The Almanac



May 5: Some 28 million avocados, mostly in the form of guacamole, will be eaten in the United States today -- more than on any other day of the year. The reason: today is Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a Mexican victory over the armies of Napoleon III. The biggest celebrations will be in places like California, Texas, and Chicago, where Mexican-American culture mixes with American culture and where the day is seen as an occasion for a party even by many who have no Mexican roots. An irony that celebrants may be unaware of: none of the avocados eaten here today will come from Mexico. In 1914 the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned Mexican avocados because of a seed weevil known to infest Mexican groves. In 1997 the USDA agreed to allow avocados from Michoacan into 19 northeastern states from November to February, on the rationale that the cold should kill any accompanying pests, and that if any did survive, they would not pose a threat to the crops grown in those states.



Northeasterners may notice clearer skies this spring and summer, because the first phase of a program designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide -- a pollutant that reacts with hydrocarbons and strong sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, the main component of smog -- takes effect this month. The Nitrogen Oxide Budget Program will issue a fixed number of "emissions allowances" to the states in the region. Each state can decide how to distribute its allowances among producers, such as coal-fired electric utilities and industrial plants; the allowances can be used, traded, or sold. Many states are choosing to reward already-efficient plants by awarding allowances based on good performance. The program was developed in 1995 through the collaboration of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ozone Transport Commission, and industry and environmental groups. It aims to reduce NOx emissions in the Northeast by more than 75 percent by 2003.

Arts & Letters

Chairs by Charles + Ray

Those seeking respite from Star Wars mania -- the long-awaited prequel to the space trilogy has its premiere this month -- might consider visiting the Library of Congress, where the first posthumous retrospective of the work of the American designers Charles and Ray Eames will open on May 20. A husband-and-wife team, the Eameses were best known for elegant but economical furniture, especially form-fitting plywood and plastic chairs. They were leaders in the postwar movement to couple basic human needs -- for example, shelter -- with comfort, beauty, and affordability. They also designed buildings, toys, books, and corporate projects (IBM's pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair, for example), and they helped the U.S. Information Service to produce films intended to influence America's image abroad. The exhibit will include more than 500 items. It will close in Washington in September and travel to museums in New York, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and abroad.


Shipping Reform

May 1: The ocean-shipping industry becomes partly deregulated today, as last year's Ocean Shipping Reform Act takes effect. The legislation, which is intended to give importers and exporters more choice and flexibility, permits many aspects of contracts between carriers and their clients to remain confidential: such details as rates, terms of service, and damages no longer need be made public. The act brings the ocean-shipping industry in line with truck, rail, and air shipping, which were deregulated in the early 1980s. It took Congress four years to pass the bill; opponents included small shipping firms, which fear that carriers may begin secretly giving volume discounts to large shippers and force smaller companies out of business.


Resting phone

May 30: Judging from past trends, fewer long-distance calls will be placed today -- the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend -- than on any other day of the year. On the corresponding Sunday of last year, for example, AT&T handled only 93 million calls -- some 15 million fewer than on a typical Sunday. The reason for the dip is thought to be the fact that on this holiday weekend, the unofficial start of summer, people spend time outside and away from their home phones. (Although mobile-phone use has proliferated, most calls made from mobile phones are local ones.) Sunday is in general the slowest day of the week for long-distance calling, much of which consists of business calls (many businesses are open for at least part of the day on Saturdays). Long-distance use will have its second lowest day on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

The Skies

Venus, which shines brilliantly in the western evening sky all month, reaches its greatest sunset altitude above the horizon for the year around May 11. 15: New Moon, which, combined with the fact that the Moon is at its monthly perigee (the position in its orbit closest to Earth), should generate the most extreme high and low tides of the year. 17: The slim crescent Moon lies below Venus, which in turn lies below the bright twin stars Castor and Pollux. 30: Full Moon, also known this month as the Milk or Planting Moon.

25 Years Ago

Octavio Paz, writing in the May, 1974, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "Technology ... has impoverished the world ... [and] become the most powerful agent of historical entropy.... It imposes uniformity without furthering unity. It levels the differences between distinctive national cultures and styles, but it fails to eradicate the rivalries and hatreds between peoples and states. After turning rivals into identical twins, it purveys the very same weapons to both....the danger of technology lies not only in the death-dealing power of many of its inventions but in the fact that it constitutes a grave threat to the very essence of the historical process. By doing away with the diversity of societies and cultures, it does away with history itself."

Illustrations by Sarah Wilkins

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; The May Almanac; Volume 283, No. 5; page 20.