NFT WTF, Dominos Queen, and #MemeFail: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From ancient grudges to absurd marketplaces, 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.
This beautiful creation is made up of 15,000 dominos—and in less than two minutes its totally obliterated.
Not That Kind of Dominos Influencer
Thanks to the internet, anyone can reach a global audience—which means some very unlikely talents can become superstars. Like Lily Hevesh, for instance. She got hooked on elaborate domino setups around age 10; now 22, she's risen to become "arguably the brightest star in the domino universe," with 1 billion YouTube views for her elaborate creations. Hevesh’s "AMAZING TRIPLE SPIRAL"—15,000 dominos arranged in a psychedelic, multi-story design that takes less than two minutes to implode—has been seen more than 114 million times. "For some reason, I love watching them fall," Hevesh told The Washington Post. "It's just really satisfying to hear the click-click and see it topple." It’s also satisfying to a lot of other people. Hevesh’s YouTube channel has 3.15 million subscribers, which is how she was able to build a career out of making—and destroying—domino creations. She paused her college education in mechanical engineering and design to focus on ever-more-elaborate domino setups, and she's working with a toy company to create branded sets that introduce the next generation to the joys of collapsible engineering. So what does the “queen of dominos” do next? Take aim at breaking the world record for largest domino build, naturally. It’s a project that would likely involve a team of people working over months to create a design of more than 5 million dominos. In the meantime, Hevesh has been practicing her bank shot, taking the South by Southwest Film Festival by storm, and pitching neon-colored domino artistry. Get good enough, and you really can make a career out of anything. —Stefanie Sanford
Domenico di Michelino's 1465 fresco of Dante holding a copy of the Divine Comedy next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above.
Hell of a Sentence
About a decade ago, I began an Easter-season practice of reading Dante's Divine Comedy. (The three epic poems—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—are set in the waning days of Lent.) It's an irregular habit, and I've only ever gotten as far as Purgatorio. (#metaphor) But it has also included learning about Dante Alighieri and the life, experience, and Florentine politics that led him to write the foundational piece of Italian literature. R.W.B. Lewis' Dante: A Life, a slim volume in the Penguin Lives series, is an exceptionally accessible biography of Dante and pre-Renaissance Florence. This week, in anticipation of Dantedì—an annual celebration of the poet on the Feast of the Annunciation, when his journey to Hell begins, this year marked on on March 25—I dove back into the history. And I learned that Italy would still execute Dante if he hadn’t been dead for 700 years.
In 1301, “Dante failed to appear in court on charges of fraud, perjury, extortion and embezzlement,” so Chief Magistrate Cante de’ Gabrielli did what any reasonable 14th century jurist would do: sentenced Dante to be burned at the stake. That’s according to Smithsonian Magazine, which recently published a piece on how astrophysicist and Dante descendant Sperello di Serego Alighieri is trying to get that 720-year-old death sentence overturned. (Italians really know how to hold grudges.) Whether or not the push is successful (apparently Italy has very strict rules around these things), the verdict is essential to Dante’s story—it led to his exile from Florence, which set Dante on the path, literally and metaphorically, to the Inferno and the rest of his journey through the afterlife. The Divine Comedy was an attempt to grapple with his circumstances, the betrayals, and the likelihood he'd never see home again. (He never did; he died in 1321, in Ravenna, of malaria.) You don't need to grasp the now-obtuse particulars of the Ghibellines and their schism into blood rivals Black Guelphs and White Guelphs to read The Divine Comedy. But having a little background—even from just the Smithsonian piece—gives the work much greater depth. For instance: Dante populated Hell with his enemies, making Inferno something of an actual burn book. That knowledge turns the poem into something far more tactile, alive, and, frankly, fun. And it proves the folly of his enemies: Not only did they fail to silence a rival—they made him immortal. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Hard to believe that *this* didn't go viral! But let's reserve judgment until we see how it does on the open NFT market...
How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?
Turns out all those hours of Twitter trolling were great prep for a career in national security! In a heavily redacted, couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up document disclosure from U.S. Cyber Command, the Department of Defense offered a weird and fascinating look at how they created a “meme” of a cartoon bear spreading Russian malware. (Meme is in quotes because it didn’t exactly go viral; the DoD information-warfare cartoon was retweeted about 210 times. And if you call something a meme before it’s actually, you know, a meme, it’s not a meme.) In the battle for online hearts and minds, Cyber Command apparently spends time trying to mock Russia’s state-sponsored hackers with low-res cartoons. And those cartoons go through lots of bureaucratic approvals. “The Pentagon doesn’t meme like you or I,” reported Motherboard. “Images must be approved, tweets drafted and redrafted, and everything has to go through the chain of command. From conception to deployment, the picture of the Soviet bear dropping malware candy took 22 days.” That’s enough time for an actual meme to be born, go viral, be co-opted by Steak-Ums, and inspire a reaction meme that then goes viral.
Spending 22 days on a Tweet sounds nutty, but there’s a reason America’s online warriors are putting some time and care into calling out Russian chicanery. Lots of thinkers in the national security world think cyberspace will be the sight of our next big conflict, and state-sponsored hacking of critical infrastructure is a growing concern across the world. Most experts believe it’s time to bring online spying, hacking, and disruption operations into the center of the debate about defense strategy, and the only way to do that is to shine more light on the threat. Even if it takes a propaganda bear to draw some attention. —Eric Johnson
A college degree can be a ticket to a decent career—and, researchers found, a longer life.
Earning a Degree is Literally a Matter of Life and Death
A college degree is now worth a decade of life. That’s the staggering, unsettling conclusion of Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the prize-winning Princeton economists who famously identified “deaths of despair” and the declining life expectancy of working-class Americans. In a new research paper, Case and Deaton find that there’s now a 10-year difference in average life expectancy for Americans with a degree and those without, driven largely by the declining employment prospects for people with a high school diploma. “Without a 4-y college diploma, it is increasingly difficult to build a meaningful and successful life in the United States,” they write, citing piles of data on marriage rates, employment rates, social isolation, and a host of other factors that drive quality of life and mortality. “In the richest large country in the world, with frontier medical technology, expected years lived between 25 and 75 declined for most of a decade for men and women without a 4-y degree, even prior to the arrival of COVID-19.”
It’s hard to overstate what a stunning conclusion this is. Life expectancy isn’t supposed to decline. The story of the modern world is one of steady improvement in medicine, nutrition, public health and longevity. The growing recognition that these gains are being rolled back, and that college completion has become such a sharp dividing line in society, has major implications for education and economics. “Good jobs have become increasingly rare for workers without a college diploma, many of whom have lost their jobs to globalization and automation and for whom the cost of employer-provided healthcare has increasingly priced them out of the high-quality labor market,” Case and Deaton write. “These changes in the labor market have undermined the conditions for a successful working life to the point in which, according to the political philosopher Michael Sandel, ‘the college degree is a condition of dignified work and of social esteem.’” In a country where only a third of adults have that degree, that’s a recipe for unrest. —Eric Johnson
Nyan Cat has been freely available online for a decade. A one-of-a-kind version sold as an NFT for $580,000. Who else now feels like a cat with a Pop Tart body running through space?
...And Now For Something Completely Ridiculous
For the last few weeks I’ve been mildly obsessed with NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. But I'm not sure if they've made me smarter or dumber… NFTs is a concept I first encountered last year in a documentary about Pepe the frog that touched (all-too-briefly) on the "rare Pepe economy," where collectors trade and sell Pepe memes for Bitcoin. I was fascinated by the idea that dudes get together and sell freely downloadable images from the Internet for the cryptocurrency equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Recently that fascination curdled into bemused revulsion as the rare meme economy got pumped full of hype, speculation, and an unholy brew of Four Loko and Soylent to manifest as the NFT Market. How does it work? How much time do you have—and how many neurons are you willing to shred? Wired's Gadget Lab podcast had a decent explainer, if NFTs can be explained, and scads of outlets have been chasing NFT clicks to get their micro nuggets of the gold rush. But it basically involves the equivalent of digital trading cards, the blockchain, the memeification of the art market (like the GameStop thing trolling short sellers, but aimed at Christie's), and an ecologically disastrous amount of energy consumption. The NBA sells NFTs of sick on-court highlights called Top Shots for thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Publishers are offering articles as NFTs. And some guy who goes by Beeple (#ofcourse) sold an NFT collage of 5,000 satirical, oftentimes racist and misogynist images to a crypto investor for $69,346,250.
“Society Gets the Art That It Deserves” is the headline of Nick Bilton's recent piece for Vanity Fair, and that is the best description of this moment I've come across. (It's a quote from dealer and collector Stefan Simchowitz.) Bilton talks with actor John Cleese, who is trying to punk/capitalize on the NFT frenzy by selling an iPad sketch of the Brooklyn Bridge with a buy-it-now price of $69,346,250.50. (That'll show you, Beeple!) He won't get that much (famous last words), but he does hit at the truth of this moment: “The world has gone terminally insane." (If anyone would know, it's a mid-level suit in the Ministry of Silly Walks.) How insane? A blockchain company bought a Banksy print for $95,000, set it on fire, then sold a digital version of the physical work as an NFT for close to $382,000. The art market is primed for disruption, for lots of reasons. But is the solution NFTs? Nope. And the only proof you need is the art market jumping all the way in on these lines of computer code: Christie’s brokered the Beeple sale. As Bilton writes, "If it feels to you like culture is collapsing in on itself and nothing makes sense"—you know what, Nick? I'm going to stop you right there. You don't need to finish that sentence. It is, and nothing does. So let's get nuts! Stay tuned to KleepklorpHaus for this blurb to be listed as an NFT for the low, low starting price of gigatictac wafflecoin. —Dante A. Ciampaglia