Mixtape Memories, Macaque Matriarchs, and Matrix Mimesis: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From unlocking secrets of the animal kingdom to decoding our reality, 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.
Whoa, so if we're totally living in a sim, that makes The Matrix, like, totally a documentary...
Take the Red Pill!
From Tron to The Truman Show to The Matrix, the possibility that reality isn’t real is a much-used science-fiction trope. But what if it’s actually the truth? I recently learned about the simulation hypothesis, laid out by philosopher Nick Bostrom who posits that "at least one of three possibilities is true: 1) All human-like civilizations in the universe go extinct before they develop the technological capacity to create simulated realities; 2) if any civilizations do reach this phase of technological maturity, none of them will bother to run simulations; or 3) advanced civilizations would have the ability to create many, many simulations, and that means there are far more simulated worlds than non-simulated ones." New York Times columnist Farjad Manjoo revisits these ideas after a conversation with another philosopher, David Chalmers. Chalmers believes there's at least a 25% chance that we're living in a simulation. (It’s also an idea floated by Elon Musk in 2018.)
While my brain might explode if I ponder that too much, Manjoo and Chalmers consider a secondary point that I found incredibly relevant to our day-to-day existence. Chalmers argues that virtual reality isn’t the same as physical reality, but because they affect the world in similar ways VR is still a valid reality. When I think about virtual reality, I tend to think about people really into gaming wearing large goggles. But Manjoo and Chalmers encourage us to expand our thinking—and our definitions. Many of us have spent the last two years going to work online, getting our information online, and socializing online—indicating that the digital world has already become ingrained as a central part of our reality. [#metaverse —Ed.] In fact, we already believe different versions of reality based on the different digital worlds we inhabit. As virtual realities become increasingly realistic, Manjoo implores we consider the ramifications on society—including misinformation and navigating multitudes of online alter egos. While it may be easier to take the blue pill, Manjoo and Chalmers convinced me that, in some ways, we’re already living inside the Matrix. —Hannah Van Drie
At least the Ford F-150 Lightning *looks* like a pickup. (#TeslaSubtweet)
Driving a pickup truck has magic properties, some dangerous. When I’m in my truck— a steel beast more than 20 years old—I am blessed/cursed with absolute confidence about my ability to handle anything the world might throw at me. I feel like I could repair things! Rescue people! Respond to an emergency medical situation! Even though I for-sure could not do any of those things. (I read and write for a living. C’mon.) Such is the power of the pickup to impart an unearned sense of mastery. That’s why I’m so fascinated by Ford’s all-out effort to transform the F-150, the best-selling vehicle in America for the better part of three decades, into an all-electric workhorse. Since modern electric cars were first introduced in the United States, they’ve been part of an enviro-conscious subculture, driven by university professors or crunchy-granola eco activists trying to do their part for the Earth. Now, as climate change alarm rises across the world, the oldest automaker in America is converting its iconic truck into a battery-driven symbol of the future. And part of the trick is that Ford is avoiding any symbolism at all.
“Ford has kept the styling of the F-150 Lightning almost exactly the same as that of the 2022 gas F-150, inside and out,“ writes John Seabrook in this week’s New Yorker. “Owners who have accessories that fit their existing F-150s—like the cover I have for my truck’s bed—won’t need to buy new gear.” That, in a nutshell, is Ford’s big pitch: the future of the electric vehicle should involve minimal disruption to consumer tastes and identities, ensuring that people don’t need to make any great leaps of faith to adopt new technology. I find that compelling, but Seabrook also details the challenges facing legacy automakers as they try to build the brave new world. “The automaker must come up with a vehicular version of Apple’s iOS for this software-first world in which Ford has very little experience,“ Seabrook writes. “Instead of depreciating from the moment you drive your new purchase off the lot, ‘the product will get better every day,’ with regular software updates, allowing Ford to enjoy the kind of connected relationship with its customers that tech and gaming companies have. But how easy will that be?” Not easy at all! But that’s the game now, and I very much hope Ford succeeds. If you can minimize the sense of change that comes with climate adaptation, you can maximize how much people are willing to do for a greener world. Trading in your gas-guzzler for a near-identical electric model is a decent start. —Eric Johnson
You come at Yakei, you best not miss.
For raw clickbait, it’s hard to top “Love Triangle Challenges Reign of Japan’s Monkey Queen.” Despite the promise of simian tabloid drama, the New York Times story about a female macaque alpha named Yakei delivers a great lesson in gender dynamics, the joys and confusions of biology fieldwork, and the enduring challenge of being a #girlboss in a man-monkey world. “Although Yakei seems to be leaning into her role, she is likely to face challenges,” reports Annie Roth. “The reign of an alpha can last from a few months to over a decade. But observers of the troop say that mating season could change things for Yakei.” In the meantime, she’s walking with her tail up and violently shaking tree branches, which are telltale signs of domination in the macaque world, where females rarely ascend to the top of the tribe. To confirm the rise of a snow-monkey matriarch, researchers used something called the “peanut test,” where they distribute nuts—a sought-after delicacy, I assume—to see who gets the privilege of dining first. (If we ever get back to in-person meetings, I’m going to pay closer attention to who grabs the first pastry in the conference room.) “If Yakei’s rule continues, scientists like [Yu] Kaigaishi will have a unique opportunity to study how Japanese macaques fare in a society led by a female,” Roth writes. “‘Japanese macaque society is so dramatic and unpredictable,’[Kaigashi] said, ‘which is why many people, both researchers and nonresearchers, love to observe them.’”
A few years ago, Orion magazine published an essay about the wolves of Isle Royale and the way their pack dynamics confounded the expectations of biologists who observed the island for decades. Expecting to find clear and stable patterns in the population—wolf numbers moving up and down in concert with moose populations and other predictable variables—what they got instead was a four-legged Games of Thrones driven by the wolves’ individual personalities and social dynamics. “The Isle Royale study has the same appeal as a Jack London novel—harsh beauty, high drama, and, importantly, an explanation for the violence of the natural world,” writes Kim Todd. She quotes the lead scientist on the long-running wolf study, John Vucitech. “‘What if nature is a little more like human history?’” he asks “Isle Royale now ‘allows us to understand the stories of individual wolves…. This is Shakespeare in the nonhuman world.” I love the idea that what we’re seeing play out in Japanese snow monkeys or Canadian canids isn’t just some robotic law of the natural world, but an epic without end. Long live Yakei, the snow monkey queen! —Stefanie Sanford
Wait. This blurb is about *what*?!
High School Moose-ical
It’s hard to know exactly what would have happened if one of my middle school teachers had led a class field trip to hunt, kill, and butcher some wildlife. At a minimum, an investigation and some pointed questions from the school board. But that’s because my middle school was in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina—not the Alaskan wilderness. Things are different in the Last Frontier, where teacher Jesse Bjorkman leads his students on an annual moose hunt. “As soon as he determined the moose was dead, the teacher guided the students toward the kill, quizzing them on what to look for when tracking an animal,” writes Victoria Petersen in a wonderfully entertaining article for the New York Times’ Food section. “At first, the students watched as Mr. Bjorkman took his knife and narrated every move he made, but eventually they put on latex gloves and helped skin the animal.”
The purpose of Mr. Bjorkman’s unorthodox lesson is to give the next generation of Alaskans some appreciation for their frontier forebears, as well as instill what it means to be good stewards of the natural world. At a time when most of us live very far removed from the walking and breathing end of the food chain that ends in our local grocery store, Mr. Bjorkman’s students are getting a more visceral look at what it takes to put a meal on the table. “When it came time to butcher, the students were walked through all the things they needed to know: how to sharpen a knife, how to safely hold and glide it across the flesh, where to cut, and how to trim the fat and tendons off the meat,” Petersen writes. They also take home about 500 pounds of moose meat, split among the whole class. It’s fun to imagine what a version of this lesson would look like in more urban settings, where arguably it would be more valuable. [Pigeon hunt! —Ed.] A lot of Mr. Bjorkman’s students are already familiar with hunting and wilderness survival. At my school, many of the kids would have had their minds completely blown by a short visit to a hog farm. —Eric Johnson
If we live in a simulation, and tapes are suddenly a thing again, can we just, like, rewind the last 24 months...?
I consume a lot of podcasts—or, maybe more accurately, I download a lot of podcasts—and with a finite amount of time in the day there’s a premium on how I spend my listening hours. One 45-50-minute episode is an investment; a miniseries of them is a relationship. I don’t make those kinds of commitments lightly, but when I hit on a well-told audio story, I go all-in. At the end of the year, I binged “The Devil’s Candy,” TCM’s The Plot Thickens seven-episode season on the making of Brian De Palma’s fiasco adaption of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. The podcast is gossipy and tawdry and insane and I loved every minute. But another series, also released in 2021, left a deeper, more indelible impression: Radiolab’s five-episode “Mixtape,” a wholly unexpected and affecting history of the cassette. Hosted by Simon Adler, the mini-series goes in all sorts of directions, from the impact of dakou tapes, record label cut-outs that made their way into China in the 1980s and 1990s, to the role the cassette played in inventing the internet to how the tape sits at the center of the Bing Crobsy-Nazi Germany Venn diagram (not a typo).
Mind expanding episodes all. But two were particularly moving. “Help?” shares how the tape allowed the Lost Boys of Sudan to preserve their heritage and culture as they were, first, ripped from their homeland and then later resettled from refugee camps. The episode’s second half is an extremely personal exploration of the power of the mixtape. But even more affecting is “The Wandering Soul,” about the U.S. military drafting Madison Avenue during the Vietnam War to use tape technology for psychological warfare against the North Vietnamese. Listening to the audio of the “wandering soul” tape, developed to prey on cultural and religious beliefs to convince soldiers to surrender and blasted into the jungle and into small villages at night, is haunting and discomforting to this Western listener; I can hardly imagine what it felt like for people hearing it directly. (Though we get a sense, thanks to interviews with both American and Vietnamese veterans. “I don’t like it,” one Vietnamese infantry sergeant working with the American military said. “It hits my soul.”) Adler also talks with Erik B. Villard, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C., who not only provides valuable insight and context but also shares pieces of audio from the center’s Vietnam Interview Tape Collection, which is astounding. The episode is as close to a perfect podcast as I’ve encountered, and what I learned—and felt—listening to it will stay with me for the duration. All of “Mixtape” is worth your time, but if you can only listen to one episode make it “The Wandering Soul.” —Dante A. Ciampaglia