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Hip-Hop Architecture, Algorithm Overload, and Qapla’: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From prescriptions for health care to the language of intergalactic diplomacy, 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.

Gloved hand holding a vial of moderna covid-19 vaccine

Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Want a vaccine? Hope you can navigate the scourge of bureaucratic red tape and needless complicated digital scheduling systems!

Vax Appointment Tech Needs a Shot in the Arm

Joanna Stern is the Wall Street Journal’s sharp, irreverent, and often-hilarious tech reviewer, someone who could write a dissertation on the evolution of Apple keyboard technology or the latency struggles of VR headsets. So it’s an ominous sign that even Stern is flummoxed by vaccine appointment websites. “Congrats! You survived 12 months of pandemic!” she writes in a WSJ column this week. “Now fragmented systems, shoddy websites, and limited vaccine supply stand in the way of you and, well, the rest of your life.” Because vaccine distribution is being done state-by-state, county-by-county, and even provider-by-provider, there’s a maze of different scheduling tools, sign-up pages, and even printable pdf forms that have to be completed to get a life-saving shot. Stern ends up using multiple browser extensions and some outside tech help to sort through it. Not ideal when the most urgent population for the vaccine rollout is people over 65.
This is maddening, and it points to a broader problem of lagging tech competence in the government, nonprofit, and health care sectors. Back in 2013, the rollout of the Obamacare website was botched so badly it became a major scandal. Now America’s seniors are relying on crowd-sourced tech support to access a critically important vaccine. It’s time for a broader civic tech movement that steers some of our best and brightest coders and designers away from bespoke consumer apps and into public service, where their skills are desperately needed. The College Board is taking on some of this work with its Two Codes initiative, encouraging AP students to use tech skills to tackle community problems. And places like Code for America are focused on redesigning safety net programs to be more user-friendly. “These systems are maddeningly broken, no matter your age or technical skill level,” Stern writes. Government needs an upgrade. —Eric Johnson

Illustration of a robot carrying boxes

Devrimb/Getty Images

The Terminator, but Skynet destroys humanity with a spam-and-carboard-box apocalypse.

A Very Special Offer for <CUSTOMERNAME>!

I've been reading for years that robots are going to take over the world. Advanced artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms are going to outthink us, deftly manipulate us, and take all of our jobs with their predictive brilliance. “Social media algorithms rule how we see the world,” blares the Wall Street Journal. “Good luck trying to stop them.”  It all sounds grim—at least until I check my ancient Hotmail account and see what all of these menacing AI's are actually doing with their time.

A closer look at the auto-generated spam pitches in my inbox suggests the AI apocalypse isn't quite imminent. I get piles of email from a prominent job-hunting website whose algorithm looks at my 30-year career in education policy and thinks I’d be a great fit for a job at Chick-fil-A, customer service at a steel mill, or a crop applicator in Madelia, Minnesota. “We recommended this job based on your activity” on the site, these emails proclaim. Their robot needs to go back to school. On the other side of the ledger, Wayfair’s home-decor algorithms have found a window into my soul. How did they know I’m looking for an accent rug to tie together a grey couch and a terra cotta ottoman? I have no idea, but my inbox is now overflowing with lovely grey rugs that have just the right pop of orange. And coordinated throw pillows! I hadn’t even thought of that! But the sales robots did. And they’re right. No surprise to learn that Wayfair puts a lot of smart engineering and social science talent into their product presentation.
Just like the humans they’re trying to replace, the AI world has some high performers and some laggards. And robots still can’t fold laundry (but they have awesome names: Laundroid, Folidmate). Humanity has a little room to run, after all. —Stefanie Sanford

Color illustration of an architectural project

Courtesy Mauricio D. Zamora

Appropriated Tekniques

We Interrupt This Post for a Shameless Plug

Sekou Cooke is someone who has been making me smarter for half a decade. In 2016, I attended a lecture at AIA New York about hip-hop architecture. I was there to write about it for Architectural Record, but I was also personally intrigued: Hip-hop has influenced everything from art and fashion to sports and literature, so why not the built environment? And what does that even look like? Led by architect Sekou Cooke, who is also an assistant professor at Syracuse University where he hosted a symposium that led to the AIA lecture, the talk was cool and kind of mind-blowing and got me thinking about and looking at the world around me differently. A few years later, also at AIA New York, Cooke expanded his work into an excellent exhibition, Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture, which widened the lens on the subject—and kept me intrigued. I also kept talking with Cooke, who is smart and creative but also something of a provocateur, poking the architectural establishment and demanding why Black architects and designers have been marginalized and kept from seats at the table in helping shape the urban environment. Cooke and I spoke again recently, ahead of the April publication of his book Hip-Hop Architecture, which is the most substantive statement on the topic—and it cements its legitimacy in the broader conversation about architecture. We talked about the book and where hip-hop architecture is headed, but also about the broader implications—for architecture and the academy—of the galvanized activism that emerged after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Our Q&A was published by Metropolis this week, and there so much there that I'll be mulling over in the weeks and years ahead. (And what is hip-hop architecture? You'll have to read the Q&A, but here's a hint: it involves a super force.) —Dante A. Ciampaglia

four people sit around a table looking at charts and graphs

Gregory Kramer/Getty Images

When the pandemic is over, can we make sure these kinds of marketing meetings are held to help people reach better health care outcomes? Thanks.

Gimme 10cc’s of Better Copy, Stat!

After a year of garbled public messaging about the covid-19 pandemic and ever-shifting guidance from epidemiologists and health officials, I’m gaining a deeper appreciation for the academic sub-discipline of health communications. Lots of college now offer it as a major or minor, training students in how to translate medical guidance into something that normal people can understand. A new study from the Brookings Institution illuminates just how much it matters to have clear and credible messages about health. “Distrust and poor communication related to racial and cultural differences pervade the health system and frustrate many efforts to reach the goal of good and equitable care for all in America,” write Stuart Butler and Nehath Sheriff. “The result is less-effective interactions, less empathy and acknowledgment of concerns, and ultimately, worse outcomes.” In other words, poor communication from medical providers and public health authorities can be a matter of life and death. There are plenty of things to study about the muddled early response to the pandemic, but I hope healthcare messaging is near the top of the list. With all of the creativity and resources that go into marketing ketchup and Ninja Turtles and Ikea furniture, surely we can spare some brilliant minds for the task of making medicine more credible and trustworthy to some of the people who need it most. —Eric Johnson

Man dressed up as a Klingon sneering at the camera

Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr

What's Klingon for "Drop the bat'leth and pick up a new language"?

tlhIngan maH!

"The book did not, however, provide any exercises or practice guides for actually learning the language. This likely decreased its efficacy for actually learning the language."
Was this written about a rush-job to help Americans jaunting to Spain? Or for commuters who want to pick up some Mandarin on the way to work? Nope. We're talking about The Klingon Dictionary, which was published in 1985 and quickly went from pop-culture curio to ur-text for a surprisingly large, and seemingly disparate, cohort: Trekkers, fanboys, academics, and grammarians. Over at Motherboard, David Buck, who publishes the newsletter Tedium, goes deep into the history of the Klingon language—from its utilitarian beginnings on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to blooming into a full-fledged form of communication with a dedicated group of practitioners who help mold the language and evolve it beyond what's uttered on screen. There's so much great stuff in this story, from how professional linguist Marc Okrand (the pioneer of closed captioning) built Klingon on a as-needed basis, drawing on bits and bobs from Yiddish, German, and Indigenous languages, to the creation of the Klingon Language Institute to its use in a Pizza Hut commercial. (And it proves Chancellor’s Gorkon’s assessment that you can’t truly appreciate Shakespeare until you’ve heard it in the original Klingon.) The story of Klingon is fandom at its best and most inclusive, and this deep-dive into its history and legacy accelerated my appreciation of Star Trek by warp factor eight. To paraphrase Mr. Worf: Today is a good day to learn a language! —Dante A. Ciampaglia