Immortal Invertebrates, Camp Life, and Instagramagic: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From the dog days of summer to underwater eternities, we learned a lot in 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.
The author's son, George (far right), and his friends learn to build animal habitats at a Houston Zoo camp this summer.
The Wide World of Summer Camps
As one of three girls in a household with a “stay at home” mother (who returned to work once all of us were in middle school), summers in the 1980s and ‘90s were structured very differently for me. Back then, we enjoyed a few weeks each summer with our grandparents, took a family vacation or two, and otherwise spent our summers at home. We went to the public library on a daily basis and also watched Days of Our Lives and All My Children with my mom. (Which, in hindsight, explains a lot.) In high school, I participated in a few summer music, student government, and athletic camps, but I mostly stayed close to home.
These days, it’s not uncommon for children to have access to a plethora of summer camp and activity options, both free and paid. The American Camp Association reports that more than 14 million students take part in summer camps each year. We were fortunate to be able to have our son, George,participate in multiple week-long day camps at the Houston Zoo and Houston Museum of Natural Science, and a week-long sleepaway camp in the forests of East Texas. George experienced STEM education, nature, physical activity, fresh air, project-based learning activities, and traditional fun and games while my husband and I worked. Additionally, he practiced soft skills—conversation, communication, sharing, leading, following—during these camps, which is very important to us and, for George, instilled independence and confidence.
Due to the pandemic, this year was my family’s first true experience with options for summer camps and activities for a school-aged student. It was also our first foray into the complex scheduling of summer activities for kids: pickups, drop offs, camps that begin mid-morning, camps that end at inconvenient times in the afternoon, and so on. Of course, juggling these details pales in comparison to the art of registering for each camp/activity six-to-seven months before the summer began (!) and structuring a workable seasonal calendar for the entire family. And there is only one child in my family. I have high praise for all of you who do this for multiple kids. While planning, registering, and managing the logistics of George’s summer camp schedule was arduous, it was absolutely worth it for our family. In fact, we are already working on next summer’s schedule. —Michelle Cruz Arnold
If this is what immortality looks like... Yeah, on second thought, I think I have some dangerous things to attend to. If you'll excuse me, jellyfish...
The Genetic Picture of Dorian Jellyfish
According to a long-dead French author, "The only certainty in life is death." Unless, apparently, you're a jellyfish. A scientific study published earlier this week mapped the genome of the Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the “immortal jellyfish.” T. dohrnii can biologically age backward, reducing themselves to a clump of cells, even after reproducing sexually. The jellyfish typically revert to a younger stage when they feel threatened by changing environmental conditions. Then, in their juvenile state, they can also reproduce asexually. The juvenile metamorphosizes into a polyp, clones itself, then generates into a colony of identical jellyfish. The study could not determine the limit (if there is one) of the rebirthing process, but it did identify the heart of the jellyfish's regenerative ability: pluripotent cells. These cells can generate into any type the jellyfish needs, like nerves or muscles. According to Monty Graham, a professor of integrative biology and director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, human stem cells are also pluripotent, but much more work needs to be done to determine if there's a connection between the immortal jellyfish's rejuvenation process and human aging. I was fascinated, but not surprised, by the immediate attempt to apply T. dohrnii’s lessons to humans. As pop culture shows us with movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—which originated as a 1922 short story—or novels like Tuck Everlasting, we are obsessed with the idea of living forever. While a valid coping mechanism for jellyfish, I find something deeply disturbing about the idea of humans reverting to babies at the first sign of difficulty. [I mean… -Ed.] Not to mention, the babysitting costs would be astronomical. We are a long way from facing this possibility, so I'll spend the rest of the day pondering the 1984 classic "Forever Young." After all, "Do you really want to live forever, forever, and ever?" —Hannah Van Drie
"Choose. But choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail..." "Picking a book here, Grail Knight. But yep got it thanks."
The Rewards—and Risks—of Great Literature
Compiling lists of great things is very commonplace, with the internet awash in all sorts of top 10 lists, ranking the best cinema, architecture, and cuisine, to say nothing of the clickbait listicles. But when an English literary review institution like The Times Books puts their name behind a century-spanning list of novels, it’s worth taking notice. Their recent ranking of The 50 best books of the past 100 years is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s Ulysses, with the rankings covering books published after that notoriously impenetrable literary masterpiece. Since it’s behind a paywall (their Twitter summary is here, and a full list summary is here), I’ll relate that the top two spots belong to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece The Great Gatsby, followed by Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea. But, given a recent violent incident in New York, the list’s number three spot has taken on extra resonance: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. “The best books, to my mind, are those whose existence makes it possible for future books to exist,” author Yiyun Li writes, adding of Midnight’s Children, “It is full of brilliant audacity, and is a book that inspires other novelists and makes future Rushdie novels possible. The importance of the novel becomes more apparent as younger novelists tackle 21st-century events that are quickly becoming history.” Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses earned condemnation from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a “fatwa” calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. On August 12, 2022, a man stabbed Rushdie multiple times at an event in Chautauqua, New York, in what seems motivated by that long ago edict. Rushdie has long championed free expression in literature and larger culture, but his attack serves as a dark example for 21st century novelists inspired by Rushdie’s work of the risks that can come with creating great literature in any century. —Christian Niedan
The reaction of many viewers—and some magicians—after spending countless hours on magician TikTok.
It turns out there really is magic behind the creation of viral videos, and it’s best performed by actual magicians. This long-form article from The Economist delved into the bizarre world of former stage magicians who now make a fantastically good living creating dumb, addictive video snippets for Facebook—the kind of TikTok-inspired short clips that make bored screen-swipers pause and watch beyond the autoplay advertisement. “The first thing creators have to get right is ‘stopping the scroll,’ so the viewer doesn’t reflexively move down to the next post in their feed,” reports Ashley Mears. “That means the opening has to titillate or intrigue, ideally both, in the first three seconds. ... If a viewer stays for those initial moments there’s a good chance they’ll commit until the ad plays.”
It turns out magicians, who spend years figuring out how to manipulate the attention of audiences to pull off stage illusions, are especially adept at hacking the algorithms of both the Facebook feed and the human brain. The troupe of viral video makers that Mears profiled has become spectacularly wealthy on the eyeball-grabbing power of videos about toilet milkshakes, flashy science experiments, or fake relationship drama. There’s genuine artistry to creating content that can be understood by distracted consumers across the globe. “Just as a good casino never lets a gambler’s cocktail glass sit empty, viral creators don’t give you any reason to leave: no bad lighting, no stagnant action. Viewers from Manhattan to Mumbai should be able to understand every second, when watching on a phone screen without sound,” Mears writes. But what makes this article such a poignant and interesting read is that David Lax, the lead video creator who is now richer than he ever was as a magician, is deeply ambivalent about the whole enterprise. His former magician colleagues don’t respect his new trade, he remains virtually anonymous despite video skits that reach tens of millions, and the entire enterprise feels kind of… ephemeral. “The internet, says Lax, ‘rewards influencers who recognize the disposability and fluidity of content.’” Well, yeah. —Eric Johnson
New York Yankee baseball players, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in a photo taken circa-1930. Their relationship is as central to Jane Leavey's book "The Big Fella" as the life of the Babe himself.
Wham Bam Biographical Grand Slam
I’ve been in a baseball mood lately, and I’ve dipped back into the literature of America’s Pastime. Jane Leavy and her 500-plus-page biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella, has ensured I’ll linger here awhile. I had heard it was exceptional, and I should’ve taken the recommendation earlier—the book is magnificent. It’s top-notch history and biography, framing the Big Bam’s story and big-time impact around a cross-country barnstorming tour he took with teammate Lou Gehrig in 1927 (after setting the single-season mark with 60 home runs). I learned a ton, from how he altered the course of journalism to how George Herman Ruth became the Babe and so much in between.
But it’s the writing that really socked me. Leavy’s conversational voice and rat-a-tat style is perfectly matched for this Jazz Age icon. Here she is describing Ruth getting thrown out: “He landed on home plate like a seal on a sandbar at low tide.” And on Ruth’s plate presence: “He swung the bat the way he lived his unexpected life—like a boy with nothing to lose.” And on his place in 1920s New York: “In a city of rule breakers—everyone who bent an elbow in 1927 was breaking the law of the land—he was rule breaker in chief.” (When I read, I keep a pencil nearby to mark a particularly good or illuminating passage, typically with a line down the margin. The ones cited above earned stars.) My absolute favorite passage in this book, though, is about Ruth’s manager, the proto-agent PR genius Christy Walsh: “He looked like he was born responsible. His birthday suit was probably three-piece.” That second sentence belongs in Cooperstown. It’s in contention for one of my favorite sentences ever, and if I hadn’t been reading the book sitting down I would’ve had to find a seat. It’s the kind of concise, incisive, pithy, razor sharp turn of phrase that perfectly captures a character’s essence and makes you question how (and what) you write. Whatever I read next would suffer in The Big Fella’s afterglow. (As it happens it was director Werner Herzog’s first novel, The Twilight World, which has enough of his idiosyncratic personality, and a couple exceptional Herzogian phrasings, to make it through admirably.) But that’s what great writing does—leaves you feeling enlightened, emboldened, and a little ruined. I loved every minute of it. —Dante A. Ciampaglia