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This was a busy year for Vice President Joe Biden: He was President Obama's point man on gun control; he traveled widely, pushing for infrastructure spending; and he recently returned form a trip to Asia, where he met with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea.

In 2014, Biden may face an even busier schedule, as he stumps for Democratic Congressional candidates in advance of November's mid-term elections and tries to decide whether to make another run for president himself.

From the start of his association with Obama, Biden made clear he didn't want a ceremonial role as vice president, but wanted to serve as a key adviser, using his wide-ranging experience as a 36-year veteran of the Senate.

Ted Kaufman was Biden's chief of staff for many years, and even his temporary successor in the Senate. He says Biden's role has worked well for both the vice president and Obama.

"I think the plan that he and the president came up with originally is really playing out, and that was, when the president asked him to run, that he would be the last person talking to the president," Kaufman says. "That's worked out very well. It's worked out well for the president, it's worked out for him."

But not everything worked out for Biden or the president this year. Biden's highest profile assignment was leading the administration's effort to win new restrictions on gun purchases in the wake of last December's shootings in Newtown, Conn.

The measure failed in the Senate, but Biden vowed to press on.

More On Biden's Future

It's All Politics

Joe Biden, Congratulator In Chief

It felt like a dream.

The Marines kept flying over us all night long. Their hulking C-130 cargo planes rattled the tarp we'd jerry-rigged above our heads. NPR photographer David Gilkey and I were lying in sleeping bags next to the runway of the destroyed Tacloban airport. We'd arrived a few hours earlier in the back of one of those military aircraft. Now we were just waiting for day break.

Typhoon Haiyan had ripped the airport apart, killed the soldiers based there and left it flooded with seawater. At this point the airport was a make-shift staging area for a relief operation that hadn't yet found its stride.

"This is bizarre," was David's summation of the scene. Filipino soldiers slept in helicopters next to us. American soldiers drifted in and out of the darkness. Black and white 50-gallon drums of jet fuel were strewn across the field around our tent. Refugees huddled by the remnants of the terminal hoping to get airlifted to Manila.

Typhoon Haiyan Devastates The Philippines

What I Saw: A Photographer's Last Dispatch From The Philippines


It's not been a good year for Florida's citrus industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, for the second year running, the orange crop is expected to be almost 10 percent lower than the previous year.

The culprit is citrus greening — a disease that has devastated Florida's oranges and grapefruits and has now begun to spread in Texas and California.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, the Florida Citrus Tower was one of the Orlando area's most important tourist attractions.

"You could go up and see thousands and thousands acres of trees," says citrus grower Benny McLean. "And you could buy fresh-squeezed orange juice or you could buy a bag of navels. So it was a big deal back then."

It all ended with a series of freezes in the 1980s that devastated citrus in central Florida. In the '83 freeze, 300,000 acres of mature, fruit bearing orange and grapefruit trees died in a single night. Growers eventually recovered by moving and replanting groves further south.

Citrus greening poses a similar crisis for growers, but one for which so far, there is no solution.

"I can't imagine Florida without commercial citrus," says Harold Browning, director of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, an industry group that is focused almost entirely on one problem: defeating citrus greening.


New Bugs In Florida Stymie Researchers, Threaten Crops

As we close out 2013, we're returning to some of the year's films that were "inspired by a true story" and taking a look at the true-to-inspired ratio. Turns out, 42 — a biopic that portrays Jackie Robinson's 1947 integration of Major League Baseball — gets a lot of things right.

Arnold Rampersad, a professor of English at Stanford University who wrote a biography of Robinson, says the film really rings true.

"Fundamentally, the story is accurate, in my estimation," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Though hackers did obtain "strongly encrypted PIN data" when they got into Target's information systems, the retailer said Friday that sensitive information from customers' debit cards should not be at risk.

Target posted this explanation:

"When a guest uses a debit card in our stores and enters a PIN, the PIN is encrypted at the keypad with what is known as Triple DES. Triple DES encryption is a highly secure encryption standard used broadly throughout the U.S.

"Target does not have access to nor does it store the encryption key within our system. The PIN information is encrypted within Target's systems and can only be decrypted when it is received by our external, independent payment processor. What this means is that the 'key' necessary to decrypt that data has never existed within Target's system and could not have been taken during this incident."

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NPR's Book Concierge: Our Guide To 2013's Great Reads

A ship that has been trapped in thick Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve was nearing rescue on Friday, after a Chinese icebreaker named the Snow Dragon drew close to the icebound vessel.

The Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been on a research expedition to Antarctica, got stuck Tuesday after a blizzard's whipping winds pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place. The ship wasn't in danger of sinking, and there were ample supplies for the 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board, but the vessel couldn't move.

Maritime authorities received the ship's distress signal on Wednesday and sent three icebreakers to assist. By Friday afternoon, China's Snow Dragon had made it as far as the edge of the sea ice surrounding the ship, 12 miles away, but still faced the tough task of getting through the dense pack ice to the paralyzed vessel.

The Snow Dragon was hoping to reach the ship by Friday evening, but changing weather conditions and the thickness of the ice could slow its progress, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the rescue.

Expedition leader Chris Turney said it may take the Snow Dragon until Saturday to break through.

"We're all just on tenterhooks at the moment, waiting to find out" how long it will take, Turney said by satellite phone. "Morale is really good."

The scientific team on board the vessel — which left New Zealand on Nov. 28 — had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's century-old voyage to Antarctica when it became trapped. They plan to continue their expedition after they are freed, Turney said.

Passengers and crew have had to contend with blizzard conditions, including winds up to 40 miles per hour, but the weather had calmed considerably by Friday, Turney said.

"The blizzard we had yesterday was quite extraordinary — it's not nice when you can feel the ship shaking," he said.

Despite the interruption to the expedition, the scientists have continued their research while stuck, counting birds in the area and drilling through the ice surrounding the ship to photograph sea life.


McDonald's has decided to shut down a website aimed at providing work and life advice to its employees after it was reported that it had urged workers not to eat the very fast food they are hired to produce.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's said Thursday that information on its McResource Line site had been taken out of context thus generating "unwarranted scrutiny and inappropriate commentary," according to a McDonald's spokeswoman.

On Monday, CNBC reported that McDonald's had posted on the site an illustration of two meals — one that looked suspiciously like the company's own double cheeseburger offering, complete with soft drink and fries, that was labeled "Unhealthy choice." Next to it was another illustration showing a submarine sandwich, salad and a glass of water, labeled "Healthier choice."

The accompanying text read:

"Although not impossible it is more of a challenge to eat healthy when going to a fast food place. In general, avoiding items that are deep fried are your best bet."

McDonald's has decided to shut down a website aimed at providing work and life advice to its employees after it was reported that it had urged the company's workers not to eat the very fast food they are hired to produce.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's said Thursday that information on its McResource Line site had been taken out of context thus generating "unwarranted scrutiny and inappropriate commentary," according to a McDonald's spokeswoman.

On Monday, CNBC reported that McDonald's had posted on the site an illustration of two meals – one that looked suspiciously like the company's own double cheeseburger offering - complete with soft drink and fries – that was labeled "Unhealthy choice." Next to it was another illustration showing a submarine sandwich, salad and a glass of water, labeled "Healthier choice."

The accompanying test read:

"Although not impossible it is more of a challenge to eat healthy when going to a fast food place. In general, avoiding items that are deep fried are your best bet."

Two of Santa's biggest helpers — UPS and FedEx — are offering apologizes, calling in additional workers and renting extra trucks after packages that were supposed to be delivered in time for Christmas didn't make it to their destinations.

Neither of the delivery companies is offering numbers about just how many good little girls and boys were disappointed Wednesday morning. As a percentage of the hundreds of millions of packages handled between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, it's thought that the number not delivered on time was small.

But The Associated Press reports that "the problems appear to have affected many parts of the country." The wire service says its reporters "spoke to people in Alabama, California, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia who didn't receive presents in time for Christmas."

In a statement, UPS says "the volume of air packages in our system exceeded the capacity of our network immediately preceding Christmas." Both companies are also blaming bad weather for some of the backup, CBS News adds.

And the companies are apologizing. "We're sorry that there could be delays and we're contacting affected customers who have shipments available for pickup," Scott Fiedler, a FedEx spokesman tells the AP.

According to CBS, FedEx and UPS are "calling in extra drivers and even renting U-Haul trucks to hit the road Thursday to deliver packages. ... The companies say they expect most of the delayed packages to arrive Thursday." They didn't make deliveries on Wednesday.

Some disappointed customers are telling news outlets that their Christmas just wasn't very jolly. "My kids and the rest of my extended family have no presents," Jill Amaya of Houston told NBC News. Others have taken to Twitter to register their complaints, with language that might land them on Santa's naughty list.

Not surprisingly, there are also tweets suggesting that "maybe the people who didn't get their stuff in time from FedEx or UPS should plan better?"

Amazon.com, which had promised its Prime customers that packages would arrive on time even orders were placed as late as Sunday, is refunding shipping charges and giving $20 credits toward future purchases, the AP says.

For gun control advocates hoping to see federal gun laws tighten after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., 2013 was a disheartening year. A narrow provision to expand background checks failed in the Senate.

For gun rights activists, the death of that legislation proved once more their single-issue intensity and decades-long grassroots organizing were enough to prevail. Those are also valuable lessons for their opponents.

A 'Voice' For Lost Children

It may have been the year gun control legislation collapsed in the Senate, but Shundra Robinson is grateful for 2013. It was the year she decided to jump into gun control advocacy, which became a way to speak for the son she lost three years ago.

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A former New York governor who quit in a prostitution scandal says his marriage of more than two decades is over.

Eliot Spitzer and wife Silda Wall Spitzer made the announcement Tuesday.

They say in a statement they regret that their marital relationship has come to an end.

The Spitzers married in 1987 and have three grown children but have been living apart for months.

She supported his rise from state attorney general to governor.

She stood by his side in 2008 when he resigned after admitting he paid for sex with prostitutes.

He attempted a political comeback this year by running for New York City comptroller but lost in the Democratic primary.

The already alarming news from South Sudan grew even more worrisome Tuesday with word from the United Nations of mass graves.

In a statement, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said "we have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity State, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba," the new nation's capital.

Reuters reports that the site in Unity State contains "some 75 bodies." According to the BBC, a journalist in Juba "quoted witnesses as saying more than 200 people, mostly from the Nuer ethnic group, were shot by security forces."

NPR's Gregory Warner, who is in Juba, said Tuesday on Morning Edition that "people are starting to ask who their neighbors are" and whether they are from a tribe they can trust. There are fears, he said, that if people in the 2 1/2 year old nation "retreat into tribalism ... then this country could ignite into civil war."

Already in recent days, as we've reported, there have been hundreds or more people killed and thousands more forced to flee their homes. There's a power struggle underway between forces loyal to President Salva Kir and those who support the recently ousted vice president, Riak Machar.

An army commander who recently defected and reportedly sides with Machar, Gen. Peter Gadet, has said his forces will "march on Juba" within days, Gregory adds. Whether Gadet has the resources to do that is unknown. Gadet's forces are believed to have fired on three U.S. military aircraft making evacuation flights earlier this week.

Despite all the bad news, Gregory says there have been some positive signs in the past day as well. President Kir, he notes, has said he's willing to hold "unconditional talks" with Machar.

If you're selling food in Germany, "natural" is good. It's a place that distrusts technological manipulation of what we eat.

Witness, for example, a 500-year-old law that allows beer-makers to use only three ingredients: water, barley and hops. The law has since been loosened slightly, but many brewers continue to abide by it for marketing reasons.

This helps explain a fierce court battle now underway between Ritter Sport, one of Germany's leading chocolate makers, and an organization called Stiftung Warentest, which carries out tests of products (not just food) to see how they measure up to their marketing claims. Think of it as a German version of Consumers Union.

In late November, just before the big chocolate-buying season, Stiftung Warentest released a new report on Germany's chocolate options. In a stinging blow to Ritter Sport, the testers called Voll-Nuss, the company's top-selling nut-filled product, "deficient" — although they admitted that it did taste good.

The problem? It contained a chemical called piperonal, a vanilla-like aroma that Stiftung Warentest believes was manufactured using synthetic chemistry. In other words, unnatural.

Ritter Sport reacted like a goaded bull. The company declared that the piperonal in its chocolate has been extracted from natural sources, such as dill, violet flowers, black pepper, and vanilla. (According to European Union regulations, it is permissible to use either water or alcohol to extract "natural" flavors and aromas from herbs and other plants.) Ritter Sport then went to court, demanding that Stiftung Warentest retract its report.

The judge did, in fact, order Stiftung Warentest to stop making this claim until the case is resolved. It's still possible to order the report online, but all references to piperonal in the Ritter Sport chocolate have been blacked out, as if they were state secrets.

Stiftung Warentest admits that its tests cannot distinguish between synthetic piperonal and the same aroma extracted from herbs. It continues to insist, however, that Ritter Sport must be using the synthetic aroma because naturally obtained piperonal would be too expensive.

According to an account in Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, the judge in the case seems reluctant to rule in the case. At a recent hearing, he suggested that the two sides simply commission an independent audit to resolve the issue. The company and Stiftung Warentest refused. A decision isn't expected until early next year.

Target Corp. said Monday that the Department of Justice is investigating the credit and debit card security breach at the retailer.

The investigation comes after Target revealed last week that data connected to about 40 million credit and debit card accounts were stolen between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. Security experts say it's the second-largest theft of card accounts in U.S. history, surpassed only by a scam that began in 2005 involving retailer TJX Cos. That affected at least 45.7 million card users.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on whether it's investigating the breach at Target, the nation's second-largest discounter. But Target said that it's cooperating with the DOJ's probe.

The news came as Target also said that it is working with the U.S. Secret Service in the retailer's own investigation and that its general counsel held a conference call on Monday with state attorneys general to bring them up to date on the breach.

"Target remains committed to sharing information about the recent data breach with all who are impacted," Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Target has been trying to deal with fallout from the breach during what is typically the busiest shopping season of the year. By Monday evening, more than a dozen Target customers had filed federal lawsuits around the country, with some accusing Target of negligence in failing to protect customer data.

Target has said that it told authorities and financial institutions once it became aware of the breach on Dec. 15. The company issued an apology to customers and doubled the number of workers taking calls from customers around the clock. It also offered 10 percent off to customers who wanted to shop in its stores on Saturday and Sunday and free credit-monitoring services to those who are affected by the issue.

But there are early signs that some shoppers are scared off by the breach. Scotty Haywood, who lives in Smiths Station, Ala., said he plans to stop shopping at the store. He said his debit card number had been stolen after he used it at Target the day after Thanksgiving.

He said the card was denied when his wife tried to use it Thursday at a grocery store. He said the couple knew something was wrong because they had $2,200 in the account.

"The possible savings of a few dollars (by going to Target) are nothing compared to the money that has been stolen from us," he said.

Overall, Customer Growth Partners LLC, a retail consultancy, estimates that the number of transactions at Target fell 3 percent to 4 percent on Saturday, compared with a year ago. The Saturday before Christmas is usually one of the top busiest days of the season.

"Before this incident, Target had a chance of at least a decent Christmas. Now, it will be mediocre at best," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy.

Meanwhile, consumer perception about the Target brand has dropped steeply since the news broke Wednesday night, according to YouGov BrandIndex, which surveys 4,300 people daily. The index ranges from 100 to negative 100 and is compiled by subtracting negative customer feedback from positive customer feedback.

Before the breach, Target's index was 26, higher than the rating of 12 of its peer group of retailers that include Wal-Mart. Now, it's negative 19.

Eric Hausman, a Target spokesman, declined to comment specifically on sales or the impact of its 10 percent offer, but said that stores "were busy."

Target is based in Minneapolis and has nearly 1,800 stores in the U.S. and 124 in Canada.

Being a news consumer means you're constantly on the receiving end of bad news. War, unemployment, crime, political dysfunction — it can be enough to make you think we humans aren't doing anything right. But good news: We are. As the year draws to an end, here's a look at a few areas of real progress in the U.S. and around the world.

Air Safety

Let's start with flying. It's not a lot of fun: baggage fees, pat-downs, cramped seating, disappointing snacks.

But the odds are remarkably good you will land safely. "For a person who boarded a flight anywhere in the world earlier this year, the chance of being killed in an accident is about 1 in 15 million," says Arnie Barnett, an MIT statistics professor who studies aviation safety.

So what does that mean when we're up in the air?

"At that rate, 1 in 15 million, you could go approximately 40,000 years, taking a flight every single day, before you would, on average, succumb to a fatal crash," Barnett says.

Big onboard safety improvements like collision avoidance systems were introduced more than a generation ago. "We haven't had a midair collision in the United States involving a commercial plane in more than a quarter century, when we used to have them every two years," he says. Airline safety has been improving steadily.

There have been 256 fatalities worldwide to date this year, according to the Aviation Safety Network, compared with an average of more than 700 deaths each year over the past 10 years.

Barnett says that when crashes do occur, they're more survivable, thanks in large part to fire retardant materials. A case in point is the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco in July; there were more than 300 people onboard, and three deaths.

"The survival rate was 99 percent, even though the plane was utterly engulfed in a conflagration," Barnett says. "But the extra time it took for the conflagration to take hold allowed hundreds of people to get off the plane and to survive."

Fewer Cancer Deaths

The next area of progress is the diminishing threat from cancer. Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, says the death rate from cancer in the U.S. has declined by 20 percent.

"A person in their mid-50s ... has a chance of dying from cancer that's 20 percent lower than a person of that same age in 1990, 1991," he says.

Part of the reason for that decline is that more people — especially men — have stopped smoking, he says. A combination of screening and improvements in treatment has contributed to about a 35 percent decline in breast cancer death rates, he adds, and colorectal cancer deaths have also fallen by about 35 percent.

That's encouraging, but we shouldn't get carried away. Brawley says there's a development that could stop much of the progress.

"Increasingly, we're figuring out that a high caloric diet, lack of exercise and obesity is a huge cause of cancer and might surpass tobacco as the leading cause of cancer over the next decade," he says.

Stronger Economies In Sub-Saharan Africa

OK, we can be optimistic about cancer and big advances in flight safety. But the global economy is still a mess, right? In much of the world that's true, but not necessarily in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world's poorest regions.

"Africa is no longer a place that is purely in the future," says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group.

Growth in sub-Saharan Africa has been running at nearly 5 percent over the past several years, well above the global average, he says. Africans are moving out of extreme rural poverty and into cities, where many start businesses or find work for better wages.

"Africa is now more urbanized as a whole continent than India is as a country," he says. "Women are getting much better education; health care is improving."

And mobile commerce is making a big difference. "You've got 800 million Africans with cellphones," says Bremmer, "and they now can act as consumers because they can have bank accounts."

Inequality is growing as more wealth is amassed, he says, but overall, the economic momentum is going in the right direction.

Need some more good news? HumanProgress.org collects indicators that show that humanity is improving.


More than 240 people have left Germany to join the civil war in Syria — the largest reported number from a European country.

One was Burak Karan, a rising German-Turkish soccer player who died in northern Syria in October at age 26. Bild newspaper quoted his brother saying Karan had gone to the border region between Turkey and Syria to help distribute aid.

But Spiegel magazine reports that a video posted on YouTube on Oct. 22 by an unknown Islamist group showed Karan posing with an assault rifle. According to Spiegel, one of the video's captions says he "stormed like a lion into the area of the (infidels) ... and took pleasure in fighting them."

Officials tell NPR that many of the people going to Syria from Germany — in what is being dubbed "jihad tourism" — are German-born Muslims of foreign descent. A few are ethnic Germans who've converted to a fundamentalist version of Islam.

The officials say all of those going are radicalized over an extended period of time via the Internet or acquaintances before being recruited to fight or help the warring factions. But authorities say there is little they can do under German law to stop people from traveling to Syria.

It's especially easy for these recruits to get to Syria, says Boris Rhein, the interior minister in the German state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is located. They can fly to Turkey, take a bus to the Syrian border and then cross on foot.

Rhein says most of those going from his state are 25 or younger, including four minors. The Berliner Zeitung reported on Dec. 19 that one 16-year-old from Rhein's state — a German boy of Turkish descent — was recently killed in Syria.

The Hesse minister says especially disturbing is that many Germans are being recruited by radical Salafists on school and college campuses.

"The contact is established by handing over a Quran and then, almost like a drug dealer, they get these young people hooked," he explains. "So the schools have become a recruitment center, and this really frightens us and is a huge challenge."

He and other officials fear the German fighters could eventually pose a security threat to Europe.

Germany's Focus magazine reported this month that al-Qaida may be using the fighters' German passports to plan terrorist attacks in Europe. Also, a German security official who spoke to NPR on the condition of not being identified says there's concern about radicalized war veterans coming back to Germany with knowledge of weapons and explosives that could be used to carry out attacks there.

Rhein says it's imperative to prevent those who want to fight in Syria from leaving home in the first place. So he's proposed an early detection system that will include telephone hotlines and counseling centers.

The Hesse minister says the system — which he's trying to get other German states to adopt — will be similar to existing German programs that identify right-wing extremists. He says the idea is to create lines of communication with relatives, friends and teachers who would likely be the first to notice when an individual is becoming radicalized.

A nationwide system would also make it easier for German states to share information on radical Islamist activities with each other. That's something authorities there would welcome.

"We always have in each state different systems," says Berlin police spokesman Stefan Redlich, "different computer programs in the police [departments] and sometimes even different laws. So it's always a good idea to have one common system to look at the problem."

When I took the SATs a very long time ago, it didn't occur to us to cram for the vocabulary questions. Back then, the A in SAT still stood for "aptitude," and most people accepted the wholesome fiction that the tests were measures of raw ability that you couldn't prepare for — "like sticking a dipstick into your brain," one College Board researcher said.

It wasn't until the test-prep industry took off a few years later that people realized you could work the system, and students began boning up on the words that were likely to appear on the exam. "SAT words," people called them, with the implication that they existed only to be tested. If you wanted to use a word like "vociferous," you'd add the tag "SAT word" to signal that you weren't showing off.

Now the new College Board president, David Coleman, wants to sweep away all those writerly words like "mendacious" and "jettison" that students learn for the exam. They're to be replaced by words like "hypothesis" and "transform" — what Coleman calls "the real language of power." That's a turnabout for the College Board, from insisting that the exams were uncoachable to saying, "Well, since students are going to prep for them anyway, we'll tell them what they really need to know." But it also falls in a great American tradition of self-improvement through word power. As one 1942 vocabulary guide told its readers, "Your boss has a bigger vocabulary than you have. That's one good reason he's your boss."

That faith in vocabulary begins with the belief that every new word you learn comes tied to a new idea. But the words you study are always tied to old ones. That's what flashcards are for, to pair exotic words with familiar ones: "amicable" means friendly, "superficial" means shallow. That's all you need to know to answer those SAT sentence-completion questions. "They tried to interest her in many things but they couldn't overcome her _______." Should it be (a) apathy, (b) fervor, (c) acuity or (d) aloofness? It's "apathy," of course — what they want you to do is fill in the blank with the word that makes the resulting sentence least interesting.

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Qatar is a tiny place that insists on being heard.

The Arab nation just off the coast of Saudi Arabia has made itself a major diplomatic player, a generous donor of foreign aid, and a leader in modernizing education in the region. The ultra-modern capital Doha is full of skyscrapers, museums and history, much of it dating as far back as ... the 1990s.

Qatar is also a commercial capital that aims to become a cultural, sports and tourist center for the Gulf region despite having just 260,000 citizens.

Those citizens are outnumbered by the foreign workers by a ratio of more than five to one. The citizens and foreigners alike are governed by an absolute monarchy that was passed down earlier this year from the emir – the man responsible for Qatar's ascendancy — to his 33-year-old son.

All these head-spinning changes prompted Professor Mehran Kamrava, an American who teaches at Georgetown University's campus in Doha, to write Qatar: Small State, Big Politics.

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When you think about a scrumptious meal, airline food does not come to mind.

There are plenty of challenges to tasty airline meals, like the fact that you can't cook on an airplane, so anything you're served has probably been chilled, then reheated. And flight delays certainly don't help with the freshness factor.

But the bigger obstacles to palatable fare in the air are biological: Our senses are scrambled at high altitudes.

Lack of humidity in the pressurized cabin dries out our nasal passages, dulling our sense of smell — a key component to how we perceive flavor. Background noise — like the roar of a jet engine — can lessen our ability to perceive sweet and salty tastes, research from the U.K.'s University of Manchester has found. Separate research from Lufthansa suggests our sweet and salty sensors might be off as much as 30 percent while in flight.

So what's a traveler taking to the skies this holiday season to do?

Don't despair, says Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast, who has looked into the challenges of mile-high meals. He shares a few tips for foodie flyers with Weekend Edition Sunday Host Rachel Martin.

"First, if you're given the choice," Pashman says, "go for saucy pasta dishes over big cuts of meat — they tend to hold up better to the chilling and reheating process."

And don't be afraid to ask the flight attendant for extra peanuts or pretzels, he says – "those extra snacks can be crucial." Crushing them up over your meal can add much-needed texture, he notes. And that's important, because the same study that found noisy jet engines can dull taste buds also suggested that the clamor heightens our perception of crunch — so why not make things more interesting by upping the crackle in your meal?

Of course, airlines are well aware of the culinary challenges in the sky. At Delta, chefs are usually instructed to add more spices to counteract dulled senses, says Peter Wilander, the airline's managing director of onboard services.

The efforts to overcome airplane food's bad rep are even more intense when it comes to service for business and first-class passengers, whose meals are increasingly being designed with the aid of celebrity chefs. Qatar Airlines, for example, has enlisted the help of culinary superstars like Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of New York's acclaimed Nobu restaurant. And Qatar's master of wines, James Cluer, went so far as to climb Mount Everest to explore just how altitude affects the taste of vino.

"One of the things when you are selecting wines for service up in the sky is you want something with some richness and some power, nothing too sharp and acidic," Cluer says in a video documenting his Everest tasting. He chooses stronger wines for in-flight consumption than he might on the ground.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports, the chefs at British Airways have begun experimenting with umami — that savory fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Turns out, umami flavors keep their kick even at high altitudes, the airline's research has found. Among the first-class dining recipes tweaked with umami in mind: pork cheeks served with a sauce packed with lime and lemon grass, the paper reports.

Alas, don't count on encountering such a fancy feast if you're flying coach class. If that's where you're sitting, here's one last bit of advice: Slip on some headphones and play some of your favorite tunes while you dig into that tinfoil-covered dinner. That British study on background noise we mentioned? It also found that pleasant sounds can actually enhance how much you enjoy your food.

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