Delivery Dilemmas, Stronger Smartphones, and Literal Everyday Apocalypses: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From fraying systems to materials science, 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.
WAS THE BULLHORN NECESSARY? YES! IT WAS LITERALLY THE WORST LUNCH EVER!
Best. Blurb. Ever.
In the war for our attention, careful deliberation doesn’t stand a chance. That’s why each day’s news seems to bring a fresh round of doomsaying and shrill panic, with the apocalypse now table stakes in our political discourse. “It’s not especially good for the country's civic health (or the psychological wellbeing of individual Americans) to have alarm bells blaring at full volume all the time from every conceivable direction,” writes The Week’s Damon Linker in a measured meditation on the hyperbole habit that is literally the worst thing ever to happen to democracy. “Yet that's increasingly the way politics plays out in our time, at once exhausting, numbing, and radicalizing us.” Every election becomes the most important contest of our lifetimes; every policy decision will be either the wreck or salvation of America. In the same way that all of our action movies are now about the destruction of the planet (or the whole universe), we have decided that every political discussion needs to be enhanced by the Inception bwwwwaaaam of doom.
Incessant alarmism has real costs, according to Linker. “It's no small thing that a significant portion of the electorate resides inside a mental universe of nonstop panic and alarm,” he writes. “Even if it's disconnected from the reality of life in the country, such funhouse-mirror thinking can easily spill over into the real world, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than an accurate portrait of the present.” It also invites a kind of learned apathy in the rest of us, a sense that civic participation isn’t worth the cost of joining a doom cult. “You need to calm down,” said a famous philosopher of public discourse named Taylor Swift. “You’re being too loud.” Pundits, politicians, and news algorithms, take heed. —Stefanie Sanford
Don't let your neighbors know you're acting as your own pizza delivery person—unless you like going on pizza runs for every single person in your building/on your block.
For many of us, the convenience of a service like Seamless or DoorDash is hard to pass up. But it’s not such a sure bet for the people making the food. App-based delivery services often come with a hefty 30% fee, which cuts into restaurants’ profits. I usually think of mom and pop eateries bearing the brunt of these costs, and I was surprised by the victim of the latest delivery driver debate: Domino's. Facing a dearth of delivery drivers, America's favorite pizza chain is paying customers $3 to pick up their pizzas directly from the store. Counterparts like Papa John's have partnered with delivery apps to use their drivers and promote their companies, but Domino's exclusively uses their own employees. The company says that third-party apps distance customers and the fees dilute earnings. But because of the tight labor market, Domino's is struggling to find enough employees. Many people are switching jobs to receive a bump in wages, with the restaurant industry leading the way. And so, Domino's pick-up incentive. It hopes the plan will reduce the number of employees it needs to operate, while staving off a reliance on third-party delivery services.
While I love Domino’s creative marketing solution—it's almost as good as its "Paving for Pizza" campaign—many restaurants do not have the resources to pay customers to pick-up their food, or even to order directly from the restaurant and not a third-party app. The Washington Post reports that 68% of restaurants are independently operated, which means the market for our mouths is extremely competitive—and often not very profitable. On the other hand, four major food delivery apps dominate the market (Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates) and work together to dominate market share, allowing them to charge exorbitant fees to restaurants and keep pay down for their drivers. The food delivery market has more than doubled during the pandemic. As we adapt to life after the arrival of covid-19, restaurants will need to navigate a new food scene dominated by delivery, and we as consumers must continue to weigh the cost of convenience. —Hannah Van Drie
Better luck next time, hammer! [This is not a phone made from the new super polymer, just a really resilient device. -Ed.]
I spend my days walking under steel skyscrapers, carrying a plastic phone, and noticing how both of those things degrade with the passage of time—whether it’s by rain and wind erosion, or by rain and wind causing me to lose my grip on the pocket supercomputer now smashed on the sidewalk. The steel industry is a product of the 19th century, and plastics arose in the 20th. Both were wonder materials in their day, but innovation doesn’t stop. What will shape and form our 21st century? Researchers at MIT might have found it. They shared their findings in "Irreversible synthesis of an ultrastrong two-dimensional polymeric material,” a paper published in Nature. What exactly is an “ultrastrong two-dimensional polymeric material?” The answer is behind a titanium-reinforced steel-slab paywell, But fortunately Anne Trafton helps shed light on it in a breakdown for SciTechDaily. “The new material is a two-dimensional polymer that self-assembles into sheets, unlike all other polymers, which form one-dimensional, spaghetti-like chains,” she writes. "Until now, scientists had believed it was impossible to induce polymers to form 2D sheets." And what does that get us? A material with the zippy name 2DPA-1, the result of a process that researchers have filed patents on. 2DPA-1 features an elastic modulus that, Trafton notes, is "between four and six times greater than that of bulletproof glass" and "its yield strength, or how much force it takes to break the material, is twice that of steel, even though the material has only about one-sixth the density of steel." Building a smartphone out of solid steel would make it unbreakably sturdy—it would also make it weigh so much no one would want, or be able, to carry it around. But a plastic-like polymer that’s stronger than steel but one-sixth the density? It could revolutionize how everything from phones to cars to buildings are made. We’re likely still aways away from 2DPA-1 becoming an everyday material. Still, never too early to line up for the inevitable bulletproof iPhone. —Christian Niedan
Thanks, Grandma—I hope it's a pension!
Watch the Entitlement Gap
The U.S. government spends more on old people than on young people—much, much more. “In 2019, the share of the federal budget spent on children was 9.2 percent and the share spent on the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid was 45 percent,” according to a joint report of the left-leaning Brookings Institution and right-leaning American Enterprise Institute released this week. “This allocation is a statement of national priorities—priorities that the working group agrees need to change.” The sharp skew of public resources toward the elderly demands a reworking of the “generational contract,” argues the Working Group on Childhood in the United States. “Rebalancing federal spending toward children and away from financially secure elderly adults, the well-off, and special interests, advances the values of promoting economic opportunity, encourages self-sufficiency, and focuses scarce resources where they will do the most good.”
This is a long-running fight. The largest chunks of the federal budget are what’s known as “entitlement spending,” automatic programs like Social Security and Medicaid that provide a broad safety net for Americans in retirement age. The problem, as the Working Group authors see it, is that too much of that money is wasted on a group of people who are disproportionately wealthy. Older Americans hold vastly more economic power than their younger compatriots, and research from the Federal Reserve has found that millennials are well behind previous generations when it comes to accumulating wealth. (Deep racial disparities adding another layer of concern.) Figuring out how to target more public spending to children and parents would go a long way in beginning to address those gaps. The Brookings/AEI report looks at everything from school funding to maternal health programs, arguing that just about any form of spending that boosts social and educational support for kids is a win for society. “The future of America rests in part on how the country prepares the next generation to live and lead. Childhood is a consequential and cost-effective time to make investments that last a lifetime.” —Eric Johnson
She's doing her part for science—are you?!
New Fangled Science
Our daughter has fully embraced being a threenager, and one place she loves testing limits—and our patience—is brushing her teeth. It’s a constant struggle, one I’m particularly obsessed with because I have terrible teeth. (Bad enamel plus old-school metal braces plus growing up in the Rust Belt without enough fluoridation in the drinking water equals a lifetime of rough dentist visits.) And with all this attention on her oral hygiene, it hit me that, wait, her baby teeth are going to start falling out! That’ll be fun… But thanks to the recent Vox piece “The secret lives of baby teeth” we can make the experience an experience in scientific discovery. (She loves love loves science.) Before reading Jackie Rocheleau’s story, I never gave much thought to our first round of teeth as anything more than the things prepping our gums for the permanent set. But it turns out they’re like tree rings or ice core samples that can tell us a lot about who children are—and the environments they’re in. “Anthropological studies have shown connections between tooth growth patterns and physical stressors such as illnesses or injuries,” Rocheleau writes, “and a few studies in the life sciences have shown that traces of toxins or pesticides can embed in baby teeth, which could make teeth useful biomarkers for assessing harmful exposures during childhood.” That’s wild. She also introduces us to researchers who have embraced researching baby teeth, like Erin Dunn (“the science tooth fairy”) and Felicitas Bidlack, who receive donated teeth from around New England. “There’s something very precious about that,” Bidlack told Vox. “Seeing those teeth, it’s really somebody’s history.” Christine Austin, an environmental health researcher, goes even further: “They’re these little living archives.” Our bodies are wild, offering up new mysteries and discoveries even when we think we’ve gotten it all figured out. (New throat organs were just discovered in 2020.) And they have ways of retaining biomarkers of past traumas—big and small—that we’d rather forget. They’re apparent in our genetics, so why not our first set of chompers? (Hips don’t lie, and neither do baby teeth? #sorrynotsorry) After reading this, I’m bummed there isn’t one of my old baby teeth floating around. I’d love to know what it tells me about a time in my life that becomes increasingly distant and hazy. Ah well. Better to turn my attention to more urgent, actionable matters—like figuring out what the disruptions to the supply chain means for my ability to order a baby-tooth-dissection machine from Amazon… —Dante A. Ciampaglia