American Hermits, Conflict Resolution, and Long Grain Ingenuity: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From restoring civility to redefining care packages, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
Who are you going to trust about whether this parking job is legit: me, a Juilliard-trained parkologist, or your lying eyes?!
I’d heard the term “context collapse” before, but this dissection of a Twitter blowup over parallel parking (?!) helped me understand what it really means. Simply put, you see a lot of stuff on social media that either makes no sense or feels outrageous because you’re being dropped into the middle of a conversation where you don’t know the participants and don’t have any background on the subject. “Before the internet, if someone posted a flyer on a lamppost advertising a book club to discuss a book you didn’t want to read, you likely would simply not attend. What would be the point?” writes P.E. Moskowitz. “But today, with the most outrageous or incendiary posts flowing to the top of our feeds even if we have no interest in them, we’re all in one another’s book clubs — forced to see things we don’t like and algorithmically goaded into interacting with them.”
So it came to be that Moskowitz’s photo of an incredibly tight parallel parking job in New York City provoked a torrent of angry responses, with each individual retweeter vying to make their outrage more outrageous than everyone’s else’s. Moskowitz goes the remarkable step of actually talking with some of these people to find out what they were thinking, and gets rewarded with a masterclass in the weird incentives of online life. “The purpose of my tweet was not to try and scold. It was for entertainment,” said a user who proposed that Moskowitz be jailed for his overly precise parking. “The sole function of language on Twitter is different (communication versus entertainment).” There are a great many things about online life I find perplexing—I’m getting my social media insights from a print magazine, you’ll notice—but this distinction makes a ton of sense to me. We think we’re using communications tools, but we’re really participating in an endless, poorly emceed open mic night. And that’s bound to get strange. —Eric Johnson
Why stop at rice-bag avatars of babies? Gimme couscous cats! Gimme lentil labradoodles! Gimme farro families!!
The pandemic has made us all get creative—not simply to create new businesses (looking at you, bakers and sourdough starter aficionados), but to endure the last 18 months of quarantine, lockdown, and distancing. But whatever that thing was that you did that you’re proud of? Naruo Ono has you beat. Ono is the owner of Kome no Zoto Yoshimiya, a rice shop in Japan that sells rice-bag simulacra of babies. The idea here is that, because not every family member can see newborns due to pandemic restrictions, they can buy these life-size rice-filled replicas to hold and hug. “I first had the idea about 14 years ago when my own son was born and I was thinking about what I could do for relatives who lived far away and couldn’t come and see him,” Ono told The Guardian. “So we decided to make bags of rice that were the same weight and shape as the baby, so relatives could hold them and feel the cuteness.” There are a bunch of designs, and a photo of the baby’s face is on the front. And, yeah, they’re pretty cute. The size of the rice bag is based on the baby’s birth weight. The cost can be one yen a gram, but, really, how do you put a price tag on love? And if this weren’t enough, there’s a line of these rice bags made for newlyweds. Here, let Ono explain: “The bride and groom give them to the respective parents with their pictures on them from when they were babies as a way of showing appreciation for giving birth to them.” Crazy? Maybe! Crazier? These sell better than the bags of newborn rice! This might all seem weird to Western eyes, I love Japan’s unique brand of wild ingenuity. What’s better—not holding your new grandchild and being reminded of it every time you Zoom with your family, or simulating the experience using a bag of rice while on that Zoom call (or whenever you want)? After all this, that second option sounds pretty good. Just keep it as far from the pantry as possible! —Dante A. Ciampaglia
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
Hey, my kid could do that! Art? No! Revise an old Mac program for today's internet. Coding is the new painting.
Kids Pix the Darndest Things
One of the ongoing debates in the software design world is how “intuitive” programs should be—that is, how much should the design guide the user in a particular direction. On the one hand, you want programs to be accessible and easy. We tend to be impressed that infants can encounter an iPad and almost instantly understand how to click the icons and sweep their fingers to make things appear. But you also don’t want to design programs that are so simple they become coercive, pushing everyone to behave in similar ways and flattening creativity. There are days when I miss the clunky exploration of early computer programs, when you had to put real time into mastering all of the features and weird quirks but got rewarded with a sense of genuine accomplishment when you managed to create something new.
I had a lot of those moments using Kid Pix back in my elementary school days, and apparently I’m not the only one who feels a little nostalgia for that era. Developer Vikrum Nijjar created an online version of the early-’90s-era Mac program that allows you to relive the joys and frustrations of creating on a somewhat clunky, very hokey (there are sound effects!) pixelated canvas. “Mind-boggling and verging on difficult to use, with no friendly bots to guide you along the way, it could make someone feel almost resentful of our perfectly pristine contemporary software,” writes Dalia Al-Dujaili in a blog post about the throwback app. “Simply experimenting with each tool till you’ve somewhat cracked it, the software helps us use intuition and curiosity instead of being told exactly how to use a software.” I remember being frustrated every day when the bell rang to end computer lab time, with my half-finished drawing saved away in a desktop file folder with my name on it, hopefully safe until the next day’s session. I didn’t produce any masterpieces, but every one of those drawings was a unique creation. —Eric Johnson
With his cabin burned to the ground, 81-year-old River Dave's days of being a hermit are likely over. And with it, maybe, a certain kind of American experience.
He Lived the Life He Dreamed
A report datelined Concord about a hermit confronting the end of his solitary existence sounds like a dispatch from Walden Pond. But this is Concord, New Hampshire, the hermit is David Lidstone—River Dave to those who know him—and the story is the kind that seems almost unfathomable in America circa 2021. For decades, River Dave has lived in a cabin he built with his wife along the Merrimack River. But the cabin burned down recently, and with the owner of the land it was situated trying to kick River Dave off the property it's likely he'll be coming out of the woods for good. “I don’t see how I can go back to being a hermit because society is not going to allow it,” River Dave told the Associated Press. “I would have people coming every weekend, so I just can’t get out of society anymore. I’ve hidden too many years and I’ve built relationships, and those relationships have continued to expand.” The story is fantastic, albeit rather melancholy. The encroachment of development and society and modernization knocked an 81-year-old man out of his Eden. But there's also a lesson in this for all of us, I think, as we begin emerging from our own forced isolation. River Dave told the AP he's not, as Kathy McCormack writes, "grieving the loss of his life in isolation." In fact, he's come to some hard-earned revelations about his relationships with others, including his estranged wife. (They never divorced, despite his hermitage.) “Maybe the things I’ve been trying to avoid are the things that I really need in life,” he said. “I grew up never being hugged or kissed, or any close contact. I had somebody ask me once, about my wife: ‘Did you really love her?’ And the question kind of shocked me for a second. I ... I’ve never loved anybody in my life. And I shocked myself because I hadn’t realized that. And that’s why I was a hermit. Now I can see love being expressed that I never had before.” I don't know about you, but reading that—and seeing the excellent photos accompanying the story—made my heart swell and my spirits lift. —Dante A. Ciampaglia