Book It, Reader; Asteroid Blasters; and Disk Drive: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From what we read to why we read, 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.
Obsolesense is in the media of the beholder.
“Life moves pretty fast,” Ferris Bueller famously opines. “If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Like how I miss floppy disks? I mean, like many of us of a certain age, I just always figured the ubiquitous 3.5” plastic square storage device would always be around—even as I watched the free AOL disks go from floppy to CDs, even as I oohed and ahhed over the promise of a single USB flash drive replacing a stack of 100+ disks. But then, poof, gone! Worse, the devices to extract data from those disks rattling around desk drawers disappeared too. But as I learned the other day, thanks to every possible recommendation engine pushing the story, there’s one guy left holding down the floppy fort. AIGA’s publication Eye on Design recently excerpted an interview from Niek Hilkmann & Thomas Walskaar’s book Floppy Disk Fever (what a great title) with Tom Persky, owner of the business, and website, floppydisk.com, who calls himself the “last mans standing” in the disk business. The interview is long, and there’s a lot in it worth reading—from how he got into the disk game, via tax law, to how much inventory he has to who buys his disks. (It’s hobbyists and artists, but also companies in the medical and aviation industries. “Probably half of the air fleet in the world today is more than 20 years old and still uses floppy disks in some of the avionics,” he says. That’s, cough, reassuring.)
But what I loved about it was his passion for this tech, seemingly rendered useless by every subsequent media. “To me, the floppy disk is a highly refined, technical, stable, not very hackable, way to get relatively small amounts of data where you want it,” Persky says. “I grew up in the days of the Sneakernet and at the time, the floppy disk was how we moved information around. It’s a really remarkable thing. There’s a beauty and elegance to them. I can see how complicated they are, and what an elegant solution they were for their time.” And there’s something inspiring about his commitment to work that many would dismiss as equally obsolete. When asked if he’s ever thought about ejecting this career, Persky replies, “No, I’m now 72 years old and I’ve been a tax lawyer, a software developer, and a CD/DVD duplicator. Some people like Sudoku, some people like crossword puzzles. Me, I just like to get up in the morning, have people ask me questions, and try to solve problems. My business is a little bit of an adventure for me every day.” Anyone who works with digital anything—like, say, an online publication—will find themselves approaching or in the dustbin one day. It’s the nature of technological advancement and progress. We should all meet that moment with the grace and clarity of Tom Persky. I just wish I hadn’t trashed all those floppies I once had… —Dante A. Ciampaglia
The Rad Readers merit badge for people of a certain age.
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
Exclusive footage from the DART mission live feed.
Atari, But Make It Real
"Planetary defense officer" is by far the coolest job title I've ever seen. It belongs to NASA's Lindley Johnson, who spearheaded the first-ever mission to shift the trajectory of an asteroid by slamming a spacecraft into it. NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART! Get it?) ended in a smashing success earlier this week when a 1,260 lb spacecraft hit the rocky surface of “asteroid moonlet” Dimorphos. The collision kicked up a cloud of space dust and a whole lot of excitement at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, where the engineers on the planetary defense squad were assembled. “DART’s success provides a significant addition to the essential toolbox we must have to protect Earth from a devastating impact by an asteroid,” said Johnson. “This demonstrates we are no longer powerless to prevent this type of natural disaster.”
While I’m bummed that we won’t be dispatching Bruce Willis and a team of spacefaring roughnecks to nuke an asteroid while rocking out to Aerosmith, it’s just mind-blowingly awesome that we can hit a hunk of rock zipping through the galaxy with a spacecraft that traveled 56,000 miles for the job. If the dinosaurs had this kind of technology, Jurassic Park could’ve been a documentary. Ever since learning about asteroid defense research as part of a high school science class, it struck me as insane that the United States spends more on pet food every year than we spend on trying to prevent one of the best-known and most potent threats for an extinction-of-the-species-level catastrophe. It wasn’t until 2010 that NASA’s planetary defense mission got serious, evolving to include not just dedicated skywatching and threat detection but plans for programs like DART, which hold out the promise of deflecting an asteroid away from earth before it can turn human civilization into an archeological relic. “The growing focus on planetary defense can be seen in a number of initiatives that NASA and congressional appropriators have sponsored,” reports the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang. “One is the Vera Rubin Observatory, a new telescope in Chile that is financed by the United States and will systematically scan the night sky and find thousands of potentially hazardous asteroids. Another is the NEO Surveyor, a space-based telescope that NASA is working to build. It too will find many hazardous asteroids, including some that are hard to spot from Earth. If any of those asteroids turn out to be on a collision course with Earth, the DART mission shows that deflecting them is a realistic possibility.” —Eric Johnson
You know what, Frankfurt? That's a solid skyline. Gut gemacht.
Relishing a Jumbo Skyscraper Boom
The sky’s the limit when it comes to urban planning and design—except in Europe. While most of the world’s densest locales have been building ever-taller skyscrapers, from the pencil-shaped ghost towns of Billionaires’ Row in New York to the towers of China’s insta-cities. But in Paris, the Eiffel Tower—all 1,083 feet of it—is still the city of light’s tallest structure. The 590-foot Tour Duo 1 opened in 2021, and the 720-foot Tour Hekla, Paris’ third-tallest building in Paris, went online this year. Both count as major additions to the City of Light’s skyline. (As a point of comparison, the second-tallest building in New York—Central Park Tower, 1,550 feet— opened in 2021, and the third-tallest—111 W. 57th Street, 1,428 feet—opened this year.) The Parisian story can be found repeated in Madrid and Berlin. And while you can find skyscrapers in other European cities, one is embracing the build unlike any other: Frankfurt.
In a recent video report, The B1M, “Europe’s New Skyscraper Capital Isn’t Where You Think,” chalks up the lagging European skyscraper market to “inclination to preserve heritage buildings, past failures that left eyesores on famous city skylines, and a tendency to group what skyscrapers they do have into clusters outside of the city: think Paris’ La Défense, London’s Canary Wharf, or Moscow’s International Business Center.” But B1M reports that Frankfurt’s skyscraper ascension (it has 95% of Germany’s total) stems from the city’s unusually limited building development zone, the destruction of pre-World War II cityscape allowing for later development, and its post-war banking/financial boom that fueled demand. The top 13 tallest skyscrapers in Germany are all in Frankfurt, with the largest, Commerzbank Tower, topping out at (a modest) 850 feet. (New York’s Woolworth Building, one of the earliest modern skyscrapers and for a time the tallest building in the world, opened in 1910 at 792 feet.) With more than 50 skyscrapers actively being built or planned for the city’s skyline—including Germany’s tallest, the planned 945-foot Millennium Tower—it’s high time many Americans think of faraway Frankfurt as more than the birthplace of the hot dog. —Christian Niedan
Yeah! This is awesome! There are so many.... Heyyyyy. Where's the Ye content??
The Not-So-Funny Pages
The state of the American newspaper should be of concern for everyone, if only because robust local newspapers are a civic good and a necessary guardrail for and extender of democracy. And while realities like disappearing newsrooms leading to news deserts leading to cynicism, polarization, and corruption are true and worth our attention, a recent Washington Post article highlights another aspect of the crisis. Lee Enterprises, owners of nearly 80 papers, “is transitioning to a ‘uniform set of offerings’ with its comics, puzzles and advice columns,’ per the article. I’m sure the puzzles and advice piece of that is worrisome to readers who love regional-specific Sudoku, but the focus of the article is, as it should be, on the funny pages. All of those papers will max out at a half-page of comics—if, that is, a paper doesn’t dump the section entirely. The goal, per an announcement in Lee-owned St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “is to make sure [the company] can still devote resources to local news coverage and strong journalism.” Except robust comics pages do that, too. The WaPo article, published in print as “Shrinking of comics pages draws concern for cartoonists,” talks to some of those who will be impacted, like Dan Piraro, creator of “Bizarro” (a personal favorite), and Patrick McDonnell, who makes “Mutts” (as beautiful a comic as you’ll ever find). They’re rightly worried about their incomes and the relationships readers have with them and their work. But there’s another impact: the creation of the next generation of news readers.
Like a lot of kids, my introduction to the paper was the comics. Once I got done with “Peanuts” and “The Far Side” and “Garfield,” I picked up other sections and discovered what was happening in my community, my country, my world. I never looked back. Will reading digital comics have that same impact? Doubtful, particularly when those sites surround comics not with good journalism but base clickbait. (Speaking of: The WaPo article online is titled “Is the print newspaper comics page in trouble?” Just... stop.) If we as a nation want to create a better media culture, we need to start by creating better media. Is that in print? Online? Yes. And a crucial part of that is creating a product everyone can read—and wants to read. It’s alienating enough that major metropolitan newspapers give their front page, above-the-fold headline story spot over to wire copy rather than homegrown reporting. But a slimmed-down comics section homogenized across 80 different newspapers? That’s just begging readers to leave. (Call me old-fashioned, but conflict- and celebrity-oriented “content” doesn’t create engaged, savvy readers, it breeds consumers.) Media companies should be begging them to stay, and giving them the material they need to interest a friend or relative—particularly a young person. Yeah, the paper has lots of news from warzones and crisis spots, and yeah there are a lot of boring politicians, but—look!—there’s Snoopy, too! And Spider-Man! And… whatever nonsense Dan Piraro cooks up. And it’s all yours, and mine, and ours. Wait, are we talking about newspapers or communities? Yes. —Dante A. Ciampaglia