Midlife Reboot, Octopus Throwdown, and Calling It an Election Night: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From underwater displays to overland sojourns, 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.
This guy gets it!
Long Story Short
Amid all the drama and angst of Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition, I read a wonderful little book called How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times. We ought to live in the golden age of sharp, short expression, given the prominence of tweets and memes and seven-second videos in our daily media diet. But a quick scroll reveals that the challenge of getting muddled thoughts whittled down to something compelling. “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time,” French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote sometime around 1657, reminding us that “fast times” have been flummoxing writers for several centuries. Brevity has always been hard. How To Write Short joins a long line of excellent books about writing—from Steven King to Robert Caro to Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style, a staple of English and journalism classes for generations. I love reading about writing, and I was especially delighted that How To Write Short ends each chapter with practice exercises for honing jokes, haikus, and tweets to a fine point. I think it’s working; this is the most concise recommendation I’ve written for The Elective so far! —Stefanie Sanford
This is a gloomy octopus? Oof. Well earned name, Gloomy.
My Gloomy Octopus Teacher
My partner and I are hosting Thanksgiving for the first time this year: two sets of parents, two siblings, and at least one significant other. We're excited to have everyone together, but I'm also conscious of what these kinds of large gatherings can bring. My siblings and I are all loud, opinionated, and competitive, which makes for lively family gatherings. While this isn't uncommon at human holidays, I recently learned that we also share these characteristics with a certain species of octopus. The gloomy octopus, scientifically known as Octopus tetricus, lives off the coast of Australia. Normally octopuses are antisocial, but good living and food conditions mean many of them live in close proximity. Researchers observed the octopuses poking, prodding, and grabbing at their neighbors, but they also noticed something more unique. When the octopuses were annoyed, they would hurl objects at each other. While plenty of animals throw things, targeting another member of their species is rarely observed outside of humans. The researchers found that the octopuses used different throwing techniques—and items—when they were intentionally trying to hit one of their counterparts. For example, they would frequently toss around shells, but would use silt when aiming at their neighbors. They would also throw the silt from the side instead of straight on. So if my siblings and I get into any altercations this Thanksgiving, I know exactly what excuse to use: "The octopus made me do it." —Hannah Van Drie
Can you jump into a photo? Because I'd love to be in this one.
On the (Very Old) Road
One of my best friends recently hit a pivot point in his life: kids graduating from college, a well earned and long-planned transition away from a stressful job, and a realization that he’s been running at full capacity for at least a couple decades. Instead of diving right into the next thing, he did something all too rare: took a prolonged step back to think hard about how to spend the next chapter of life. “I want to be more patient and generous and kind and, in whatever I do for work, to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the sort of person I want to be,” he wrote in a long email dispatch to friends. “It seems like taking time away, off the grid, will help.” To make that happen, he decided to take a classic pilgrimage, walking for miles a day through the Italian countryside on a route that has existed since the Roman Empire for wayward souls seeking guidance.
“We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” wrote the author Timothy Egan, describing his reasons for taking the same long walk a few years ago. “That’s one reason 200 million people worldwide a year make some form of religious pilgrimage.” There is indeed something soul-calming about moving at the pace of your own two feet, leaving plenty of time to savor the details of the day or delve into deep conversation with your fellow travelers. “We didn’t fly over or drive past other walkers on a path; we could slow down and visit,” my friend wrote in his reflections on the trip. “I started out relentless, intent on accomplishing the project of getting to the next place. Over time, I learned to relish the serendipity.” I shared some of this insight with another friend of mine, a recent college graduate who moved to a new city where she knows absolutely no one. She talked about building “margin” into her days, taking care not to fill every available hour so that she has room to engage when she meets somebody new or wants the freedom to explore some corner of the city she’s just discovered. I’m going to hold onto that concept, the discipline of keeping some margin for the unexpected and the joyful instead of aiming for maximum efficiency in our days. There are lots of reasons to cherish good friendships, but getting to borrow the well earned life wisdom of others is among the best. —Eric Johnson
TSMC is the largest chipmaker in the world, making key components for everything from cellphones to F-35 fighter jets to NASA’s Perseverance Rover mission to Mars, seen on July 06, 2021.
Taking the Chip Out of Chipper
Springs have long been a small-but-important part of lots of everyday items. Back in 1940, that fact was highlighted by a short film called A Case of Spring Fever, which was later comedically riffed on by Mystery Science Theater 3000. The film’s protagonist, Gilbert, accidentally wishes for a world without springs. This makes Coily the Spring Sprite show up to gleefully teach Gilbert the lesson that no springs would ruin his couch, watch, doors, car, and, of course, telephone. Eighty years later, smartphones are carried around by billions of people and springs have been replaced by microchips as the crucial element. But the number of worldwide foundries producing those chips is limited. Business Insider recently profiled perhaps the most important manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which is based in a country under constant threat, making global markets nervous. “Industry watchers say an escalating dispute between the U.S. and China over Taiwan could drag down the global economy, given the fact that no other company makes such advanced chips at such a high volume,” Business Insider notes. “If TSMC goes offline, they say, the production of everything from cars to iPhones could screech to a halt.” The profile quotes a June 2021 Wall Street Journal article that found “most of the world’s roughly 1.4 billion smartphone processors are produced by TSMC, as are about 60% of the chips used by automakers.” The U.S. used to be less reliant on foreign chip foundries like TSMC, with a 2021 Semiconductor Industry Association report finding that the American-produced share of the global chip supply has fallen from 37% to 12% since 1990. To reverse that trend, the U.S. recently passed the CHIPS Act, with $52.7 billion for American semiconductor research, development, manufacturing, and workforce development. Interestingly, TSMC is physically pivoting away from Chinese invasion threats by planning to build a $12 billion plant in Phoenix, Arizona. Those moves will help stabilize fears in worldwide microchip markets. But if all that geopolitical drama makes you wish for a world without microchips—don’t do it. Coily’s digital descendant, Chipy, might show up to teach you a lesson. —Christian Niedan
Just... stop. Please.
Election Night and Day and Night and…
Despite a few tried-and-true traditions—like the “I Voted” sticker and mailboxes bursting with campaign mail—it’s clear we’re in a new world of voting. That’s partly due to the aggressive growth of (increasingly aggressive) 24-hour news channels and cycles and social media, which has turned everyday life into a perpetual campaign spin machine. But the bigger change comes from how we vote. Most of us don’t go to the polls on one day; we now have early voting and mail-in voting ballots and increased access to absentee voting. Anything that gets people to cast a ballot! But this expanded set of options—coupled with our current media environment—has made, as Matt Bai correctly points out in the Washington Post, the concept of “election night” an anachronism. “Election night no longer exists. It’s an echo of the past,” Bai writes. “Now, what you’re watching on election night is kind of meaningless—and misleading.” That’s because, as everyone repeats ad nauseum, final results won’t really materialize for days, or weeks, later. That’s at the least disorienting in this era of immediate, instant gratification. Based on how things are framed on election night, one side can go to bed feeling euphoric and the other demoralized only to wake up dazed and confused (or worse) by a more current vote count as absentee and mail-in ballots get tallied up. “So here we go again: another televised extravaganza, more colorful maps, another wave of election results that won’t actually tell you who’s winning,” Bai writes. “One way or the other, a lot of voters are going to end up feeling cheated. And they are being cheated—not by the election machinery but by TV networks that cling to the outdated convention of a single election night.”
It’s hard to argue the point. Democracy can be slow, and it takes time to get something as important as a vote count right. Such slowness is directly at odds with the velocity of contemporary media. So what’s the solution? Bai’s deliberately provocative idea: “Cancel Election Night!” Sure. But maybe expand on that a bit: “And rethink our priorities!” Do we need to know who won an election the second polls close? Or do we need to ensure the process works, whatever that process looks like now? Like Bai, I have fond memories of election night—both as a working journalist and as a news consumer—but I’ll happily jettison all this big-board nonsense (and the dreamy meme big-board operators; sorry, Steve Kornacki) for something else—like, say, a celebration of democracy rather than a doomy, gloomy guessing game. It might not be an advertising boon, but that’s cable news’ problem. Election Day now means something different, election night should, too. Let’s get on it, America! —Dante A. Ciampaglia