Tapping Stonehenge, Defining Animals, and Grading Grades: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From who built our world to the way we live in it, 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.
Kids don't get this kind of report card anymore. How're they're graded on school work could be the next thing to change.
Remaking the Grades
School grading policies serve many purposes. They’re designed to motivate, provide feedback, signal a student’s readiness or not-quite-readiness to tackle the next level of academic work. But, ideally, they’re meant to promote actual learning—encouraging students to study and master the coursework so they can make progress on the path to college or some productive vision of life beyond high school. Designing a system that can achieve all of those aims is hard, and a lot of educators are chucking the old grade book for more creative approaches. In what the Washington Post calls “a revolution in grading,” individual teachers and entire school districts are testing new ways to assess student work. “Districts around the country—from California to Virginia and more—are experimenting to level the competition and focus on what experts think matters most: What should a grade represent?” write Valerie Strauss and Donna St. George. “How can grades be used to motivate students to learn and retain information? How can grading be equitable?”
Much of the attention is on lowering the stakes of each individual grade, giving students more opportunity to revise homework and tests or make up assignments they may have missed. There’s also an effort to separate behavior from academic progress, meaning students shouldn’t have their English grade knocked down for being late to class or talking during a test. “A-F grades should be academic, and other habits and behaviors can be recorded through notes or other numerical or alphabetical symbols,” Strauss and St. George write. All of that sounds reasonable—in theory. But it’s putting greater burdens on teachers to do one-on-one counseling and tutoring at a time when they’re already feeling overworked helping students catch up from pandemic disruptions. Providing more detailed feedback is good for learning, but only if teachers have the chance to do it well. In the London Review of Books, William Davies is worried our educational future will rely less on human interaction and more on algorithmic assessment that makes little room for productive mistakes and teachable moments. “There’s no question that literacy and pedagogy must evolve alongside technology,” Davies writes. “It’s possible to recognize this while also defending an educational humanism—with a small ‘h’—that values the time and space given to a young person to mess around, try things out, make mistakes, have a say, and not immediately find out what score they’ve got as a result.” I hope he’s right. —Eric Johnson
Happy Pi Day, from the boys in Spinal Tap!
Rocks of Ages
My favorite part of 1984 mockumentary This is Spinal Tap is the band’s performance of “Stonehenge.” It’s the kind of self-serious metal epic that was stock in trade for the types of groups Spinal Tap parodies, and the centerpiece is a life-size replica of the ancient Stonehenge. But this is the hard-luck Spinal Tap, so it goes off the rails immediately. The song begins, and the monument that descends from the rafters is not what was intended. Rather than 18-feet tall, Tap’s ‘henge is 18 inches. And just before the comically-small version of the landmark makes its equally comic journey to the stage, lead singer David St. Hubbins intones the lyrics:
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock
I’ll take any opportunity to talk about one of the best scenes in one of the greatest movies ever made. But there is a legit news reason for it this week. Stonehenge has been estimated to be around 5,000 years old, and it’s plenty mysterious—as are its creators (who were not a “strange race” of Druids). Scholars have long speculated that the famed prehistoric monument Stonehenge might have served as some kind of calendar that helped local people predict eclipses, summer and winter solstices, the equinox, and other relevant celestial events. Now, a British archaeologist has concluded that the site was designed as a solar calendar, and he describes his system in a recent paper published in the journal Antiquity. In a paper recently published in the journal Antiquity, Bournemouth University archaeologist Timothy Darvill posits that Stonehenge was built to act as a calendar based on a tropical solar year of 365.25 days, which "opens up a whole new way of seeing the monument as a place for the living—a place where the timing of ceremonies and festivals was connected to the very fabric of the universe and celestial movements in the heavens," Darvill said in a press release. He goes on to describe how the architecture of the monument represented months, weeks, and days, which surely would've blown Spinal Tap's minds.
New insights into Stonehenge are always worth a read, but 2022 has also brought us new info that clears up a bit of mystery about an even older, even more mysterious piece of rock: the Venus of Willendorf. This tiny 10-cm rock figurine with exaggerated female features has appeared in countless world history textbooks over the past century. [It also figures into a fantastically hilarious character moment in the superb The Young Pope. -Ed.] It was only discovered in 1908 near Willendorf, in northeastern Austria, but it dates back between 25,000 and 30,000 years—with little evidence to its creator’s intent. Now, though, high-definition tomographic imaging has narrowed the likely source of the figurine’s oolite rock to northern Italy near Lake Garda. That means the Gravettian people who crafted it eventually traveled north past the imposing Alps (and Ice Age glaciers) toward the region where the Venus was eventually rediscovered in the early 20th Century. That journey was still dangerous 20,000 years later when the famous “Iceman” Ötzi lived and was murdered in the Ötztal Alps (a few hundred years before Stonehenge). Another less plausible, but still possible source of the Venus’ oolite: 1600 kilometers away in Eastern Ukraine. That research will have to wait a bit. —Christian Niedan
When this photo of Pablo Escobar's hippos was taken, in December 2002, it depicted half of the hippo herd. Twenty years later, their look of defiance feels like a promise: "We aren't going anywhere."
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Hippo Rights
I’m not sure I would’ve expected to find Pablo Escobar’s name connected with the fight for expanding animal rights, but here we are! The infamous cartel boss flaunted his wealth and power in lots of ways, which of course meant he had a private zoo. When he was killed in 1993, the animals in his menagerie were all relocated—except four hippopotamuses. Authorities assumed they’d die out, but they survived, thrived, and now more than 100 hippos roam the Hacienda Napoles theme park, Escobar's old estate outside Medellín, Colombia. In an effort to protect the animals from extermination—they were described in 2021 as the “world’s largest invasive species”—a U.S. court recognized them as "persons of interest" in a lawsuit. And Escobar's hippos are not alone. Their recognition as persons of interest marks a larger legal discussion about the rights of animals and non-human persons. American law treats animals as "things," and while action can be taken to prevent animal cruelty, animals don't have the same rights as humans. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is attempting to change this. They petitioned the New York courts to grant four chimpanzees a writ of habeas corpus—which may be obtained by any person who has been illegally detained—that would free them from captivity within the state and relocate them to animal sanctuaries. The petition was rejected.
Now, the NhRP is trying again with an elephant named Happy. Born in Thailand in 1971, Happy was kidnapped from her herd as an infant and taken to the Bronx Zoo in 1977, where she has lived ever since. The Bronx Zoo is one of the best in the country, and there is no evidence of animal abuse. Still, the NhRP is again arguing for a writ of habeas corpus. Happy is exceptionally intelligent and the only known elephant to pass the mirror test, given to chimpanzees and orangutans to demonstrate self-awareness. The animals must recognize themselves in the mirror and understand changes in their appearance. In Happy's case, the test administrator painted a large white X on her forehead. When Happy saw herself in the mirror, she began to touch the mark on her forehead, suggesting that she knew she was looking at herself. While Happy undoubtedly would be happier if she was moved to an elephant sanctuary like the NhRP is arguing for, granting her the rights of a person would raise questions about zoos, aquariums, and even pets. Some people worry that it would also create a new legal industry akin to ambulance chasers, where the actual welfare of the animals is not taken into account. Even so, the NhRP continues its quest for rights for non-human persons. Their initial petition for Happy was denied, but the group is working on an appeal. —Hannah Van Drie
Oh, you have a fancy supercomputer in your pocket? That's cute. My local bodega's janky old ATM runs on now-ancient code—and is probably more reliable that that iPhone.
Our COBOLt Environment
The only time we seem to think very much about infrastructure is when it fails. That could be a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh or a massive breach of sensitive digital data. The roads, bridges, structures, and planning of our built and digital environments only seem interesting when they’re going up or coming down. But it's in infrastructure's middle act, when it becomes an invisible part of our everyday experience, where really interesting stories live—especially if it’s old construction outperforming some sexy new project that’s suddenly imperiled. Slate’s technology podcast, What Next: TBD, found one such example in COBOL. An acronym for common business oriented language, it’s a coding language more than six decades old (and written by a team led by Grace Hopper, one of the most important figures in computer science history) on which vital programs run by banks, insurance companies, and retailers are built. “About 80% of every time you do an in-person transaction at a bank, it’s using COBOL. Like 95% of the time that you swipe a bank card, you’re using COBOL,” journalist Clive Thompson says on the podcast. “The Bank of New York Mellon did a study and realized they had over 100,000 individual COBOL programs, running about 350 million lines of COBOL. That’s just one bank.” Crazy! COBOL is truly the concrete of our digital lives. And it has proved exceptionally resilient, which is why institutions have stuck with them after decades of use.
But like actual concrete, COBOL develops cracks and fissures and weak spots and requires maintenance. (Perhaps the most high-profile example was the Y2K bug that drove so many people to millennial paranoia in the waning days of the 1990s.) Thing is, COBOL is edging close to being a dead language as more programming is done for apps and sites with shorter lifespans using things like Python and Java. (Bank software written with COBOL has been in use for 30, 40 years; apps have an average half life of six months.) And with the move away from COBOL comes a dwindling number of people who can work with it. “The uncomfortable truth here is that the code is probably going to outlive its coders,” host Lizzie O’Leary says, “which means it will also outlive the collective knowledge of how to fix things when they inevitably go wrong.” The episode is only 20 minutes, but it packs a lot into what’s an eye-opening journey. It will totally change how you see both the physical and digital worlds—and maybe get you thinking about learning COBOL. (Or is that just me?) —Dante A. Ciampaglia
People walk past a destroyed Russian military vehicle at a frontline position on March 03, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine.
The Fog of War
Perspective is always hard in war. That’s especially true when your cause is righteous and the distinction between aggressor and victim, invader and invaded, is crystal clear, as it is in the fight between a democratic Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But understanding your enemy, learning how to see the world through their eyes, is often the key to unwinding a crisis or finding a way back from the brink. That’s exactly what Alexander Nazaryan is trying to do in this analysis for Yahoo! News. “In the United States and Western Europe, Putin has been described as a warmongering bully who deserves a strong brushback from the West,” writes Nazaryan, who grew up in the Soviet Union. “But none of that will erase Russian grievances that have festered for decades—and are inarguably at work today. Understanding those grievances is crucial to engaging in what some are describing as a new Cold War.”
I met Alexander a few years ago; he is a terrific writer. I especially admire the way he can bring a deep knowledge of Russian history—as well as the perspective of a native Russian speaker, well versed in the country’s media and culture—to crucial moments like this. “Some of the tensions at work today between Russia and Ukraine go back centuries,” he writes. “History for Russians is also a much more intimately lived experience than it is for most Americans, who tend to favor the present, with an eye to the future.” Nazaryan unpacks Putin’s campaign to portray Ukraine as a breakaway region of Russia rather than an independent people by tracing the present conflict from 13th century Mongol invasions all the way up to modern Russia’s efforts to rehabilitate Stalin’s legacy. That explains why the last few weeks have come as such a shock to many Russian soldiers and leaders, who seem genuinely surprised at fierce Ukrainian resistance and a will to remain independent. Reading Nazaryan’s essay, which has aged well in the weeks since he wrote it, reminds me of one of the great strengths of being a country of immigrants. When you welcome people with cross-cultural fluency, you get a much deeper understanding of a fraught world—and a better shot at restoring peace. —Stefanie Sanford