Backbone: Infrastructure for America's Future

Table of Contents

In Essence

China is considering allowing genetically modified foods to be grown and sold. If they approve them, GM foods will most likely be here to stay, no matter how much the rest of the world may object.

If you looked at the rates of crime, welfare dependency, and drug use in the 1990s, things in America looked pretty bleak. Then, unexpectedly, the trends started moving in a positive direction. What happened?

A number of observers are looking askance at the aggressive maneuvers of corporate Russia, fueled by oil and gas revenues, steered by a semi-authoritarian government with global ambitions, and equipped with a foreign-policy instrument called Gazprom.

Nothing epitomizes the modern American office economy like the flimsy, fabric-covered partitions that enclose millions of employees throughout their working lives. Odd to think that cubicles were envisioned as a way to create flexible, open offices intended to promote communication among coworkers, flatten office hierarchies, and foster individuality.

Looking at the recent rash of official "apologies" from the Catholic Church, governments, and others for past transgressions, a humanities professor notes how history depresses, saddens, chastens, tempers, and rigorously instructs us. It’s an essential process, he says. But “no more apologies.”

Johann Sebastian Bach may be one of our most revered musical geniuses, but he is also one of the least known.

Plowing up undisturbed lands to plant biofuel crops could release far more carbon dioxide than simply burning fossil fuels.

Being smart seems to help when it comes to amassing wealth, but brains don't necessarily shield people from financial disaster.

The beleaguered newspaper industry has looked to the Web for salvation, but even though online revenue has doubled in the past four years, it can't support the huge costs of old media.

Are older people more conservative? Doesn't seem so. Americans over 60 are as likely as those under 40 to hold different views on hot-button social issues.

In Beirut, many entrepreneurs have decided that there are rich rewards in opening entertainment venues catering to Shia clientele. Even Hezbollah is getting into the act.

The near total neglect of the two million refugees that have fled Iraq since the American intervention in 2003 may have silver lining: at least they haven't wound up trapped in a UN refugee camp for years—or generations.

There's a reason why some jokes are okay and others are offensive. Figuring it out, though, isn't always so easy.

The glittering new seven-story steel and glass Newseum, built for $450 million, will impress some visitors looking to find the inside scoop on the news. But since it was built by many of the nation’s leading media organizations and dynasties, don't look for too many exposés.

Irène Némirovsky's posthumously published novel, Suite Française—based on her own experiences in France during World War II—received enormous critical acclaim, but it also brought attention to her virulently anti-Semitic writings. Oddly, Némirovsky was herself a Jew, who perished in 1942 at Auschwitz.

The next president will need to make some critical decisions about science, and many of them will have to be made quickly.

Are seniors really better shoppers? A new study confirms that they are, and their secret is relatively simple: they substitute time for money.

Buffalo is just the latest old, cold city where urban fortunes seem stuck in reverse. A Harvard economist suggests that federal dollars should not be spent on bribing people to stay in such places if they don't want to. Better to prop up struggling individuals, and let Buffalo aspire to be a smaller but more vibrant community.

In India, companies routinely assess applicants by considering the educational level of the parents, the employment history of brothers and sisters, and whether the applicant lives in the city or the country. The process often leaves many outside the meritocracy.

The war on terror isn’t America’s first battle against an amorphous Muslim “quasi-state.” Early in the country's history, it tried to quell the Barbary pirates. It eventually succeeded, but it wasn't easy.

Supreme Court appointees who come from "outside" Washington often drift Left during their term on the Court. Washington insiders—Chief Justice John Roberts is a prime example—are usually immune to ideological shifts.

America's enemies have shifted battlefields to cities, jungles, and mountains, where the U.S. military’s technologically superior machines are ineffective. As a result, U.S. infantry soldiers now suffer four of every five combat deaths.

The world’s coastal nations are scrambling to stake out territory on the last international frontier, on the floor of the Arctic Ocean. The rush to secure potentially valuable mineral and oil rights is shining light on the convoluted laws regarding sovereign territory.

A science historian dares to mount a defense of luck: "Chance disrupts tidy lives, unsettles habits—and taps unplumbed resources, both personal and social.”

It's easy to figure out that a college degree is a sound investment for an individual. Whether all those college graduates are good for the economy is a much trickier calculation.

Book Reviews

Susan Jacoby's new book on American unreason, says Wendy Kaminer, might be viewed as a kind of sequel to Richard Hofstadter's 1963 classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Matthew Battles examines Alberto Manguel's rumination about libraries, the "product of a mind made by reading."

Colin Fleming looks at historian Eric D. Weitz's book, which makes the case that Weimar Germany's fragmentation was the source of its cultural bounty.

Tim Morris reviews Kitchen Literacy, which explores what we know—and don't know—about the food we eat.

Aviya Kushner looks at an intimate portrait by Mimi Schwartz of her father's life in Benheim, Germany, during World War II, and finds it "a beautiful read by a charming writer."

Barbara Walraff says that Joshua Kendall's biography of Peter Mark Roget is "an absorbing account of a remarkable man."

David Robinson assesses Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine; its thesis is that blogs, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other recent upsurges of so-called user-generated content are culturally harmful.

Christopher Merrill appreciates the "intimate writings" of Greek diplomat George Seferis, whose Levant Journal offers "a portrait not only of critical moments in places that continue to make headlines, but also of a singularly talented writer whose grasp of contemporary issues...was informed by his historical sensibility."

Mark Reutter says books such as John Stilgoe's Train Time are "of interest because they reveal a mindset that is part of the problem that the author is trying to correct."

Sarah Courteau considers the thesis of Eric Wilson's Against Happiness, that happiness is “an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse.”

Daniel Akst looks at a paean to an underappreciated metal: corrugated iron.

Flora Lindsay-Herrera reviews Uncertain Peril, which examines the brave new world of genetically modified foods and Doomsday seed vaults.

"Like most good histories," writes reviewer Mark Jerome Walters, "Scott Weidensaul’s fascinating account of birding in America dispels many myths."


Bad schools are not going to sink the American economy. Despite what the headlines say, U.S. students fare well in international comparisons. It’s the schools serving the poor that demand our attention.

Jay Mathews

In February 2009, American television will go digital, and millions of sets will fade to fuzz. It’s but the latest episode in TV’s colorful history, as the living-room set has evolved from a clunky box to a sleek rectangle on the wall.

Stephen Bates

The Atlantic and Pacific now dominate the world’s politics and trade, but the Indian Ocean is emerging as a new locus of power that increasingly unites China, India, the Middle East, and Africa.

Martin Walker

Pouring more concrete will not by itself answer our infrastructure prayers. Look instead to the transformative power of information technology.

Joel Garreau

When our roads and bridges crumble and collapse, we have one kind of problem. When they don’t, we have another.

Alan Weisman

The United States has settled for a patchwork approach to infrastructure. To stay ahead in the global economy, it needs to build adaptable networks like the 1956 Interstate Highway System.

Bruce Seely

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