The Almanac

Almanac --

The February Almanac

Arts & Letters

February 28: today is the last day that libraries can place orders for catalogue cards with the Library of Congress, which is halting production of the cards. Libraries wishing to maintain card catalogues will have to turn to commercial suppliers. The Library of Congress has since 1902 sold duplicates of its three-by-five-inch cards to libraries around the world. However, card sales have declined since 1968, when cataloguing information became available in an automated format; they fell to 579,879 last year, from a peak of 78 million in 1968. Critics of automated systems point out that errors in conversion have led to books' being lost and have limited cross-referencing options, and that the cards themselves -- many of which are being discarded -- have inherent historical value.


February 22: as of today many people who have been receiving federal food stamps are no longer eligible for this form of assistance. According to a provision of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act -- the sweeping welfare-reform bill signed by President Bill Clinton last August -- childless able-bodied adults aged 18 to 50 cannot collect food stamps for more than three months of any three-year period unless they have part-time jobs or are in employment-training or workfare programs. When the provision took effect, last November 22, states were required to give three months' notice to recipients who stood to lose their food stamps unless they met the new requirements. State and local governments can apply for waivers for residents of areas where the unemployment rate is 10 percent or more or where it is deemed that appropriate jobs are lacking. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the provision could mean that a million fewer people at a time receive food stamps, at savings to the federal budget of $5.1 billion over six years. Soup kitchens, shelters, and food banks are gearing up for an increase in demand for their services.


This month the Water Environment Federation, a nonprofit educational and technical organization, will report the final results of a survey commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency on the state of the nation's sewage sludge, or the residue left behind after sewage has been treated. This is the first comprehensive inventory of the methods by which wastewater-treatment plants use and dispose of sludge. It is intended to assess compliance with regulations issued in 1993. Among the topics the survey will address is public acceptance of the use of sludge as both agricultural and nonagricultural fertilizer, a frequent but controversial practice. Opponents argue that toxins that may remain in treated sewage pose health risks to grazing animals and nearby human populations. As part of its efforts to emphasize the positive qualities of the substance, the EPA has recently abandoned the term "sludge" in favor of "biosolids."


Making Chocolate

February 14: Valentine's Day; Americans will buy some 30 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates today. Many recipients may puzzle over the contents, however, since few chocolate assortments come with "maps." Some general guidelines: Round or oval pieces are likely to be creams (before being coated with chocolate, cream centers are usually forced through a funnel, resulting in a dome shape). Square pieces probably contain some sort of nougat or caramel (hard or chewy centers are usually cut from large slabs into small squares). Thin rectangular pieces are probably brittles. There are exceptions, of course: some top-of-the-line chocolates are manufactured in a more complicated and delicate process involving molds of varying shapes.

The Skies

Those hoping for the best glimpse of Comet Hale-Bopp this month should look low in the east in the predawn sky February 4-19, when the Moon will not interfere. February 5: Jupiter and Venus lie close together in the southeast just before sunrise -- an event that should be visible to the naked eye for observers in the southernmost states (viewers elsewhere may need binoculars). 10: this evening the slender crescent Moon sits just above Saturn in the southwest. 22: Full Moon, also known this month as the Snow, Hunger, and Frightened Coyote Moon.

[For daily information on the skies, visit the Skywatcher's Diary of Michigan State University's Abrams Planetarium.]

Health & Safety

February is a peak month for respiratory syn cytial virus (RSV), a nearly ubiquitous illness -- virtually all children contract it by age three -- that usually resembles the common cold but sometimes progresses to pneumonia or bronchiolitis. RSV can be especially serious in very young infants and the elderly, and in those with congenital heart or lung disease. Each year some 90,000 children with RSV are hospitalized; 4,500 of them die. RSV is highly contagious: it can live for days on clothes, toys, or countertops. Efforts to develop a vaccine have so far been unsuccessful, even disastrous: some children vaccinated in one trial became very ill, a few fatally so.

25 Years Ago

Alfred Adler, writing in the February, 1972, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "The confusion of science with technology is understandable. Certainly the two often appear to be aspects of a single larger process, as when science proposes new laws of physics, which inspire the development of a technology for their exploration, which in turn exposes inaccuracies in the laws and forces science to seek a more profound level of theory. But in fact their divergence is great. It is the divergence of engagement from fulfillment, of means from ends. . . . If truth is a path, then science explores it, and the brief stops along the way are where technologies begin (they build towns and pave a highway). Technology is results, science is process; though the two fuse and separate and then fuse once more, as ends and means must, their opposition is profound."

Illustrations by Juliette Borda

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; The February Almanac; Volume 279, No. 2; page 16.