The Almanac

Almanac --

The December Almanac


Much of the country's baby food will become more nutritious by the end of this month, when Gerber Products, which manufactures approximately 70 percent of the baby food sold in the United States, stops using chemically modified starch and sugar in many of its items. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., issued a report last year criticizing baby-food manufacturers for using excessive amounts of fillers in products for older infants and toddlers (it charged, for example, that Gerber's best-selling baby food, bananas with tapioca, was only 44 percent bananas). According to Gerber, its reformulations, which will affect 42 of the company's 190 products, are independent of the report, and were inspired simply by the growing demand among health-conscious parents for additive-free baby food.

Expiring Patent

No. 3,997,927. Irrigated Sunbathing Mat. "A sunbathing mat assembly comprising a compressible mat sufficiently flexible so that the weight of the body of a person lying on the mat will form depressed channels . . . , a water conduit . . . having a row of perforations . . . , means for securing said conduit to said mat . . . , and means for . . . supplying water to . . . flow into the conduit and out through the perforations thereof and directly downward onto the upper surface of the mat and along some of said depressed channels to cool a lower portion of said body without wetting an upper portion of said body exposed to the sun's rays."


This month six California condors, bred and raised in captivity, are scheduled to be released in the Vermillion Cliffs area of northern Arizona and southern Utah. The release begins a new phase of a 17-year, $20 million campaign to establish two wild populations of 150 condors each (31 condors have been released in southern California since 1992). Condors have been dwindling in number since the 1890s, owing to human activity and the birds' unusually slow rate of reproduction. By 1985 only nine remained in the wild, all of which were added to the captive-breeding program. The program so far has met with only modest success: five of the condors reintroduced to southern California have died, and nine others have been returned to captivity. In an effort to boost survival rates, biologists have used aversion therapy to teach the birds to avoid power lines, and have also trained them to fear human beings.

Health & Safety

December 31, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses will submit its final report to President Bill Clinton by today. The committee was established in May of 1995 to study the host of unexplained symptoms, such as fatigue, rashes, muscle and joint pain, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, and memory loss, that have affected thousands of Gulf War veterans--and to evaluate the responses of the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Health and Human Services to the complaints. It is also expected to address the question of whether, as some have argued, these symptoms constitute a distinct syndrome, popularly known as Gulf War Syndrome. Among the causes postulated for the veterans' illnesses are exposure to burning desert oil fields, contamination by Iraqi chemical or biological agents, vaccines given prior to departure for the Gulf, insecticides and repellents, sand, and fumes from the paint used to recoat vehicles and equipment with desert rather than jungle camouflage.


Option Red, a $43 million "ultrasupercomputer," will be installed at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, in New Mexico, this month. It is the first in a series of high-powered computers intended to help the government maintain its nuclear arsenal without violating the United Nations' Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed by the United States last September. The computers will design and carry out mathematical simulations of nuclear-weapons detonations. Next in the series, scheduled for complete delivery by 1998, are Option Blue Pacific, for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, and Option Mountain Blue, for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico. They will cost $93 million and $110 million respectively, and are expected to be the most powerful computers in the world.

The Skies

December 8, just before dawn the waning crescent Moon passes very close to Venus, which is found in the morning skies all month long. 13-14, the Geminid meteor shower, which usually rivals the Perseids of August in numbers and brilliance, peaks tonight. The young Moon sets early and so will not obscure the display. 21, at 9:06 A.M. EST, the Winter Solstice occurs. Winter officially begins in the Northern Hemisphere, even as daylight starts to lengthen. 24, Full Moon, also known this month as the Long Night Moon or the Moon Before Yule.

100 Years Ago

E. L. Godkin, writing in the December, 1896, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "Nothing requires a more delicate combination of qualities than the creation and conduct of a great business. The conditions of success are often too minute for observation. The life is full of terrible anxieties, especially in what is called 'hard times,' when money is difficult to get. The penalty of failure is tremendous, and yet the number of us who are ready to tell the capitalist how to carry on his business, how to pay his men, whom to employ, and on what terms, is very large. If those who can carry on business themselves were only one thousandth part as numerous as those who can tell how it ought to be carried on by others, the happiness of man would be well assured."

Illustrations by David Bamundo

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; The December Almanac; Volume 278, No. 6; page 16.