Late this month phones will be busier than usual at the National Runaway Switchboard, a federally funded toll-free hot line for troubled youths: twice as many calls generally come in during the several days after Christmas as during the rest of the month. The hot line, which in all of last year received nearly 110,000 calls, links the late-December volume to the eruption of family strife that is reined in before and during the holiday and to the fact that children are home from school (spring break is another peak time for calls). No one knows how many runaways and homeless children there are in the United States; the most recent nationwide study, which put the figure at more than a million, is nearly a decade old. Two thirds of the callers are female, and nearly three quarters are aged 15 to 17; however, calls from younger children are on the rise. In recent years the hot line has collaborated with Greyhound to give runaways bus tickets home; more than 200 runaways a month return to their families under this program.


The final report of the first study of emissions from street vendors' cooking devices is expected to be released to the public and to government agencies this month. The investigation is part of an ongoing joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Mexican counterpart to improve air quality along the border. It was prompted by scientists who posited that smoke from vendors' grills and stoves, typically used to cook meats for tacos and other regional foods, was a significant source of haze. A team from the EPA has been measuring vendors' emissions by cooking meats in a laboratory in North Carolina, using charcoal from the border region. If they conclude that vendors' cooking devices are a major source of pollution, program officials will then seek to investigate low-cost emission-control technologies appropriate for carts and stalls.

Health & Safety

Healthcare claims

December 31: One of the first tests of a solution for the so-called Y2K problem will occur by today, the date by which the 60-some contractors who process and pay Medicare and Medicaid claims have been asked to ensure that their computers will be able to handle the advent of the year 2000. (As everybody knows by now, many computers and programs were designed to recognize only the last two digits of a given year, and unless modifications are made will assume that "00" refers to 1900.) The Health Care Financing Administration made the request in order to give contractors time to work out glitches, in the hope of avoiding any interruption in service a year hence. The renovations are expected to involve the revision of more than 49 million lines of computer code, along with upgrading hardware and telecommunications equipment. Most Medicare and Medicaid claims -- nearly a billion each year -- are processed electronically. If contractors fail to have their systems ready by the beginning of 2000, the HCFA could be confronted with the prospect of processing claims by hand.

Arts & Letters

December 6: Brassaï: The Eye of Paris -- the first major retrospective of this artist's work in 30 years -- opens at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The exhibit, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Brassaï's birth, will consist of some 140 photographs, drawings, sculptures, and books garnered from more than 40 collections in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Among the works are a number of photographs that have rarely been shown in public. Born in Transylvania, the artist emigrated to France in the early 1920s. Soon thereafter he began taking photographs to supplement written journalism assignments; at first he loathed the medium, for which he is now best known. The exhibit will run through February, and then travel to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.


Future foie gras

Owing to the holidays, December is the peak month for the consumption of foie gras, the "fatty liver" of overfed ducks and geese. A decade ago this delicacy was virtually unknown to most Americans; last year some 150,000 pounds of it were sold in the United States. Only two domestic companies produce livers for foie gras; before the first came into existence, in 1984, chefs had to make do either with livers imported after being partially cooked (raw poultry products cannot legally be imported from most countries) or with raw livers smuggled into the country, commonly in the bellies of fish. Animal-rights activists have taken foie-gras producers to task for the treatment of their birds, which are force-fed several times a day through tubes.

The Skies

Big Freezing Moon

December 3: Full Moon, also known this month as the Big Freezing Moon. 13: The Geminid meteor shower, one of the year's most reliable, peaks tonight. It will be best seen beginning in the late evening. 21: At 8:56 P.M. EST the Winter Solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, marking the start of increasing hours of daylight. 31: A leap second will be added on the official U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock before midnight, to compensate for Earth's slowing rotation.

50 Years Ago

Illustration of the Kinsey report

Francis Henry Taylor, writing in the December, 1948, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "Even to attempt to associate truth with beauty brings down the horror and contempt of the intelligentsia today. Art for them has ceased to have any moral or religious significance; they have ... made it a form of private communication ... whereby abstract associations of form and color convey intimacies scarcely less cryptic than those revealed on the psychoanalyst's couch. The innocent layman ... may be forgiven for suspecting that the chief purpose of American art is to illustrate the Kinsey Report. Instead of soaring like an eagle through the heavens as did his ancestors ... the contemporary artist has been reduced to the status of a flat-chested pelican, strutting upon the intellectual wastelands and beaches, content to take whatever nourishment he can from his own too meager breast."

Illustrations by Clare Mackie

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; The December Almanac; Volume 282, No. 6; page 24.

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