Two large-scale hand-overs of territory take place this month. The last U.S. troops leave the Panama Canal Zone on December 31, ending nearly a century of American involvement. The transfer was negotiated in 1977; it will leave Panama with sole responsibility for operating the Canal, which generates some $500 million in tolls annually. It may also leave an unresolved question, concerning who will clean up the remaining unexploded ordnance from U.S. military exercises. American personnel say that some 8,000 acres may be a problem, because they are in the jungle or cannot be cleared using environmentally sound methods. Meanwhile, across the globe, Macao, which has been under Portuguese administration since the 16th century, will have reverted to China on December 20. The exchange, agreed on in 1987, ends colonial rule in East Asia. As in Hong Kong, existing legal, administrative, and economic systems will be left in place for 50 years; Macao's casinos and dog-racing tracks will operate during that time.
December 3: The waning crescent Moon lies just above Venus in the southeastern sky before dawn, with the bright star Spica to the planet's right. 5: This morning the Moon is just above Mercury; the planet is about as high as it ever appears in the northern temperate latitudes. 14: The Geminid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours. 22: Full Moon, also known this month as the Yule or Ashes Fire Moon. Because the Moon is at perigee -- its closest approach to Earth -- extreme high and low tides are expected. Also today, at 2:45 A.M. EST, the Winter Solstice.
Health & Safety
December 1: By today all industrial truck and forklift operators, except those in agriculture, must have completed a safety training program. The course was mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in the hope of reducing accidents. Each year nearly 95,000 employees are injured, at least 100 fatally, in incidents involving industrial trucks andforklifts. The course consists of both classroom instruction and hands-on training; a refresher course is required at least every three years, and more often if an operator has an accident or a near miss. OSHA officials believe that the new requirement could prevent nearly 10,000 injuries a year.
Holiday travelers should beware: more luggage carried by airlines is delayed, damaged, lost, or pilfered in December than in any other month. Some 200,000 of the more than two million bags that suffer mishaps each year do so in December, when volume is highest and weather is apt to cause delays. Airline officials attribute most baggage problems to late check-ins, tightly scheduled connecting flights, mistakes by ticket agents, and mangled or obscured tags. Help may be on the way, in the form of "smart" tags that send identifying data and receive updated information through radio waves, and that can tolerate higher levels of damage. They are being tested in Europe as part of anti-terrorist bag-matching policies; because they are expensive, widespread implementation may be slow. In the meantime, travelers wishing to recoup their losses might visit the Unclaimed Baggage Center, in Scottsboro, Alabama, where items gleaned from unidentified luggage are sold. Some things that have turned up there: a Barbie doll containing $500 in cash, a live rattlesnake, and a $250,000 guidance system for an F-16 fighter jet.