25 Books, Podcasts, Films, Articles, and Experiences That Made Us Smarter in 2021
Only two things we could expect in our second pandemic year: the unexpected, and finding a lot to expand our brains—and our hearts
This year was when things were supposed to go back to normal. We had vaccines! Schools and restaurants and movie theaters reopened! But the only thing we could expect in this second pandemic year was the unexpected. Well, that and there was still a lot of good, mind-altering, soul-expanding stuff happening in the world.
Throughout 2021, members of the Elective team shared the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that caught their attention, changed how they see the world around them, and, often, how they see themselves. Here are 25 of our favorites. And if they leave you wanting more, check out the whole collection—all 230 pieces of culture that made us smarter in 2021.
Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
My steely blue eyes get a thousand-yard stare while the whole world turns to neon when I hear the Bond theme, too, Daniel Craig.
For Our Ears Only
Diamonds are forever, and so is James Bond. From casinos royale to Russia (with love) to raking the moon and everywhere in between, the world is not enough for the incorrigible agent on her majesty’s secret service in his pursuit of Spectre, Goldfinger, Dr. No, or any of the other megalomaniac bad guys he has a license to kill. And even if he has the living daylights knocked out of him once in a while, Bond’s live and let die attitude to the job offers a quantum of solace: while everyone else might only live twice, 007 has enjoyed six (soon to be seven) lifetimes. (So many views to so many kills!) Tomorrow never dies, and neither does Bond. We love the spy who has no time to die (or at least puts death off for another day), and the sky would need to fall for that affair to end. And through all the thunderballs and golden eyes over the last 60 years and 25 films it’s tempting to think we know everything there is about this man who carries a golden gun. But the podcast Switched On Pop parachutes into our feeds with a fantastic episode all about the indelible Bond theme song, composed by John Barry, the struggle to get one written, and the truly staggering depths contained within it. “Barry said that he wanted Bond to be a mix of all kinds of different things: jazz, classics, pop,” co-host Charlie Harding says. “He wanted a Bond style. And I think we have to understand it as a mashup. Today, when we hear the James Bond theme, we think this is the sound of spy music. But like all original creations, it's a compilation of so many influences.” The episode digs deep into the track, how it created the aural identity for the series, which every subsequent composer (and theme song performer) has had to contend with, and how it has been deconstructed, flipped, inverted, and pulled like musical taffy to create new sounds while adhering to the series’ sonic template. (I’m glad I’m not a composer working on a Bond film; it sounds like trying to herd eight cats.) Switched On Pop is a fun podcast, but I loved this episode so much. It made me more excited for Daniel Craig’s last outing as 007, and it gave me a reason to go back and revisit the rest of the franchise—with new ears, at least. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Taylor Swift accepts the Teen Choice Icon Award onstage during FOX's Teen Choice Awards 2019 on August 11, 2019. (Does the Supreme Court hand out giant gavels for setting precedent?
Not Shaking It Off
Maybe Taylor Swift’s next album should be titled precedent. After listening to folklore and evermore on repeat for the last few months, I took a break to hear several Supreme Court justices cite Swift during oral arguments this week in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a case on student speech rights. The issue is whether lawsuits for nominal damages can be pursued—essentially, whether you can go to court just to make a point. That’s what Swift did in 2017 when she filed a sexual assault lawsuit against a Denver radio host for $1. She wasn’t interested in money; she wanted to send a message about assault and accountability. Four years later, the Supreme Court is weighing whether two students from Georgia Gwinnett College can seek nominal damages after they were punished for evangelizing on campus. The college has already changed its policy, but the students want to press forward to get a clear ruling about free speech on campus. That made Justice Elana Kagan think of Swift. “Nobody thinks that sexual assault is only worth a dollar,” Kagan said. “But that’s all she wanted. She wanted to prove a point.” We’ll know at the end of this court term whether those Georgia students can do the same. Inside Higher Ed has a good summary of the case, while the New York Times dug into its Swiftian connection. —Eric Johnson
Lilly Roadstones/Getty Images
Let's retire "If it bleeds, it leads" and replace it with "If it's bright, it's right." (Eh, we'll keep workshopping it...)
Up With Optimism
Optimism is the new counterculture. Given the sense of permanent crisis in the world—much of it real, but also at times overhyped—any analysis of what’s going right seems like an act of intellectual rebellion. But as Yuval Levin argues in this great piece for Commentary, “you can’t learn much if you aren’t willing to acknowledge successes alongside failures.” And in patient, clear-headed detail, Levin lays out the overlooked ways that America’s pandemic response actually met the scale of the challenge. Our stuttering regime of covid-19 testing eventually got up to speed and surpassed most other countries. Congress, an institution not typically known for swift and effective action, managed to keep the economy afloat and people from destitution during the worst disruption since the Great Depression, providing a level of targeted financial support unprecedented in American history. And most critically, decades of investment in basic science—much of it conducted in major research universities—made it possible to develop vaccines with truly astonishing speed. “The genome of the virus was first made public in China on January 11, 2020,” Levin writes. “The American pharmaceutical company Moderna, working with federal researchers from the National Institutes of Health, produced the first doses of an mRNA vaccine to protect against the virus two days later, on January 13. By late February, the NIH was launching a Phase 1 clinical study; the first study participant received a shot in his arm on March 16, 2020” (emphasis mine). I remember when most health officials were predicting a somewhat effective vaccine, maybe, within two years. Instead, we had stunningly good vaccines authorized in less than 12 months.
What I like most about Levin’s take is that he zeroes in on the way our national character shapes our successes and failures. We’re bad at collective discipline; we’re good at creative, energetic mobilization. “Americans don’t mobilize into order—we mobilize into action, and our modes of mobilized action are often very disorderly,” Levin writes. That can be frustrating when you’re trying to get compliance with public health measures that demand restraint, and we’d certainly benefit from more civic cohesion. But raw energy has benefits, too. “The legislative response to the virus was not a set of rules for Americans to follow, but a set of resources for Americans to deploy. The health-system response did not set strict criteria for triage; it built respirators by the thousands and put enormous field hospitals in parks and football stadiums. The vaccine deployment began with a futile attempt to prioritize recipients, but it ultimately succeeded as a vast, chaotic dissemination of doses to every pharmacy and supermarket in the country.” Being honest about where we’ve failed is important, but so too is recognizing where we’ve done pretty well. —Stefanie Sanford
Sims Municipal Recycling via Curbed
Trying to recycle those old bowling balls? Over the line!
As a native Western Pennsylvanian, I’m legally obligated to enjoy bowling. But that’s OK because I genuinely love it. I bowled all the time with my dad and brothers. I bowled for credit in high school. (My best game: 220.) When my wife and I started dating, our Thursdays were ‘80s bowling at Arsenal Lanes. I even had my own ball: this light blue orb inscribed with my name and with custom-drilled finger holes. Unfortunately, I got it when I was a pre-teen and I outgrew it (the holes and the lightness) fairly quickly. Not once did I ever think about where it went once it was extracted from the recesses of our basement—that is, until I read Eleanor Cummins’ fantastic piece on Curbed about all the New Yorkers who try to recycle their old bowling balls.
Sims Municipal Recycling in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is the “country’s largest recycling facility of its kind,” Curbed reports, “sorting more than 1,000 tons of New York City’s metal, glass, plastic, and paper each day on 2.4 miles of conveyor belt.” That includes “an average of three to four bowling balls a day, or roughly 1,200 per year.” If you’ve ever handled a bowling ball, that number should boggle your mind; it certainly threw mine for a 7-10 split. But even more interesting is why people think they can recycle them (most are mostly plastic) and why they ultimately end up in landfills (bowling balls are not easily stripped to their component parts). Cummins sets up a full rack of stories—about the environment, about physics, about pro bowlers, about sports culture—and nails every one. Perfect articles are rare, but this one’s a 300. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Oxford University Press
You can take a quiz to see what political party you'd align with if there were many to choose from. Or you could make the call based on the party's animal. (That mountain lion or whatever next to the donkey looks fierce. Let's go with that!)
We the Party People
As a young millennial, nothing speaks to me like a good quiz. If the quiz is also educational and policy-related, even better! So of course I eagerly clicked on Lee Drutman’s recent New York Times article, "If America had 6 parties, which would you belong to?" Like many, I have long felt that neither of the two major political parties could fully encapsulate my beliefs—a feeling magnified in recent years with growing multiplicity of opinions on contentious issues in both parties. Drutman, author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, offers a solution to the two-party system in the Times piece by outlining six new political parties along two dimensions: degrees of social and economic conservatism. The parties are the Progressive Party, New Liberal Party, American Labor Party, Patriot Party, Christian Conservative Party, and Growth and Opportunity Party. Interestingly, there is no center party in Drutman's system. His research has found there are very few voters in the middle on all issues, and oftentimes readers who consider themselves centrist are socially liberal/fiscally conservative or vice versa. In addition to the quiz placing you in a party, the article allows the reader to explore each party and learn about their demographics—for example, 43% of the Progressive Party has a college degree, 47% of the Growth and Opportunity Party is female—as well as racial and geographic breakdowns.
Drutman's party identifier quiz is not just another fun way to identify our personalities (though I'll happily tell you that I'm both an ENTJ and a Scorpio). The research behind the quiz could actually impact our form of government. Drutman goes into the details, but creating a multi-party system wouldn't require a constitutional amendment, and is actually something the House of Representatives has considered. Ultimately, by creating greater diversity in our representation, a multi-party system could increase voter turnout and, cribbing from Drutman, tap into the dormant political innovation in our government. —Hannah Van Drie
Pictorial Parade/Getty Images
U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaks at a podium at the Democratic National Convention, Miami Beach, Florida, July 1972.
Shirley for America!
Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress, and she ran a trailblazing presidential campaign in 1972 as the first Black woman to compete for a major party’s nomination. That history came up a lot this week as Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in—her purple coat was even a nod to Chisholm’s campaign colors, CNN reported—which sent me down a rabbit hole of reading Chisholm’s old speeches. (Going back to the primary sources, just as my APUSH teacher taught me.) Her most famous quote might be “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” but there’s so much more to Chisolm’s groundbreaking political career. “I have faith in the American people,” Chisholm said at the launch of her presidential campaign. “I believe that we are smart enough to correct our mistakes. I believe that we are intelligent enough to recognize the talent, energy, and dedication that all Americans, including women and minorities, have to offer. I know from my travels to the cities and the small towns of America that we have vast potential which can and must be put to constructive use in getting this great nation together.” The marvelous thing about reading history is learning that we’ve been here before. We’ve seen moments of deep division, of distrust in one another and our governing institutions. And we’ve found a way forward. “I would remind all Americans at this hour of the words of Abraham Lincoln: ‘a house divided cannot stand,’” Chisholm said. “We Americans are all fellow countrymen… I’ve always earnestly believed the great potential of America.” —Eric Johnson
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Black Lives Matter supporters and others march across the Brooklyn Bridge to honor George Floyd on the one year anniversary of his death on May 25, 2021 in New York City.
America’s Race Marathon
My friend Ted Johnson has a big idea about how to bring America together. He thinks the fight to create a more just and equal country—the fight to overcome racism and renew the promise of America, as he puts it in the subtitle of his new book—can be a unifying force in a divided country. “National solidarity is when democratic strangers come together over a cause of morality or justice in order to hold the state accountable,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It is a kind of civic friendship that requires both sacrifice and forbearance in service of a matter of principle, not just over material interests.” It’s a beautiful vision, one I’ve heard Ted talk about for years as he’s worked on this book. He’s a former Navy commander, a White House Fellow, and now a scholar at the Brennan Center for Justice. He’s one of the most brilliant people I know.
What amazes me most about Ted is his willingness to work across all kinds of ideological lines to bring people around to his optimistic view of the world. Book excerpts have run in The New York Times and the National Review, publications that reach very different audiences. Ted has spoken to the American Enterprise Institute and the Aspen Institute, engaging with friends and critics on both left and right, and traveled back to his hometown in Raleigh, North Carolina, to make the case for a better future in American race relations. “This is absolutely an aspirational book,” he told Yacha Mounk of Persuasion. "It is not so much a question of the environment, and whether the environment will permit us to have the country we want, but whether or not we have the fortitude to create and manufacture the nation we want.” Last week, I got to watch Ted make that case to a room full of friends and colleagues gathered at my apartment, the first big social event we’ve hosted in almost a year and a half. People listened intently, asked hard questions, and shared their own experiences and ideas for how to bend the moral arc of American history in the right direction. There wasn’t perfect agreement, but there was sincere listening and reflection—exactly what Ted hoped to create when he started this project years ago. He has already shaped my thinking on America's racial reckoning, and I'm awed to watch him bring so much patience and empathy to a national conversation that needs a lot more of both. —Stefanie Sanford
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Jay Gatsby (left), Daisy Buchanan, Nick Carraway, and Tom Buchanan share a moment during one of Gatsby's lavish parties in director Biz Luhrmann's equally lavish (and fittingly careless) 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
Making Gatsby Great Again
For most of my life I’ve loved The Great Gatsby—and grievously shortchanged it. Reading it as the tragedy of an all-consuming love that leads to ruin is only partly right. Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy Buchanan was just a device for F. Scott Fitzgerald to explore his real subject: the beauty and horror of the American Dream. “The tragedy is not that usual stuff about love not being enough... It’s creepier and profoundly, inexorably true to the spirit of the nation,” writes New York Times critic Wesley Morris in his preface to the Modern Library reissue of Gatsby. And that led me to Greil Marcus’s latest book, Under the Red White and Blue (which was Fitzgerald’s preferred title). “To be an American,” Marcus writes, “is to feel the promise [of the nation] as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails.” The novel, he argues, is about “the deadly dance between America’s promises and their betrayal.” He suggests that Jay Gatsby represents the conflicted nature of America: big, transcendent dreams yoked to sordid violence and greed. “What if Fitzgerald’s goal was to create... a doubled, shifting image of beauty and crime?” We saw some of that greed, those delusions—and the sordid violence—on display at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. And to complete that tableau, Marcus quotes the book’s assessment of rich, bigoted bully Tom Buchanan: “[His] transition from libertine to prig was so complete… you realize how wrong George Will was when he watched the inauguration of Donald J. Trump... and called him a Gatsby for our time. Adulterer or president, Trump was always Tom.” —Bob Roe
Universal Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images
If Dracula is a stand-in for a virus—say, covid-19—does that make Lou Costello the masks we wear? Because that could explain a lot about how some people see masks...
Looooook Into My Eyyyyeeees…. Have You Been Vaccinated?
The first time I read Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula was in high school; it was on a summer reading list and I, uh, sunk my teeth into it. I loved the structure and the tone and the overarching sense of everyday heroism in the face of unspeakable, unquantifiable dread. When I encountered the book again, in a college class about vampires (which was awesome and taught by an awesome professor, who also taught a spectacular sci-fi class; we’re still friends), I found the book more slight than I remembered. All the stuff that worked the first time was still there, it just felt less weighty than it did to high school me. I haven’t read Dracula since, but I’m itching to pick it up again after reading Dr. Maddie Stone’s piece about it—"How a Pandemic Made Dracula More Relevant Than Ever"—in her excellent newsletter The Science of Fiction. I learned so much about Stoker, his relationship to 19th century cutting edge medical breakthroughs (especially about the study of infectious diseases), and how he incorporated his day’s fascination with and paranoia about viruses and transmission into his Gothic tale of vampirism and the undead. “Dracula is so rich in references to 19th century medicine and the fast-evolving science of infectious disease that one scholar described it as ‘the most significant fictional intervention in the 19th century’s debates’ on how contagions spread,” Dr. Stone writes. “But Dracula isn’t just a window into arcane medical disputes: It’s also a primer for understanding many aspects of our modern relationship with disease, from the anti-vax movement to how pandemics stoke xenophobia and racism.” She makes a convincing argument, one that reframes a literary classic and provides a lens through which we can make better sense of our pandemic moment. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
A view of the North Carolina State Fair from the top of its Ferris wheel. It's no Coney Island, but this New Yorker is impressed!
Attending the North Carolina State Fair always makes me smarter because it reminds me just how big and strange and marvelously diverse my home state is. As people continue segregating themselves by geography—with zip codes ever more homogenized by wealth, race, education level, and much else—state fairs remain a glorious mashup of urban and rural, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, Black, White, Hispanic, Native American, and newly arrived immigrants. Everyone is united by the love of a deep-fried Oreo and a piglet race, and it makes me enormously happy to see thousands of families from all walks of life sharing moments of joy. The fair is also a genuinely educational showcase for agriculture. I love visiting the pavilion where teenage farmers show off their prize-winning goats, cows. and pigs, displayed alongside the state’s largest pumpkin and watermelon of the year. When we visited earlier this week, my kids had a blast watching a display of honeybees under a high-resolution camera; my daughter got to hang out with the firefighters running a booth on fire safety. We toured a school bus to learn about the history of hauling kids to class (including photos of horse-drawn school wagons from the 19th century), watched a skilled artisan working at a loom in the Village of Yesteryear, and climbed aboard a boat that the Wildlife Resources Commission uses to study fish populations. It felt like a half-dozen school field trips rolled into one, topped off with a rollercoaster ride. I am both smarter—and queasier—than I was yesterday. —Eric Johnson
ESO/Exeter/Kraus et al./L. Calçada
Animation based on a computer model of the inner region of GW Orionis, which shows an artist rendition of the orbits of the three stars at the system's center.
My Three Suns
As the possibility of civilian space flight becomes a reality for the super rich, I want to go on the record that I'm not interested—at least not yet. That reticence didn't stop my space-related excitement almost two years ago when I read that NASA discovered a "Tatooine-like" planet that orbits two stars. This sense of wonder skyrocketed (ahem) when I learned of an even more recent discovery. Scientists have been studying the young GW Ori system, 1,300 light years away, which is in the process of developing a Saturn or Jupiter-like planet. Scientists believe that this new gas giant will orbit not one, not two, but three different stars. If confirmed, it will become the first circumtriple planet discovery. And it could support another hypothesis: planet formation is relatively common. "What we’ve learned is any time planets can form, they do,” astronomer Sean Raymond told the New York Times. That means planets orbiting upwards of six stars could exist. While one astronomer speculates about the incredible sunsets on the planet in the GW Ori system, my thoughts immediately turn to the possibility of alien life. As we uncover the incredible magnitude and variety of planets, will we eventually learn whether we're alone or not in the galaxy? The Fermi Paradox suggests we're not, so until proven otherwise I'll keep my eyes peeled for UFOs. —Hannah Van Drie
Igor Shishov/Getty Images
To Infinity, and Bordeaux! [I prefer a good Château Picard myself... -Ed.]
Who’s the Designated Driver on the Next Falcon 9?
When I interviewed former astronaut Bernard Harris last month, he explained that blasting into space usually begins with a specialty in some other branch of science. “You need deep expertise in another field, usually something in STEM, before you join the astronaut corps,” Harris said. Because NASA conducts different kinds of experiments in space, they’ve needed botanists, marine biologists—even a veterinarian. Now they might need to add a sommelier to the list. Twelve bottles of very high-end Bordeaux recently returned to Earth after 14 months aboard the International Space Station, part of a research project by Space Cargo Unlimited and the University of Bordeaux’s “Vine & Wine” research institute. “Despite the 14-month stay on the International Space Station, the ‘space wine’ was very well evaluated sensorially,” Bordeaux professor Philippe Darriet concluded, according to the wine scribes at Decanter.com. At $6,500 a bottle (for the regular, Earthy version), it had better be.
There is, supposedly, a point to this orbital insanity. “European startup Space Cargo Unlimited is focused on turning microgravity benefits into viable commercial ventures on Earth,” reports TechCrunch. "It just announced it will be working with global vine nursery company Mercier on applying the benefits of space to create [hardier] wine grape vines.” In addition to the pricey bottles of red, they also dispatched more than 300 vine canes—young shoots for new grape vines—to the ISS to research the biological response to environmental changes. These private-sector studies are now possible because blasting things into space has gotten so much cheaper in the age of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the Boeing Starliner. “More affordable and frequent access to space has made it a much more promising commercial avenue for many companies and startups that previously wouldn’t have been able to justify the associated costs or time frames around the work,” according to TechCrunch. Still no word on when we’ll see the first orbiting wine bar. —Stefanie Sanford
Washington State Department of Agriculture/Twitter
Mystery seeds sent from another country and listed on the packaging as jewelry? Where's that MiracleGro...?!
COVID and the Bad Seeds
The Great Seed Panic will likely be a footnote to the other horrors and traumas of 2020. But it was such a weird story—a bunch of people, all over the world, get weird random deliveries of seeds originating from in China; the recipients, cooped up in the first summer of the pandemic, duly take to social media to freak out and wax conspiratorial—that it felt like blessed, made-for-the-moment relief from everything else happening in the world. But just as quickly as it sprouted, it disappeared into the thresher of the internet and we all moved on. Except for Chris Heath, who a year later decided to finally get answers. The resulting feature, published by The Atlantic, is marvelous, with more twists than a barrel of pretzels. "I decided to reimmerse myself in the giddy anxiety of last summer," Heath writes. "I planned to speak with some of those who had received the packages, dissect the hullabaloo around them, and construct the definitive account of the seeds-from-China moral panic. It seemed straightforward enough. I had no idea." Honestly, like with any good mystery, the less you know about where this goes the better. I went in cold and found myself gasping and grinning and gawking at what should be in the running for all the National Magazine Awards. But for anyone needing a little more incentive, allow me to paraphrase Stefon: this story has everything—the USDA investigations unit, extreme gardeners, surly ranchers, ecommerce scams, exotic melons… The only thing missing is MTV’s Dan Cortez. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
A green traffic light with the portrait of German pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven is pictured on January 21, 2020 in Bonn, Germany.
Deaf and Dum-Dum-Dum-Dummmmmm!
Hear ye, hear ye! Today’s riddle is a classic: How did Beethoven write all that amazing music despite being deaf? Record producer Rick Beato, the musical genius behind my favorite YouTube channel, explains in one of his hundreds of riveting videos that Ludwig van was only able to do it because he had perfect pitch: he could recognize any note, and could imagine—could hear in his mind—an exact note or series of notes. Beato also talks about the desperate gambits the composer used, including clenching a pencil in his teeth and placing it on the piano to pick up the vibrations, laying his head on the piano or even sawing off the legs of a piano and setting it on the floor, making it a sounding board. Beato, who seems to love (and know way too much about) every kind of music, helps me hear things I never would have heard on my own, and gives me fresh ears. My favorite of his many recurring features is “What Makes This Song Great?,” dissecting a track with his musician friends, multi-track soundboard, and computer. (A great introduction is his love-fest on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) From “Ode to Joy” to Cardi B’s “WAP,” Beato makes my favorite songs sing. —Bob Roe
It's like the old saying goes: If you do work and don't email/Slack/ping everyone about it and create an embarrassingly long chain of replies, did the work really happen?
The Spam is Coming From Inside the Office!
When we hear warnings about the brain-melting perils of living an obsessively online, hyper-distracted life, we’re usually talking about young people and social media. But author and computer science professor Cal Newport makes the case that white-collar professionals have succumbed to the same temptations. Instead of wasting time on Snapchat and TikTok, they’re frittering away the workday on pointless emails and Slack chats. “Whether you’re a computer programmer, marketing consultant, manager, newspaper editor, or professor, your day is now largely structured around tending your organization’s ongoing hive mind conversation,” Newport writes in his latest book, A World Without Email. “It’s this workflow that causes us to spend over a third of our working hours in our inbox, checking for new messages every six minutes.” And it’s making us unproductive and miserable, Newport argues. If we’re always distracted, we can’t possibly be doing the kind of deep thinking that modern work supposedly demands. As a person who regularly blocks off whole days of offline time for reading and writing, I find this plenty compelling. But if a whole book about email and workflow sounds, let’s say, daunting, give a listen to Newport’s interview with Ezra Klein. —Eric Johnson
Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
People get their pizza from Mr. Go Pizza vending machine, on June 7, 2021, in Rome, Italy. Mr. Go Pizza is the first automatic pizza vending machine, open 24/7, which is capable of kneading, seasoning and cooking the pizza in three minutes.
One Large Pie With Extra Snickers
If you’re going to build a pizza ATM, college campuses would seem the ideal place to put it. And sure enough, the last few years have brought a handful of pizza-dispensing robots to Ohio State, Xavier, and the University of North Florida. (College students are not known for discerning palates or traditional dining hours.) But now the pizzabots are taking on a more culturally fraught market: the heart of Rome. An Italian medical device entrepreneur built a machine that cooks fresh pizza—from kneading the dough to melting the four-cheese topping—in about three minutes. “Food journalists and bloggers have mainly turned up their noses, with one comparing the vending machine’s creation to a pizza she’d eaten in a rundown area of the Ecuadorian Amazon while on a mission with Oxfam,” reports the New York Times. But foodies aren’t the target market. The pizzabot will be available all night long, when the city’s traditional pizzerias are closed and hungry cab drivers, maintenance workers, and—yes—college students might appreciate a hot pie.
The Times also points out that Domino’s managed to build a thriving business in Italy, so perhaps the pizza snobbery doesn’t run quite as deep as Italians would like us all to believe. Neither Domino’s nor the pizza ATM are likely to earn a spot on UNESCO’s official Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as Neapolitan-style pizza did in 2017. But whenever our artificially intelligent overlords finally conquer the planet and start keeping their own lists of the Intangible Heritage of Algorithms, I imagine the first Roman pizzabot will make the cut. —Stefanie Sanford
Clark and Company/Getty Images
The only thing possibly more gross than this picture of a "Fish Finger Sandwich" is knowing that the fish sticks came off a fishbrick of frozen fish flesh.
Ocean Hot Dogs > Chicken of the Sea
What is it about fish sticks that make them so delicious? It's got to be that patent designation US2724651A. (Any good chef will tell you, you can't make an omelet without securing a U.S. patent number.) That's just one of the mind-blowing fish stick facts that left me reeling after reading Hakai Magazine's absolutely essential history of the humble frozen food. Here's another: We have fish sticks thanks to technology creating too-efficient means of fishing, which left fishers with too much fish, which meant they froze their bountiful harvests to keep them fresh(ish), which led to—I hope you're sitting down—"fishbricks." "These were packaged like blocks of ice cream, with the idea that a home cook could chop off however much fish she wanted that day," Ute Eberle writes. This might be hard to believe, but there wasn't really a market for selling blocks of fish flesh in supermarkets. But when they were cut into strips and coated in batter? Eureka! Apparently ice-cream like fishbricks don't resonate with consumers as much as foodstuff that resembles "the ocean's hot dogs." (I think I'm going to be seasick.) That phrase was coined by Paul Josephson, who teaches Russian and Soviet history at Colby College and is so immersed in the subject he calls himself "Mr. Fish Stick." And yes, he has published academically about the food. "The research for it required him to get information from seafood companies, which proved unexpectedly challenging. “In some ways, it was easier to get into Soviet archives having to do with nuclear bombs,” he recalls." Hook, line, and sinker, Hakai. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Do swear to friend the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? And do you swear to share to click on the ad next to the truth?
Will the Unfriended Please Approach the Bench
What do a bunch of law professors, a former Danish prime minister, and the retired editor of The Guardian have in common? They’re all members of the Facebook Supreme Court—officially called the Oversight Board—that will decide whether Donald Trump can log back onto the world’s largest social network. The company spent more nearly two years launching this quasi-independent review board to decide some of the hard questions that arise when you serve as “town square” for 2.6 billion humans: What qualifies as “hate speech”? When are nude pictures educational or newsworthy, and when are they just obscene? Is there ever a good time to quote Nazi propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels? These are real-world questions the board is deliberating, alongside the fraught riddle of whether a former American president can be trusted with Facebook access. (Great analysis has been published by the New York Times, Washington Post, the blog Lawfare, and New York magazine.)
I have always loved the dense case law around the First Amendment, with centuries of precedent and public argument defining what “free speech” means in a democracy. The idea that a private company—controlled by one guy, who is 36—will take on similar questions on global scale is just… well, kind of nuts. (And it’s not without controversy.) Bloomberg writer Matt Levine, who pens a brilliant daily newsletter about business and finance, put it best: “Facebook knows that it’s a government now. It’s trying to act like it.” —Eric Johnson
An American smokejumper trains in Canada, November 2009.
Firefighting’s Special Forces
When we think of firefighters, it’s often in the traditional context of firetrucks and long ladders. But that’s the wrong image when it comes to controlling forest fires. That work requires helicopters and airplanes and giant foil-like anti-fire blankets. All of that and more has been deployed to combat the KNP Complex Fire, which is currently burning its way through California, destroying 87,468 acres (as of October 13) and is only 30% contained. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks—home to massive and ancient sequoias—are in the path of the blaze, and the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman Tree (52,508 cubic feet), is at risk. The BBC produced a short video showing clips of the blaze, which includes the efforts of smokejumpers to get it under control.
Smokejumpers are like firefighters—that parachute into forest fires. There are fewer than 420 smokejumpers in the world, and I recently found myself watching videos like this one documenting the intense training they undergo in order to save our most precious natural resources. They carry 90 pounds of equipment on their backs, jump into remote areas, and create fire lines to contain fires. In an effort to protect the invaluable sequoias, they wrap them in aluminum blankets to keep embers from getting inside the trunks and even climb them and hose them down as fire approaches. I was struck by the incredible courage and determination of these smokejumpers, as well as saddened by the seeming inevitability of these fires that appear almost constantly due to drought and environmental destruction. A few weeks ago, California signed a $1.5 billion Wildfire and Forest Resilience Package to reduce wildfire risk and improve the health of forests. As our environment continues to change, proactive climate legislation—and smokejumpers—has never been more important. —Hannah Van Drie
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Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) (L) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) argue about a leaked report during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on December 16, 2020.
High Conflicts and Mis-Demeanors
Amanda Ripley is both a good friend and one of my favorite writers. High Conflict, her book about how we can break out of our repetitive and destructive flame wars and have more productive disagreements, should be required reading for anyone who works in media, public policy, or education. So I was thrilled to see that she’s taking her message to Capitol Hill, testifying earlier this summer before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. “For two hours, we engaged in what felt more like a brainstorming session than a performance,” Ripley wrote of the experience, describing how rare it is for members of Congress to talk at length across party lines. “It was strange. They lamented that there are no spaces where they can gather across the political aisle without cameras present. They never eat meals together. Ever. The overwhelming sense I got was that they were all miserable. It was not that different from talking to guerrilla fighters or gang members who are utterly exhausted by their conflict—and desperate to get out, if only they could find a path.”
Ripley argues that the path to better governance isn’t about finding perfect agreement or setting aside deeply held beliefs. It’s about avoiding high conflict, the kind of mindless feuding driven by a desire to embarrass your opponents rather than make any real progress on a cause or an issue. Preserving room for compromise means learning how to disagree in healthier ways. “Good conflict is necessary and urgent, like ‘good trouble,’ as the late Congressman John Lewis used to say,” Ripley writes. “You cultivate it with relationships and curiosity, built on shared rules of engagement.” I think the point about curiosity is key. It’s hard to hate or demonize someone if you’re sincerely interested in their worldview and their life experience. “In good conflict and good education, there’s a sense of openness and curiosity,” Ripley said in an interview for The Elective back in May. “You need healthy conflict to be challenged and get better.” Clearly her message is resonating; she also did a turn on Face the Nation with John Dickerson last Sunday. And clearly people are listening. Let’s hope they act too. —Stefanie Sanford
Steven Marcus/Online Archive of California
In 1964, officials at UC Berkley tried to cancel the Berkley Free Speech Movement by prohibiting on-campus protest and, later, arresting those who occupied administration buildings.
Free Speech (Minus the Legal Fees)
The last few years have seen plenty of handwringing about free speech on campus. Controversies over disinvited speakers, protests aimed at historic monuments and building names, and clashes about the balance between free expression and public safety have become common at American universities. This great back-and-forth between the conservative writer David French and left-leaning legal scholar Greg Lukianoff reminds us that these controversies aren’t new, and that there have been waves of protest and restrictions and legal fights about the First Amendment on campus going back decades. French and Lukianoff worked together at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, where Lukianoff is now president. A lot of the podcast features these two long-time friends reminiscing about some of the more memorable cases they litigated, mostly to limit university-imposed “speech codes” that violated the Constitutional rights of students and faculty. There’s an especially fun riff about a student environmentalist who fought a years-long court battle after he was punished for protesting a parking garage.
French and Lukianoff both oppose broad restrictions on speech, but the most interesting part of their discussion focuses less on case law and more on culture. They’re both frustrated with the way partisans and provocateurs twist the meaning of “free speech” or “cancel culture,” and they want to see universities focus on the fundamentals of teaching actual pluralism and tolerance for dissent. “This is a cultural issue, and that’s why it won’t be solved by law,” Lukianoff says. “Cultural issues are all about thumbs on the scale, all about weighing. In cultural issues, it’s always going to be a little ad hoc.” And it’s always going to rely more on changing minds than changing rules, which should be the whole point of free speech, anyway. —Eric Johnson
Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library
A family talks with a loved one, who is incarcerated, in one of the Brooklyn Public Library's TeleStory rooms.
More Than Books Behind Bars
Libraries have been more than places to borrow books and media for a while. Besides offering crucial access to the internet, homework and resume help, and job placement, libraries also allow patrons to check out cookware, clothing accessories, WiFi hotspots, and musical instruments. In so many ways, libraries are indispensable. But what I didn't appreciate until listening to the latest episode of Borrowed, the Brooklyn Public Library's excellent podcast, is how much of a lifeline libraries are to the incarcerated. I knew jails and prisons often have libraries and that programs exist to get books to prisoners. But the Brooklyn Library's TeleStory initiative—which allows families of imprisoned individuals to connect with their loved ones via video chat from branch locations—was a revelation. Families face mounting challenges when they try to remain in contact with their incarcerated loved ones: prohibitively expensive phone and video calls, onerous restrictions and physical searches at prisons, the remote locations of the facilities. Even though it has been paused due to the pandemic, a program like TeleStory busts those barriers. It's just one way the BPL helps keep families together when separated by incarceration (lots more information in the podcast)— and further proof that the public library is perhaps America's greatest invention. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
"Yeah I shocked myself. But at least I wasn't bored! Now what do you have to say... Hello? Hello?"
Would you rather: 1) Sit quietly and think, or 2) jolt yourself with electric shocks? Turns out a distressingly large percentage of people—and way more men than women—would rather zap themselves than be totally free of external stimulation. “About 10 years ago, psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard University began exploring this question by inviting volunteers to spend time in a room void of all distractions (except for an electric shock device) and to occupy themselves with their thoughts,” writes Rémy Furrer in an article for Psyche. “Their findings, published as a series of studies in 2014, were striking: 67 per cent of the men and 25 per cent of the women opted to intentionally shock themselves, rather than spend a short period of time alone with their thoughts.” It’s hard to imagine those stats have gotten any better in the smartphone-saturated years since those studies.
As a child, I spent quite a bit of time alone with my thoughts. When I wasn’t leaping off the roof onto a trampoline or getting into trouble at school, I would sit and ponder the great wide world of the Texas suburbs where I grew up. Children have plenty of new stuff to wonder about, but apparently the skill of deep thinking gets harder as an adult and you need to practice. Furrer’s research suggests that most of us do a bad job of coming up with enjoyable, substantive things to think about when we’re free of distractions, so we end up feeling angsty or discontent. “Most of us do not have an intuitive sense of how and what to focus on in order to derive the most pleasure from our thinking experience,” Furrer writes. “When conjuring topics, choose ones that are both meaningful and pleasurable (eg, social events and accomplishments).” It seems bizarre to me that humans, whose entire success as a species is based on our outsized thinking ability, would need training in how to successfully occupy our minds. But that’s the takeaway from Furrer’s work: Good thinking, like anything else in life, is a skill that takes practice. “In a world in which the external environment demands so much of our attention, I believe we could all benefit from occasionally retreating inwards to derive both meaning and pleasure from within.” Something to ponder next time your iPhone battery dies. —Stefanie Sanford
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Don't be fooled by how forced this photo with Andy Cohen, taken in 2016, looks — Dolly Parton has committed herself to literacy programs and ensuring as many books get into as many kids' hands as possible.
Reading 9 to 5, Perfect Way to Get Some Learning
My 4-year-old daughter is a big Dolly Parton fan—not for the music (at least not yet) but for the book club, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Every month, a brand new kid’s book arrives in the mailbox—free!—with my daughter’s name on it. She takes immense delight in ripping open the shrink wrap and seeing what her friend Dolly Parton has decided to send. The latest is The Ring Bearer, about a boy whose mother is getting married, prompting all kinds of anxiety about his new dad, new sister, and the risk of tripping down the aisle and losing the rings. (My daughter’s review: “When can you and Mama get married again so I can carry the rings?”) Some other recent favorites include Hair Love and Raccoon on His Own, alongside classics like The Little Engine That Could and The Snowy Day.
The genius of the Imagination Library isn’t just the book selection. It’s in the design of such a simple, effective program for promoting childhood literacy. Any kid can sign up, and the books just start showing up. No forms, no eligibility check, no money of any kind—just provide a name and an address, and beautiful children’s books with a reading guide for parents will arrive monthly in the mailbox. (Families who can afford it are encouraged to donate and support others, so you can participate and pay it forward at the same time.) Parton started the program to support early reading in Sevier County, Tennessee, the Appalachian community where she grew up. The Parton family was poor, and Dolly’s father never learned to read and write. “I just wanted to do something great for my dad and for my home county,” Parton told NPR a few years ago. “We never thought it would be this big.” The program has grown to serve more than 1.8 million children in the U.S., United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Canada. “[My dad] got to hear the kids call me 'The Book Lady,'” Parton said. “He got a big kick out of that.” —Eric Johnson
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The only thing that can make "Macbeth" more creepy than repeating a certain word? Orson Welles' lewk from his 1948 big screen adaptation. *hides*
Macbeth’s Lexis Nexus
One of the best experiences I've had living in New York City was seeing—pre-pandemic, obviously—a production of Macbeth in a shipping container during a sweltering late-summer night in 2017, then drinking whiskey around an oil drum fire with the troupe. It's a memory I return to often, especially now. (Boy was that fun.) But it popped in my mind this week after reading a story on an excellent deployment of data crunching to analyze why Macbeth is such a "creepy play," as Clive Thompson describes it in a piece for OneZero. Academics Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore, in a paper published in 2014, cracked it. And it's not just because it's soaked with the supernatural and geysers of blood. "It turns out that Macbeth's uncanny flavor springs from the unusual way that Shakespeare deploys one particular word, over and over again." What's that word? Read the story! (Hint: It's in this blurb a few times, and in this article a lot.) The story digs into Hope and Whitmore's methodology and findings, which becomes a portal into the field of digital humanities and how this often-misunderstood discipline can add to our understanding of work, like Macbeth, that we think we know inside and out. And, as Thompson reiterates, data analysis such as this is only the starting point. "It is a very fun discovery about Macbeth," he writes. "When you go back and reread the play, you now have a new type of x-ray vision, and you notice Shakespeare’s fascinating overuse of “[REDACTED]” everywhere. It’s obviously not the only reason Macbeth is an unsettling play. Like all good art, it’s super complex and can’t be reduced to any single literary effect." Counterargument: witches. —Dante A. Ciampaglia