beginning. Next, pizza and cars might appear in your mailbox.”

Speaking of stuff you may not want in your mail, what about those annoying dinnertime calls from credit-card marketers, window-replacement people, and investment “opportunists”?

Regulators at the Federal Trade Commission are putting final touches on the free do-not-call registry. Starting next month, telemarketers have to check the registry every three months to see who is on the list, which means that anybody (except charities, pollsters, and politicians) who calls you even though you don't want such calls is violating the law. Telemarketers can be fined $11,000 for every person they call who is on the list.

Not surprisingly, telemarketers have taken the government to court, saying the new regulation is “excessive” and will cost them $50 billion and 2 million jobs. But of the 300 million phone numbers in America, including cell phones, only 30 million have signed up so far.

The Department of Homeland Security this month sent out high-profile alerts to thousands of businesses about the presence of a dangerous new computer virus called LovSan, and advised them that patches were available for free to prevent the virus from attacking. Nonetheless, thousands of businesses ignored the warning and got smacked. Even some government agencies had to shut down to clean up the mess.

The department also has been scrambling to beef up security in the nation's capital, especially with new warnings of terrorist attacks possible. The government has spent $60 million for regional preparedness under its new Urban Area Security Initiative Program.

So, two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, are the various jurisdictions in and around the nation's capital -Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia - finally on the same networks and able to share information via computer and emergency alert systems? No. But the department this week is undertaking a new public safety campaign to alert people to the risk of home-fire deaths for babies and toddlers.

Finally, as it was announcing the possibility of a new terrorist threat to airlines, the Bush Administration successfully and quietly this month also persuaded House-Senate conferees to privatize the process of certifying and maintaining equipment for the air traffic control system. The Professional Airways Systems Specialists union argues that this would “trade the public's safety margin for a corporate-profit margin. The safety of this country's flying public must not be allowed to be sold to the lowest bidder.”

One can only wonder what September will bring.


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