Dolly Parton Book Club, Hacking Soft Serve, and Hashtag YOLO: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From ditching keyboards for pens to Dracula’s guide to disease, 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.
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Who had "McDonald's soft serve data controversy" on their 2021 bingo card?
Do You Want Fries With That McHack?
One of the absolute, undeniable joys of summer in New York is soft serve ice cream. The trucks are everywhere—the jingles of various companies competing over the din of traffic, construction, and short-fused neighbors—and their emergence from hibernation signals the official end of winter. There’s also a tinge of danger: ice cream truck drivers have been known to threaten proprietors of rival brands with baseball bats (and worse) over contested turf in high-traffic parts of Manhattan. A bit much? Sure. But this is New Yawk! We expect a little I’m-selling-here! with our vanilla cones and rainbow sprinkles. That said, the decidedly lo-fi New York’s soft serve wars need to step it up a notch to compete in our Internet-of-Things culture.
For Wired, Andy Greenberg investigates a wild story of a couple of disruptors, Jeremy O’Sullivan and Melissa Nelson, and their “valiant effort to fix a very noncritical but ubiquitous piece of the world’s infrastructure. An effort that had been defeated not by the flaws of that machine but by the people controlling it—some of whom would rather it remain broken.” That effort pitted O’Sullivan and Nelson against McDonald’s for their galling act of… helping franchise owners see what was happening with their soft serve machines. The story is wild: One brand of ice cream machine is ubiquitous in McDonald’s locations, is overly prone to malfunction because it’s overly complex, and it has a secret hidden menu that can only be accessed by punching in a secret hidden code known only to the machine’s repair teams—who are overly expensive, cost franchise owners thousands of dollars a year, and are a required cost of business because, again, secret hidden secrets. O’Sullivan and Nelson figured out a way to give franchisees some agency over their machines, McDonald’s and the manufacturer didn’t like that, and now they’re all in court. It’s a completely unexpected story—but a microcosm of America’s inability to fix its tech, be it an iPhone or a soft serve machine, because of the lack of right-to-repair laws. It’s a story that hits all the right buttons—in its own way a code unlocking unlocks a deeper understanding of how our world works and, often, doesn’t. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
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Don't be fooled by how forced this photo with Andy Cohen, taken in 2016, looks — Dolly Parton has committed herself to literacy programs and ensuring as many books get into as many kids' hands as possible.
Reading 9 to 5, Perfect Way to Get Some Learning
My 4-year-old daughter is a big Dolly Parton fan—not for the music (at least not yet) but for the book club, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Every month, a brand new kid’s book arrives in the mailbox—free!—with my daughter’s name on it. She takes immense delight in ripping open the shrink wrap and seeing what her friend Dolly Parton has decided to send. The latest is The Ring Bearer, about a boy whose mother is getting married, prompting all kinds of anxiety about his new dad, new sister, and the risk of tripping down the aisle and losing the rings. (My daughter’s review: “When can you and Mama get married again so I can carry the rings?”) Some other recent favorites include Hair Love and Raccoon on His Own, alongside classics like The Little Engine That Could and The Snowy Day.
The genius of the Imagination Library isn’t just the book selection. It’s in the design of such a simple, effective program for promoting childhood literacy. Any kid can sign up, and the books just start showing up. No forms, no eligibility check, no money of any kind—just provide a name and an address, and beautiful children’s books with a reading guide for parents will arrive monthly in the mailbox. (Families who can afford it are encouraged to donate and support others, so you can participate and pay it forward at the same time.) Parton started the program to support early reading in Sevier County, Tennessee, the Appalachian community where she grew up. The Parton family was poor, and Dolly’s father never learned to read and write. “I just wanted to do something great for my dad and for my home county,” Parton told NPR a few years ago. “We never thought it would be this big.” The program has grown to serve more than 1.8 million children in the U.S., United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Canada. “[My dad] got to hear the kids call me 'The Book Lady,'” Parton said. “He got a big kick out of that.” —Eric Johnson
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The first five drafts of this caption were written by hand—this is still the best we could come up with. (But you should see the pile of crumpled up paper littering the home office!)
The Write Stuff
I haven’t spent a ton of time on the Art of Manliness website, being just a bit outside their target demographic. But I was intrigued to find “Handwriting/Penmanship” among the manly disciplines. “There’s a unique, unexplainable power to the idea that words are flowing from your brain, through your arm and hand, and out onto a page,” writes Jeremy Anderberg. “It’s a very physical process that just isn’t the same when it’s words flowing through a keyboard and into the digital ether.” I’d roll my eyes at that, except that I’ve spent more than a year putting nearly all of my words, spoken and written, directly into the digital ether. And Anderberg is right: After 12 months of emails and Zoom chats, it's reassuring to watch ink soak into paper. Writing by hand also forces you to slow down, to “think and filter” before you commit an idea to the page. There’s no backspacing, no easy way to delete a wrongheaded paragraph. That demands a certain discipline in your thinking.
There’s also plenty of research that manual writing activates more of your brain than simple typing, making it more likely you’ll retain the information you’re scrawling out. That’s why a lot of professors fought to limit the use of laptops in lecture halls, recognizing that pen-and-paper notetakers tend to perform better. Finally, of course, there’s the distraction factor. A computer is a finely honed machine designed to capture attention with light, sound, video, notifications, endless connections to the outside world. A pen is… a pen. When my team needed to think through a big project a few months ago, we trekked back into our dusty, half-abandoned offices and held an IRL whiteboarding session—carefully masked and distanced, of course—where we could scrawl ideas with a sharpie instead of exchanging them via online chat. It was absolutely worth the trouble. —Stefanie Sanford
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If Dracula is a stand-in for a virus—say, covid-19—does that make Lou Costello the masks we wear? Because that could explain a lot about how some people see masks...
Looooook Into My Eyyyyeeees…. Have You Been Vaccinated?
The first time I read Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula was in high school; it was on a summer reading list and I, uh, sunk my teeth into it. I loved the structure and the tone and the overarching sense of everyday heroism in the face of unspeakable, unquantifiable dread. When I encountered the book again, in a college class about vampires (which was awesome and taught by an awesome professor, who also taught a spectacular sci-fi class; we’re still friends), I found the book more slight than I remembered. All the stuff that worked the first time was still there, it just felt less weighty than it did to high school me. I haven’t read Dracula since, but I’m itching to pick it up again after reading Dr. Maddie Stone’s piece about it—"How a Pandemic Made Dracula More Relevant Than Ever"—in her excellent newsletter The Science of Fiction. I learned so much about Stoker, his relationship to 19th century cutting edge medical breakthroughs (especially about the study of infectious diseases), and how he incorporated his day’s fascination with and paranoia about viruses and transmission into his Gothic tale of vampirism and the undead. “Dracula is so rich in references to 19th century medicine and the fast-evolving science of infectious disease that one scholar described it as ‘the most significant fictional intervention in the 19th century’s debates’ on how contagions spread,” Dr. Stone writes. “But Dracula isn’t just a window into arcane medical disputes: It’s also a primer for understanding many aspects of our modern relationship with disease, from the anti-vax movement to how pandemics stoke xenophobia and racism.” She makes a convincing argument, one that reframes a literary classic and provides a lens through which we can make better sense of our pandemic moment. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Who knew YOLO was still a thing? If the New York Times is writing about, it's well and truly over, right? Whatever, look at this great-advice sloth!
Pandemic burnout has turned into post-pandemic ennui for some of the country’s most fortunate young workers, according to New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose. In “Welcome to the YOLO economy,” Roose writes about the growing number of well-paid, ambitious millennials who are ditching their safe careers for lower-key adventures in life and work. “For a growing number of people with financial cushions and in-demand skills, the dread and anxiety of the past year are giving way to a new kind of professional fearlessness,” he argues. “If ‘languishing’ is 2021’s dominant emotion, YOLOing may be the year’s defining work force trend.”
Leaving aside the rather large caveat that this is a trend limited to financially secure young people with minimal life responsibilities, it’s interesting to think about how a disruption as big as a pandemic might impact long-range attitudes toward work. Some of the country’s most sought-after industries are built on an early career trajectory that can only be described as grinding: long hours and minimal work-life balance are the norm for junior coders, engineers, financial analysts, and consultants. Snagging the prized job offer at Google or Deloitte straight out of college often means committing to years of highly intensive work behind a screen. In a much-debated essay for Buzzfeed, back in the pre-pandemic beforetimes of 2019, Anne Helen Petersen laid out the case for millennials as the “burnout generation,” pointing to the way “our generation has been trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace.” The long psychological tail of the 2008 crash created an ambient sense of anxiety among young workers, and a pandemic year of erasing home/office boundaries and losing social outlets seems to have pushed many to reconsider life priorities. Roose cites “a deeper, generational disillusionment, and a feeling that the economy is changing in ways that reward the crazy and punish the cautious.” Interesting times ahead. —Eric Johnson