The Almanac


Fastener quality check

May 26: Starting today the federal government will, quite literally, become more involved in the nuts and bolts of society, as legislation intended to ensure greater quality control over many types of fasteners takes effect. The Fastener Quality Act was passed in 1990, after Congress determined that mismarked, improperly made, and counterfeited items such as nuts, bolts, washers, and screws had led to serious accidents in U.S. industry and in military operations. The act requires that manufacturers test their fasteners in an accredited laboratory and register their insignia -- the markings usually appearing on fastener heads -- with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so that defective fasteners can be readily traced. Manufacturers have complained because the rules do not apply to imported fasteners in pre-assembled items, pointing out that their business, along with public safety, could suffer as a result.


May marks the peak of New York City's "floater season" -- the springtime surfacing of bodies in the city's rivers. Nearly a quarter of the bodies pulled from the city's rivers last year -- 11 of 47 -- were retrieved in May. Bodies tend to rise to the surface in the spring because warm water hastens decomposition, which produces internal gases; these in turn make bodies buoyant. In addition, spring currents may dislodge corpses caught on underwater debris. The number of bodies retrieved from New York's waterways has steadily declined over the past 30 years, from annual counts in the hundreds to fewer than 50. According to the police department's Harbor Unit, reasons for the decline may include a reduction in violent crime; a waterfront that has become significantly less active commercially, and whose docks are equipped with safer, automated loading and unloading systems; and, at present, the strong economy, for many of the bodies that wind up in rivers are thought to be suicides.


This month biologists will install buoys off the coast of Florida as part of a project dubbed ECOHAB, for Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algae Blooms -- the first coordinated federal effort to study red tide, a microscopic organism that periodically generates enormous colonies, or blooms, that devastate fish. Red tide is also to blame for deaths among dolphins, manatees, whales, and pelicans, and for seafood poisoning among human beings. The buoys will monitor such things as temperature, salinity, wind speed, and ocean currents -- data that could provide advance warning of blooms as well as clues to what circumstances are conducive to them. Researchers will also regularly be collecting samples of red tide in order to study the organism and its reproductive dynamics. They hope that their efforts might eventually lead to a biological control for red tide -- for example, a virus or bacterium that would kill or consume that organism alone.


May 30: The latest deadline in an ongoing meat-trade dispute between the United States and the European Union. The EU has threatened to suspend beef imports from the United States -- already reduced, but still worth some $35 million a year -- unless, by today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implements a plan for bringing meat-inspection practices in line with European standards. As of this writing, the USDA has not indicated how it will respond. EU inspectors last year deemed that the U.S. testing program to control drug residues, especially of growth-promoting hormones, does not provide "an equivalent level of consumer health guarantees." The dispute has long roots: in 1989 the EU banned meat from U.S. cattle that had been treated with growth hormones. (The ban was overturned last year by the World Trade Organization, on the grounds that the hormones do not pose a health risk.) For its part, the United States began restricting imports of European beef and lamb last December, because of fears of mad-cow disease, and has sent a team to EU countries to observe residue-testing procedures there.

The Skies

May 11: Full Moon, also known this month as the Milk or Planting Moon and the Moon of the Shedding Ponies. Most of the month's other celestial highlights occur in the hour before dawn: on the 21st the waning Moon lies close to Jupiter; on the 22nd Saturn, Venus, the crescent Moon, and Jupiter form a long arc above the eastern horizon; and on the 29th Venus and Saturn lie close together low in the east.

Arts & Letters

May 3: The first comprehensive U.S. retrospective in 20 years of the American abstractionist Mark Rothko -- a painter known for his huge canvases and use of broad bands of color -- opens today in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. The exhibit will include 115 works spanning Rothko's career of nearly 50 years, with emphasis on his surrealist period, of the mid-1940s, and classic period, of the 1950s. After closing in Washington on August 16, the exhibit will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

50 Years Ago

W. Somerset Maugham, writing in the May, 1948, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "There is something to be said for the simple people who look upon marriage as a satisfactory conclusion to a work of fiction. I think they do so because they have a deep, instinctive feeling that by mating a man and a woman have fulfilled their biological function; the interest which it is natural to feel in the steps that have led to this consummation, the birth of love, the obstacles, the misunderstandings, the avowals, now yields to its result, their issue, which is the generation that will succeed them. To nature each couple is but a link in a chain and the only importance of the link is that another link may be added to it. This is the novelist's justification for the happy ending."

Illustrations by Katarzyna Klein

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; The May Almanac; Volume 281, No. 5; page 22.