Illustrations by Mimi Weber


Don't be too quick to blame Y2K for any systems failures that may occur this month -- the culprit could be solar storms. The sun's 11-year storm cycle is due to peak early this year, probably bringing an increase in the number and intensity of solar flares -- violent bursts of energy caused by magnetic fluctuations on the surface of the sun. The likelihood of electrical blackouts, satellite and cell-phone malfunctions, and other disruptions will thereby be increased. The last time the solar cycle hit its peak, in 1989, the storms knocked out power in Ontario for nine hours, causing some $10 million worth of damage. Power companies around the world will be using a program to monitor electrical surges, in the hope of preventing outages this time around. And scientists are working on a satellite that may one day provide accurate advance notice of solar disturbances.


The implementation of new federal food-safety guidelines for meat and poultry will be completed on January 25, three years after the process began; the country's smallest meat and poultry plants (generally, those with fewer than 10 employees) must be in compliance as of today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture formulated new procedures after outbreaks of E. coli in 1992 and 1993. It adopted a system, developed by NASA for space-flight preparations and known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, under which plants analyze their operations from beginning to end to determine areas in which problems might arise. As of January of 1997 all plants were required to follow basic sanitation procedures; since then HACCP guidelines have been phased in, starting at the largest plants. Contaminated meat and poultry have caused some 5 million illnesses and 4,000 deaths annually in the United States. The cost to consumers of the new guidelines will be about one tenth of a cent per pound of food.

Arts & Letters

Two of the Smithsonian's premier museums, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art, will close for three years starting this month, as Washington's Old Patent Office Building, where they are housed, undergoes renovations. The public will still have access to much of their contents, though, because the museums will send exhibits drawn from their collections -- 16 shows in all -- to more than 100 cities in the United States, Europe, and Japan. This is thought to be the first time that a major U.S. museum has put its permanent collection on the road. The works will be in good company: at any given moment millions of dollars' worth of art is moving around the United States as a result of museum loans or traveling exhibits compiled from multiple institutions. In 1998 there were more than 600 traveling shows, an increase of nearly 30 percent since 1993. Cuts in government funding of the arts are believed to be a contributing factor: museums have turned to traveling shows as a way to increase their visibility and attendance and to attract corporate funding.

Health & Safety

January 25: Today the Department of Health and Human Services will announce its national health objectives for the coming decade. Various groups will use the objectives to shape public-awareness campaigns, special events, and publications. Areas to be targeted include racial disparities in health care, the safety of medical products, emerging infectious diseases, and mental health. Preliminary evidence suggests that 60 percent of the goals for the 1990s were partly or entirely met. Successes include increases in breast-cancer survival rates and in mammography screening, a reduction in the number of children who die in fires, and a downturn in chlamydia-infection rates. Disappointments have come in attempts to reduce the rate of hospitalization for asthmatic children, to increase participation in physical education among high school students, and to curb adolescent substance abuse.


January 1: Today California bolsters its reputation as a national leader in gun control, as three laws passed last year take effect. The laws prohibit the sale of assault weapons with military characteristics and ban the sale of ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds; limit handgun purchases to one per person per month; and prohibit minors from attending gun shows without a parent, guardian, or grandparent. 15: Louisiana's Republicans hold their caucus today, marking the earliest start ever to the presidential nominating process. 17: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year, for the first time, all 50 states will observe the holiday, which the New Hampshire legislature recognized last year. 24: The Iowa caucus takes place today.

The Skies

The evening sky is dominated all month by Orion the Hunter, the quintessential winter constellation, which is most easily spotted by picking out the belt -- a short row of three equally bright, evenly spaced stars. January 3: The waning Moon lies near Venus in the southeast at dawn. 20: Full Moon, also known this month as the Winter or Wolf Moon. The first total lunar eclipse to be visible in North America since 1996 occurs tonight; it reaches totality just after 11:00 P.M. EST.

100 Years Ago

John Jay Chapman, writing in the January, 1900, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "Our system of party government has been developed with this end in view: to keep the control in the hands of professionals by multiplying technicalities and increasing the complexity of the rules of the game. There exists, consequently, an unformulated impression that the corruption of politics is something by itself. Yet there probably never was a civilization where the mesh of powers and interests was so close. It is like the interlocking of roots in a swamp. Such density and cohesion were never seen in any epoch, such a mat and tangle of personalities where every man is tied up with the fibres of every other. If you take an axe or a saw, and cut a clean piece out of it anywhere, you will maim every member of society. How idle, then, even to think of politics as a subject by itself, or of the corruptions of the times as localized!"

Illustrations by Mimi Weber.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; The Almanac - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 20.

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