The January Almanac
January 1, by today most commercial broadcast television and radio stations must have digital computer equipment capable of automatically receiving and transmitting emergency messages about natural disasters, such as earthquakes, storms, and floods, and man-made crises, such as civil disorders and toxic spills. Cable stations must have the new equipment by July. The requirement is part of a federal overhaul of the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), starting with its name: the system will now be known as the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Lacking the automatic capabilities of the EAS, the EBS relied on human operators -- a pitfall especially in rural areas, where stations often operate with little staff. Weaknesses in the warning system are believed to have contributed to 40 deaths that were caused by tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia in March of 1994.
January 3, the Quadrantid meteor shower, one of the year's most reliable displays, peaks tonight. During the second half of the month Comet Hale-Bopp can be seen low in the east about an hour before sunrise. The comet will be around for several months, but devoted observers may wish to start looking now: after April it will be out of view for several thousand years. 23, Full Moon, also known this month as the Wolf or Winter Moon.
To see daily entries of what to look for in the sky, visit the Skywatcher's Diary of Michigan State University's Abrams Planetarium.
January 31, as of today beef from cows aged approximately 30 to 42 months --"B" maturity cattle -- will be ineligible for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "select" grade and, unless it has more than "slight" or "small" amounts of marbling, for the "choice" grade as well (marbling, the flecks of fat within muscle, contributes to tenderness). Instead it will be considered "standard" grade and used mainly for ground beef or in processed foods. Virtually all of the graded beef sold in supermarkets is "select"or "choice" (the top grade, "prime," is assigned to only two percent of graded beef, that with extensive marbling). The new standards were requested by the industry, in an effort to ensure more consistently tender products and boost consumer satisfaction with beef. U.S. per capita beef consumption is at its lowest since the 1950s, largely because of Americans' wariness of fat; ironically, the new standards will result in fattier B carcasses in the choice grade.
January 1, by today, according to provisions to implement the 1996 Telecommunications Act, established local telephone companies must make their operating and support systems available to new competitors. One consequence: many area codes, already burdened by the need for numbers for cellular phones, pagers, fax machines, and modems, will approach or reach exhaustion, because companies entering the local telecommunications market require blocks of new numbers. According to Bell Communications' North American Numbering Plan Administration, at least 14 cities or regions are likely to receive new area codes this year, starting with Los Angeles, which will receive its third area code later this month; 36 more area codes may be assigned by the year 2000. The demand for new numbers exists abroad as well: as of this month Finland will lengthen some new numbers by one digit, and Germany and Hong Kong are considering similar strategies.