The Almanac

Illustrations by Mimi Weber


Don't be too quick to blame Y2K for any systems failures that may occur this month -- the culprit could be solar storms. The sun's 11-year storm cycle is due to peak early this year, probably bringing an increase in the number and intensity of solar flares -- violent bursts of energy caused by magnetic fluctuations on the surface of the sun. The likelihood of electrical blackouts, satellite and cell-phone malfunctions, and other disruptions will thereby be increased. The last time the solar cycle hit its peak, in 1989, the storms knocked out power in Ontario for nine hours, causing some $10 million worth of damage. Power companies around the world will be using a program to monitor electrical surges, in the hope of preventing outages this time around. And scientists are working on a satellite that may one day provide accurate advance notice of solar disturbances.


The implementation of new federal food-safety guidelines for meat and poultry will be completed on January 25, three years after the process began; the country's smallest meat and poultry plants (generally, those with fewer than 10 employees) must be in compliance as of today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture formulated new procedures after outbreaks of E. coli in 1992 and 1993. It adopted a system, developed by NASA for space-flight preparations and known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, under which plants analyze their operations from beginning to end to determine areas in which problems might arise. As of January of 1997 all plants were required to follow basic sanitation procedures; since then HACCP guidelines have been phased in, starting at the largest plants. Contaminated meat and poultry have caused some 5 million illnesses and 4,000 deaths annually in the United States. The cost to consumers of the new guidelines will be about one tenth of a cent per pound of food.

Arts & Letters

Two of the Smithsonian's premier museums, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art, will close for three years starting this month, as Washington's Old Patent Office Building, where they are housed, undergoes renovations. The public will still have access to much of their contents, though, because the museums will send exhibits drawn from their collections -- 16 shows in all -- to more than 100 cities in the United States, Europe, and Japan. This is thought to be the first time that a major U.S. museum has put its permanent collection on the road. The works will be in good company: at any given moment millions of dollars' worth of art is moving around the United States as a result of museum loans or traveling exhibits compiled from multiple institutions. In 1998 there were more than 600 traveling shows, an increase of nearly 30 percent since 1993. Cuts in government funding of the arts are believed to be a contributing factor: museums have turned to traveling shows as a way to increase their visibility and attendance and to attract corporate funding.

Health & Safety

January 25: Today the Department of Health and Human Services will announce its national health objectives for the coming decade. Various groups will use the objectives to shape public-awareness campaigns, special events, and publications. Areas to be targeted include racial disparities in health care, the safety of medical products, emerging infectious diseases, and mental health. Preliminary evidence suggests that 60 percent of the goals for the 1990s were partly or entirely met. Successes include increases in breast-cancer survival rates and in mammography screening, a reduction in the number of children who die in fires, and a downturn in chlamydia-infection rates. Disappointments have come in attempts to reduce the rate of hospitalization for asthmatic children, to increase participation in physical education among high school students, and to curb adolescent substance abuse.

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