Good Reads: From Google’s secret lab, to Japan’s economy, to the end of alimony

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes Google's lab, a reporter's tale of kidnapping, Japan's plan for revitalization, an undercover meat inspector, and a challenge to alimony.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Google cofounder Sergey Brin gestures after riding in a driverless car.

Google's secret lab

Google X, the search firm’s secretive research lab, is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – a workshop that needs to be protected from critical eyes – or the technology equivalent of “taking moonshots.” So says Astro Teller, the lab’s director, in the May 22 cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek.

“The world is not limited by IQ. We are all limited by bravery and creativity,” Mr. Teller says. Getting around those limits is made a bit easier by the fact that Google had an R&D budget of $6.8 billion in 2012.

So far Google X has produced a driverless Lexus, capable of cruising unaided on Silicon Valley’s crowded 101 freeway. Another product: Internet-connected eyeglasses dubbed Google Glass. Future projects, Businessweek says, include an airborne turbine that sends electrical power down to a base station and a project to bring Internet access to undeveloped parts of the world. “We are serious ... about making the world a better place,” Teller says. 

On being kidnapped in Syria

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel recounts the harrowing story of being kidnapped with five colleagues while covering the conflict in Syria between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in April’s Vanity Fair.

Shortly after Mr. Engel and his crew crossed into Syria from Turkey, they were captured by 15 heavily armed men who loaded them into a container truck where they were bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Engel says his captors were from “the most ruthless and lethal of Assad’s militias, the shabiha.”

For the next five days, the NBC team was moved constantly, threatened with death, and subjected to psychological torture. On the fifth night, the vehicle in which they were being moved ran into a checkpoint set up by rebels from a Sunni religious group that had been searching for them. In the ensuing gun battle, the journalists escaped.

This riveting tale is a reminder of the risks foreign correspondents take. “Kidnapping is always a threat in this life,” Engel says. 

Revitalizing Japan’s economy

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flies, Superman-like, above Tokyo’s skyline on the cover of the May 18-24 issue of The Economist as the magazine probes the action-packed first months of Mr. Abe’s return to an office he left in 2007.

Since being elected in December, Abe announced a three-pronged strategy to kick-start an economy that spent two decades in the doldrums. He rolled out plans for a simulative government spending program worth the equivalent of about $100 billion, installed a more aggressive head of the nation’s central bank, and announced he wanted to have Japan join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move that would require major changes to some of Japan’s most protected industries. The magazine applauds Abe’s activism, which appears aimed, in part, at confronting China’s rising influence. But it notes the danger that “he takes too hard a line, confusing national pride with a destructive and backward-looking nationalism.” 

Life as a federal meat inspector

Ted Conover, a professor from New York University, got himself hired as a federal meat inspector and reports on the grisly but illuminating experience in the May issue of Harper’s. It is an important piece of journalism, both for what it reveals about the meat industry and because it is an increasingly rare example of in-depth reporting that took years to arrange and months to conduct. Given the subject matter, it is probably best not to read this article before heading out to a summer barbecue.

Mr. Conover’s kind of immersion reporting is becoming increasingly difficult. The agribusiness industry is fighting undercover reporting and has convinced six states to pass so called ag-gag laws that prohibit unauthorized video recording or taking photographs inside a production facility. Conover, an avowed meat eater, seeks to offer a balanced report and ends the piece talking about his visit to a steak restaurant with a fellow meat plant inspector.  

Second wives take on alimony

The practice of paying permanent alimony is under attack across America, Time magazine reports, calling the trend “the biggest change to the way Americans divorce since the 1970’s” when no-fault marriage dissolution become common.

The fight appears to be between two groups of women. Most of the estimated 420,000 people receiving alimony are stay-at-home moms. The charge against alimony is being led by what Time calls “the Second Wives Club.” That term refers to women who usually work outside the home and are tired of seeing their spouse hand over a big chunk of his income to a first wife. Massachusetts has abolished lifetime alimony, and legislation is in the works in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Colorado, among other places. 

Critics of alimony say fewer marriages last forever and that women should plan accordingly. They also note that the cost of permanent alimony has gone up because people live longer. Supporters say abolishing alimony is, in effect, telling a couple that neither of them can stay at home and raise their child without risking dire economic circumstances.

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