“The next time your school is criticized for being too ‘competitive,’ ask the critics what galaxy they expect their child will live and work in,” suggest suburban educators Richard Smelter and Bradley Rasch in the Illinois School Board Journal (November-December).

A time for boring. “Most people need routines and even conformity, most of the time; and every person needs, at the least, a lot of parts of life that are not being called into question at every moment,” writes the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum in the January 3 New Republic. “In this sense, we all have to be married–to a job, a workout schedule, a daily routine of eating and washing, a breakfast cereal, a world of stable physical objects. Habit dulls perception and hobbles thought, but we need a lot of habit in order to live. Otherwise we would die from the pain of seeing.”

“Black Chicagoans are nearly five times more likely to die of asthma than whites,” according to an article in the October issue of Chest–The Cardiopulmonary and Critical Care Journal , quoted in the Chicago Reporter (December). From 1994 to 1997 asthma deaths per million were 82.5 for blacks, 25.7 for Latinos, and 17.5 for whites. No one has offered a good explanation.

Farmers are obsolete? “The farmer is an anomalous link in a food-production chain that, on both sides of him, involves some of the world’s most powerful and concentrated industries,” writes Jedediah Purdy in the liberal journal American Prospect (December 20). “It is as if auto production began with the manufacture of parts in great factories and ended with Ford and General Motors marketing cars and SUVs, but, in the middle, the parts were shipped out to several million small craftsmen who assembled them in their garages as best they could, then drove or shipped them to Detroit for painting, finishing, and quality checks.”

News you won’t hear from computer geeks. Economists Joshua Angrist, of MIT, and Victor Lavy, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, report that when the Israeli state lottery sponsored the installation of computers in many elementary and middle schools in 1994, “results for 4th graders show sharply lower math scores in the group that was awarded computers” (National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 7424, November).

The hype. Former Reagan administration official Murray Weidenbaum of the Center for the Study of American Business writes in a December policy brief, “There is no evidence of any public health threat from genetically engineered foods….Calling genetically modified foods ‘frankenfoods’…is the modern equivalent of the discredited superstitions of the Dark Ages.” The facts. Biologists Deepak Saxena, Saul Flores, and G. Stotzky write in the December 2 issue of Nature that the Bacillus thuringiensis in genetically modified Bt corn exudes its toxins into the soil, where they persist for at least 234 days. “We have no indication of how soil communities might be affected by Bt toxin in root exudates in the field….[It] might improve the control of insect pests, or it might promote the selection of toxin-resistant target insects. Receptors for the toxin are present in non-target as well as target insects, so there may be a risk that non-target insects and organisms in higher trophic levels could be affected by the toxin. Further investigations will be necessary to shed light on what might happen underground.” While we’re waiting to find out, 15 million acres of Bt corn were planted in the U.S. in 1998, about 20 percent of all corn acreage.

“The biggest ‘special interest’ of all in this [campaign-finance-reform] debate is the media themselves,” asserts Edward Crane in the “Cato Policy Report” (November/December). “While they self-righteously condemn outside money in political campaigns, it is they (along with incumbents) who would benefit most for the [proposed] restrictions. They become even more powerful gatekeepers of information going to the public.”