Good Reads: From political polarization, to caring for aging parents, to waffle tacos

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes a look at the social effects of bipartisanship, how the role of the Army could be up for a change, a cartooning caretaker's funny yet honest look at aging parents, how social media could help Boston improve itself, and the food phenomenon that is a Taco Bell breakfast.

Supporters and opponents of a bill debate outside the US Supreme Court.

Political polarization is the defining feature of early 21st-century American politics, according to a poll of 10,000 adults by the highly respected, nonpartisan Pew Research Center

Among the fascinating – and sobering – findings in the study: To Americans with strong political views, the idea of compromise means their side gets more of what it wants. Pew also found that the amount of partisan antipathy has risen with roughly 40 percent of both Republicans and Democrats viewing the other party in a very unfavorable way.    

Pew’s survey helps explain why Congress finds it so hard to pass legislation. Researchers found that the ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished sharply over the past two decades. And the trend toward political polarization affects even day-to-day aspects of life including, apparently, the selection of friends. About 6 in 10 consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.  

Portrait of the Army as a work in progress

With US troops out of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the US Army is trying to redefine its mission at a time when the Pentagon is facing major budget cuts and the Obama administration is proposing a sharp reduction in the Army’s size. 

Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks takes an in-depth look in Foreign Policy at Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno’s plan to shape the service’s future around the concept of “regionally aligned forces.”

Until now, Army units have been assigned without regard to what they knew about the region where they were going. Odierno says US forces went into Iraq “with a complete misunderstanding ... of what was going on.” The general’s idea is that in the future, Army units should get substantial specific training in language and culture tailored to the places they would ultimately be assigned.  

The concept is not an easy sell. For example, State Department diplomats think it’s their job, not the Army’s, to develop cultural and regional expertise and relationships.  

Caring for aging parents   

Those who have cared for aging parents or other relatives – or who are next in line for receiving that care – are the target audience for New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s sketchbook titled “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant.” It is a lengthy excerpt from her new book detailing in drawings and text her experience caring for aging parents.   

Ms. Chast brings to a challenging topic a wonderful blend of humor, insight, and compassion. Fair warning: Chast does not skip over some of the more difficult aspects of her parents’ experience. Yet she also offers witty panels about getting them to accept help cleaning the house, sharing financial information, and exploring assisted-living options.   

Chast captures her parents as real people, not cartoon characters, who are survivors of difficult economic times, devoted to each other, and striving for dignity in their later years. The net effect is a deeply moving tribute to much loved parents observed with a cartoonist’s perceptive eye and wry wit.  

In Boston, there’s an app for that pothole

Boston, the Monitor’s hometown, is leading the way in using technology to connect local residents with city services, writes Ben Schreckinger in Politico magazine.  

The effort is directed by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a scrappy five-person team that draws on the intellectual firepower of the city’s academic community. “Our job is to run experiments that push the envelope in terms of how services get delivered to residents,” says MONUM leader Nigel Jacob.  

The group’s first project was Citizens Connect, a smart phone application that lets users report issues such as graffiti and broken streetlamps with geo-tagged photos. It now accounts for one-fifth of all city service requests. The approach has now been adopted by 40 other Massachusetts municipalities. A more recent project is Discover BPS (for Boston Public Schools), an app that lets parents find out what schools their children are eligible to attend by plugging in their name, grade, and address.   

Designing the latest fast-food hit 

Breakfast has been the fastest growing part of the fast-food business in recent years. Bloomberg BusinessWeek throws a fascinating spotlight on the creation of new fast-food menu items for early-morning customers. The focus is on the creation of Taco Bell’s latest menu hit: the breakfast Waffle Taco, a waffle filled with scrambled eggs, and topped with bacon or sausage, cheese, and a side of sweet syrup. It obviously is not aimed at the Weight Watchers crowd. 

The Waffle Taco got its start when a company executive saw a Facebook posting about a soon-to-be devoured meal involving a waffle sandwich filled with eggs and avocados. The idea became one of the 4,000 to 4,500 new items the company tests each year. Of that number, between 300 and 500 are tested with consumers and only eight to 10 actually end up on the firm’s menu. The typical new product goes through roughly 100 iterations before a final version is determined.

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