The October 1997 Almanac

Government October 1: The Agent Orange Benefits Act takes effect today, entitling Vietnam veterans' children born with the congenital defect spina bifida to receive up to $1,200 a month from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Congress passed the act after the National Academy of Sciences issued a report citing new evidence that veterans' exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange is likely to have increased their risk of having offspring with spina bifida. According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly 3,000 people could be eligible for payments, at a cost to the VA of some $325 million over the next five years. In addition, the VA will provide or arrange free medical care for them. This is the first time that the government will compensate children of soldiers for birth defects related to military service.

Health & Safety

October is the peak of the fall social season and brings a surge of philanthropic events, including benefits for hospitals and other health-related causes. A committed donor in New York City or Los Angeles might attend five functions a week (the organizers of the various benefits coordinate their efforts in order to minimize scheduling conflicts). Contributions to health-related causes are surpassed only by contributions to religion and to education, and are on the rise. Last year Americans donated $14 billion to health-related causes -- 10 percent more than in 1995, the largest increase in any philanthropic category. Some up-and-coming causes are services for the blind and the battles against lupus and Parkinson's disease.


October 14 and 18: More than a million high school juniors are expected to take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT) on one of these dates. They will encounter something previous

Rising female test scores

test-takers have not: a writing-skills component, consisting of multiple-choice questions designed to test competency in sentence structure, word choice, and the organization and development of ideas. The new section resulted from a claim filed by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which charged that the PSAT was a gender-biased exam: although females consistently earn better grades than males in comparable high school and college courses, males have tended to outperform females on the PSAT. FairTest argued that since the PSAT is a qualifying stage for National Merit Scholarships, women's eligibility for college scholarships was being unfairly limited. The new questions are meant to raise the test scores of females, who generally outperform males in measurements of writing skills.


October 16: The results of Reef Check 1997, the first comprehensive survey of the earth's coral reefs, will be released today. The survey, an international cooperative effort among governments, universities, and environmental groups, involved examining more than 100 reef sites. Volunteers collected data to help scientists assess the health of the reefs: for example, they counted members of certain species, such as grouper and sea urchins. Reefs, although they cover less than 0.2 percent of the ocean floor, are home to fully a quarter of marine species. Scientists currently estimate that 10 percent of the world's reefs have been destroyed, primarily by human activities and their consequences, including shipping, pollution, tourism, and global warming, and that another 30 percent could be destroyed in the next 20 years. Today's results should help scientists make more-precise predictions and work toward reducing human damage to reefs.

Arts & Letters

October 19: The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in Bilbao, Spain, opens today. Funded by the Basque provincial government and operated by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, in New York, the museum will be devoted to 20th-century American and European art. It has already been widely touted for its design: a series of curved and twisted shapes cloaked in titanium. Among the 300 works that will go on display today are Richard Serra's Snakeand Willem de Kooning's Villa Borghese. Noticeably absent will be Pablo Picasso's which depicts the destruction during the Spanish Civil War of a small town about 12 miles from Bilbao. The Reina Sofía Art Center, in Madrid, denied the Guggenheim's request to borrow the painting, saying it is too fragile to be transported -- a decision seen as political by Basque nationalists. The painting has traveled to more than 30 institutions in the past 60 years.

The Skies

October 5 and 6: Mars, Venus, the red star Antares, and the waxing crescent Moon are broadly grouped on the southwestern horizon after sunset. The first three will be playing tag during the next few weeks. 9-10: Saturn reaches opposition at midnight, appearing on the side of Earth facing away from the Sun. This is the best time of the year to view its rings (use binoculars or a telescope). 15: Full Moon, also known this month as the Hunter's Moon. 26: At 2:00 A.M., Standard Time returns; set clocks back one hour.

75 Years Ago

Joseph Fort Newton, writing in the October, 1922, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "What is the great American sin? Extravagance? Vice? Graft? No; it is a kind of half-humorous, good-natured indifference, -- a lack of 'concentrated indignation,' as an English friend described it, -- which allows extravagance and vice to flourish. Trace most of our ills to their source, and it is found that they exist by virtue of an easy-going, fatalistic indifference which dislikes to have its comfort disturbed.... The most shameless greed, the most sickening industrial atrocities, the most appalling public scandals are exposed; but a half-cynical and wholly indifferent public passes them by with hardly a shrug of the shoulders; and they are lost in the medley of events. This is the great American sin, inviting the thunder and lightning of the wrath of God."

Illustrations by Doug Ross

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; The October Almanac; Volume 280, No. 4; page 20.