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In Our Feeds

Mo Willems Magic, Matter Over Media, and Monorails Monorails Monorails!: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From how we travel to how we encounter each other, we learned a lot in the last seven days

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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.

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ihor lishchyshyn/getty images

There's no problem created by social media that can't be solved with social media—not even our society and its structures getting eviscerated by the black hole of social media! Now to craft the *perfect* tweet to get us outta this jam...

Anti-Social Media
 

A lot of smart people are grappling with the “constricting and warping structures” of social media, trying to figure out how a decade-long experiment of online living has brought our politics and collective mental health to the brink of a meltdown. But of all the essays I’ve read about what went wrong and how to fix it, this piece in the newsletter Persuasion is one of the sharpest. “When it comes to both freedom and structure—those precarious interrelated values—digital platforms offer us the hope of something meaningful, and spectacularly fail to deliver,” write Talia Barnes and Luke Hallam, explaining the paradox of how people need both individual autonomy and a strong community in order to build satisfying lives. Our supposedly “social” online platforms deliver neither of those things, pushing us to conform to group pressure without delivering any of the supportive benefits of an IRL social network. “Interpersonal trust, the glue that keeps relationships healthy and productive, is stretched too thin on social media,” Barnes and Hallam write. “It’s hard to escape the feeling that the warped incentives of social media facilitate an ever-intensifying feedback loop of antisocial, anti-relational behavior.” 

They aren’t the first to point out that clicking, posting, and scrolling are pale substitutes for actual friends in the actual world. But by calling out the weird mix of false freedom and false community that characterizes the major social apps, Barnes and Hallam have sketched a roadmap to better living. You need community and genuine commitments to give your life a sense of purpose, and you need self-awareness and confidence to build a healthy sense of identity. “Freedom has value because it allows us to find structure, while structure has value because it helps us to exercise freedom,” they write. “Only through a healthy relationship with both do we feel empowered and connected.” That emphasis on healthy relationships—with ourselves, with our friends and neighbors, with the institutions that shape our lives—is exactly the right antidote to the cold glare of screen-saturated life. —Stefanie Sanford

Solar power panels in a field with grazing sheep

K_Thalhofer/Getty Images

"Gas-guzzling lawnmowers sure are baaaaaaaaaad for the environment..." [I'll show myself out.]

Solar’s Bear Bull Sheep Market
 

I'm no stranger to farm animals. I grew up in Indiana in between a cow farm and a herd of goats. We even had family friends who used goats to "mow" their several acres of land. It’s a landscaping solution that has found a new advocate: the solar power industry. As Amrith Ramkumar documents in the Wall Street Journal, it has struggled to find ways to keep land populated by fields of solar panels manicured. The equipment is made up of expansive and expensive technology, they don’t mesh well with typical power lawn mowers, and anyway it’s impractical for people with push mowers to maintain these vast solar fields, some as large as 15,000 acres. Ramkumar spoke with shepherds, farmers, and solar developers tackling the problem via livestock. Cows and horses are too big to maneuver around the panels, and goats too frequently ate the equipment alongside the grass. Sheep became the clear front runners.

But there’s another issue: the industry lacks a steady supply of the animal. Domestic demand for lamb and mutton has decreased as countries like New Zealand dominate the global market. The U.S. also sources most of its wool from abroad. The American Solar Grazing Association (a shockingly niche, but apparently needed organization) has partnered with universities like Cornell and North Carolina to develop research and training programs for livestock farmers. Still, there’s a shortage of entry-level classes, making it difficult to get into sheep herding. That has left some shepherds interviewed by the WSJ training their children to take over the family business. There’s a lot of discussion about how environmentally-friendly energy sources could take away traditional jobs in the energy industry, like coal mining, and whether new jobs in these growing fields outweigh the loss in fossil fuels. That makes it fascinating that, in some senses, the solar industry is reviving one of the most traditional occupations of all time. As we consider pathways for the future, maybe it’s time to get back to our pastoral roots. —Hannah Van Drie

Man with outstretched arm and wearing a microphone in front of a large outdoor crowd of college students

The Campus Ministry USA

Brother Jed preaches on a college campus during the pandemic.

Putting the “Pit” in Pulpit
 

I spent most of my college years holed up in the student newspaper office, venturing out for the occasional class, meal, or bout of sleep. And almost every time I emerged into the light of day, I walked past Gary the Pit Preacher. A stocky, intense-looking man, he came to campus nearly every day to set up a chair on the edge of the sunken pavilion in front of the the dining hall—called The Pit—and harangue passing students with promises of hellfire and eternal damnation if they didn’t repent their sins. By lunchtime, he usually had a crowd of undergraduates shouting back, sometimes with substantive theological critiques, sometimes with volleys of profanity, sometimes both. I didn’t know that spectacle had a name—“confrontational evangelism”—until I read this quirky New Yorker obituary for another campus preacher named Brother Jed. Born George Smock, Jr. in 1943, Brother Jed had a late-night conversion experience in his early 20s and devoted his life to bringing an aggressive form of the gospel to college campuses across America. 
“Whether it was hate-listening or curiosity or the fact that Brother Jed loved to deliver a zinger as much as a comedy-club regular, college students ended up flocking to hear him,” writes Susan Orlean. “He sometimes had audiences that numbered more than a thousand. Some came to protest, saying that he spread hateful messages of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Some came for the spectacle of screaming matches between a patrician-looking man in a three-piece suit, carrying a staff topped by a crucifix, and tattooed, T-shirted, possibly hungover students.” One of the things I learned from my years of crossing paths with Gary the Pit Preacher is that the screaming matches weren’t especially productive, but the lingering conversations among the students themselves often were. College is a time when you’re supposed to be puzzling through life’s big questions, deciding what kind of person you want to be and what kind of morality you want to carry into adulthood. But it’s also a time when you’re really busy, trying to keep up with classes and clubs and friends and much else. Being harangued by a Gary or Brother Jed on your way across campus wasn’t especially edifying, but it was often enough to prompt questions: What do I think about marriage? Faith? The afterlife? The origins of the universe? My professors weren’t often asking, but Gary always was. I didn’t argue with him, but I’m still trying to puzzle out the answers to his questions. —Eric Johnson

Animated gif of a group of people on a set of steps throwing up their hands and saying Monorail!

Fox/Giphy

Throw up your hands and raise your voice...!

There's Nothing on Earth like a Genuine, Bona Fide, Electrified, Six-Car…
 

The high gasoline prices taking a bite out of American drivers’ wallets makes this a natural opportunity for electric vehicles to make inroads. And they are. But increasing demand and attention has also highlighted the challenge of where and how to charge batteries effectively and efficiently—especially in cities like New York where most people don’t have garages. But what if the road you drive on took care of that power problem? Full Throttle recently reported that carmaker Stellantis is developing an electric highway. “Electric coils are laid down on the base of a roadbed,” per the story. “Those coils are covered by asphalt. Once energized, the coils create an electromagnetic field. Electrons are available. A vehicle driving over the road with an installed receiver on the bottom of the vehicle can pull those electrons into the car to spin its motor without using the battery. It’s a bit like a wireless electric street car.”

This approach got me thinking about the non-gas-powered possibilities for trains. Back in fall 2003, I wrote an article for The Pitt News about urban magnetic levitation transport technology as a possible heir to our longstanding rail-based trains. Steel rails are still more prevalent than maglev nearly 20 years later, but things are changing. When it’s completed in the 2030s, England’s High Speed 2 route will be the world’s fastest “bullet train,” operating at speeds between 225-250 mph. Meanwhile, Germany has unveiled a $92 million hydrogen-powered railway line featuring 14 trains that will replace existing diesel locomotives. Japan is trading in its bullet trains for maglev with a $72 billion investment in the Chuo Shinkansen project, which, when it comes online in 2027, will link Tokyo to Nagoya and eventually Osaka, with passengers traveling 311 miles in 67 minutes. China recently unveiled Red Rail in southern Jiangxi province, a new suspended maglev system utilizing rare earth element-infused “permanent magnets” to silently reach speeds of (eventually) 75 mph, its two-car 88-passenger-capacity setup capable of floating off its tracks indefinitely with or without power. The fastest of the new wave of magnetic transport, though, is Canada’s TransPod, combining trains and aircraft to create the electric FluxJet, which can travel past 621 mph. According to “The plane without wings, as the company calls it, is based on a new field of physics called ‘veillance flux’ and features an innovative ‘contactless power transmission,’” per a Robb Report story on the project. “It is also equipped with aerodynamic and propulsion systems designed specifically to reduce friction. Essentially, a vacuum tube setup allows the magnetically levitated pods to travel at a faster speed than trains, cars and jets.” Quiet, fast, and futuristic—if it makes traveling through Manitoba feel like a sci-fi adventure, I'm in! –Christian Niedan

A man in a blazer and black glasses makes a wild expression while being flanked by costumed characters of an elephant on the left and a pig on the right

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Stampede Ventures/HBO

Elephant, Mo Willems and Piggy attend the premiere screening of "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience" on June 25, 2022 in Los Angeles. It also totally captures the Mo Willems essence.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Write a Smarter Blurb!
 

Author and illustrator Mo Willems is a favorite in our house, my 4-year-old daughter’s bookshelf busting with Pigeon and Elephant & Piggie books. (Or, as my daughter calls them, Elefante y Cerdita; she reads the books in English and Spanish.) She’s also becoming something of a baseball fan, so of course there was no other way to close out the summer than attending the Brooklyn Cyclones’ Mo Willems Day. In early September, the New York Mets’ high-A affiliate hosted Willems at its ballpark on the Coney Island boardwalk, the legendary Cyclone looming in the middle distance, as he launched his newest title, The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster! We sprung for the special tickets, which got us access to a Mo Willems storytime, Elephant & Piggie bobbleheads, Pigeon beanies, and a copy of the book. As a lover of stuff, this was a magnificent haul. But the real joy was seeing Willems in his element. The kids loved his reading two books, as well as the interstitial banter—and so did the adults. I did, anyway. It’s a special gift to connect with kids the way Willems does, and I didn’t quite appreciate his particular talents until reading Rivka Galchen’s 2017 New Yorker profile of the author. He’s clearly an individual, and a character, like the best children’s authors. “Willems walks onstage like a man who knows how to walk onstage,” Galchen writes. “‘Hi, I’m Mo Willems, and I’m . . . a balloon salesman.’ The children shout, ‘No!’ ‘I’m Mo Willems, and I’m a . . . corporate attorney specializing in tax affairs.’ No!” I laughed when I read that line; I laughed harder when he did it at the ballgame storytime. The kids got that it was wrong, but the adults—the ones paying attention, at least—appreciated the wryness of the “mistake.” I love Willems’ books, not only as a parent but as a reader, for that knowing and ironic spirit. I mean, an Elephant & Piggie adventure is titled We Are In a Book! That is one thousand percent in my wheelhouse. But like Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle, Willems approaches his stories with a worldliness and experience that adults vibe with—even if they don’t realize it—when reading to/with their kids. “He likes to say of his book Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs,” Galchen writes, “that his insight was that when you find yourself in the wrong story—Goldilocks finally realizes that she is in a house occupied by dinosaurs—you can leave.” What a sentiment! When I read it, it unlocked another secret room of appreciating Willems’ books, which isn’t really so secret but is maybe so obvious that it’s easy to overlook: individuality and self-determination are our default states, and they rule. —Dante A. Ciampaglia