Grand Theft Auto, Orchestral Interludes, and Zooming Out: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From missing car parts to missing real life, 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.
"Sorry, I have a hard out in 10 minutes. It's high tide."
Meatverse > Metaverse
“The average American adult spends more than 9 hours a day looking at a digital screen,” writes Alan Lightman in his latest essay for The Atlantic. “That’s more than half of our waking hours.” I don’t have any trouble believing him. After the covid pandemic reduced all of my work colleagues to tiny Zoomboxes and much of my social life to email check ins and the occasional on-screen chat, it felt like the entire outside world was funneled into my apartment through a Wi-Fi connection. But as Lightman reminds us, the outside world is still very much… outside. “Nature nourishes our spiritual selves,” he argues, and the absence of nature in our day-to-day lives leaves us feeling anxious and unmoored. A good walk in the woods isn’t just exercise for your legs, but for your mind and spirit. “I think we have lost something else in our removal from nature, something more subtle and harder to measure: a groundedness, a feeling of connection to things larger than ourselves, a calm against the frenzied pace of our wired world, a source of creativity.”
Tapping into that feeling is easier than we imagine. I am no one’s idea of a crunchy granola outdoorswoman; I’ll take a nice hotel room over a rugged campsite pretty much any day. But just as Lightman says, I’ve found myself chasing nature as the screen-addled days have dragged on into years. I've spent long stretches with my mom and aunt in our multi-generational commune outside of Austin, which lets me wake up to walks in the hill country and views of the bluebonnets in the spring. I've decamped to the beach for weeks at a time, so the day can begin and end with toes in the sand and a view of the infinite, churning ocean. There are plenty of studies, from psychologists to stress researchers, confirming what basic intuition would suggest: a little immersion in nature goes a long way in resetting our pace and our perspective. “Hospital patients in rooms with foliage or windows looking out on gardens and trees do better after surgery. Workers in offices with windows that open up to pastoral-like views have less anxiety, more positive work attitudes, and more job satisfaction,” Lightman writes. Japanese therapists are prescribing “forest bathing,” or long walks in the quiet woods, to help their patients regain a sense of balance. “Our brains evolved over the millions of years that we lived in the savannas and plains, not in the covered constructions of the past few thousand years.” So whether you’ve got a beautiful mountain vista or just a few sidewalk trees within reach, make some time to step outside the screen, outside the house, outside the frantic rush of your day. Don’t let the actual world zoom by. —Stefanie Sanford
Look at all those smiling faces, happy and energized by being in a room, together, with people young and old, alike and dissimilar. ... Have room for one more?
This may be a little on-the-nose, but one of the things that made me a lot smarter over the last year was being in class—specifically helping plan and write about a graduate seminar on higher education at the University of North Carolina, where I work a second job during my brief breaks from College Board. My good friend and UNC colleague Buck Goldstein wrote a lovely little essay last week about what made the class so productive and fun, and I think he nails it: “The sense of trust among a very diverse group of people was among the strongest I’ve ever felt in a classroom.” The magic of a well-run seminar is that it allows people with very different backgrounds to become friends and confidantes in the span of just a few weeks, getting comfortable sharing personal insights and engaging in sharp arguments within a shared spirit of goodwill.
One of the things that made our course so effective was building “Why Am I Here?” presentations into each session, giving every member of the class—including professors—a chance to open up about their background and explain the journey that led them to Carolina and that particular classroom. It was fascinating to see how people think about the turning points in their own lives: mentors who gave them good advice, scholarship programs that changed their school trajectory, random bits of reading that sparked curiosity and sent them down a completely different professional path. “Deciding to devote your life to a set of scholarly questions—how to cure addiction, how to repair trust in media, how to prevent injuries in young athletes—is an unusual choice,” Buck writes. “Hearing how people arrived at that decision was truly heartening and sharing those very personal journeys built immense trust.” After 18 months of Zoom meetings and virtual get-togethers, building that trust in person was an amazing feeling. —Eric Johnson
It has been scientifically proven that there's no better catalytic converter theft deterrent than a homemade placard duct taped to your bumper. I'd just like to see you *try* and take it, thieves!
Cataclysmic Catalytic Converter Catastrophe
I began 2022 by becoming a statistic: my Toyota Prius' catalytic converter was stolen, one of countless cars vandalized as part of a national trend that I didn't know even existed. These discoveries were made after I took the car to my mechanic. It was making a weird noise—something like the sound of a 747 taking off. I thought it was the muffler, but my mechanic told me I was missing my catalytic converter. I had never heard of the part, so I googled it and was quickly swept up in the world of precious metal theft. According to the Washington Post, there has been a surge of such incidents during the pandemic. Catalytic converters contain metals like platinum and rhodium that are valuable on the black market because of a boom in their value. The price of rhodium hit record highs in 2021, climbing more than 200% since March 2020; theft has skyrocketed accordingly. The converters can go for more than $1,000 a piece. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), in 2018, 108 catalytic converters were stolen on average each month. In 2020, that number jumped to more than 1,200. "There is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources, and disruption of the supply chain that drives investors towards these precious metals,” said David Glawe, NICB president and chief executive.
Toyota Priuses and other hybrid vehicles are particularly at risk. Their converters see less corrosion and have higher quantities of the precious metals, making them more valuable. In Takoma Park, not far from my own neighborhood, every catalytic converter theft between January and September 2021 was from Priuses. The police department started etching license plate numbers on converters (and adding bright-white spray paint) and including a sticker that reads, “This vehicle’s catalytic converter has been etched by the Takoma Park Police Dept” to deter thieves from targeting vehicles in the area. While unfortunately too late for me—this time around—I'll be checking out etching options with my own police department soon. —Hannah Van Drie
Student loan borrowers and the Too Much Talent Band rally to demand student debt cancellation at a gathering outside the White House on January 13, 2022.
To Borrow is Human, To Forgive Divinely Complicated
The conversation around student loan debt, always a political hot potato, reached new levels of urgency during the pandemic. Payments were put on hold as part of economic relief packages, as were increased levels of loan forgiveness for certain workers. These policies not only reflected the reality of life under covid, but also that politicians across political spectrum are coming around to the reality that college borrowing has gotten out of hand in the last two decades. Outstanding debt on federal student loans—not even counting private borrowing—is nearly $1.4 trillion, and the Census Bureau estimates student loans are among the largest contributors to household debt for young Americans. Prior to the pandemic, Pew Research estimated that about one-third of Americans under 30 carried some level of student debt, with huge variation in the amounts owed: the higher the education level attained, the higher the average debt. But it’s students who failed to graduate who have the hardest time repaying what they owe. “The default rate among borrowers who didn't complete their degree is three times as high as the rate for borrowers who did earn a diploma,” NPR reported in 2019. “When these students stop taking classes, they don't get the wage bump that graduates get that could help them pay back their loans.” All of that mounting worry has led policymakers and activists to call on the federal government to forgive hundreds of billions in outstanding loans, “with some calling for $50,000 per borrower and others pressing for full forgiveness,” the Washington Post reported last month. “Proponents say reducing the burden of student loans would help stimulate the economy and close the racial wealth gap, as Black borrowers shoulder a disproportionate amount of debt.”
That kind blanket amnesty for student borrowers would be a mistake, argues Adam Looney at the Brookings Institution. That’s because people with more education—people who borrowed to attend college, in other words—tend to be far better off financially than their peers who didn’t go on to higher education. That makes any proposal for large-scale loan forgiveness a kind of regressive tax, calling on all Americans to further subsidize their wealthier, college-educated fellow citizens. “Wealth, properly measured, should include the value of educational investments students borrowed to make” Looney argues in a new Brookings paper. “Measured appropriately, student debt is concentrated among high-wealth households and loan forgiveness is regressive whether measured by income, educational attainment, or wealth. Across-the-board forgiveness is therefore a costly and ineffective way to reduce economic gaps by race or socioeconomic status.” Looney isn’t against all proposals for reducing student debt, but he thinks they have to be closely targeted to benefit the neediest students. That means more grants for low-income and minority students to attend schools with higher graduation rates, and an expansion of existing income-based repayment plans to tie debt more closely to income levels. “There are better, more effective, and more progressive ways to reduce racial wealth gaps,” he writes. Money, fairness, and opportunity are always complicated. —Eric Johnson
After two years of nightmares, we could all do with a little wonderment.
My Year of Living Classically
The start of 2022 means my wife, daughter, and I are renewing a practice we started last year but never completed (for reasons I’ll get to). On our bookshelf is a copy of Clemency Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day. It’s exactly what it sounds like: 366 pieces of classical music—complete works (not too long), movements, arias, you name it—assigned to every day of the year. (The book was released in 2018, a leap year, lucky us!) Each night at dinner, I pull the book down, read that day’s entry, and play the piece from a Spotify playlist that took a very long time to create. (It’s buffet or bare shelves when it comes to finding classical music on streaming services.) My wife, an almost-professional classical violaist who still performs (when she can) knows way more of these pieces than me, a classical lover relatively ignorant of the culture’s grammar and personalities. Our daughter, meanwhile, swings between loving the music (“Let’s dance!” she’ll say, bolting from the dinner table) to demanding we switch to her playlist (The Singing Walrus is decent as far as kids’ music goes, but everything in moderation), which is one reason why we only got to February 22 last year. But regardless of what we bring to the music, we all get something out of it—a testament to Burton-Hill, a journalist, violinist, and host on BBC Radio 3. "So often people feel that so called 'classical' music is something 'other'...something they need to 'know' something about before they can let themselves enjoy it," Burton-Hill writes. "It's not—it all comes from the same source." She uses the book to prove this point, while also expanding our understanding of the world—musical and otherwise—around us. Burton-Hill is a sensational guide, and her pieces are exquisitely lively and often quite moving.
A couple of my favorites from January:
“O virtus sapientiae” by Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098-1179), “one of the first identifiable composers of Western music,” who was also “a nun, writer, scientist, philosopher, prophet, and a Christian visionary” who also composed at least 70 pieces of music, writing “in a ‘monophonic’ style...she creates these soaring melodies for her nuns to sing that rise heavenward out of a spare, single line. … This would be vibrant and unusual music if it were written in any era; that it was written almost a thousand years ago, and by a very busy nun, only heightens the wonder.”
“Crucifixus” by Anontoni Lotti (c. 1667-1740), “an outstanding example of ‘polyphony’…it’s incredibly atmospheric and dramatic… I find this music radiant, moving, magnificent.” (Me too.) “If you can take three and half minutes to stop whatever you’re doing and just let it wash over you, do it.”
Requiem Mass, 3: Offertoio: Domine Jesu Christe by Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901), not for the music per se as much as the story that accompanies it. “It’s January 1942. A single score of Verdi’s Requiem has been smuggled into the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. Against impossible odds, a group of defiant Jewish prisoners, led by the former conductor and composer Rafael Schächter, decide to mount a performance…in an act that survivors will later describe as an act of spiritual resistance.” It goes on from there, heartbreaking and beautiful.
I love this book. And I hope we make it through to the end of the year this time. It’s a fantastic way to wind down the day—and I can’t wait to see how the Year of Wonder ends! —Dante A. Ciampaglia