The Almanac


Holiday shopping is in full swing this month -- and so is theft. In 1998 retailers lost more than $15 billion to shoplifters. Even more "inventory shrinkage" -- nearly $19 billion worth in 1998 -- is caused by employee theft, a problem exacerbated by the hiring of temporary workers for the holiday rush. To foil shoplifters, stores have begun using electronic tags that are attached during the manufacturing or packaging process, rather than at the store. The tags, which may be tiny and can be woven into apparel, are much more difficult than conventional electronic tags for shoplifters to locate and remove. To combat employee theft, many stores have turned to computerized "exception reporting," which monitors various aspects of an employee's behavior -- for example, how often a salesperson opens the cash register -- and flags anything out of the ordinary.

The Skies

December 11: Full Moon, also known this month as the Yule Moon and the Big Freezing Moon. All month long Mars and the bright white star Spica lie near each other high in the southeast before dawn. They will be at their closest on the 13th, and will be joined by the waning quarter Moon on the 20th. December 21: At 8:37 A.M. EST, the Winter Solstice. 25: A partial eclipse of the Sun occurs, visible in much of continental North America. The moment of greatest darkness will be 12:35 P.M. EST.

Health & Safety

December 2: As of today the Food and Drug Administration will require companies seeking approval of new drugs likely to be prescribed for children -- even if intended for adults -- to conduct pediatric clinical trials. Historically, most companies have tested drugs only on adults: three quarters of the drugs prescribed for children, including medications for asthma and epilepsy, have never been tested on them. The subject of pediatric studies has generated considerable controversy. Some researchers who oppose the use of placebos if an effective remedy exists are particularly concerned about their use in pediatric trials. Obtaining informed consent from children is another nettlesome issue -- those aged seven to 18 are asked to add their "assent" to their parents' consent. And the reported practice of some researchers of paying hefty sums to parents who enroll their children in trials, and offering the children themselves Toys "R" Us gift certificates, has generated concern.

Expiring Patent

No. 4,422,634. Waterless Swimming Machine. "A swimming simulator for providing a user with the exercise typically produced by swimming, comprising: support frame ... resting on a foundation and supporting the torso of the user in a horizontal position ... a pair of arm levers [with] grip handles being movable along a circular path against a first predetermined resistance; a pair of leg levers ... movable in an arc about a rear pivot point at the other end, such movement being against a second predetermined resistance; and at least one air pump [for providing] predetermined resistances."

Arts & Letters

December 2-3: More than 2,000 objects that belonged to the opera diva Maria Callas go on auction in Paris. The sale will be conducted by the French auction house Calmels Chambre Cohen and will be open to Internet bidders at After her death, in 1977, Callas's belongings were divided between two long-estranged relatives, her husband and her mother. They were later bought by two of her fans, each of whom tried sporadically to open a Callas museum. Items to be sold include Callas's photo albums and love letters; telegrams from the Pope and from her first voice teacher; a pair of Bakelite glasses, plaits of her hair, and several wigs; 14 pairs of elbow-length kid gloves (Callas was renowned for her long, slim hands); a miniature by the 18th-century painter Giandomenico Cignaroli, which Callas regarded as a sort of good-luck charm (she once delayed a performance until it could be flown in); and a mink stole given to Callas by Aristotle Onassis, before he left her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy.

Q & A

According to G. Keith Still, a scientific adviser to the London-based firm Legion Crowd Dynamics, much of the trouble lies in the geography of a typical side-walk -- a place studded with obstacles. If you're swerving to avoid

the line at the bagel stand, odds are that the person in front of you is too. Some quirks of human behavior also come into play. For example, pedestrians carrying something in one hand tend to pass with their free hand alongside the person they're passing. Most people carry things in their dominant hand, and most people are right-handed. So if you're walking to work with your briefcase, you'll probably try to pass on the right, and most likely the person in front of you will also be trying to pass someone on the right. The weather can make matters worse: on rainy or snowy days pedestrians tend to walk closer to the buildings than to the curb, condensing foot traffic and leaving less room to maneuver.

50 Years Ago

Charles W. Morton, writing in the December, 1950, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "Despite the efforts of various consumers' organizations in behalf of the buying public, none of them has issued an effective black list for the Christmas shopper.... Let us make a beginning of a list, therefore, to be headed 'Not Acceptable.' ...

Gift package of chemicals to make firewood burn in eerie colors.

Sherry decanter in the shape of a violin.

Any other kind of decanter. (It's more comfortable to know exactly what you're drinking.) ...

'Peasant ware' pottery (with authentic specks and rough spots baked in to fool the dishwasher).

Bar accessories, such as jiggers and trick corks that dole out too small a drink....

Imitation sap buckets.

Miniature imitation sap buckets.

Miniature anythings."

The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; The Almanac - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 14.