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Captain Kirk Reflects, America Gambles, and Business School Rock: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From overview effects to reviewing music education, 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.

A horizontal studio shot showing an assortment of Virginia Lottery scratch-off cards that have all been scratched to reveal that each card is a losing ticket.

CatLane/Getty Images

Even if they're all losers, long as you had fun scratching off the ticket that's all that matters, right?

The House Always Wins

Back in my early 20s, I went to a riverboat casino in Indiana, put two quarters in a double-wild-cherry slot machine, and hit the jackpot. As the digital quarter counter kept going up and up and up, it eventually stopped at 10,000—$2,500! (This was a lot of money to a new college graduate in the ‘90s!) It was the first time I saw why people really love to gamble. And as this article in the New Yorker about a new history of lotteries explains, a lot of people put their money in the numbers. One in two adults buy a lottery ticket every year, which has led all but five states to provide a lottery as a government service. And while you gotta be in it to win it, there’s one one real big winner (spoiler alert: it’s the lottery-ticket makers).

The article relays the fascinating backstory of how Americans and their governments grew to support lotteries. The short version is we all thought everyone else would buy tickets to support public works we didn’t want to pay taxes for, so we’re meant to feel good about buying lottery tickets because our bets support public education or public infrastructure projects. In reality, very little of that money makes it to a state’s coffers, and, as the article details, those who can least afford to buy tickets are those who do, lured in by the distant hope of winning millions.  

I buy lottery tickets every so often, often for holiday gifts. My kids have gotten a few scratch-offs over the years and they’re so excited when they win $5, or even $2. “Free money!” they will exclaim. Well, as the article makes plain, not exactly free. —Michele McNeil

Seven people sit around a couch on a TV set talking

Paul Drinkwater/NBC via Getty Images

The cast of "Friends", actors Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox-Arquette, David Schwimmer, and Jennifer Aniston sat down with Jay Leno for a special "Tonight Show," on the set of Central Perk on May 6, 2004.

Friend Request

A few months ago, I read (and wrote about) an article about the forces that drive friendships, but how many friends do we actually need? I have wondered this generally, but as I thought about who to invite to celebrate my birthday with me this year, after several years of turmoil and limits on social activities, this question hit me acutely. Do I have too few friends, or too many? Journalist Catherine Pearson pondered this question in a New York Times article earlier in the year. She cites some sad statistics about the effects of the pandemic. Thirty years ago, a Gallup study found that 3% of Americans had no close friends. In 2021, that number jumped to 12%. An AEI survey found that 13% of women and 8% of men in their 30s and 40s lost touch with most of their friends during the pandemic. The numbers were slightly higher for people aged 18-29, with 16% of women and 9% of men losing touch with their friends. While these numbers mean that the majority of people in the United States have retained friendships, 8-16% is still significant, especially considering the health effects of loneliness: a 2010 study found it had the same effects on people's health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That doesn't mean we need to go out and make a bunch of new friends, though. Psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed a popular theory that humans can only maintain 150 connections at one time, including an inner circle of approximately five close friends and larger groups of more casual relationships. But rather than focus on specific numbers, psychologist Marisa Franco suggests it's more important to get in touch with our emotions: Do I feel lonely? Do parts of my identity feel restricted? These questions help get at the subjective, deeply personal nature of friendship and its value-add to our lives. They also provide clarity for my birthday. The people attending bring so much joy and growth to my life, so the number is just right. —Hannah Van Drie

Four people in blue and black jumpsuits pose for a photograph

Blue Origin

The crew of Blue Origin's second manned flight, from left, Chris Boshuizen, William Shatner, Audrey Powers, and Glen de Vries. If you're blasting into space, is there really any better crewmate than Captain Kirk?

Final Frontiers

Dad sent along this lovely and funny essay from William Shatner —Captain Kirk himself!—about his brief foray into space aboard a Blue Origin rocket last year. “At two g’s, I tried to raise my arm, and could barely do so,” Shatner writes. “At three g’s, I felt my face being pushed down into my seat. I don’t know how much more of this I can take, I thought. Will I pass out? Will my face melt into a pile of mush? How many g’s can my ninety-year-old body handle?” Shatner’s nonagenarian body made it up and back in one piece, giving him the chance to reflect on the “Overview Effect,” the way that seeing the Earth from afar, in all its miraculous beauty and fragility, can change the way you feel about our home planet. “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness,” Shatner writes, explaining a profound and sudden recognition of all we take for granted. “It reinforced tenfold my own view on the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective human entanglement, and eventually, it returned a feeling of hope to my heart.”

Pair that philosophical take with this mind-bending piece of reporting on the hunt for “technosignatures” in distant worlds, with scientists across a range of disciplines debating what kind of atmosphere-altering effects an alien civilization might create. We now have telescopes powerful enough to spot subtle changes in the composition of distant planets, like the pollution that comes from creating energy on an industrial scale or producing complex chemicals that wouldn’t occur naturally. But predicting exactly what kind technology aliens might deploy is tricky, because, you know, they’re aliens. “Just because that’s the way we did it, does it mean everyone else would?” asked one of the participants in a NASA-sponsored conference on alien tech. “What if you have a civilization of octopuses?” What a great question! What if you have a civilization that harvests other planets for resources? Will aliens be farmers? Will they burn things, or get energy some other way? You need to puzzle these things out so you can try to guess what the atmosphere of an inhabited planet might look like. “As difficult as it is for humans to imagine alien species, imagining long time frames is equally challenging,” reports Jon Gertner. “Modern science as a discipline is only about 500 years old. The transistor, the building block of modern technologies, is around 75 years old. The first iPhone came out 15 years ago. How would a technological society evolve over 10,000 years? Over a million?” Even NASA needs to write a little science fiction, it turns out. — Eric Johnson

A white collar business man working in a retro 1980's style office stands on his desk piled with paperwork and documents, shredding some rock and roll on his electric guitar.

RyanJLane/Getty Images


Biz School Chart Toppers

Paul McCartney’s towering musical legacy is impeccable and unimpeachable thanks to his time in The Beatles, his decades of solo recording, and, yes, even Wings. And there’s never a lack of opportunity to revisit Maca’s contributions to pop culture, be it a doorstop book of his lyrics or a major album reissue, like this month’s special edition of the 1966 Beatles opus Revolver. But October brings another bit of recognition for McCartney’s diverse music-related efforts, with Billboard including the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts (LIPA), which McCartney co-founded in 1996, among its 2022 list of Top Music Business Schools. Also included from Great Britain: the BIMM Institute in Brighton, the BRIT School in Croydon, and the Abbey Road Institute in London; the Berklee College of Music sister campus in Valencia, Spain, was the only entry on the European continent.

The inclusion of these distant programs was part of a larger effort by Billboard to increase the list’s geographic diversity beyond traditional big name American schools, which usually have a hefty tuition. So some American institutions made the cut that you might not expect. The compilers say they utilized “industry recommendations, alumni information provided by honorees from our multiple power lists, information requested from each school and nearly a decade of reporting on these programs” to build the list. But, Billboard noted, “at a time of cost-consciousness, we have prioritized the inclusion of more affordable public colleges and universities,” and added “two of the nation’s oldest historically black universities, Fisk University in Nashville and Howard University in Washington D.C.”

Billboard also assures its readers that “these are young men and women running all aspects of on-campus record labels, crafting career-launching business plans, engaging in data analysis and benefiting from on-campus speakers who represent the highest levels of the music business, both artists and executives alike.” In other words, they’re good places to study how to manage bands like the next Beatles, produce records like George Martin, and found labels like Apple Corps. The McCartney legacy strikes again. —Christian Niedan

Old man on the right leaving a newsstand as people on the left go into and out of a subway station

Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

The venerable newsstand, like this one Christopher Street Station in Greenwich Village, as it used to be when a fixture of the New York City streetscape.

A New Stand for the Newsstand

A couple weeks ago, The City, a non-profit newsroom reporting on New York, published an article about a really cool initiative: repurposing shuttered newsstands across NYC into waystations for the Big Apple’s 65,000 deliverypeople. Little sheds in places like Central Park, that once hawked bottles of water, lottery tickets, and copies of the New York Post, will now give these truly essential workers a place to recharge their ebikes, phones, and themselves. This cohort routinely chases work delivering everything from groceries to cups of coffee to New Yorkers who demand their orders arrive yesterday, which takes them across the boros in all weather conditions. But they're considered independent contractors, and one of their central concerns, exacerbated by the pandemic, is they don’t have places where they can reliably get warm in the winter and cool in the summer, go to the bathroom, or simply take a breather. It’s a great example of urban infrastructural reuse, with little downside but major upside, especially if fully implemented—the first of these converted newsstands likely won’t open for delivery drivers until 2023.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling wistful for what’s being replaced. Newsstands are kind of wonderful places, with a real legacy as community hubs, for kids (picking up comic books) and adults (anxiously awaiting the early edition of their favorite tabloid) alike, not only in cities like New York but small towns all over the country. And like newspapers, these places are disappearing. Fast. Even in a place as central to media as New York. Which is why I fell hard for Trevor Traynor’s photography series of 100 newsstands, taken in 20 cities in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa. The images capture the mad chaos of the newsstand—in some photos it looks like we’re about to be swallowed up by the sheer mass of stuff on sale—and the human beings at the (literal) center of them. It’s clearly thankless work, especially in our very-online times, but this is their livelihood. And they look, if not happy, then at home. And sure they may be more snacks and, um, recreational products than reading materials in many of these photos, but these newsstands clearly meet a need—consumer-wise, if not civically. I love this series, not only as a document of these truly important spaces, but also, in context of the delivery drivers story, as a node in a continuum of urban experience. I could look at these photos all day, but, if you’ll excuse me, there are a few things I need to pick up at Casa Magazines. —Dante A. Ciampaglia