Tweeting Through It, Ode to Airports, and Seasonal Ailment Debilitation: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From our environments to our platforms, 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.
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This might as well be a live look into my home, where we've been dealing with nonstop colds for two months.
The Kids Are All Sick
Here’s when I knew my 12-year-old daughter was really sick: She did not even want to play video games.
As a regular consumer of news, I had read about record pediatric hospitalizations as viruses raged back with a vengeance. My kids came home everyday reporting on all the kids out from school—or coughing in class. And so I waited. And sure enough, about a week and a half ago, my daughter went to bed early on a Friday (another first), woke up a few hours later with a fever of 102, and spent most of the weekend napping or listlessly listening to Taylor Swift’s Midnights. We hadn’t seen her this sick since she was a baby. (She was covid negative, so we assumed flu, despite having gotten her flu shot, or some other wretched virus.)
It’s logical, right? We were in lockdown and missed out on all sorts of viruses, so we were all bound to get sick once restrictions lifted, masks came off, and people started crowding together again. But why are we getting so sick? This article helped answer that for me. Turns out, during those years with masks on or in lockdown, we missed out on “asymptomatic boosting”—or getting exposed to a little bit of viruses throughout the months and years. Our immunity waned, so now when our bodies meet a virus, we (or at least my daughter, as none of us got even a sniffle) don’t have all the tools to fight it off. The good thing is that scientists predict our bodies will catch back up quickly and next winter will look more normal. Here’s to hoping for more normal winter colds. —Michele McNeil
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WHat's the flight that'll get me outta here the soonest...? (A passenger looks at the departures board at Ronald Reagan National Airport on the day before the Thanksgiving holiday, November 27, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia.)
Takeoffs and (Very Bumpy) Landings
When friends and family come visit me in Washington, DC, they frequently ask which airport they should fly into. My resounding answer, every time, is DCA (Washington Reagan). It's the closest to the city and the easiest to get to. Unless there's a major price difference, or someone is flying internationally, I strongly recommend DCA over its counterparts, Dulles (IAD) and BWI (Baltimore). (Part of living in D.C. is confidently referring to airports by their codes rather than their actual names.) So I was surprised this week when I saw the Wall Street Journal's rankings of the best airports in the country. In the mid-sized category, DCA, IAD, and BWI all fell—with DCA ranked 28 out of 30, the worst of all area airports. (Dulles was the highest-performing at 17, Baltimore was 24. Not exactly a great showing for the region.) The WSJ made its decision based on three criteria: reliability, value, and convenience. Interestingly, convenience includes factors like nonstop flights, food options, and amount of time walking at the airport, while value includes cost to get to the city center. Neither category includes the time it takes to get to the city center, which is one of the top considerations for me when I'm doing airport pickup duty or traveling myself. Despite my slightly different definition of convenience, DCA actually won out for my local airports in this category, but its scores in reliability and value were so low that they pulled the airport to the bottom of the list. [Could be worse; could be LGA. –Ed.] California airports swept the top three spots (Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose), with San Antonio and Portland rounding out the top five. I've never flown into any of these airports, so I can't speak to the accuracy of the rankings. But WSJ, if you’re reading, if you want me to pay me to explore these airports myself, don't hesitate to reach out. —Hannah Van Drie
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We go now, live, to San Francisco for a live check in at Twitter headquart.... Oh. Oh my.
IRL Fail Whale
The world’s richest man bought Twitter a few weeks ago, and it now seems quite possible he’s going to kill it. Elon Musk has fired many of the people who keep the site running, angered and harassed its advertisers, and saddled the company with so much debt it may prove impossible to avoid bankruptcy. A satirical column from Politico speculated that maybe Musk is trying to destroy the internet’s greatest source of culture-war nonsense in order to save us all from our own worst impulses. “We all know that social media is awful, a colossal waste of time that stops you from doing actual stuff like spending time with your children, learning to play the flute or competitive ironing,” writes Paul Dallison. “So is Musk purposefully driving people away from Twitter and into the welcoming arms of real life by pretending to be a moron with horrible opinions?” Honestly, I hope so! I am a lifelong Twitter abstainer who believes the net impact of broadcasting reactionary witticisms from the most screen-addled humans on the planet has been… bad. For pretty much everyone. And especially bad for journalism and liberal democracy.
But not everyone feels that way. Charlie Werzel in The Atlantic is nostalgic for the way Twitter used to flatten status hierarchies and make it possible for ambitious writers and thinkers to connect with giants in the field—and sometimes get jobs. “In the media, a whole microgeneration of younger journalists owe parts of their career to the way that Twitter collapses social networks and allows people to find new and interesting voices,” he writes. At MIT Technology Review, Chris Stokel-Walker frets about the loss of valuable public records, given Twitter’s outsized role in politics and culture. “Twitter’s ubiquity, its adoption by nearly a quarter of a billion users in the last 16 years, and its status as a de facto public archive has made it a gold mine of information,” he writes. “Twitter is teeming with significant content from the past 16 years that could help tomorrow’s historians understand the world of today.“ Whatever comes next, I am amazed at how hard it is for the Twittering class to imagine a future without it. “What do our politics look like without the strange feedback loop of a Twitter-addled political press and a class of lawmakers that seems to govern more via shitposting than by legislation?” Werzel asks. “What happens if the media lose what the writer Max Read recently described as a ‘way of representing reality, and locating yourself within it’? The answer is probably messy.” Of course it’ll be messy, but it’s already messy. It was messy before Twitter. Reality, and “locating yourself within it,” happened just fine for many, many, many (thousands of) years before people had the chance to share 120/240 characters worth of micro-thought. A return to that slightly quieter world will come as a relief, I suspect. —Eric Johnson
Multiple nighttime lightning bolts strike the steel poles that make up Walter De Maria's "The Lightning Field" in western New Mexico.
Pics Or It Didn’t Happen
If person A tells people B-Z that they, A, have something cool but everyone else can’t experience it, those others, B-Z, will naturally want it. It’s FOMO, and it’s a law of nature. Like lightning striking a tall metal object in a wide-open field. It’s unclear if the late artist Walter De Maria had that psychology in mind when he began allowing visitors to his legendary land art installation “The Lightning Field.” But he definitely created a sense of experiential scarcity. The installation consists of a one mile by one kilometer grid of 400 stainless steel poles in western New Mexico. Only six visitors are allowed each day for an overnight stay at a nearby cabin. Oh, and absolutely no picture taking allowed. In a social media age of travel, that last restriction resonated with Arizona journalist Rowan Moore Gerety, who recently wrote about his visit for The Atlantic. “We live in an era when trips to cultural and natural sites are relentlessly documented, to the point where aficionados have cataloged whole lists of the waterfalls, ancient ceremonial sites, and Mediterranean towns ‘ruined’ by Instagram,” Gerety observes in the article, titled “The Art Exhibit for the Anti-Instagram Age.” He gets an explanation for De Maria’s photography prohibition from a curator at Dia Art Foundation, the nonprofit that helped acquire the installation’s land, who notes the artist felt photos would “overdetermine and undermine the experience before you see it.” Indeed, after a night of soggy lightning viewing, Gerety sits in the morning sun on the cabin’s porch watching pronghorn antelope graze among the poles, with no urge to photograph the moment. “We’re doing what people don’t do anymore,” a fellow visitor observes. The visitor is describing taking in nature on its own terms, but they could easily be talking about encountering the world—nature, art, whatever—with their eyes rather than through a camera lens. “De Maria is right,” Gerety concludes of his Lightning Field experience. “The photos don’t do it justice.” If only more would-be Instagram travel influencers felt the same way. —Christian Niedan
Not sure it's possible to create IRL the experience of listening to Brian Eno's music, but this photo of Brian Eno ensconced in lush, all-encompassing nature gets pretty close.
Brian Eno, who has a new album, FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE, has been making the rounds lately. You could know him from any number of things: member of the seminal band Roxy Music, notable solo musician in his own right, producer of David Bowie and Talking Heads and U2 (among many, many others), composer (creator, really) of ambient music. He’s one of my favorite artists, not just for what he helped put into the world but for what it has meant to me. (Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) has done a lot of emotional heavy lifting for me in the last six or so years.) Whenever he pops up, I make time for the interview because I know it will be an expansive experience. Eno’s recent chat with the New York Times’ David Marchese didn’t disappoint. The new album is an entryway into a discussion about everything from live-action roleplaying (LARPing) and Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) to Eno, um, defacing an iconic piece of modern art. But it’s his thoughts on art and community that sparked my mind. “What happens when you go look at a painting you’ve never seen before?” Eno asks. “What I think happens is that when you look at that picture, you’re seeing it in the context of all the other pictures you’ve ever seen. … In many instances, there won’t be anything different, in which case you’re not that interested. But if you can look at it and say, ‘That’s more angular. That’s fuzzier. That’s much more this, much more that’—we’re very good at understanding differences in feeling within our own long narrative of looking at pieces of work.” I’ve been going to museums a long time, and on some abstract level I knew this—I certainly know enough art history to make academic connections—but hadn’t really thought explicitly about the emotional overlap with the academic and what it means for how I see art.
That kind of community of the internal gives way to ideas about external communities of other people and how he wants his work to facilitate a renewed sense of group experience. “There are strong signs that people are resisting the atomization of everything,” Eno says. “People are getting fed up with that and wanting to do things together.” It’s true, even if the standard narratives (“No one wants to go to movie theaters anymore!” for instance) suggest otherwise. And it’s of a piece with how he describes his albums as creating “the sense of music being a place rather than an event,” as he told Wired. In the Times interview, he points to a gospel performance he recently discovered as a joyous example of community: “It’s intensely moving. [The people are] elevated by this community they’ve formed around this event. That, more and more, is the feeling that I’m fascinated by: What happens to humans when they multiply their feelings together?” At the risk of veering into sentimentality, it’s kind of a beautiful question—one that we’ve all stopped asking. But I’m with Eno: It’s time to smash atomization! We don’t need to link arms and sing “We Are the World.” But gathering to listen music—or experience any art—together sounds pretty refreshing to *waves arms around furiously* all this. —Dante A. Ciampaglia