The Almanac

Health & Safety

By this month, according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Department of Health and Human Services must set practices for medical providers and insurers to follow in order to protect the confidentiality of personal health information that is maintained on electronic systems. Specifically, health providers and insurers must, over the next two years, assign identifiers to all those who access patient records, and establish "audit trails" that monitor all access to clinical information. They must also encrypt all patient-identifiable information that is transmitted over the Internet and other public networks. The act further requires that Congress enact a national patient-confidentiality law by August of 1999. A 1995 survey of Fortune 500 companies found that a third consult individual health records when making job-related decisions, sometimes without informing employees.

The Skies

February 1: The waxing crescent Moon lies close to Saturn, high in the southwest just after sundown; Jupiter and Mars are low on the western horizon. 11: Full Moon, also known this month as the Snow or Trapper's Moon. 23: Venus, just past peak brilliance for the year, hangs near the waning crescent Moon in the predawn sky. 26: A solar eclipse peaks at about 12:30 P.M. EST. The eclipse will be total only in a narrow path across Panama, Colombia, and the southeastern Caribbean; for most North American observers it will be manifested as a small chip out of the Sun.

Right-handed bear in love

Many are. Unlike human beings, though, the members of other animal species tend to be evenly divided in terms of which side they favor. There appear to be exceptions: most polar bears, for example, are thought to favor the left paw. (Wildlife experts offer this advice, for what it is worth: if chased by a polar bear, move to the left, so that the bear will not be attacking with its dominant paw.) Scientists have long believed handedness to be an adaptation among animals that use their hands, paws, or claws regularly for activities such as catching and eating food. However, researchers have recently discovered evidence of forepaw preference in toads, which do not typically use their forepaws to manipulate objects -- a finding suggesting that the phenomenon may have a longer evolutionary history than previously suspected.

Arts & Letters

Two exhibits drawn from the Vatican Museums open in the United States this month. On February 4 "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels From the Vatican," a collection of more than 100 paintings, sculptures, and artifacts depicting angels, opens at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, in Los Angeles. The works range from a ninth-century B.C. Assyrian stone relief to paintings by modern artists such as Georges Rouault and Salvador Dalí. Nearly half of them have never before been shown outside the Vatican. On February 8 "Vatican Treasures: Early Christian, Renaissance, and Baroque Art From the Papal Collections" opens at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It contains some 40 paintings, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and other works, including one of the Vatican's most important altar paintings: Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ. Also this month Sotheby's will auction more than 40,000 items that once belonged to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, including the mahogany table at which, in 1936, the Duke, then King Edward VIII of England, signed his abdication. The collection has been owned by Mohamed al-Fayed since the Duchess's death, in 1986.

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