The April Almanac

Demographics

Starting this month students who take the Scholastic Assessment Test are likely to earn higher scores than their recent predecessors—regardless of their study habits. The April, 1995, version of the SAT represents the first recalibration of the test’s scoring system in 54 years. In an effort to characterize test-takers more accurately, and to improve students’ understanding of their scores, College Board officials have shifted the scales so that a mark of 500 will once again indicate an exactly average performance, as it did in 1941. Because of the much-heralded decline in students’ skills, average scores had slipped to 424 (verbal) and 478 (math) as of last year.

Government

The telephone loses its remaining anonymity on April 12, when caller ID—subscribers to which can see the number of the party calling before they pick up the phone—becomes available on an interstate basis, by order of the Federal Communications Commission. (It is already available in most states.) Although many states allow services that automatically block the identification of calls from a given number, the FCC ruling stipulates that those wishing to guard the confidentiality of their numbers across state lines will have to dial a blocking code before each call. The ruling has been attacked as an erosion of privacy; in response the agency cites the potential of caller ID to limit telephone harassment and to reduce the possibility of fraud in activities such as telephone banking and home shopping.

Environment

It is often observed that Third World countries suffer the environmental consequences of American consumerism, but this month offers a vivid illustration of a First World nation’s bearing the brunt. Holland, which is the source of 70 percent of the millions of tulips currently in bloom across the United States, uses more than 175 tons of pesticides and soil fumigants each year to grow them. Partly as a result, its groundwater is highly contaminated. The country’s growers, under a self-imposed mandate to halve their use of pesticides by the year 2000, are turning to alternative techniques to minimize pests and diseases, including crop rotation and localized fertilization of the soil. Varieties of tulips that require high levels of pesticides may be abandoned, and “ecotulips”—those requiring no pesticides at all—are being cultivated on a small scale.

Food

At least 31,000 kosher products —a record total—will be available in supermarkets this month, in anticipation of Passover on April 14. Observant Jews may nonetheless find some items in short supply: much of the kosher food sold during the month (and a majority sold throughout the year) is bought by non-Jews. Chief among this group are members of other religions with laws pertaining to the preparation of food, including Muslims (who also abstain from pork and are allowed to eat kosher meat when meat from animals slaughtered according to Islamic law is unavailable), Seventh-Day Adventists, and Rastafarians. Vegetarians and others generally concerned with the purity of food are also increasingly drawn to kosher items. The burgeoning market for kosher food has spawned new kosher products (pasta made from matzoh meal, a line of low-calorie frozen dinners) and led to kosher certifications for conventional brands (M&M’s candies, Coors beer).

The Skies

April 2, at 2:00 A.M. Daylight Saving Time begins; set clocks ahead one hour. 13, Venus and Saturn lie very close together in the eastern sky just before sunrise. 15, Full Moon, also known this month as the Egg or Grass Moon. A partial lunar eclipse begins about 7:40 A.M.EDT and reaches its midpoint two hours later, by which time it will be visible only in the western United States (the Moon will have set elsewhere). During the eclipse the Moon will for a time appear to touch the bright star Spica.

Health & Safety

This month poses particular hazards for foragers and nibbling children: many of the nation’s most toxic plants and fungi are sprouting. Heading the list is water hemlock, a sweet-tasting plant sometimes called poison parsnip or false parsley, which, when ingested even in small quantities, can rapidly bring on convulsions and death (several children have died after merely using whistles made from the plant’s root). Another prime offender: amanita mushrooms (“Death Angels” or “Death Caps”), the ingestion of which - they can fool even experienced mushroom gatherers—can induce liver and kidney failure. The two plants together account for about 10 deaths each year—a surprisiugly small number, given that no known antidotes exist and consumption often occurs in remote locales, far from medical attention. Other culprits include pokeweed, whose leaves are sometimes boiled for salads (if not cooked, or undercooked, they can cause severe gastroenteritis, as can the plant’s root), and digitalis or foxglove, a key ingredient in some heart medications (the casual eating of foxglove causes nausea and irregular heartheat).

100 Years Ago

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