The Almanac



October begins the busiest time of year for moving cargo by rail. The peak results primarily from the distribution demands of the harvest season, the autumn rolling-out of new models of cars, and the shipping of consumer goods for the holiday shopping season. Trains are also busy transporting construction materials to warehouses whose stock has been depleted by summer building. Although the miles of track over which trains travel have declined to about 140,000 from more than 250,000 early in the century, trains are hauling more cargo than ever, owing to increases in demand and efficiency. So-called global positioning systems, which are now being tested, are likely to further advance efficiency and to bolster safety. Potentially able to electronically pinpoint trains' positions and automatically engage their brakes to avoid collisions, these systems may enable more trains to run simultaneously on the same tracks, and at faster average speeds.


All-American wiretapping

October 1: The National Directory of New Hires, a system mandated by the sweeping 1996 federal welfare law, takes effect today. It calls for all employers to submit the names and Social Security numbers of new employees to law-enforcement agencies, who will use the information to track down those who are delinquent in child-support payments. 25: Authorized wiretapping gets a boost today, the deadline for telephone companies to ensure that their equipment does not pose impediments to electronic surveillance. This is a result of legislation passed in 1994 because the FBI feared that high-tech phone systems would impede its ability to monitor phone conversations. Congress has authorized $500 million to compensate phone companies for the cost of modifications. Opponents of the act have ranged from phone companies, which argue that their costs will exceed the allocated amount, to civil-liberties groups, who contend that the new technology could let the Bureau more easily listen in on calls without first securing warrants.

Arts & Letters

Not just a cigar

October 15: A major exhibit on the life and influence of Sigmund Freud opens today at the Library of Congress, which holds the largest collection of Freud artifacts in the world. The exhibit is opening two years later than planned: it was canceled in its original form in part because of vigorous protests from historians, psychologists, feminists, and Freud's granddaughter. These parties argued, among other things, that the exhibit was too favorable toward Freud and could validate practices that are now obsolete. Although budgetary reasons were given for the postponement, in the meantime the exhibit has been modified to address these concerns. The exhibit will contain approximately 170 items, including the death mask of "Wolf Man," one of Freud's most famous patients, and a 1935 letter in which the doctor allowed that homosexuality was "nothing to be ashamed of." After closing in Washington in January, the exhibit will travel to New York and Vienna.

Health & Safety

Starting this month, according to a new Department of Transportation regulation, all airlines whose flights enter or leave the United States must keep a log containing each U.S. passenger's full name and emergency contact, and must provide this log to the State Department within three hours of a crash or other catastrophe. This system was devised in part by the DOT's Task Force on Assistance to Families of Aviation Disasters; it is meant to speed notification of victims' families. Airlines have often been reluctant to release manifests promptly after disasters, partly because of uncertainty about the accuracy of their lists. The DOT task force has also asked Congress to consider extending from 30 to 45 days the moratorium lawyers must observe before approaching victims' families about their interest in suing.

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