December 31: A new security measure for domestic flights is scheduled to take effect today. According to a mandate from the Federal Aviation Administration, major airlines must begin to implement a computerized profiling system to identify the passengers likeliest to pose a security risk -- for example, those who buy their tickets with cash -- and must ensure that those passengers' bags are not placed on the plane until the passengers themselves are on board. The procedure is aimed at foiling the terrorist tactic of placing bombs in unaccompanied luggage. Under this system perhaps 5 percent of all domestic luggage will be matched to passengers. Also this month representatives from some 100 countries will gather in Ottawa to sign a treaty banning antipersonnel land mines. Likely to be absent are officials from the United States and China, which to date have dissented from the ban.


December 18: New Food and Drug Administration rules for the handling and processing of fish and shellfish go into effect today. All seafood handlers must implement the FDA's "hazard analysis critical control point" program, aimed at preventing contamination: they must systematically identify potential dangers, such as hepatitis A and salmonella, and take measures to eliminate them at key points in the production process. The new rules replace a system that consisted only of surprise visits by inspectors to detect contamination in the final product; they bring seafood-handling practices into line with those for meat and poultry.

Health & Safety

December 15: Today Massachusetts is slated to become the first state to require that tobacco companies reveal the nicotine content of and the additives in their cigarettes by brand. According to last year's Massachusetts Ingredient Disclosure Law, cigarette manufacturers must file this information yearly with the state's Department of Public Health, which may publish the information if it deems that doing so would reduce health risks. For years tobacco companies have been required to furnish additive information confidentially to the federal government; in 1994 six of the largest companies made public a list of nearly 600 tobacco additives, but this information was not brand-specific. Among the substances sometimes added to tobacco are ammonia, caffeine, cocoa, and licorice.


Plastic surgeons begin their busiest season in December, as many people spend holiday gifts and time off having various body parts refashioned. For example, the members of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery together performed more than 7,000 nose jobs during the last two weeks of 1993, as compared with an average of fewer than 4,000 during other two-week periods that year. The most common procedures during the winter are facial -- for example, eyelid surgery, face-lifts, laser resurfacing, and chemical peels. In the spring, as beach weather approaches, demand for procedures such as liposuction and breast augmentation rises. Women outnumber men as cosmetic-surgery patients by almost four to one, and show greater variety in their requests; the leading procedure for men has consistently been hair-transplant surgery. However, male interest in other procedures is growing, perhaps buoyed by recent surges in the stock market. One New York plastic surgeon has reported a sixfold increase in the rate of nose jobs and liposuctions he has performed on male stockbrokers in the past two and a half years.


This winter is expected to bring an unusually strong El Niño, an expanded oceanic warm spot that sometimes develops in the Eastern Tropical Pacific and that affects weather in various ways around the globe. Countries have had longer than usual to prepare, owing to data-recording buoys in the equatorial Pacific, which allowed scientists to predict this winter's El Niño as early as last January. In Peru, where El Niños generally bring flooding, the government has encouraged farmers to plant rice, a crop that tolerates excess water. Farmers in Australia have been selling off their livestock in anticipation of a drought. In California the insurance industry has been educating homeowners about flooding and shoreline erosion. And, on a more positive note, canneries on American Samoa have been gearing up for the schools of tuna that usually follow El Niño's warm water east along the Equator.

The Skies

December 3: The waxing Moon passes just above brilliant Venus and reddish Mars -- which lie close together for much of the month -- in the southwest just after sunset. 8: At 10:00 P.M. PST Saturn is occulted, or hidden, by the Moon, an event that can be seen in the southwestern states and Hawaii. 13: Full Moon, also known this month as the Yule or Long Night Moon. 21: At 3:05 P.M. EST the Winter Solstice occurs; hours of daylight start to increase.

25 Years Ago

L. E. Sissman, writing in the December, 1972, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "What I'll settle for, and what I'm really, secretly, glad I'm getting [for Christmas], is, apart from a few small but welcome gifts, a holiday season when I expect to sit around with my friends and exchange some real talk -- not mere small talk -- instead of gifts; when they will make me feel (and I them, I hope) that our friendship has worn and flexed and given for another year with a net gain in suppleness and pertinence; when -- it will go without saying because there's no unmawkish way of saying it -- we all, severally and collectively, realize, sheltered and fire-warmed somewhere in a snowy, hostile landscape, that the only gift that matters is a spark of brave forthcomingness, an unshuttering of spirit, from another living person, so soon, like us, to disappear."

Illustrations by Tracy Mitchell

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; The December Almanac; Volume 280, No. 6; page 20.