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A U G U S T  1 9 9 8

The August Almanac
Food

Squirrel-hunting season Squirrel-hunting season opens this month in several states, including Kentucky -- where in recent years a number of diagnosed or suspected cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative brain disorder in the same family as mad-cow disease, have been tentatively linked to the regional practice of eating squirrel brains (often scrambled with eggs or made into a stew). From 1993 to 1997 doctors diagnosed 11 cases of CJD in rural west Kentucky; all the victims had a history of eating squirrel brains. The Kentucky Wildlife Commission is now testing brain samples from 60 squirrels; doctors have issued a warning against eating the brains of any animal for the time being.

Environment

Drinking water August 6: the Environmental Protection Agency will issue a final rule requiring all community water systems -- the source of water for most U.S. households -- to provide their customers with annual reports on the quality of their drinking water. In most cases the reports will be mailed to customers. They must include information on any contaminants detected; the probable sources of contamination; and, when the level of a contaminant exceeds EPA standards, the health risks of drinking water containing that substance. The first reports, covering water quality over the coming twelve months, are due by October of 1999.

Government

This month philanthropy-minded postal customers can elect to pay eight cents extra for a special first-class stamp, with the net proceeds going to breast-cancer research. Increased-rate stamps, called semipostals, have long been sold in a number of countries; this is their U.S. debut. Also this month is the expiration of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which guaranteed reparations -- $20,000 per person -- to Japanese-Americans interned during the Second World War. More than 81,000 claimants have been compensated. The government has also pledged payments of $5,000 each to the 2,200 Japanese-Latin Americans who were forcibly brought to this country and interned, allegedly because the U.S. government viewed them as a security threat and because it needed people of Japanese ancestry to exchange for U.S. civilians held by Japan. The promised compensation was announced after several in this group, which was excluded from the reparations law because its members were not U.S. citizens or permanent residents at the time of internment, filed suit.

Demographics

Productive sperm Couples wishing to start a family might have better-than-average success this month -- at least if they are French. A study released last year by INSERM, France's institute for medical research, found that both the quantity and the quality of spermatozoa in 100,000 samples from Frenchmen peaked during August and February. The researchers had a ready explanation for the February peak, positing a drop in sexual activity during cold weather; less-frequent sex allows higher concentrations of sperm to build up. The peak in August -- a time when couples are presumably more active sexually, and when sperm counts in other studies have been low, probably because heat slows sperm production -- is more surprising. Some scientists see it as lingering evidence that human beings once had seasonal breeding patterns, as other mammals do. And indeed, records pre-dating the widespread use of modern contraception suggest that birth rates were highest during November and April, a finding roughly consistent with conception during February and August.

Health & Safety

Digging up flu victims This month an international team of scientists will exhume the bodies of six victims of the 1918 flu pandemic from a cemetery on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway. If, as is hoped, the corpses have remained frozen over the years (Spitsbergen lies within the Arctic Circle, and the bodies are thought to be in deep graves), researchers may be able to recover and analyze fragments of the virus that caused the flu, which killed approximately 20 million people worldwide but is little understood. U.S. molecular pathologists are already trying to map the virus's genetic structure, working from tissue harvested from three North American victims of the flu, and samples of the European strain should aid the process. Such efforts could lead to a vaccine against any future version of the 1918 flu and to a better understanding of how influenza mutates to evade the body's immune system.

The Skies
Related Link:

  • The Skywatcher's Diary
    Daily information on the skies posted by Michigan State University's Abrams Planetarium.


  • Mars and Venus together This month early risers will be rewarded more than once with the predawn conjunction of Mars and Venus: on August 3rd the planets form a tight group with the star Delta Geminorum, and on the 4th and 5th they are at their closest, with the twin stars Castor and Pollux just to the north. August 7: Full Moon, also known this month as the Grain or Sturgeon Moon. 11-12 and 12-13: the Perseid meteor shower peaks. Viewing will be best before moonrise and just before dawn.

    75 Years Ago

    the peaceful past Philip Cabot, writing in the August, 1923, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "No one will deny that relaxation and amusement are necessary for us all; but ... compare our forms of amusement with those of fifty years ago.... The classics of our grandfathers are pronounced dull and slow to-day and things with 'more snap to them' ... have taken their place.... Today the woods and fields are deserted, except for the hunter, strung with the thirst to kill, while ten million motor-cars whirl us at blinding speed, over crowded thoroughfares on which we dodge our neighbors with incredible agility and fierce irritation.... These things ... have the earmarks of stimulants, not sedatives; of the fear of life, rather than the love of it. Foreign observers have often remarked ... that Americans work hard and hurry over their play. But this is not hurry; it is hysteria -- a sort of spiritual madness."

    Illustrations by Thorina Rose.
    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; The August Almanac; Volume 282, No. 2; page 10.

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