View of Earth rising over the Moon's horizon taken from the Apollo 11 spacecraft

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Bordeaux Blasts Off, Ocean Hot Dogs, and Supreme Student Speech: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From fine space vintages to the secret history of fish sticks, 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.

Young woman in a cheerleader outfit smiling and holding pom poms while standing between two school busses

Courtesy of the ACLU

Brandi Levy—and her frustrated Snapchat post—is at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case that could determine the future of student speech.

Free Bird

The Supreme Court spent some time this week hearing the saga of an angry cheerleader. And what they eventually decide about Brandi Levy’s Constitutional right to give the finger (on Snapchat) to her school could reshape disciplinary rules across the nation. “When the Internet amplifies student ‘speech’ far beyond the schoolhouse gate, the justices professed to having a hard time drawing clear lines between when discipline was appropriate and when it endangers the free speech rights of 50 million public school students,” reported The Washington Post after listening to Wednesday’s oral arguments. At issue in Levy’s case is whether school authorities have the right to discipline a student for a profane rant posted on social media, especially if that rant is ostensibly directed at school officials (like the cheerleading coaches who decided not to promote Levy to the varsity cheer squad). The content of Levy’s Snapchat post is definitely crass, and it’s fair to say that any student shouting her words in the hallway between classes would have been sent straight to detention. But the issue before the court is whether speech that happens away from school, on social media, can be subject to school oversight if officials deem it “disruptive to the school environment.”
Student groups are worried. “Students in our nation’s public schools play a critical—albeit often overlooked and undervalued—role in our democracy,” wrote a collection of student advocates in a 41-page amicus brief filed in the case. “Their civic engagement should not be stifled simply because it challenges school authority.” They point to social media’s role in organizing protest movements, lobbying efforts, and social justice campaigns, and warn that giving school administrators the power to police off-campus content will have a muzzling effect. At the same time, administrators point to the torrent of abusive, bullying, and threatening comments they regularly see directed at students, and say they’ll be powerless to take action if the court gives blanket protection to student speech. The Justices have their work cut out for them. “I’m quite concerned about the effect of this on freedom of speech,” Justice Samuel Alito said during oral arguments. “I think we need clear lines.” Figuring out how to draw those lines in the digital world looks way harder than making the varsity squad. The case is Mahanoy Area School District vs. B.L.Eric Johnson

Young woman holding a Fish Finger Sandwich of deep fried fish sticks between two slices of white bread oozing with tomato ketchup

Clark and Company/Getty Images

The only thing possibly more gross than this picture of a "Fish Finger Sandwich" is knowing that the fish sticks came off a fishbrick of frozen fish flesh.

Ocean Hot Dogs > Chicken of the Sea

What is it about fish sticks that make them so delicious? It's got to be that patent designation US2724651A. (Any good chef will tell you, you can't make an omelet without securing a U.S. patent number.) That's just one of the mind-blowing fish stick facts that left me reeling after reading Hakai Magazine's absolutely essential history of the humble frozen food. Here's another: We have fish sticks thanks to technology creating too-efficient means of fishing, which left fishers with too much fish, which meant they froze their bountiful harvests to keep them fresh(ish), which led to—I hope you're sitting down—"fishbricks." "These were packaged like blocks of ice cream, with the idea that a home cook could chop off however much fish she wanted that day," Ute Eberle writes. This might be hard to believe, but there wasn't really a market for selling blocks of fish flesh in supermarkets. But when they were cut into strips and coated in batter? Eureka! Apparently ice-cream like fishbricks don't resonate with consumers as much as foodstuff that resembles "the ocean's hot dogs." (I think I'm going to be seasick.) That phrase was coined by Paul Josephson, who teaches Russian and Soviet history at Colby College and is so immersed in the subject he calls himself "Mr. Fish Stick." And yes, he has published academically about the food. "The research for it required him to get information from seafood companies, which proved unexpectedly challenging. “In some ways, it was easier to get into Soviet archives having to do with nuclear bombs,” he recalls." Hook, line, and sinker, Hakai. —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Illustration of a bottle pouring wine into a glass but done to look like a constellation

Igor Shishov/Getty Images

To Infinity, and Bordeaux! [I prefer a good Château Picard myself... -Ed.]

Who’s the Designated Driver on the Next Falcon 9?

When I interviewed former astronaut Bernard Harris last month, he explained that blasting into space usually begins with a specialty in some other branch of science. “You need deep expertise in another field, usually something in STEM, before you join the astronaut corps,” Harris said. Because NASA conducts different kinds of experiments in space, they’ve needed botanists, marine biologists—even a veterinarian. Now they might need to add a sommelier to the list. Twelve bottles of very high-end Bordeaux recently returned to Earth after 14 months aboard the International Space Station, part of a research project by Space Cargo Unlimited and the University of Bordeaux’s “Vine & Wine” research institute. “Despite the 14-month stay on the International Space Station, the ‘space wine’ was very well evaluated sensorially,” Bordeaux professor Philippe Darriet concluded, according to the wine scribes at At $6,500 a bottle (for the regular, Earthy version), it had better be.
There is, supposedly, a point to this orbital insanity. “European startup Space Cargo Unlimited is focused on turning microgravity benefits into viable commercial ventures on Earth,” reports TechCrunch. "It just announced it will be working with global vine nursery company Mercier on applying the benefits of space to create [hardier] wine grape vines.” In addition to the pricey bottles of red, they also dispatched more than 300 vine canes—young shoots for new grape vines—to the ISS to research the biological response to environmental changes. These private-sector studies are now possible because blasting things into space has gotten so much cheaper in the age of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the Boeing Starliner. “More affordable and frequent access to space has made it a much more promising commercial avenue for many companies and startups that previously wouldn’t have been able to justify the associated costs or time frames around the work,” according to TechCrunch. Still no word on when we’ll see the first orbiting wine bar. —Stefanie Sanford

Frustrated schoolgirl with her head against a chalkboard

KidStock/Getty Images

New research confirms that the transition from middle to high school has huge implications for a student's path to higher education. But incomplete data and inconsistent tracking mean too many struggling students get left behind.

Stuck in the Middle

Some of the key moments on the path to college happen before students and teachers are even thinking that far ahead. That’s one of the key findings from a study by EY-Parthenon, which found that the transition from eighth to ninth grade plays a huge role in determining whether students are on track to college or already falling behind. Researchers also found plenty of students were ready to succeed in college but didn’t get the guidance and advice they needed to keep going. “Across the districts in the cohort, there were between 10% and 30% of students who the data indicated were ‘on track’ to be successful in a four-year or two-year college but did not actually enroll in a post-secondary institution,” the report found, looking at data from five New England districts. Well targeted college advising could have changed the outcome for those students.

Schools put a lot of emphasis on high school graduation rates, which are often tied to state accountability systems and even funding levels. There’s far less pressure to track college enrollment and completion data, to find the key variables that might influence whether students make a successful leap from K12 to higher ed. There’s no easy mechanism to transfer data between colleges and K12 systems, so school administrators don’t have a lot of information on how to improve outcomes. “In linking these data sets and analyzing a full cohort of students, this report attempts to show that there is real utility in tracking and extensively evaluating this type of data,” researchers write. “There are significant opportunities for developing effective interventions in response to data findings.” The researchers put a lot of stock in eighth grade “early warning indicators”—lagging scores on reading or math tests, poor grades in their final middle-school classes. Getting to those students and parents before they start ninth grade, adding extra support and helping them understand the stakes, can be powerful. Most kids don’t know that their performance in ninth grade math and reading makes a big difference in their college options, but it does. They deserve to know it early enough to do something about it. —Eric Johnson

Astronaut Michael Collins, in his space suit, looking over documents in a space capsule


Command Module (CM) pilot Michael Collins practices in the CM simulator on June 19, 1969, at Kennedy Space Center.

He Carried the Fire

“I have been places and done things you simply would not believe. I feel like saying: I have dangled from a cord a hundred miles up; I have seen the earth eclipsed by the moon, and enjoyed it. I have seen the sun’s true light, unfiltered by any planet’s atmosphere. I have seen the ultimate black of infinity in a stillness undisturbed by any living thing.”

Godspeed, Michael Collins— Apollo 11 command module pilot, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, "eloquent advocate for continued space exploration." (Seriously, go read his exquisite autobiography Carrying the Fire.) —Dante A. Ciampaglia