Two large-scale hand-overs of territory take place this month. The last U.S. troops leave the Panama Canal Zone on December 31, ending nearly a century of American involvement. The transfer was negotiated in 1977; it will leave Panama with sole responsibility for operating the Canal, which generates some $500 million in tolls annually. It may also leave an unresolved question, concerning who will clean up the remaining unexploded ordnance from U.S. military exercises. American personnel say that some 8,000 acres may be a problem, because they are in the jungle or cannot be cleared using environmentally sound methods. Meanwhile, across the globe, Macao, which has been under Portuguese administration since the 16th century, will have reverted to China on December 20. The exchange, agreed on in 1987, ends colonial rule in East Asia. As in Hong Kong, existing legal, administrative, and economic systems will be left in place for 50 years; Macao's casinos and dog-racing tracks will operate during that time.

The Skies

Illustrations by Peter Hoey December 3: The waning crescent Moon lies just above Venus in the southeastern sky before dawn, with the bright star Spica to the planet's right. 5: This morning the Moon is just above Mercury; the planet is about as high as it ever appears in the northern temperate latitudes. 14: The Geminid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours. 22: Full Moon, also known this month as the Yule or Ashes Fire Moon. Because the Moon is at perigee -- its closest approach to Earth -- extreme high and low tides are expected. Also today, at 2:45 A.M. EST, the Winter Solstice.

Health & Safety

Illustrations by Peter Hoey December 1: By today all industrial truck and forklift operators, except those in agriculture, must have completed a safety training program. The course was mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in the hope of reducing accidents. Each year nearly 95,000 employees are injured, at least 100 fatally, in incidents involving industrial trucks andforklifts. The course consists of both classroom instruction and hands-on training; a refresher course is required at least every three years, and more often if an operator has an accident or a near miss. OSHA officials believe that the new requirement could prevent nearly 10,000 injuries a year.


Illustrations by Peter Hoey Holiday travelers should beware: more luggage carried by airlines is delayed, damaged, lost, or pilfered in December than in any other month. Some 200,000 of the more than two million bags that suffer mishaps each year do so in December, when volume is highest and weather is apt to cause delays. Airline officials attribute most baggage problems to late check-ins, tightly scheduled connecting flights, mistakes by ticket agents, and mangled or obscured tags. Help may be on the way, in the form of "smart" tags that send identifying data and receive updated information through radio waves, and that can tolerate higher levels of damage. They are being tested in Europe as part of anti-terrorist bag-matching policies; because they are expensive, widespread implementation may be slow. In the meantime, travelers wishing to recoup their losses might visit the Unclaimed Baggage Center, in Scottsboro, Alabama, where items gleaned from unidentified luggage are sold. Some things that have turned up there: a Barbie doll containing $500 in cash, a live rattlesnake, and a $250,000 guidance system for an F-16 fighter jet.

Q & A

Illustrations by Peter Hoey

The constant exhalation of breath through the nose is thought to desensitize us to foul odors in the mouth -- much as constant exposure to garbage desensitizes sanitation workers to its smell. This theory has some empirical support, in the form of a 1995 study headed by Mel Rosenberg, a professor at Tel Aviv University's School of Dental Medicine and the editor of the International Society for Breath Odor Research newsletter. Rosenberg found that most subjects were unable accurately to rate the odors from their mouths, tongues, and saliva -- but could assess the odors from saliva samples accurately when the samples were removed several minutes before evaluation. Technology may offer some hope. Several years ago the Oral Checker went on sale in Japan; it tests for various gases common in halitosis, giving ratings of "sweet," "so-so," "pretty rough," and "rancid." And Rosenberg is working on a test of his own, whereby when saliva is applied to a strip of paper, a color change indicates room for improvement; he hopes to market it under the name OK2KS.

Arts & Letters

Illustrations by Peter Hoey This New Year's Eve may be a cause of consternation, not celebration, among some VCR owners who are fond of taping shows for later viewing: the timers in some older models may have Y2K problems. A possible remedy has been suggested by sources ranging from the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion Hotline to The Old Farmer's Almanac: set the year in the machine's clock to 72. Because 1972 had the same correspondence between dates and days of the week that 2000 will have, many believe this step may fool machines into recording accurately. The Consumer Electronic Manufacturers Association says that it probably won't work, because VCRs did not exist in 1972. Still, for viewers unwilling to adjust their own timetables, it may be worth a try.

100 Years Ago

Jacob A. Riis, writing in the December, 1899, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "New York is the youngest of the world's great cities, barely yet out of its knickerbockers. It may be that the dawning century will see it as the greatest of them all. The task that is set it, the problem it has to solve and which it may not shirk, is the problem of civilization, of human progress, of a people's fitness for self-government.... We shall solve it by the world-old formula of human sympathy, of humane touch.... When we have learned to smile and weep with the poor, we shall have mastered our problem. Then the slum will have lost its grip."


The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Almanac - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 18.