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Applying Oneself, Robo-Feels, and 900 Numbers: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From finding ideas to developing senses, we learned a lot in 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.

From below anonymous multiracial young men and women browsing cellphones while meeting in park together

David Espejo/Getty Images

Yes, these high school seniors are ignoring each other. But they're all applying to college—give them a break.

Surviving with a Senior

If you have a senior in high school, you have my condolences. Nothing quite compares to the stress of balancing how much to push and how much to retreat as your child decides where to apply to college and how much input you can have in the process. Sadly, though, the answer to that for my friend with a senior is “next to nothing.” My friend is your classic Type A personality: uber-ambitious, incredibly intelligent, and supremely competent. Not to say her daughter doesn’t share those qualities, but her approach to the application process can only be described as inert.

It drives her mother crazy, but she is in the minority. Students are applying to college as if following that infamous call to voting: early and often. According to a Common Application report, the number of submitted college applications shot up by 21% between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022. Competition is fierce, and the earlier students apply—taking advantage of early decision or early action policies—the better their chances. So feet-dragging is especially dangerous right now. On the bright side, though, College Board’s excellent research team just released its annual Trends in Higher Education report with the happy news that historically low increases in tuition at public colleges continued this year. (Not as bright, at least on a personal level: the public college with the highest tuition for out-of-state students is the one my daughter attends. Clearly, we need to move.)

Last year at this time, I was mired in college application drama. Working at the College Board certainly helped me prepare my daughter for the process. But her heart was set on a school that did not reciprocate that love. She rallied and spent Christmas vacation applying to multiple schools. Now she is attending what she considers her “real dream college.” The moral of the story: despite the pain, it usually works out. So, best of luck to those in the trenches with their seniors. See you on the other side. —Karen Lanning

Human hand shaking a robot hand

EThamPhoto/Getty Photo

ROBOY, a humanoid robot developed by the University of Zurich's Artificial Intelligence Lab is shaking hands with his human counterpart, June 21, 2013. (I hope the robot's sense of touch is developed enough to not, you know, crush the human hand.)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Touch?

Recently, I burned my hand on a hot glue gun. I went to pick it up, touched a small blob of hot glue that had dripped down the side, and immediately yanked my hand away (but not before a small blister developed). It was a small accident and I didn’t think any more about it—until, that is reading the Wall Street Journal article "The Quest for a Robot With a Sense of Touch." I had never considered how robots feel things when they pick things up (the answer is, they largely don't) or the implications of touch for robots and what they do. In fact, my vision of robots largely stems from science-fiction and not real-life applications. But in the case of robo-touch, our current technology merges seamlessly into future ideas—providing another potential application of science fiction to science fact.

Today, robots largely use cameras to determine what's around them and pick up objects using what we would think of as sight. Right now, scientists are working on an approximation of touch using cameras and light that change when robots exert pressure on something. These systems can help robots discern texture and hardness and handle delicate items. This technology is limited, though. Cameras can have trouble distinguishing fine details in the dark or when robots are working with glass due to how light refracts off the material's surface. Researchers are also attempting to replicate touch by developing a skin-like material, loaded with internal sensors to help robots discern details about what they're holding that can be wrapped around robots' hands or fingers. And then there are soft or blob-like robots that could be created with 3D printers and used to help with household tasks that could have touch capacity more easily integrated.

We still have some time before touch-sensitive robots become commonplace. According to the article, less than 10% of all robots with touch exist outside of academic settings, largely due to high development costs and the need for new technology. The article suggests that these robots could find keys buried in a bag or bring someone their morning mug of coffee or, in my case, safely handle a hot glue gun. I'll let pop culture—from Isaac Asimov to Westworld to Ex Machina—hypothesize on whether that's all these touch-sensitive robots will do. —Hannah Van Drie

Woman in military fatigues presents to a long table of people with a screen behind her reading "Expedited Accountability"

U.S. Central Command

Capt. Kendra Kirkland makes her presentation during the final round of U.S. Central Command's Innovation Oasis competition.

Innovative Boots on the Ground

I loved this Wall Street Journal article about some of the U.S. military’s top commanders sitting down to hear an innovative earful from the enlisted ranks. In an effort to surface problems and proposed solutions that wouldn’t normally make their way up the chain of command, CentComm held a Shark Tank-style competition so that personnel at every level could get a hearing. “The contest was held in the headquarters of the military’s premier operations command, a place where phones are banned and clocks display the time in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the animating spirit of the event was one that applies to every business,” Ben Cohen reports. “There are good ideas to be found in unlikely places for anyone willing to look…. The only way for the military to find them was to flatten the chain of command.”

For several hours, some of the most powerful people in the world’s most powerful military heard from low-level officers and enlisted personnel about problems that ranged from drone-jamming to—amazingly—an antiquated system for taking attendance at Central Command. It turns out that at one of the world’s most secure military facilities, someone was wandering around with a clipboard every day to find people who failed to check in. “For all the technical challenges and moral complexities of war, even the military needs help fighting the banalities of work,” Cohen writes. The big takeaway is that even the most hierarchical organizations need to be open to ideas from everyone, since the people at the bottom of the org chart are often closest to the challenges. Making room for candid feedback is how companies, militaries, schools, or any other human enterprise can get better. “The challenge for every government bureaucracy, and sprawling corporation is what to do next,” Cohen concludes. “If a good idea is hard to find, it’s much harder to apply. Action is the last barrier of innovation.” —Eric Johnson

Animated gif of three people pumping their arms and running through library stacks

LeVar Burton Kids/Giphy

Libraries are my happy place, and can be yours too—if you're a reader! But you don't have to take my word for it...

Getting Into the (Reading) Habit

Studies show that fewer American kids read for fun than a decade ago. That leaves classroom reading lists as important motivators for getting students to engage with literature. Sample size of one, but the many novels (of varying quality) that my own high school English teachers and college literature professors assigned had a crucial effect on my literary taste. In high school, besides the usual mid-century American classics like The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, I was given Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. In college, it was Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. (Turns out that those latter four works all received the National Book Award for Fiction when released in the 1980s and ‘90s.) Thanks to them, I better appreciate the value of young folks reading great contemporary works.

The National Book Foundation wanted to better encourage that sentiment at an even younger reading level when, in 1996, they awarded the inaugural NBA for Young People’s Literature to Victor Martinez for Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida. Of the next 25 winners, 14 were women, a far higher percentage than the fiction award saw until the 21st Century. This year’s five books up for the YPL award (to be announced on November 16) are all first-time nominees. Four are women (Kelly Barnhill, Sonora Reyes, Sanaa Tahir, and Lisa Yee), with the fifth a trio led by former-Olympian Tommie Smith. This isn’t to say that older NBA works aren’t worth revisiting. My favorite school days novel remains Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the 1953 winner. But engaging with books written within—and often inspired by—a young reader’s contemporary experience can help them better understand their complicated world. That’s worth celebrating, even without an award. —Christian Niedan

Worried man on the phone

ajr_images/Getty Images

"Hello, Psychic Hotline? I need to know if the Cryptkeeper I just spoke really meant it when he said I was his best fiend or if he... Yes, I accept the $5.95 per minute rate of this call. I just need to know where I stand!"


The two greatest moments of my 1989: Seeing the first Batman movie in June, and buying the first Batman movie on VHS in November. Besides reliving my favorite movie of all time (7-year-old-me edition), I loved the tape for this bizarre ad at the beginning, a riff on the classic short “Duck Amuck” where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck implored me to call a 1-900 number to order a Warner Bros. merch catalog. Which, according to the ad, had a Batman logo on it. How could I resist? (And how could my mom say no to the $1.50/minute hit to the phone bill?) I hadn’t thought about that ad in a while—or 900 numbers, generally. But it all came rushing back listening to this excellent episode of the podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. The whole 900-number phenomena was relevant enough to me as a child of the ’80 and ‘90s to lure me in, but I wasn’t prepared for the education it imparted. For instance, 900 numbers launched as a public information utility in the 1970s, but what set them into the cultural firmament was a live call-in interview between Walter Cronkite and then-president Jimmy Carter in 1977. What an unexpected beginning to something that became synonymous with smutty, ahem, hotlines. Likewise, I had no idea that 900 numbers were such a boon to the burgeoning celebrity culture of the era, with everyone from Hulk Hogan to the Tales from the Crypt Cryptkeeper, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince to the Coreys (Feldman and Haim) lending their voices to pre-recorded chat lines. And that’s just for starters.

The episode tracks the rise, fall, and generational wistfulness of 900 numbers, and is a treasure trove of cultural history, ephemera, and detritus. And it gets some of the creators of these proto-social-networks to talk about their, um, creations. “The key to 900 was keeping people on the line as long as possible,” 900 number pioneer David Wood says. “The longer you kept the people on the line, the more the call was. So you always wanted to get them sucked in either through menu selections, or just things to slowly build up the time.” Of course. But it’s refreshing to hear someone responsible just say it outright—especially since 900 numbers became a gutter of predatory scams. “Did they deliver what they said? Yes, but it wasn't really what the consumer thought they were gonna get,” Bob Bentz, another pioneer and President of Advanced Telecom Services, says. Kind of like how I called that dumb Warner Bros. 900 number on two different occassions and never got my catalog! I did get to hear (what sounded like) Robert Wuhl’s recorded voice as reporter Alexander Knox for a few minutes, though, so that’s something at least. —Dante A. Ciampaglia