Darn Fine Coffee, Interdimensional Extraterrestrials, and Library Connections: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From championing caffeine to championship leadership, 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.
If you don't believe the research on coffee and caffeine, surely you can trust the recommendation of Very Special Agent Dale Cooper.
The Best Part of Waking Up. And Staying Up. And Working. And Creating.
Back in 2011, YouTuber CGP Grey published one of my all-time favorite history/industry explainer videos, “Coffee: The Greatest Addiction Ever.” The core of his argument revolves around the productivity-increasing effects of coffee bean caffeine. “Caffeine is the world’s most-used psychoactive drug, and with good reason: It’s pure awesome,” he says. “It increases concentration, decreases fatigue, and gives you better memory. And this isn’t just a placebo. These are real effects replicable in a laboratory. … [And] for normal healthy humans, there are no medical concerns. Coffee and the caffeine within it may even have medical benefits, such as protection from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Parkinson’s.” Lest you think this is all hyperbole, Grey hits you with some history: “You know what else you can thank caffeine for? A little thing called the Enlightenment. In the 1600s, people drank more beer and gin than water. But with the introduction of coffee and tea, people switched from a depressant to a stimulant. It’s not surprising then that this time was an intellectual boon compared to earlier centuries. Ben Franklin and Edward Lloyd loved their coffee for the same reason that modern workers and students do. It’s invaluable for staying awake and concentrating when you need to finish a TPS report or get through that boring physics class.”
But this isn’t all just the stuff of YouTube. Jeff Haden, in a recent Inc. magazine article, put some more weight behind the benefits of caffeine—particularly when it comes to problem solving. Haden cites a 2020 study published in Consciousness and Cognition, ”Percolating ideas: The effects of caffeine on creative thinking and problem solving,” which found “significantly enhanced problem-solving abilities” from participants who consumed a 12-ounce cup of coffee (200 mg of caffeine) while the “caffeine had no significant effects on creative generation or working memory.” In Haden’s “non-researcher speak, a cup of coffee won’t necessarily make you more creative. But it can help you solve problems, even if you’re in a bad mood.” This is on top of studies presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 71st Annual Scientific Session that found two to three cups of daily coffee can lower risk of heart disease and help with a longer life. With results like that, I’m down for waking up with a few cups of joe for years to come. —Christian Niedan
Head coach Dawn Staley of the South Carolina Gamecocks reacts after cutting down the net after defeating the UConn Huskies 64-49 during the 2022 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament National Championship game at Target Center on April 03, 2022.
The South Carolina Gamecocks are national champions. Coach Dawn Staley led the NCAA women's basketball team to a 64-49 victory over the University of Connecticut on April 3 and an incredible 35-2 overall record. South Carolina dominated UConn the entire game, and the victory made me appreciate Staley's coaching ethos, which Sports Illustrated covered this week. Staley has several elite ballers on her team, including National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, but at the end of the game she recognized each of her bench players. This was not an isolated gesture; as a coach Staley strives to make each member of the squad feel valued and motivated, no matter their playing time. “We’ve asked all of our players, every single player, we’ve asked to make a sacrifice to make this year special,” Staley said. “Sometimes that's playing a whole lot. Sometimes it’s playing a little. Sometimes it’s not playing at all. On any given day, we’re in a position where we have some players that are just situational. Like this is your situation; you just have to make sure that you’re ready for when your number is called.”
Staley also uplifts other coaches. In 2017, when she won her first national title, she sent pieces of the basketball net to each Black female coach in the country. Her goal is to grow the women's basketball community and empower other Black female coaches to new heights. “What I think is important as a Black woman and coach is the way you do it, like the example that you set for other coaches to follow,” she said. “That is the exact way we’ll grow is just lifting each other up, giving us a platform where we’re encouraging, we are helping each individual be the best that they can be and succeed.” Staley’s coaching style reminds me of the qualities needed in great leaders. Successful managers know their team's strengths. They know how to encourage buy-in. They are direct about how an employee can contribute, while also encouraging them to grow and develop. And they cultivate the entire team; their focus is never only on the superstars. Staley is turning South Carolina into a perennial basketball powerhouse. If she ever decides to leave basketball for the private sector, I would work for her in a heartbeat. —Hannah Van Drie
Basically how I'd react if I ran into Jacques Vallée.
The Truth is Way, Way Out There
Maybe it’s because I read this while sleep deprived and over-caffeinated, but this Wired story about an accomplished scientist bringing a certain French philosophical je ne sais quoi to the exploration of close encounters with the unknown left me in a pleasant dream state. Jacques Vallée is no alien-hunter—little green men piloting interstellar ships is actually on the less-interesting end of Vallée’s spectrum of possibilities to explain strange objects in the sky, reported abductions, and a litany of otherworldly happenings. “Vallée has written 12 books on what he and others call ‘the phenomenon,’ the range of surreal experiences that include UFO encounters,” reports Chantel Tattoli in a trippy profile that had me feeling light-headed and unsure of what I’d just experienced, not unlike the subjects of Vallée’s research. “As he sees it, the phenomenon represents both a scientific and a social frontier. When you study it, you must harness numbers, databases, pattern-hunting algorithms—but you must also have an ethnographic streak, an interest in how culture molds understanding.”
That’s because Vallée isn’t picturing spacefarers zipping around the cosmos to spy on humanity; instead, he’s considering deeper and weirder possibilities. Maybe UFO encounters are actually glimpses into an alternate reality, a plane of existence that’s usually hidden to humans. Maybe it’s an expression of consciousness that’s only accessible in brief, shimmering moments to a small subset of the species, a sensory leap into dimensions we can’t typically access. Maybe they’re glitches in the Matrix, the constructed simulation we’re all taking part in at the whim of a higher intelligence. Vallée is not a crank, just open to the full spectrum of possibilities that few of us bother to consider. “Whatever the scientific truth here is, Vallée suspects that it may be knotted up with the secret of consciousness itself,” Tattoli writes. “The thing that philosophers call qualia—the conscious experience that each human has—seems to be more than the sum of our physical parts. There’s an unsolved x there.” I like the idea of that unsolved x, some essential quality of how we each intersect with reality that still defies understanding. We are all a little alien to ourselves sometimes. —Eric Johnson
Jouko van der Kruijssen/Getty Images
Excuse me, I'm going to crawl into and live inside this photograph.
Yellowstone is Triple-Golden
I visited Yellowstone National Park with my family way back in 1987, but I still vividly remember the eruption of Old Faithful. It was perhaps the most impressive of the many natural wonders spread across the 3,472 square-mile region of the nation’s oldest national park. Yellowstone celebrated its 150th anniversary in March, and to mark the occasion Smithsonian Magazine listed five big changes scientists have documented about the park over its lifespan as a family-friendly outdoor attraction.
The change with the most direct impact from human intervention was the removal and return of local gray wolves. The last original pack was eliminated by 1926, but a group of Canadian grays were reintroduced in 1995. One hundred now dwell within the park’s borders, helping to control local elk populations, improve the larger ecosystem, and drive ecotourism. Bison have also been on both ends of changes. The local bison herd population dropped to about two dozen in the 1880s, growing to about 1,300 in the 1950s, and today fluctuates between 2,300 and 5,500. The grass-eating and droppings of the herd impacts the ecosystem, and some are transferred to help build other herds as part of the Bison Conservation and Transfer Program.
The park these wolves and bison inhabit is also warmer than it was 150 years ago. In fact, since 1950, average annual temperatures have risen 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Average annual snowfall is down about two feet, and more precipitation falls as rain, with less snowpack water serving as a reserve protector against fire. In other words, climate change is changing the wilderness of Yellowstone—and that’s not even factoring in the supervolcano beneath the park that powers all of its geysers and hot springs. Of course the grandeur of America’s oldest national park comes with a big helping of apocalyptic danger for the whole family! —Christian Niedan
Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History
Kids use some of the first computers in the Brooklyn Public Library system, in 1997.
I Heart BPL
Since the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) reopened after its pandemic-forced closure, whenever I’ve checked out a book or DVD I’ve scanned my digital library card, embedded in the BPL app, under a barcode reader at a self-checkout terminal. Every now and then, one of those books will still have the old checkout card tucked in a sleeve inside the front cover, a relic of when librarians ca-chunked a stamp down on paper to remind you of the due date. Oh the memories… But until listening to the latest episode of the BPL’s podcast, Borrowed, I had completely forgotten about the years between stamp and kiosk, in the 1990s, when a librarian used a lightpen—basically a steel tube with a laser pointer inside wired to a computer—to scan the book’s barcode into the library’s early digital catalog system. Now those are some memories!
That dip into the past came in a show chronicling the system’s digital development and its role in the connected lives of its communities. It made computers available to patrons beginning in 1996, when “only 28% of libraries had access to the internet,” co-host Krissa Corbett Cavouras explains. That attracted Bill Gates’ attention, who gave the BPL millions of dollars as part of his “Libraries Online!” program and set the system on its digital path. By 2002, “95% of libraries had internet,” Corbett Cavouras says; 18 years later, with the internet playing a central role in our lives, libraries like the BPL were essential to anyone who didn’t have a device or connection at home who needed to do homework, apply for a job, or just watch the latest trending clip on YouTube. When the pandemic closed libraries and severed the public’s connection to this vital resource, the BPL launched BKLYN Reach to extend its free WiFi into branch communities. In 2021, it took that service on the road—literally—with its Techmobile. Even after the library reopened, BKLYN Reach and the Techmobile became essential for students of all ages on the wrong side of what co-host Adwoa Adusei describes as New York’s “stark digital divide.” Prior to listening to this episode I knew a bit about what the BPL was up to— I’ve written about Borrowed here before, when it shared how the BPL connected the incarcerated to loved ones during the pandemic. But I was totally ignorant of its long history of getting Brooklynites connected. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite serving a borough that would be the third largest city in America if it were not part of New York City, the BPL truly leans into its role as a community hub. And its community-first commitment to digitally stitching Brooklyn together is one of the reasons why it’s, hands down, the best library system in America. —Dante A. Ciampaglia