Astronaut walking on the moon, holds onto a massive boulder, while his rover waits on the other side of the rock

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Artemis Dreams, Everybody Streams, and Pirate History Fiends: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From unearthing what’s behind us to exploring what’s out there, 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.

There people, one man and two women, reach their hands into a fountain while a second man slaps water on his neck

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

People cool off at Rome's Piazza del Popolo on August 10, 2021, during last year's heat wave when temperatures reached 39 degrees Celsius (or 102 degrees Fahrenheit). This summer brought even higher temperatures—and even more desperate tourists.

Che calura!

I just got back from a long-awaited trip to Italy, a chance to try again on a family trip we had planned for summer 2020. My husband and I and our two kids, 10 and 12, saw the famous David statue and Birth of Venus in Florence, swam in the waters off the Amalfi Coast, and stood under the Sistine Chapel. We ate a ton of gelato. And we sweat a lot alongside throngs of other tourists. Italy’s weather, intense heat, and crazy crowds has me rethinking travel—where, and when, we go as a family. We want to keep doing it, and we’re lucky we can. But we want to travel smarter.

Travel insiders already report that heat is changing how people are thinking about summer trips to Europe, such as picking northern destinations or going in shoulder season. (In a weird and unfortunate upside of severe weather, droughts are uncovering some never-before-seen ancient artifacts, like a “Spanish Stonehenge.”) But the challenges go beyond the heat. Southeast Asia is struggling with balancing the economic benefits of tourism, which is booming again, with the costs of overtourism, such as pollution. Venice will be charging visitors fees to curb overtourism; the Amalfi Coast issued new driving regulations because of tourist-clogged roads.

I don’t know the answer to making my own travel smarter. But for inspiration I revisited the New York Times’ 2022 list of travel ideas for a changed world. It includes destinations like a region in Portugal specializing in in sustainable winemaking and a hard-hit national forest in Puerto Rico that’s been revived by local efforts. If you ask my 10-year-old, the way to travel smarter—or at least to avoid the heat—is to start small. He wants to donate his allowance to Vatican City to fund some shade for the throngs of tourists like us who had to wait in a long line in the full sun to get into St. Peter’s. Change has to start somewhere. —Michele McNeil

Animated gif of light in a rainbow of colors streaming by along a vertical axis

Warner Bros.

Dave going through the Stargate was supposed to be fiction. And yet, when I listen to the sound of a black hole...

The Sound of the Ultimate Trip

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” It’s one of the most famous movie taglines of all time, for Ridley Scott’s 1978 sci-fi classic Alien, and it’s a play on the science fact that there is no sound in the cold vacuum of space. Or maybe it’s a factoid? Either way, it’s one of those things pedantics trot out to drag something like Star Wars or Star Trek (*pushes up glasses* “Actually, there’s no way those ships would make so much noise when they shoot their laser guns because…”) and filmmakers like Scott and Stanley Kubrick, who used the vacuum silence to chilling effect in the spacewalk scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But maybe we’ve all been wrong! Per a recent NASA tweet, it’s a “misconception that there is no sound in space.” And to prove its point, it shared some audio picked up in deep space. Of a black hole. And holy. cow. Just listen to this beautiful, haunting 30-second clip:

NASA’s tweet blew my mind a few times over. First, the whole no-sound-in-space thing. Second, the fact that human beings have developed the capacity to not only discover but record this kind of thing is almost incomprehensible. Third, it’s an oddly tonal sound, which is spooky when you’re used to atonal drones (which are still amazing!) beamed back from the surface of Mars. And, finally, to bring it back to movies, the black hole track sounds eerily (like, every possible emphasis on eerily) like the “Kyrie” from György Ligeti’s Requiem, which Kubrick used to soundtrack the first discovery of the monolith and, later, the Star Gate sequence in 2001. As one commenter noted on a YouTube clip of the “Kyrie,” it’s “the sound of thousands of lost souls crying out from far beyond,” which is just perfect. There’s a reason Kubrick dropped this into the two most crucial scenes of his masterpiece, and it’s that sense of being ripped apart by the forces of nature and time, of the past and future collapsing in on your present—wait, are we still talking about a movie, or are we back to black holes? Kubrick got a lot right about our technological future in 2001, and maybe we can add “the sound of imminent galactic destruction” to the list. But that’s surely a coincidence…. Right? —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Hand clutching a remote in the foreground, an out-of-focus TV in the background

Sean Locke/EyeEm/Getty Images

The future of streaming is getting as fuzzy as the television screen in this photo.

🎶Are You Ready For Some Bundles??🎶

Every September, my dad religiously upgrades his Hulu account to Hulu + Live TV. As the name suggests, the streaming service offers live and on-demand access to more than 75 channels—including ESPN. The day after the college football championship in January, Dad unsubscribes. When the next college football season starts, the cycle begins again. But, as I'm constantly reminded by advertisements, that's not the only way to access ESPN without a cable subscription. My dad, and other sports fans, can bundle Disney's three streaming platforms: Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. I hadn’t thought more deeply about this package until this week. Activist investor Daniel Loeb, whose company owns a small part of Disney, told the company there was a strong case for the streaming giant to dump the Worldwide Leader: ESPN could take on some of Disney's debt load and more efficiently pursue sports betting, while Disney could decrease its concerns about cord cutting. 

The question of what Disney should do with ESPN made me think about the larger future of streaming giants. According to BLS data, streaming subscriptions hit an all-time high in 2020, but now these companies face market saturation. Netflix sloughed 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022, and it, along with Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and Hulu, have all recently raised subscription fees. Many families are also considering cutting back on streaming services due to inflation. Streaming platforms need their niche; some, like Hulu, lack an identity. In addition to Disney's struggles with how to handle ESPN, the company isn't sure how to distinguish Hulu from the content on the primary Disney+ platform. Hulu isn’t international; Disney+ is moving away from its base of kids content, so Hulu can't be the "adult content" platform; and Comcast is moving much of its top-performing content from Hulu to its own streaming service, Peacock. I'm not worried about Disney's future—Disney+ had 138 million global subscribers as of April 2—but I am interested in consumer behavior. In the 2010s, many customers decided they were tired of paying for cable, paving the way for subscription services. I wonder if we're hitting that moment now with cable's replacement. Subscriptions are down, costs are up, and some services aren't sure where their identity—or value add—lies. Or perhaps this is just a temporary blip for these companies. After all, it's almost time for the start of college football. —Hannah Van Drie


Black and white illustration of pirates burying treasure

MPI/Getty Images

Circa 1700, Scottish-born American pirate William Kidd (c.1645–1701) buries his amassed treasures on Long Island, New York, before being captured and hanged for his crimes. (Shiver me timbers—that booty is still out there!)

History, Savvy?

The enduring appeal of pirates is undeniable. The tri-cornered-hat-wearing, Jolly-Roger-waving, rum-swilling Jack Sparrow types, I mean. The ones who have parrots on their shoulders and terrorize the Spanish Main and bury their plunder on desert islands and mark their greasy, booze-soaked maps with large X’s to mark the locations of their booty have colonized every facet of pop culture: books (Treasure Island), cartoons (there are at least two Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam shorts built around piracy), TV (Our Flag Means Death), film (so, so many movies; I loved Shipwrecked when I was a wee lad), sports (sigh). They’re also tailor-made for historians, who regularly dig into buccaneers’ sordid swashbuckling sortees on the seven seas. (Colin Woodward’s book The Republic of Pirates is fantastic.) But I never thought anyone could make a career out of pirates. That is, until I read historian Rebecca Simon’s as-told-to essay published by Hakai Magazine. Simon researches 17th and 18th century piracy, and, she says, “What I want to do with my work is bring history to the public and correct the wrong ideas people have about pirates. Many people see them as horrifying criminals. Or revolutionaries. … Some were definitely brutal murderers, but most were working-class sailors who had been treated badly on European merchant or naval ships and who set off on their own for more freedom.” Right off the bat my view of pirates has been complicated. But it also made me realize how I never really gave much thought to who pirates were, you know, as people existing in a hardscrabble period of human history. Simon’s essay is a quick read, and she goes into what she does and how her research has implications not only for history but our understanding and handling of 21st century pirates. (And how her expertise helps shape pirate shows and films. Jealous.) But the thing that kind of blew me away were her insights into what ship life was like for pirates. In pop culture, we get some sense that there’s a pirate code of conduct, if only among themselves, but Simon says there’s more to it: “Pirate ships were often egalitarian. Piracy was a path for people who didn’t have many options: escaped slaves on the run, queer or nonbinary folks, and people from marginalized religious groups such as Jews. If the pirates felt their captain wasn’t doing his job, they could vote him out and select someone new.” Pirate ships as vessels of democracy—shiver me timbers! —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Large booster rocket sits on a mobile mover, behind a fence with a banner that reads We Are Going!

NASA/Joel Kowsky

Ahead of the Artemis I launch, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard is seen atop a mobile launcher at Launch Pad 39B after being rolled out to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Ain't she a beaut?)

Rediscovering the Magnificent Desolation

Americans of a certain age have a special relationship with the moon. When they look up at the familiar lunar face, they recall an intense period from 1969-72 when their televisions transmitted regular images of Apollo astronauts walking (OK, more like hopping) on the moon’s surface, snapping pictures, playing golf, driving carts, planting flags, and bringing home some rocks. It was all amazing (and Stanley Kubrick was not involved). On August 29, weather permitting, NASA will properly restart the process of returning astronauts to the moon with the launch of Artemis 1. Specifically, an uncrewed Orion capsule will be slung around the moon on a test flight (you know, to avoid any Apollo 13-like unpleasantness), which will be launched using a Space Launch System rocket that is the heir to the Apollo program’s Saturn V. If all goes well, astronauts will orbit the moon in 2024, leading to potential 2025-26 landing dates for Artemis 3 in the lunar south polar region. But mankind won’t be taking another giant leap by themselves on these missions. “To assist lunar science during the Artemis program, dozens of robotic experiments will be delivered to locations all across the moon between 2022 and 2025,” Keith Cooper of reports. “These experiments are being facilitated through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), in which commercial contractors are working with NASA on a $2.6 billion program to launch small science missions to the moon, with 46 payloads finalized so far.” So with all that automated tech, why do humans need to risk a lunar landing? “Purely robotic missions are slow, feeding everything through their human controllers back on Earth,” Cooper writes. “And although the introduction of artificial intelligence has automated this process somewhat, a robot does not have the quick thinking, curiosity or dexterity to make collecting rock samples an efficient process, for example.” Hopefully, that results in Americans young and old being glued to their now-mobile screens as a new era of human-robot lunar exploration unfolds. If that includes another round of moon golf, all the better. —Christian Niedan