In this image taken on Oct. 30, 2021, an aurora dimly intersected with Earth's airglow as the International Space Station flew into an orbital sunrise 264 miles above the Pacific Ocean before crossing over Canada.

In Our Feeds

Overview Effects, Meal Shares, and STEM CHIPS: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From four-wheeled spaceships to Spaceship Earth, 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.

Hands of couple sharing and enjoying freshly made pasta in a restaurant

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Out: Hot Vax Summer — In: Hot Wax Mealshare

Economics 201: Sharesies

When I arrive at a restaurant, my first order of business is to identify who I will be splitting a meal with. My daughter is always on board; my husband not so much. A menu offers such a plethora of interesting meals, why limit yourself to just one choice? Given my devotion to “sharesies,” it was vindicating to read Joe Pinsker’s article in The Atlantic this week about the economic principle supporting this practice. He explains the concept of utility and that as you consume more of something, “each successive unit of that thing tends to bring you less satisfaction than the previous one.” Applying this principle to meals at restaurants, “if the first half of a dish tends to be more satisfying than the second half, why not have the first half of two dishes instead of one whole dish?” Could not agree more! And with covid rendering buffets if not obsolete then certainly undesirable, this approach provides the path to greater satisfaction.

There are, of course, downsides to meal-splitting. Pinsker points to the disappointment when one of the dishes is far superior to the other and you are stuck eating half of the stinker. This happened recently at an Italian restaurant with my daughter: her calamari, shrimp, and clams hugging homemade pasta was far superior to my bland ravioli dish. Dan Pashman, host of the podcast The Sporkful, told Pinsker that, as a kid, his family passed their plates around the restaurant table so everyone could try everything. He said this was fine—until you realize someone got something you like better. “Like, I was happy enough with my halibut until I tried my brother’s pork chop,” Pashman said. “Now my meal is tinged with sadness.” It’s a risk worth taking. I’ll stick with my meal-splitting ways, thank you very much, enjoying the first half of two dishes and hoping my meal is tinged with happiness. —Karen Lanning

Abstract motion glitch multicolored pink purple neon distorted textured psychedelic zebra background

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Sure this isn't a graph of the New York Stock Exchange, but can we really say it isn't *not* one? All the vibes point to yes.

The Vibes Market

“What’s going on with the economy?” is impossible to answer, especially when that economy includes 332 million people and close connections with the rest of the planet. There is no single economy, just as there’s no single America. No amount of data analysis or news consumption or cultural omnivorousness is going to be enough to get your arms and brain around something continent-sized and infinitely complicated. This is why I love reading Kyla Scanlon, a manically energetic financial analyst who is—and I cannot stress this enough —24 years old and somehow one of the sharpest, sanest voices about the current weirdness in the American economy. “The vibes are off,” she writes in a June 30th Substack post that manages to capture the unease people feel about the economy and their financial lives, even as the main indicators that policymakers rely on (like the unemployment rate, savings rate, and consumer spending) are all pretty upbeat. 

“When we think about how recessions come about (beyond the technical aspects), it makes sense that we would somehow end up with the vibes of a recession, but maybe not the economic reality of one (yet),” Scanlon writes. “There is a gap between the ‘reality’ of economic data and the interpretation of that reality for the everyday person.” Most economists do not write about vibes and feelings, which is why most economists don’t have good explanations for what’s going on right now. Scanlon takes seriously the notion of emotional contagion and how it spills over into the real world. “There is a theory that we are simply consuming way too much information,” she wrote in a June 30 post. “We simply are not built to be hearing all of this news, all of the time, and that totally shapes how we interpret the economy… we rattle around online, discussing things, consuming information, formulating opinions, having our reality shaped and molded into some derivative of ourselves.” The same forces that have upended media, education, mental health and much else are now vexing the Federal Reserve and economic policymakers: online perception having IRL consequences. —Eric Johnson

Astronaut performing a spacewalk above a cloud-covered earth


Bruce McCandless participates in an untethered spacewalk a few meters away from the space shuttle Challenger on February 7, 1984. Below him can be seen a cloudy view of the earth as McCandless approaches his maximum distance from the Challenger.

A Priceless View

The James Webb Space Telescope has already wowed humanity with its detailed and stunning images of the cosmos, both near (Jupiter) and very, very far (the Cartwheel galaxy, 500 million light years away). To properly function, the Webb must forever face away from Earth. But plenty of other orbiting cameras have their lenses focused on our home planet—including those operated by astronauts. These spacefarers are probably predisposed to be transfixed by our blue marble, and they’ve turned that fascination into countless images posted to social media showing us earthbound folks what they see up there. But they’re as likely to have their minds blown by what they see as we are. Astronauts often return to Earth with a new view on our “pale blue dot”—a phenomenon first articulated by Frank White in his 1987 book The Overview Effect—Space Exploration and Human Evolution. In an article for Big Think, Dirk Schulze-Makuch digs into the “overview effect,” which science writer Jeffrey Kluger describes as “the change that occurs when [astronauts] see the world from above, as a place where borders are invisible, where racial, religious, and economic strife are nowhere to be seen.”

The shift in perspective that comes with that literal overhead view of the planet can have wide-ranging effects. “The overview effect is another reason to speed up space exploration,” Schulze-Makuch writes. For one, it could rekindle the wide-eyed enthusiasm for space exploration. The space program, Schulze-Makuch writes, “has brought us many new inventions used in daily life,” Schulze-Makuch writes. “LEDs, asphalt roofing shingles, water filters, smoke detectors, and freeze-dry technology are only a few examples.” But it’s also an experience that has drifted away from sci-fi wowowow and toward routinized work. It has been 50 years since humans went to the Moon, and we keep hearing all this talk about going to Mars but every mission seems to be aimed at restocking the International Space Station. Sure, a Mars mission would be expensive. But as Schulze-Makuch points out, “‘expensive’ is relative. In a conversation I once had with my colleague and friend, the late Rob Bowman from New Mexico Tech, he mentioned that for the cost of the Iraq War, we could already have a station on Mars with 10-12 inhabitants.” And then there’s the impact seeing the Earth from space would have on our relationship with our planet. “No doubt, there are many other problems to resolve,” Schulze-Makuch writes. “But the overview effect gives us perhaps the most important perspective of all. We are living on a fragile planet with a thin veneer, our atmosphere, as our only lifeline. We need to overcome our petty differences and realize our vulnerabilities. Maybe more of us need to experience, or at least fully appreciate, the overview effect.” Sold. —Christian Niedan

Photo of a construction site with low, long gray buildings rising against a blue sky

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With the two building of phase one completed, crews work on additional phases of Facebooks data center that are under construction on May 5, 2021, in Eagle Mountain, Utah.

CHIPping Away at STEM Inequities

At College Board, we care deeply about increasing access to good jobs, particularly through the STEM pipeline. I’ve been aware of the various factors limiting participation in STEM—inequalities in access and representation by race and gender, geography, early exposure, and more—but it was only recently that I began processing the extent of geographic disparity. For instance, I learned half of all US innovation jobs are found in just 41 counties—out of more than 3,000 across the nation. Mark Muro at the Brookings Institution believes the newly passed CHIPS Act could help reduce the geographic inequities. The legislation, which passed last week, attempts to address several issues, including out-competing China, solving the semiconductor shortage, and bringing underrepresented people and places into the innovation economy.  There are a few ways the act attempts to address this last challenge, like creating a chief diversity officer at the National Science Foundation, building STEM and research-capacity at minority-serving institutions, and creating 20 new technology and innovation hubs in locations "that are not leading technology centers.” These hubs are up-and-coming tech centers and will support job creation and accelerate innovation and technology advancement outside traditionally dominant areas like San Francisco and New York City. The bill also authorizes the RECOMPETE Pilot Program, which provides $1 billion in block grants for economic development in distressed communities. This support is especially important because while the media has touted an urban exodus from places like San Francisco, the reality is that existing tech centers continue to dominate tech jobs and growth. Muro writes that innovation and social and spatial inclusion should come hand-in-hand, and that innovation is, in fact, reliant on inclusion. His perspective is backed by plenty of research: diversity enables innovation and leads to market growth. The provisions in the CHIPS Act are a good step to bringing new and needed voices into tech. —Hannah Van Drie

Red electric powered car drives on city highway while night - streaking street lights.

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Sure this *looks* like it could've come from a music video. Thanks to acoustic engineers, this EV also *sounds* like a music video. (That'll get pedestrians' attention!)

Pump the Volume

One of the more interesting dinner conversations I’ve had was with someone who designed exterior automotive lighting. Somewhere in my mind I knew some human was responsible for those elements, but I never thought to ask who or, “Why do those brakelights, with the modulating turn signals and stepped LED arrays, look cool while I find those blocky ones an affront to God and man?” I don’t remember much about that long-ago chat, except that I never saw cars the same. In a similar way, reading John Seabrook’s New Yorker piece about electric car sounds altered how I hear them. I’ve thought about this a lot since interviewing Bill Nye the Science Guy for a 2016 story about Formula E and NASCAR during my Sports Illustrated days—he said Formula E would boom when its vehicles sound like race cars, not eerily silent UFOs. And I’m reminded of the changing auto soundscape every time I’m in my hybrid Honda CR-V, which sounds like a humming spaceship when in reverse. But Seabrook’s story dives into the topic beyond suggestion and anecdote. Framed around a seemingly simple problem—EVs are quiet, a little too quiet, and they need to be amped up—it goes deep into the world of “acoustic automobile styling;” the sound engineers employed by automakers like Ford, GM, and Renault; and the urgent—and legal—necessity of solving this issue. Quiet cars are a danger to pedestrians, particularly the blind, which prompted Congress, in 2010, to pass the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act to ensure EVs make some kind of noise. But, as Seabrook documents, “It took a lot of effort to make naturally quiet vehicles noisier.”

How closely should EVs mimic internal-combustion engine cars? What does the answer to that question sound like for a Honda Civic vs. a Corvette vs. the Ford F-150 Lightning vs. Porsche Taycan Turbo S? What does “car should sound like a car” mean? It gets deeply existential, especially in America, which has such an ingrained car culture with drivers who need their muscle cars to sound beefy and their eco-friendly two-doors to sound, well, green. What does “beefy” mean when talking about car sounds? What does “green” mean? It’s a rabbit hole that goes deep, and Seabrook’s piece peers into without falling in head first. (It also made me aware that the ubiquitous, horrendous beep-beep-beep truck-backup sound is caused by a product: the Bac-A-Larm, created by Ed Peterson in the mid-1960s.) The story also demonstrates how necessary regulation can be a canvas for creativity. “By permitting automakers the latitude to brand their alerts, the N.H.T.S.A. rules have created a new design form,” Seabrook writes. “Pedestrians and cyclists won’t just hear the vehicle coming; they’ll know what kind of car it is.” And, I’d add, children. My 3-year-old daughter doesn’t know a Mustang from a Suburban, but she does know when a hybrid CR-V cruises by—because it sounds different than anything else on the road. “That’s our car!” she says with glee. She’s always right. And if Seabrook’s story is any guide, her experience is a window into the future of streets crowded with as many unique hums, beeps, pulses, whistles, and songs emanating as there are automakers. —Dante A. Ciampaglia