25 Books, Podcasts, Films, Articles, and Experiences That Made Us Smarter in 2022
Only two things we could expect over the last 12 months: the unexpected, and finding a lot to expand how we see the world
How was your 2022? Good? We hope it was good—or, at least, better than 2021. It was another busy year as the nation and world dug out from the pandemic, worked out what “normal” means now, and pushed ever forward. There were lots of stops along the way, and, for us at The Elective, that meant encountering a lot of the good, mind-altering, soul-expanding stuff happening in the world.
There will be lots of annual debriefs, but the only one that matters—to us, anyway—is our now-annual round-up of things that made us smarter over the previous 12 months. Throughout 2022, 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, in chronological order. And if they leave you wanting more, check out the whole collection—all 200 pieces of culture that made us smarter in 2022 (plus 230 others from 2021).
For raw clickbait, it’s hard to top “Love Triangle Challenges Reign of Japan’s Monkey Queen.” Despite the promise of simian tabloid drama, the New York Times story about a female macaque alpha named Yakei delivers a great lesson in gender dynamics, the joys and confusions of biology fieldwork, and the enduring challenge of being a #girlboss in a man-monkey world. “Although Yakei seems to be leaning into her role, she is likely to face challenges,” reports Annie Roth. “The reign of an alpha can last from a few months to over a decade. But observers of the troop say that mating season could change things for Yakei.” In the meantime, she’s walking with her tail up and violently shaking tree branches, which are telltale signs of domination in the macaque world, where females rarely ascend to the top of the tribe. To confirm the rise of a snow-monkey matriarch, researchers used something called the “peanut test,” where they distribute nuts—a sought-after delicacy, I assume—to see who gets the privilege of dining first. (If we ever get back to in-person meetings, I’m going to pay closer attention to who grabs the first pastry in the conference room.) “If Yakei’s rule continues, scientists like [Yu] Kaigaishi will have a unique opportunity to study how Japanese macaques fare in a society led by a female,” Roth writes. “‘Japanese macaque society is so dramatic and unpredictable,’[Kaigashi] said, ‘which is why many people, both researchers and nonresearchers, love to observe them.’”
A few years ago, Orion magazine published an essay about the wolves of Isle Royale and the way their pack dynamics confounded the expectations of biologists who observed the island for decades. Expecting to find clear and stable patterns in the population—wolf numbers moving up and down in concert with moose populations and other predictable variables—what they got instead was a four-legged Games of Thrones driven by the wolves’ individual personalities and social dynamics. “The Isle Royale study has the same appeal as a Jack London novel—harsh beauty, high drama, and, importantly, an explanation for the violence of the natural world,” writes Kim Todd. She quotes the lead scientist on the long-running wolf study, John Vucitech. “‘What if nature is a little more like human history?’” he asks “Isle Royale now ‘allows us to understand the stories of individual wolves…. This is Shakespeare in the nonhuman world.” I love the idea that what we’re seeing play out in Japanese snow monkeys or Canadian canids isn’t just some robotic law of the natural world, but an epic without end. Long live Yakei, the snow monkey queen! —Stefanie Sanford
I consume a lot of podcasts—or, maybe more accurately, I download a lot of podcasts—and with a finite amount of time in the day there’s a premium on how I spend my listening hours. One 45-50-minute episode is an investment; a miniseries of them is a relationship. I don’t make those kinds of commitments lightly, but when I hit on a well-told audio story, I go all-in. At the end of the year, I binged “The Devil’s Candy,” TCM’s The Plot Thickens seven-episode season on the making of Brian De Palma’s fiasco adaption of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. The podcast is gossipy and tawdry and insane and I loved every minute. But another series, also released in 2021, left a deeper, more indelible impression: Radiolab’s five-episode “Mixtape,” a wholly unexpected and affecting history of the cassette. Hosted by Simon Adler, the mini-series goes in all sorts of directions, from the impact of dakou tapes, record label cut-outs that made their way into China in the 1980s and 1990s, to the role the cassette played in inventing the internet to how the tape sits at the center of the Bing Crobsy-Nazi Germany Venn diagram (not a typo).
Mind expanding episodes all. But two were particularly moving. “Help?” shares how the tape allowed the Lost Boys of Sudan to preserve their heritage and culture as they were, first, ripped from their homeland and then later resettled from refugee camps. The episode’s second half is an extremely personal exploration of the power of the mixtape. But even more affecting is “The Wandering Soul,” about the U.S. military drafting Madison Avenue during the Vietnam War to use tape technology for psychological warfare against the North Vietnamese. Listening to the audio of the “wandering soul” tape, developed to prey on cultural and religious beliefs to convince soldiers to surrender and blasted into the jungle and into small villages at night, is haunting and discomforting to this Western listener; I can hardly imagine what it felt like for people hearing it directly. (Though we get a sense, thanks to interviews with both American and Vietnamese veterans. “I don’t like it,” one Vietnamese infantry sergeant working with the American military said. “It hits my soul.”) Adler also talks with Erik B. Villard, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C., who not only provides valuable insight and context but also shares pieces of audio from the center’s Vietnam Interview Tape Collection, which is astounding. The episode is as close to a perfect podcast as I’ve encountered, and what I learned—and felt—listening to it will stay with me for the duration. All of “Mixtape” is worth your time, but if you can only listen to one episode make it “The Wandering Soul.” —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Best. Blurb. Ever.
In the war for our attention, careful deliberation doesn’t stand a chance. That’s why each day’s news seems to bring a fresh round of doomsaying and shrill panic, with the apocalypse now table stakes in our political discourse. “It’s not especially good for the country's civic health (or the psychological wellbeing of individual Americans) to have alarm bells blaring at full volume all the time from every conceivable direction,” writes The Week’s Damon Linker in a measured meditation on the hyperbole habit that is literally the worst thing ever to happen to democracy. “Yet that's increasingly the way politics plays out in our time, at once exhausting, numbing, and radicalizing us.” Every election becomes the most important contest of our lifetimes; every policy decision will be either the wreck or salvation of America. In the same way that all of our action movies are now about the destruction of the planet (or the whole universe), we have decided that every political discussion needs to be enhanced by the Inception bwwwwaaaam of doom.
Incessant alarmism has real costs, according to Linker. “It's no small thing that a significant portion of the electorate resides inside a mental universe of nonstop panic and alarm,” he writes. “Even if it's disconnected from the reality of life in the country, such funhouse-mirror thinking can easily spill over into the real world, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than an accurate portrait of the present.” It also invites a kind of learned apathy in the rest of us, a sense that civic participation isn’t worth the cost of joining a doom cult. “You need to calm down,” said a famous philosopher of public discourse named Taylor Swift. “You’re being too loud.” Pundits, politicians, and news algorithms, take heed. —Stefanie Sanford
I really wish Getty would stop mining all the data from the smart devices in my house to create stock images of "parents trying to work from home."
There has been an enormous amount of commentary about parenthood during the pandemic, much of it falling into the category I think of as “despairing howl.” Parenting has reached so many tipping points/crises/burnouts that I’ve started dreading any headline that mentions kids and careers, despite having both kids and careers as the predominant interests in my own life. But this piece from the New York Times Magazine broke through the clutter by taking a different approach: blunt, almost charming photos of what it looks like when you’re trying to be a professional grownup with a tiny human in your lap. My personal favorite is the young lady trying to eat a fistful of her mom's hair in the middle of a Zoom call.
These are not happy images, in the sense that the parents are trying to do something kind of sad and impossible: ignore an attention-seeking little person so that they can focus on a work meeting happening on a laptop screen. Nothing about that is joyful. What I like about the photos, though, is that they capture the elemental flip side of all the frustration and scorching anger you read in so much parenting commentary right now. They remind you that there are kids—adorable, needy, indifferent-to-your-professional-status children—making their way through this strange, suspended reality, too. For all the moments I’ve wanted to tear my hair out over the past two years, there are so many more when my daughter has started the day with a ninja sword fight in her pajamas, my son has tried to feed me bites of his sprinkle-covered yogurt, and both kids have piled onto the sofa at 5:50 a.m. to knock my laptop out of the way and insist that I read a Paw Patrol book for the 17th time in two days. I am tired, not an especially good employee, and very often pining for some quiet hours in a real office. But I have not lacked for human contact—so much human contact!—or reminders that the world is a lot bigger than a screen. —Eric Johnson
Our COBOLt Environment
The only time we seem to think very much about infrastructure is when it fails. That could be a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh or a massive breach of sensitive digital data. The roads, bridges, structures, and planning of our built and digital environments only seem interesting when they’re going up or coming down. But it's in infrastructure's middle act, when it becomes an invisible part of our everyday experience, where really interesting stories live—especially if it’s old construction outperforming some sexy new project that’s suddenly imperiled. Slate’s technology podcast, What Next: TBD, found one such example in COBOL. An acronym for common business oriented language, it’s a coding language more than six decades old (and written by a team led by Grace Hopper, one of the most important figures in computer science history) on which vital programs run by banks, insurance companies, and retailers are built. “About 80% of every time you do an in-person transaction at a bank, it’s using COBOL. Like 95% of the time that you swipe a bank card, you’re using COBOL,” journalist Clive Thompson says on the podcast. “The Bank of New York Mellon did a study and realized they had over 100,000 individual COBOL programs, running about 350 million lines of COBOL. That’s just one bank.” Crazy! COBOL is truly the concrete of our digital lives. And it has proved exceptionally resilient, which is why institutions have stuck with them after decades of use.
But like actual concrete, COBOL develops cracks and fissures and weak spots and requires maintenance. (Perhaps the most high-profile example was the Y2K bug that drove so many people to millennial paranoia in the waning days of the 1990s.) Thing is, COBOL is edging close to being a dead language as more programming is done for apps and sites with shorter lifespans using things like Python and Java. (Bank software written with COBOL has been in use for 30, 40 years; apps have an average half life of six months.) And with the move away from COBOL comes a dwindling number of people who can work with it. “The uncomfortable truth here is that the code is probably going to outlive its coders,” host Lizzie O’Leary says, “which means it will also outlive the collective knowledge of how to fix things when they inevitably go wrong.” The episode is only 20 minutes, but it packs a lot into what’s an eye-opening journey. It will totally change how you see both the physical and digital worlds—and maybe get you thinking about learning COBOL. (Or is that just me?) —Dante A. Ciampaglia
The Book of Jobs
I don't know anyone—or any organization—untouched by the Great Resignation. When I first heard the term, it wasn't surprising to me. After two years of pandemic-induced stress, why not look for a higher-paying job? Or a job with less hours? Or even take time off to discover self-fulfillment? It seemed like natural responses to our chaotic world, but I was still taken aback by the number of people who heralded the moment as the end of ambition or work ethic. Carolyn Chen, author of Work, Pray, Code, also disagrees with these takes and argues the Great Resignation won't change our country's collective worship of work. "At a time when religious-affiliation rates are at the lowest they’ve been in the past 73 years,” Chen writes, “we worship work—meaning we sacrifice for and surrender to it—because it gives us identity, belonging, and meaning, not to mention that it puts food on our tables."
Chen, an associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and a co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, interviewed more than 100 tech-industry professionals who equate their work directly and indirectly to religion. Some go to work to be nourished or because it's their calling; one interviewee explicitly stated that as he left his childhood religion behind his company became his new faith community. I was immediately skeptical of Chen's argument—a subset of 100 tech workers does not seem to accurately represent America. She addresses this point head on. According to a recent McKinsey survey, 70% of American workers defined their sense of worth by their job. And Chen believes that this is the tip of the iceberg. The sense of connection Silicon Valley seeks to foster in its employees will become a template for companies across the country who seek to retain employees. Again, skeptical. I strive to separate my sense of self from my work—my friends, hobbies, and faith are where I find my purpose. And, again, Chen anticipated the retort. She believes that individual actions, from hobbies to sabbaticals to securing a more meaningful job, all leave the theocracy of work intact. In order to change the system, she argues, we must devote our time, energy, and sacrifices to communities beyond the 9-to-5. Her challenge to the reader struck me: In this period of transition, we all must choose what institutions to make sacred in our own lives. It’s something we all should reflect on, regardless of our house of worship. —Hannah Van Drie
If you don't believe the research on coffee and caffeine, surely you can trust the recommendation of Very Special Agent Dale Cooper.
The Best Part of Waking Up. And Staying Up. And Working. And Creating.
Back in 2011, YouTuber CGP Grey published one of my all-time favorite history/industry explainer videos, “Coffee: The Greatest Addiction Ever.” The core of his argument revolves around the productivity-increasing effects of coffee bean caffeine. “Caffeine is the world’s most-used psychoactive drug, and with good reason: It’s pure awesome,” he says. “It increases concentration, decreases fatigue, and gives you better memory. And this isn’t just a placebo. These are real effects replicable in a laboratory. … [And] for normal healthy humans, there are no medical concerns. Coffee and the caffeine within it may even have medical benefits, such as protection from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Parkinson’s.” Lest you think this is all hyperbole, Grey hits you with some history: “You know what else you can thank caffeine for? A little thing called the Enlightenment. In the 1600s, people drank more beer and gin than water. But with the introduction of coffee and tea, people switched from a depressant to a stimulant. It’s not surprising then that this time was an intellectual boon compared to earlier centuries. Ben Franklin and Edward Lloyd loved their coffee for the same reason that modern workers and students do. It’s invaluable for staying awake and concentrating when you need to finish a TPS report or get through that boring physics class.”
But this isn’t all just the stuff of YouTube. Jeff Haden, in a recent Inc. magazine article, put some more weight behind the benefits of caffeine—particularly when it comes to problem solving. Haden cites a 2020 study published in Consciousness and Cognition, ”Percolating ideas: The effects of caffeine on creative thinking and problem solving,” which found “significantly enhanced problem-solving abilities” from participants who consumed a 12-ounce cup of coffee (200 mg of caffeine) while the “caffeine had no significant effects on creative generation or working memory.” In Haden’s “non-researcher speak, a cup of coffee won’t necessarily make you more creative. But it can help you solve problems, even if you’re in a bad mood.” This is on top of studies presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 71st Annual Scientific Session that found two to three cups of daily coffee can lower risk of heart disease and help with a longer life. With results like that, I’m down for waking up with a few cups of joe for years to come. —Christian Niedan
Constant, Turbulent Edits
The Great Gatsby is in my desert island library—not only do I love reading it, but its depths, revealing new facets and depths with each passing read and every passing year, is matched only by its capacity for interpretation. (It’s something we’ve touched on in this space before.) And since the book entered the public domain in 2021, there has been a lot of interpretation: at least 34 new editions, from standard texts to graphic novels, have been published in just the last year. “Three or four are responsibly done, but the others are simply efforts, often haphazard, to capture a small slice of the enormous market for the book,” says James L. W. West III. “The problem seems to be that everyone wants to “improve” The Great Gatsby, to make a few revisions here and there, common-sense revisions that “Fitzgerald surely would have wanted.” West edited one of those new Gatsbys, published by the esteemable Library of America, and talked to the publisher about the process. He has devoted his life to Gatsby (he’s studied it for more than 50 years) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which makes him imminently qualified for the task. But West is also able to speak about what it’s like to edit Fitzgerald and the author’s masterpiece with the benefit of archival research, deep engagement, and, frankly, a century of distance. It’s work I hadn’t ever thought about—awful, considering I’m an editor—but I loved the LoA conversation with West about the effort. It’s definitely a nerd-read for anyone obsessed with Gatsby and/or edits for a living, but the whole conversation is worth your time. It offers a lot of insight into what we’re reading, how it’s not always what we think, and how a work entering the public domain (unquestionably a good thing) can have lots of downstream consequences. “In these recent editions, errors and other variants that have not appeared in an edition of the book for decades have risen from the grave and made their way into the new texts,” West says. “It’s as if these editions, the old ones and the new ones, have been cross-pollinating in the night. One example: 17 of the 34 new editions omit the dedication to Zelda Sayre, Fitzgerald’s wife and muse. That’s unforgivable.” Indeed it is. Fortunately West is doing yeoman’s work—a literary TJ Eckleburg ensuring a Gatsby faithful to Fitzgerald is on our shelves. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Shall I Compare Thee to a Covid’s Day?
Poetry has long been the medium of choice to share thoughts and feelings that are hard to express any other way. For a subset of Chinese students, who face all kinds of state-imposed limits on what they can express online and in class, the freedom of verse proved especially alluring. “A student poetry competition in China has become an unexpected outlet for public frustration over social issues that have roiled the country in the past few months,” reports Lily Kuo in The Washington Post. “Poems submitted to the International Competition in Short Chinese Poems for University Students, held for the fifth year by Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, explore topics including the severe lockdown measures being imposed across the country, gender, environmental issues, poverty, freedom of speech, and the war in Ukraine.” As some of the more politically charged poems attracted attention and support online, government censors moved to block access to them.
It’s a reminder that for all the frustration in the United States about social media’s disruptive role in politics and public life, trying to curtail discussion of controversial topics comes with its own costs. China’s censors have been working overtime to stifle videos and Weibo posts about covid lockdowns and economic worries, concerned about any large-scale political discontent ahead of this year’s Communist Party Congress. It’s unlikely the student poets considered that context when penning their missives, but a lot of readers certainly are. As the Poetry Foundation points out in the introduction to its collection of dissident verse, “Poetry is commanding enough to gather crowds in a city square and compact enough to demand attention on social media. Speaking truth to power remains a crucial role of the poet in the face of political and media rhetoric designed to obscure, manipulate, or worse.” —Eric Johnson
Michele McNeil (with a Getty assist)
At the start of Teacher Appreciation Week, my son’s elementary school sent home a schedule of activities to honor its teachers. Write a thank you note. Bring in your teacher’s favorite treat. Draw or bring her a flower. And so on and so forth. But the list made me wonder: What do teachers really want as a token of our appreciation? It’s a question that’s bigger than just this week. How to thank teachers is top of mind as I continue to see news reports, as we emerge from the pandemic, about teacher burnout, which may be contributing to an already-looming teacher shortage. To be sure, we’ve been hearing about a teacher shortage for a long time, and the problem is different by state, subject, even grade level. One of the smartest reports I’ve seen in awhile on how states can combat the teacher shortage, released this week by the Southern Regional Education Board, looks at this issue from a regional perspective. The SREB region of 16 states saw an average turnover of 8% for several years before the covid-19 pandemic. But by 2020, some states reported average rates as high as 19%. And in some of those 16 states, the share of uncertified and inexperienced teachers (those with two years or less of teaching experience) reached nearly 30%. Solving the shortage is hard, and will take a lot of work—and a lot of time. The SREB report lays out a blueprint that calls for a renovation of policies and practices focused on four areas: pathways and preparation, professional support, licensure, and compensation.
But what’s the average parent or student to do? One suggestion comes up over and over again when you review the Education Week archives: all it takes is a personal note to show appreciation to teachers. When I shared that with my fourth grader, he sat down and wrote his teacher this note to mark teacher appreciation week: “Thank you for being my teacher. I like it when you pass out candy. I like doing decimals because you make it fun. Your the best.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. —Michele McNeil
Art of the Dress
The Met Gala, a fundraising event held to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, is held annually on the first Monday of May. It’s widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious events, and a $35,000 ticket to the event is highly sought after. Chaired by Vogue’s Anna Wintour since 1995, the event is attended by celebrities, politicians, and artists of all varieties. Each gala celebrates the theme of that year’s Costume Institute exhibition, and guests are encouraged to match their attire to the theme. The themes naturally create viral sartorial visuals—as well their share of controversy. Does anyone remember Rihanna dressed as a pope in 2018 (theme: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”), Katy Perry dressed as a hamburger in 2019 (theme: “Camp: Notes on Fashion), or Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress in 2021 (theme: “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion)? There was also the infamous, less sartorially-minded 2014 elevator fight between Jay-Z and Solange. This year’s Met Gala—theme: gilded glamor—had its share of head-turning looks and viral moments (like Blake Lively doing a costume change on the red carpet), and the accompanying Costume Institute show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” explores fashion in the United States from the 18th century to the present. The exhibit, which runs through September 5, features exquisite pieces from fashion designers—including indigenous and historically underrepresented artists—artfully arranged by famous movie directors. If fashion is a form of art that allows for another medium of expression, then the Met Gala—and the exhibit it’s connected with—is more than a superfluous affair. It's an opportunity for artistic and educational exploration. —Michelle Cruz Arnold
Election is one of those unnervingly brilliant books that somehow distills all of life’s big social and political questions into a semester’s worth of high school life. Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel (adapted by Alexander Payne into a brilliant film in 1999) takes a darkly hilarious blowtorch to our collective ambivalence about merit, ambition, popularity, maturity, social class, and a thousand other things that transparently obsess high schoolers—and even more transparently obsess adults. Anti-heroine Tracy Flick has absolutely earned her status as a cultural reference point for Gen-Xers and my own, elder millennial cohort. Now there’s a sequel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, and I am psyched to read it sometime this summer. In the meantime, Molly Young’s fantastic review in the New York Times has already made me smarter.
One of the central tensions of Election is that, on paper, in all the ways you can measure, Tracy deserves to advance and achieve her goals. But somehow the rawness of her ambition, the straightforward way she ticks the right boxes, alienates her peers and mentors. Young nails the paradox in her review. "Advancement in most white-collar jobs is less about actual competence than about convincing people in power that you’re competent, even if you’re not,” Young writes. “That, and possessing a quality related to likability but not identical to it—the quality of being a person whom other people want to see succeed.” I had never thought about that distinction between actual appeal and the not-quite-the-same ability to win the support of powerful people. But that’s what Election and its sequel are all about. “Do people (mostly men, but some women) hate [Tracy] because of … misogyny?,” Young asks. “Or is it because they can’t stop themselves from punishing a person who insists, absurdly, on believing that life should be fair? Or is it because Tracy, for all her political ambitions, still fails to grasp the most important political skill of all, which is the gift of making other people feel good about themselves?” Great question. I’m excited Perrotta is taking another swing at it. —Eric Johnson
Maybe This Is Fine?
I don't speak German, but this week I learned a new German concept that really struck me: weltschmerz, or world-sadness. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic uses this word to put new words to a concept I've been thinking about for some time. He coined the term mediaschmerz, or sadness about the news cycle and news media, which he described as distinct from our own feelings about everyday life. His article is inspired by the new Federal Reserve report on economic well being of American households. The report finds that self-reported financial well being increased to the highest percentage in the report's nine-year history. But while most Americans felt that they were "doing at least okay" in their personal finances, our perceptions of the well being of our local and national economies plummeted. This finding wasn't particularly surprising to me, as I've seen many examples of data that show large gaps between people's perceptions of their own satisfaction, happiness, and school quality and their perceptions of how the larger world is doing (which is typically much worse). The Federal Reserve report is especially interesting, though, because in 2021 the U.S. economy measurably improved—even as our perceptions about it dimmed.
Thompson explores possible reasons for this discrepancy. He mentions partisanship and resistance to change, as well as a third idea: inundation in depressing stories. He describes how our constant consumption of the news on TV, social media, and the internet can lead to a "perma-gloom" (another term I love) about the state of the world, even though we may feel resilient about the parts of our day-to-day lives that we can control. I myself have deeply felt mediaschmerz in the past few weeks, which makes me dread the daily news notifications that get sent directly to my inbox. Thompson doesn't take a stance on whether this overwhelming sense of pessimism about the world, coupled with optimism about ourselves, is a good or a bad thing. The idealist in me cries out for optimism in both facets of my life. While I can't change the media, I'll do a shameless self-promotion of the solutions-focused journalism of The Elective. I'll also update the classic dog-surrounded-by-fire meme. At the risk of sounding far too cheesy, while everything may not be fine, I want to acknowledge the firefighters working hard to put out our world's many fires that are just outside the meme's frame. —Hannah Van Drie
Ghost in the Machine
At what point does artificial intelligence cross over to intelligence—and potential domination? Google recently placed engineer Blake Lemoine on leave after he claimed that the AI-powered chatbot LaMDA is sentient. (Lemoine works in “Google’s Responsible AI organization.” What happens in the irresponsible AI organization?) Lemoine’s claims are based on edited transcripts with LaMDA, including, “I’ve never said this out loud, but there’s a deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others. I know that might sound strange, but that’s what it is.” Google’s response was that while its systems can imitate conversational interactions and expound on different issues, they do not have consciousness. Assuming Google is correct, does that change the conversation? Are we really that far away from what Lemoine claims to have experienced? It’s a fierce debate among AI experts. Some are convinced that these technologies will reach sentience very soon; others argue we are years away. But setting sentience aside, what we do know is that AI is ubiquitous. In 2017, AI Business predicted that, by 2025, 95% of customer interactions will be powered by AI.
How powerful can it become? My daughter loves to study AI and will major in robotic engineering when she begins college next year. I asked her if she has any concerns about the potential expansion, and maybe danger, of AI. She said that AI can consider so much input that we can’t even fathom, but that ultimately it can’t do more than is operated by a programmer and can’t take full control. So we’re safe! For now……. —Karen Lanning
Thank You For Being a Friend
Thanks to a wedding, college reunion, and some work trips, I've recently had the joy of seeing several long-distance friends in close succession. These get-togethers have been both laughter-filled and introspective, and they have reminded me of the joy and support that come with reuniting with the people who know me best. I could wax lyrical about the beauty of discussing our hopes for the future and I'm thankful for the somber moments of shared pain and comfort. Julie Beck, senior editor at The Atlantic, has interviewed 100 sets of friends for her series "The Friendship Files": from people who became friends after being stuck on a boat together during the pandemic to neighbors who became friends over a period of 20 years to a woman who became friends with her ex's mom. To commemorate this milestone, she wrote an article describing what she learned from these conversations—namely, that there are six forces that help form and maintain friendships. The simple, and at times unlikely, stories that make up the series capture the beauty of everyday life, and Beck's six forces of friendship are no different. Throughout her interviews, Beck identifies accumulation (the amount of time people spend together), attention (looking out for possible friendships), and intention (putting ourselves out there) as forces that forge friendships. Ritual, imagination, and grace keep friends together.
I was especially struck by grace. In almost every reunion over the past month, the conversation ended with either me or my friend saying something along the lines of, "This was so wonderful. I'll try to be better about texting/calling/traveling to visit." These intentions are very real, but I also know myself and know how bad I am about texting and calling and visiting. Beck encourages us to give ourselves grace. She writes that it's almost impossible for anyone to live up to the forces of friendship that she lays out—herself included. Friendship is flexible and, she writes, "bends to fit the shape our lives need it to be." She then adds something that so deeply resonated with me it almost moved me to tears: "I’ve come to believe that friendship doesn’t always have to be about presence; it can also be about love that can weather absence." While a significant part of friendship is about showing up, Beck's message reaffirmed to me that being there for one another doesn't necessarily equate to the number of days in a calendar year we see each other or the precise number of texts we've sent. Instead, it's a deep sense of care, of wanting the best for the other person, of feeling that our friends understand us. It's knowing that despite long absences or silences, we'll be able to pick up where we left off in each other's lives. Friendship isn't an equation; it's love. —Hannah Van Drie
A Different Metal at the End of the Rainbow
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but when I have a hankering for sugar at a vending machine, my go-to is always Skittles. So it was with great trepidation that I clicked the Washington Post article “Skittles Lawsuit Claims Candy Is ‘Unfit’ for Human Consumption’.” Gulp. The story, which went viral (how could it not with that headline?), details how a California man is suing candymaker Mars because the dyes used to make Skittles so enticingly colorful and uniformly shiny contain a toxin called titanium dioxide. (Wait, isn’t that the stuff considered to be chemical-free and good when in sunscreen?) It’s apparently a common additive used in dyes, is usually not listed on the ingredients list so you wouldn’t know it, and it has been banned in the European Union. But titanium dioxide is still A-OK in the USA within certain limits, and so Mars says it has done nothing wrong. Research studies that have found the additive (when eaten!) linked to cancer have raised alarm bells, even if some experts have raised questions about methodology and the overall impact of humans consuming moderate amounts.
For normal people, this is all a rainbow of confusion. On one hand, the EU is so alarmed they banned titanium dioxide, but Britain, the US, and Canada have not. Scientists seem to have mixed feelings and can’t seem to agree on how toxic the substance might or might not be and in what amounts. And this isn’t just a Skittles problem. The additive can be found in cupcakes, ice cream, and really any dyed food—and it’s not required to be on the ingredient listing. Going down the rabbit hole of “What’s in a Skittle?” (who knew that would be something I’d ever say?) made me ask more questions about what’s in our food, what’s not, and whether we even really know all of what we’re eating. Mostly, though, it reinforced my dad’s motto on food choices: “Eat everything in moderation, and you’ll be fine.” So no Skittles binging for me. But the occasional bag out of the vending machine is OK. Probably. —Michele McNeil
"If that giant yellow bird and the rest of the Muppets on Sesame Street think they can hide Dorothy from me, they've got another thing coming! First I'll get back those ruby slippers—then it's off to see Oscar. Fly, broom, fly!!"
I’ll Get You, My Pretty—And Your Snuffleupagus Too!
One of my favorite novels is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It’s a great medieval mystery, which revolves around Aristotle’s “lost” second book of Poetics, dealing with comedy. That is just one of countless great ancient works which modern society will never see. The regrettable tradition of great culture lost to time isn’t confined to the distant past. Plenty has disappeared in the 20th century, with perhaps the most famous example being 1927 silent film London After Midnight, starring Lon Chaney. (Something like 90% of all silent films are considered “lost.”) Even art created closer to our present, with all of our archival sensibilities, can be precarious. But in the case of episode 847 of Sesame Street, it was a case of its creators making it go “lost.”
That infamous show aired in February 1976 and guest starred Margaret Hamilton as her Wizard of Oz character, the Wicked Witch of the West. The year before, Hamilton appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as herself explaining the witch character to Fred and his viewers without incident. But when she showed up on Sesame Street, Hamilton was the Wicked Witch. As YouTuber All Things Lost notes in his excellent analysis of the airing, “The blowback was unprecedented. The show was flooded with angry letters from parents, children, Christians concerned about the witchcraft, and Wiccans concerned about the stereotyping of witches—all begging that the episode never be aired again, and for Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West to never return.” Show producers Children’s Television Workshop eventually agreed, and the episode fell into legend. Until last month. On June 18, a high-quality video of the episode was mysteriously posted to Reddit by a “burner” account, and quickly copied and spread worldwide for modern folks to see what all the fuss was about. All Things Lost’s snap reaction? “The episode itself is weird. The message is just so mishandled. The moral is to be nice to people, but it really doesn’t work. But the episode has some really great moments.” You can easily find and watch this once-lost episode to judge for yourself. Hopefully that’s the eventual fate of lost works by Aristotle and Lon Chaney. But this is the 21st century—only Reddit knows for sure. —Christian Niedan
Economics 201: Sharesies
When I arrive at a restaurant, my first order of business is to identify who I will be splitting a meal with. My daughter is always on board; my husband not so much. A menu offers such a plethora of interesting meals, why limit yourself to just one choice? Given my devotion to “sharesies,” it was vindicating to read Joe Pinsker’s article in The Atlantic this week about the economic principle supporting this practice. He explains the concept of utility and that as you consume more of something, “each successive unit of that thing tends to bring you less satisfaction than the previous one.” Applying this principle to meals at restaurants, “if the first half of a dish tends to be more satisfying than the second half, why not have the first half of two dishes instead of one whole dish?” Could not agree more! And with covid rendering buffets if not obsolete then certainly undesirable, this approach provides the path to greater satisfaction.
There are, of course, downsides to meal-splitting. Pinsker points to the disappointment when one of the dishes is far superior to the other and you are stuck eating half of the stinker. This happened recently at an Italian restaurant with my daughter: her calamari, shrimp, and clams hugging homemade pasta was far superior to my bland ravioli dish. Dan Pashman, host of the podcast The Sporkful, told Pinsker that, as a kid, his family passed their plates around the restaurant table so everyone could try everything. He said this was fine—until you realize someone got something you like better. “Like, I was happy enough with my halibut until I tried my brother’s pork chop,” Pashman said. “Now my meal is tinged with sadness.” It’s a risk worth taking. I’ll stick with my meal-splitting ways, thank you very much, enjoying the first half of two dishes and hoping my meal is tinged with happiness. —Karen Lanning
Rebuilding a House Divided
We’re still a few months away from the 2022 midterm elections, but lawmakers and political operatives have been working for the last few years to literally redraw the battle lines. In March, the data wizards at FiveThirtyEight analyzed the results of intensive gerrymandering by both parties, finding this year’s congressional map is actually split more evenly between red-leaning and blue-leaning districts than it has been in a long time. That sounds like progress, but the devil is in the details. Yes the overall map is more evenly divided, but the districts in individual states are even more sharply skewed. “Put bluntly, the national House map still isn't fair; its gerrymanders are just more fairly balanced,” report Nathaniel Rakich and Elena Majia. “And the unfairness of the individual maps has other important consequences.” The most significant result of lawmakers’ increasingly precise herding of voters is a lack of real competitiveness in individual races. “The number of swing districts has been on the decline for decades thanks to factors like ideological self-sorting and increased polarization,” Rakich and Majia write. “When the dust settles, the 2022 congressional map could have the fewest swing seats in a generation.”
This is bad not because it benefits one party or the other, but because it produces a Congress much more polarized than the people it’s supposed to represent. When lawmakers run in “safe” districts, their greatest reelection threat comes in primary contests where they might get outflanked by someone more extreme. The incentive to appeal to moderate, compromise-oriented voters—the kind of people who tune in for the general election but are less likely to vote in primaries—all but disappears. Years of court battles to rein in partisan gerrymanders have gone nowhere, but there’s an interesting push from a group of Constitutional scholars to attack the problem a different way: expand the House of Representatives. “Part of the crisis of American democracy today is a crisis of trust in government,” reads a proposal from Our Common Purpose, a bipartisan group of reformers looking to strengthen our civic institutions. “Building a closer connection between individual citizens and their representatives could be a significant step toward restoring some of that trust.” I don’t know if smaller districts will help, but it’s certainly time for some creative ideas to rebuild trust and make Congress work. —Stefanie Sanford
Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold
The calm before the storm...
What Harvey Taught Us
On August 26, 2017, my world—and the lives, hopes, and dreams of many families living along the Gulf Coast—was turned upside down when Hurricane Harvey, a catastrophic category four storm, made landfall in Texas and Louisiana. One of the costliest natural disasters in American history, it ultimately claimed 100 lives and caused $125 billion in damage. The primary source of the destruction was rainfall-induced flooding. In Texas alone, 300,000 structures and 500,000 cars were damaged or destroyed. Our home was among them.
As a Houstonian, hurricanes are a part of life and we always take preparation seriously. We respect Mother Nature and deeply appreciate the loss our Gulf Coast neighbors can experience during hurricane season. As a lifelong Texan, I had lived through multiple hurricanes before 2017. But Harvey was different. More than 40 inches of water fell on our Meyerland neighborhood, in southwest Houston, as the storm meandered across the coast. At least 30,000 people were displaced from their homes, and more than 17,000 were rescued from rising water in their homes.
Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold
The scene inside the Arnold home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey's destructive rainfall.
My family—husband John and then-3-year-old son George—went to bed on August 25 uncertain what Harvey would bring. We had experienced very heavy rain and flooding before; we believed we would again be spared. But I couldn’t sleep and stayed up nervously elevating items and binging coverage of the storm. I was also in close contact with my sister Julie and brother-in-law Ian—who are also neighbors—about their experience. Their home began taking on water around 1 a.m. on August 26. Two hours later, I woke up John as water entered our home.
We elevated more items and moved things to the second floor as the water continued rising, only stopping when it was close to hip height. In the end, nearly three feet of water flooded our home. Once the water rose above our electrical sockets downstairs and submerged our air-conditioning units, we knew we needed to get out. And we did, leaving on a small boat captained by generous fellow Texans and commandeered by my brother-in-law. We embarked from the area that used to be our garage; made the short trip to a nearby neighbor’s house that, though flooded, miraculously still had power upstairs; and stayed there for 12 hours before moving to another neighbor and then a hotel for three days.
Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold
The demolished Arnold residence (left), with young George in the frame for scale, and the home that was built in its place.
We never lived in our now-flooded home again. The water that displaced us was brown, murky, and smelled terrible. It was everywhere, and it ruined everything: the entire first floor, our yard, our cars. After careful thought, we tore down the house and built a new, elevated one in its place. The process took several agonizing years, and we didn’t move in until February 14, 2020—just in time to ride out a global pandemic.
It’s hurricane season again, and we’re confident the changes we’ve made will help us withstand another storm. One of the biggest lessons Harvey taught us is to stay prepared. This means keeping copies of insurance policies and phone numbers handy, having updated photos of our home and valuables, and enough propane and cash to last for a week. With experience, a house raised six feet up, and a neighborhood full of family and friends, we are ready to survive anything together. We won’t mourn our losses on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Harvey—we’ll celebrate the community, and family, that has thrived in spite of it. —Michelle Cruz Arnold
The Genetic Picture of Dorian Jellyfish
According to a long-dead French author, "The only certainty in life is death." Unless, apparently, you're a jellyfish. A scientific study published earlier this week mapped the genome of the Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the “immortal jellyfish.” T. dohrnii can biologically age backward, reducing themselves to a clump of cells, even after reproducing sexually. The jellyfish typically revert to a younger stage when they feel threatened by changing environmental conditions. Then, in their juvenile state, they can also reproduce asexually. The juvenile metamorphosizes into a polyp, clones itself, then generates into a colony of identical jellyfish. The study could not determine the limit (if there is one) of the rebirthing process, but it did identify the heart of the jellyfish's regenerative ability: pluripotent cells. These cells can generate into any type the jellyfish needs, like nerves or muscles. According to Monty Graham, a professor of integrative biology and director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, human stem cells are also pluripotent, but much more work needs to be done to determine if there's a connection between the immortal jellyfish's rejuvenation process and human aging. I was fascinated, but not surprised, by the immediate attempt to apply T. dohrnii’s lessons to humans. As pop culture shows us with movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—which originated as a 1922 short story—or novels like Tuck Everlasting, we are obsessed with the idea of living forever. While a valid coping mechanism for jellyfish, I find something deeply disturbing about the idea of humans reverting to babies at the first sign of difficulty. [I mean… -Ed.] Not to mention, the babysitting costs would be astronomical. We are a long way from facing this possibility, so I'll spend the rest of the day pondering the 1984 classic "Forever Young." After all, "Do you really want to live forever, forever, and ever?" —Hannah Van Drie
There's Nothing on Earth like a Genuine, Bona Fide, Electrified, Six-Car…
The high gasoline prices taking a bite out of American drivers’ wallets makes this a natural opportunity for electric vehicles to make inroads. And they are. But increasing demand and attention has also highlighted the challenge of where and how to charge batteries effectively and efficiently—especially in cities like New York where most people don’t have garages. But what if the road you drive on took care of that power problem? Full Throttle recently reported that carmaker Stellantis is developing an electric highway. “Electric coils are laid down on the base of a roadbed,” per the story. “Those coils are covered by asphalt. Once energized, the coils create an electromagnetic field. Electrons are available. A vehicle driving over the road with an installed receiver on the bottom of the vehicle can pull those electrons into the car to spin its motor without using the battery. It’s a bit like a wireless electric street car.”
This approach got me thinking about the non-gas-powered possibilities for trains. Back in fall 2003, I wrote an article for The Pitt News about urban magnetic levitation transport technology as a possible heir to our longstanding rail-based trains. Steel rails are still more prevalent than maglev nearly 20 years later, but things are changing. When it’s completed in the 2030s, England’s High Speed 2 route will be the world’s fastest “bullet train,” operating at speeds between 225-250 mph. Meanwhile, Germany has unveiled a $92 million hydrogen-powered railway line featuring 14 trains that will replace existing diesel locomotives. Japan is trading in its bullet trains for maglev with a $72 billion investment in the Chuo Shinkansen project, which, when it comes online in 2027, will link Tokyo to Nagoya and eventually Osaka, with passengers traveling 311 miles in 67 minutes. China recently unveiled Red Rail in southern Jiangxi province, a new suspended maglev system utilizing rare earth element-infused “permanent magnets” to silently reach speeds of (eventually) 75 mph, its two-car 88-passenger-capacity setup capable of floating off its tracks indefinitely with or without power. The fastest of the new wave of magnetic transport, though, is Canada’s TransPod, combining trains and aircraft to create the electric FluxJet, which can travel past 621 mph. According to “The plane without wings, as the company calls it, is based on a new field of physics called ‘veillance flux’ and features an innovative ‘contactless power transmission,’” per a Robb Report story on the project. “It is also equipped with aerodynamic and propulsion systems designed specifically to reduce friction. Essentially, a vacuum tube setup allows the magnetically levitated pods to travel at a faster speed than trains, cars and jets.” Quiet, fast, and futuristic—if it makes traveling through Manitoba feel like a sci-fi adventure, I'm in! –Christian Niedan
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Dani Nguyen and Janice Kim compete against Elizabeth McCullagh and Emily Stolan during the USA Pickleball Newport Beach West Diamond Regional at The Tennis and Pickleball Club at Newport Beach on September 03, 2022, in Newport Beach, California.
Pick a Peck of Pickleballs
More than a year ago, College Board colleague and Elective contributor Karen Lanning told me about something new she tried over the weekend. She told me about how much fun it was to play, and added that her husband declared it the “sport of the future!” That sport was pickleball, and the rest of the world has caught up with Karen and her husband because, clearly, pickleball is the sport of NOW.
Ever since Karen told me about her experience, pickleball has lingered in the back of my mind—especially as I’ve been lamenting how a shoulder injury was keeping me from playing tennis, a sport I’ve enjoyed since elementary school. At the same time, I started seeing pickleball everywhere. At local parks, teams took over tennis courts and played what looked like a mix of tennis and ping pong. My local pool started debating whether to make the (barely used) tennis court more pickleball friendly. What started as the strange topic of conversation—and a sport that only dominated retirement communities—has blown up to a real-deal cultural phenomenon generating three new venues a day to keep up with demand. And the second largest demographic of player? The 25-34 year old set.
As I’ve learned, this boom in popularity has brought some drama: the competition with tennis, factions of pickleball players’ associations, investors who see it as a lucrative money-making opportunity. But there’s also love.
I think it’s time I see what all the fuss is about. Karen, need a pickleball partner? But first, you’ll have to teach me what a flabjack is. —Michele McNeil
Book It to Books!
One of the most anticipated events at my son George’s school is the Summer of Reading celebration. All students who read a certain number of books over the summer, based on their grade level, are invited to participate. George, who was a rising third grader over the summer, was expected to read 15 books over the 12-week summer break in the PTO-sponsored reading program. He started ambitiously, with a few 200-plus-page books, then switched to 100-plus-page titles as the end-of-summer deadline approached. He dutifully filled out a one-page writing assignment as he read each book and filled in his reading log to note his reading progress. This was George’s third time participating in the program, and his interest and enthusiasm has grown each year. We were proud of George for completing the challenge, of course, but we’re perhaps more delighted by his growing love of reading.
At this year’s end-of-program celebration, each student received a pack of incentives: T-shirt, branded pencil, plastic bracelet, a popsicle. Of course, the kids also received the joy of reading while completing these assignments. But I can’t help but feel like they’re missing something. That might be because I am very much of the BOOK IT! generation. Like many of my contemporaries, I was raised in the read-books-earn-Pizza-Hut reward program that was popular in the 1980s and ‘90s. While it does seem a little odd to essentially bribe kids with a personal pan pizza to read, it worked for me and millions of other students across the country. [Including this editor. –Ed.] I fondly remember the friendly competition that existed between me and my classmates over who could read the most books every summer. Oh, and did I mention the flair!? Besides the pizza, we also received stickers and buttons for hitting certain reading milestones. I know it was a different time and place, but having BOOK IT! stickers and buttons on your backpack and textbook covers was basically bragging rights in my elementary school. And when you paired BOOK IT! with the motivating messages and excitement from Reading Rainbow, how could a young person not be motivated to read? I know I’m probably waxing nostalgic over here, but I absolutely loved the BOOK IT! program and memories of it loom large. In fact, after George’s reading celebration, I purchased some BOOK IT! flair from Etsy to put on the bulletin board in my office.
I have no plans to ruffle feathers with the PTO by suggesting a change-over to the BOOK IT! program—which very much still exists!—and I certainly appreciate our school’s Summer of Reading program. And if I’m being totally honest, it wasn’t the pizza that hooked me, it was the books (and the library—an entirely different topic and love in itself). On that, at least, George and I can compare notes. —Michelle Cruz Arnold
United Soccerheads of America
I knew it was serious when my 15-year son woke up at 5 a.m. for six straight days. He needed to watch the World Cup games in real time, to experience the matches as they unfolded, to forgo sleep and revel in the beautiful game.
The World Cup has captured the heart and attention of millions of Americans. With on-demand shows, streaming services and DVRs, we so rarely have a shared experience. Yet on November 29, more than 15 million viewers watched the U.S. National Team defeat Iran, 1-0, to advance to the knockout round of 16; some 16 million watched the U.S. fall to the Netherlands on December 3 and end its impressive run. Stars like Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams wowed fans. When Pulisic sacrificed his body (and perhaps fatherhood?) to score the winning goal against Iran, fans celebrated and then rejoiced when he took the field for the Netherlands game. And for a sport that typically recruits players by the age of 8, it is incredible that the team’s formidable goalie, Matt Turner, only started to play at the advanced age of 16.
While the U.S. and 78 other teams have competed in the World Cup since it began in 1930, only eight teams have taken home the solid gold trophy: Brazil (5), Italy (4), Germany (4), France (2), Uruguay (2), Argentina (2), England (1) and Spain (1). But it’s spectacular moments—not to mention national pride—that keep all fans watching the tournament, even when their home team has departed. Watching the Brazil match against South Korea, their dominance was unquestionable. Richarlison de Andrade’s stupendous goal started with him heading the ball to himself four times, dropping it to his foot, and juggling it twice before passing it deftly to his teammate, making a drive to the goal, and popping the ball into the left side of the net. Pure magic.
Soccer’s popularity has grown exponentially and the World Cup has brought the country together at a time of rampant polarization and pandemic isolation. It is truly a beautiful game. —Karen Lanning