Madden Memories, Chicken Fried Debate, and Alternate Realities: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From taking another bite to a long-sizzling debate to rethinking how we think about thinking, 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.
Is the Popeyes chicken sandwich a turkey? You'll never believe what one writer found out!
If you can think back to pre-pandemic days of 2019, when we had the time and mental space to focus on issues that really matter, you may recall that the Popeyes chicken sandwich briefly dominated the news. The Popeyes vs. Chick-fil-A cage match raged long enough that even the The New Yorker felt compelled to cluck about it as only The New Yorker can: "Fried chicken is one of the world’s great culinary syntheses, found in cultures and kitchens on every patch of the planet: bird, flour, fat." Sure, yes—culinary synthesis, cultural touchstone, and all that. But also just good and satisfying in a way that doesn't demand Ph.D.-level analysis. That's what made the chicken sandwich debate so fun. But I suppose it was inevitable that Harvard-trained lawyers who usually cover deep issues of constitutional law and federal policy would have their say. Enter Sarah Isgur at The Dispatch, who took a break from her regular beat last month to do a rigorous comparison of all the major fast-food chicken sandwiches. She and her husband hit the drive-thrus at Burger King, Wendy's, McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, and KFC along a quarter-mile stretch of road in small-town Virginia. And “after a romantic afternoon with six of America’s finest chicken sandwiches," she reached a verdict. No spoilers, though she writes of the winning meal that "I’m as surprised as you are.” And while you’re there, this is the rare piece where you should read the comments. Always great to have your parents weighing in with a methodology dispute... about chicken sandwiches. —Stefanie Sanford
Thanks to our digital devices—and tech deployed by governments and corporations—we're shedding troves data about ourselves every day. How it's used, especially when it comes to training AI, is one of the most urgent ethical challenges of the 2020s.
Ghosts in the Machine
Artists are often at the vanguard of commenting on and grappling with the cultural, moral, and ethical dilemmas posed by innovation, from Duchamp’s readymades to the collages, photographs, and videos of the Pictures Generation (Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, et al). So it’s unsurprising that contemporary creators are tackling the development and deployment of AI—from the algorithms and machine learning that go into training these systems to who is using them—especially as it applies to photography. It’s a line of inquiry that could easily jump the rails into obtuse, high-handed navel gazing (some artists, like some technologists, can get a little, ahem, self-involved), but if the first episode is any indication the new podcast Mirror with a Memory is the exact kind of deep-dive this topic demands. Hosted by American artist Martine Syms and produced by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art (the museum I grew up in and made me an art lover), the six-episode series tackles the role of biometrics, place, surveillance, and history in how images are used to train AI, how AI reflects those images back, and how artists are making sense of and commenting on it all in their work. It’s fascinating and urgent stuff, and is the perfect way to soothe my misery of being unable to visit the Carnegie—or any museum—for the foreseeable future. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
In the social media era, information overload can feel nefarious and inescapable. It's time to stop running and fight back.
A lot of very smart people got big things wrong in 2020. Early predictions on the pandemic—in everything from the effectiveness of masks to the impact on the economy—were wildly off base. (Editor’s note: that’s a generous assessment.) Through all of that noise and anxiety, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, a leading expert on social media and disinformation, emerged as a leading voice of reason, untangling the data on disease transmission, mask-wearing, contact-tracing, and now vaccine effectiveness. In a long interview with New York Times journalist Ezra Klein, Tufekci explained how to think clearly in an era of information overload—how to focus your mind when the problem is too much information from too many competing sources. The big takeaways: avoid groupthink, and dig into the details. It’s not enough to read summaries of medical studies or social media manipulation hot-takes. You need to spend time really understanding how systems work, and what data can and can’t tell us.
I wrote about Tufekci years ago, when she was best known for sounding the alarm about online radicalization and the way it could destabilize our politics. She teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, where I also work, and one of her superpowers is crossing disciplinary boundaries in a way that’s rare in academia. So many of the big problems of our age aren’t easily classified into one field of study, and Tufekci shows how the habits of thinking in one field (epidemiology) can benefit from some crossover with another field (media and journalism). “You can apply that kind of thinking to a lot of things,” Tufekci says. “And in fact, ideally, you’d have a field called systems thinking and how you think about these big systems, but you don’t.” Which means we need more people who go out of their way to think across the usual boundaries of professions and academic subjects. —Eric Johnson
Sure John Madden was one of the best NFL coaches of his generation, leading the Oakland Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XI. But for generations of gamers, he's the guy whose name is on the best sports title of all time.
“Usually the team that scores the most points wins the game.”
When I was a gamer, the world revolved around the release of the next Madden. I always loved playing sports video games—it helped alleviate the winter blues when I couldn't play baseball; then it was a way to forget I wasn't really good at sports. But Madden was never your run-of-the-mill sports platformer. From the days when my brother and I played Madden on the Sega Genesis through the PlayStation years, the graphics, the gameplay, the energy, and the satisfaction that came with Madden was light years ahead of anything else. In the era of consoles powerful enough to (allegedly) launch nukes, the advanced AI, data, play modes, and visuals have allowed Madden to remain the benchmark against which all other sports games are measured. I don't play video games much these days and I watch even less football, but seeing this ESPN.com interview with John Madden—hall-of-fame coach of the Oakland Raiders, legendary broadcaster, and Madden namesake—cross my feeds sent me down a nostalgia rabbit hole. It's a fun conversation, especially on this Super Bowl weekend (go Chiefs!), and it's a cool look at the development of the game and what Madden-the-coach hoped to accomplish with Madden-the-game. My favorite part, though, is his answer to the "out-there question" of what he would've done with the game if it had been around when he was coaching. "I would have a couple of young guys that are good, good Madden players, and hire them and put them on my staff. And each week I would have them play our opponent," Madden said. "And I'd have them just check that out and then write up—this was good, this was bad, had trouble here and trouble there. I don't know how much I would use it, but that's what I would do." Major League Baseball teams have sabermetricians on staff, it's well past time NFL organizations employed Madden masters. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Who would you be if you had made different choices—like, say, stopping at Chik-fil-A for lunch that one time instead of waiting in line for Popeyes?
It’s staggering how many huge choices we demand young people make so early: where to go to school, what to study, what kind of career to pursue, when and whether to settle down with a partner. Now that I’m at the stage in my life where so many of the major decisions have been made, I have endless sympathy for those still pondering the big forks in the road, about jobs or marriages or children, and having to weigh very different potential lives. You only get one life, and all the choices that shape your singular path through the world can be paralyzing. Andrew Miller captures that sensation brilliantly in his book On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives. He delves into the rich literature of regret, daydream, and bittersweet memory at the lives we didn’t end up leading, the forks in the road we inevitably had to take. And in this excellent interview with the Library of America, Miller unpacks the profound experience of considering where else—and who else—we could be. “When I first started to think about unled lives—the lives that you might have led and the person you might have become if your chances or choices had been different—I was struck by how resonant a topic it was for so many people,” Miller explained. “I talked to friends and strangers from all walks of life. They told me their own stories about the careers they hadn’t pursued, the marriages they hadn’t entered, and their experience as parents or as people without children. Sometimes they became a bit dreamy or muted while they talked to me.” —Eric Johnson