Wordle Fracas, iPod Legacies, and Art of Science: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From games we play to devices we wish would stay, 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.
The word game Wordle is shown on a mobile phone on January 12, 2022, in Houston, Texas.
Words With “Friends”
For a brief, glorious moment we were a nation united over a common quest, a daily ritual, a tribute to mastery: Wordle. Folks proudly shared scores of how many tries it took to arrive at the same five-letter word. Families and friends competed with each other to claim the title of lowest Wordle score. Facebook feeds were replete with green and yellow Wordle boxes. Wordle even saved an 80-year-old woman in Lincolnwood, Illinois, who always texted her daughter her Wordle score—until she didn’t. And she didn’t because she was being held hostage in her basement by an intruder. Alarmed that she had not received her mother’s score that day, her daughter called the police, who rescued the woman. Thanks to Wordle.
But on May 9, the reality of our divided nation encroached on even this innocuous diversion. That was when most loyal Wordle players received the word “shine” while many others, who failed to refresh their browsers, were given the word “fetus.” Having programmed the latter word last year, the New York Times—which purchased Wordle in January for “an undisclosed price in the low-seven-figures”—decided to switch the word to “remain distinct from the news.” In our complicated political times, though, it appears that nothing remains truly distinct from the news, even popular games that unite and entertain the masses. —Karen Lanning
His friends say: "Yay you're here!" His face says: "Look I'm sorry I lost the party-arrival equation and then when I found it my calculator was broken and I couldn't remember how many people would be here and ohmygodimsoembarassed."
Variably Late to the Party
Generally, I arrive at parties 30-90 minutes late, depending on the context. When I host larger groups, I typically put a start time an hour before I expect people to show up. It's an unspoken dance: How and when to arrive at the exact right time? No one wants to arrive too early, before the host is ready, and we don't want to be rude or miss out. To help us all navigate this social dilemma, The Atlantic writer Joe Pinsker turns to math. He worked with mathematician Daniel Biss to create a formula to determine the best arrival time for a particular event. The variables include: friends' punctuality, our confidence in our rating of our friends' punctuality, whether we expect that our friends will arrive at the same time or not, the degree of awkwardness it is to be early and late, our excitement, and how late we tend to be from our own desired arrival time. Put into math form, it all looks like this:
But don’t worry—you don’t have to memorize that equation. Every party attendee can use the tool on The Atlantic's website to help them decide when to arrive. While this formula is intentionally absurd, it captures the social pressures so many of us face when going to large group events, particularly after several years without parties. Pinsker also highlights an American cultural oddity: so much of our work revolves around "clock" time, yet for parties, we operate on "event" time. As someone who has apologized for arriving two minutes late to an online meeting and recently arrived to a get-together at a friend's house two hours late, I think about this dichotomy often. Pinsker suggests that we should get creative about how to measure time, using the flight path of local flocks of birds or the direction flowers are facing to indicate party start times. I love those ideas. More practically speaking, though, I would love to see a loosening of both standards: work meetings that are more flexible and parties with less pressure to be the perfect amount of fashionably late. —Hannah Van Drie
The author listening to Popular Science's podcast and getting ideas for old covers to track down on Google, as depicted on the November 1922 cover of Popular Science, which can be found on Google
This month is Popular Science magazine’s 150th anniversary, and it marked the occasion with a sesquicentennial issue that’s “extremely metal.” Last year, the influential publication went fully digital, but I have an affection for 20th century PopSci print edition cover art, known for its vividly-colored portrayals of cutting-edge innovation. A 2010 deal with Google gave a free digital home to every scanned issue of the magazine’s archive from 1872 to March 2009. Using this great resource, I tried to find the earliest archived covers, which happen to be from 1917, the same year the U.S. joined World War I. Unsurprisingly, those painted works evoke wartime tech, including a parachuting “Observation Officer Jumping to Safety” from a fire-consumed balloon (July 1917); the steampunk-like “Unicycle Dispatch Rider” on a Howitzer-filled battlefield (September 1917); and high seas-set “Gun Buoy Fights the Submarine” (November 1917).
Even better: each cover image refers to a story in the magazine, proof that PopSci has featured a number of weird articles in its pages over 150 years. A few of them were recently highlighted by PopSci’s podcast “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.” In the latest episode, executive editor Rachel Feltman shares the story behind Edgar F. Wittmack’s November 1931 oil painting cover art portraying “the intentional detonation of some 6,000 pounds of gunpowder inside the crater at the summit of Lassen Peak in California” to commemorate its 1915 volcanic eruption. Another anecdote from this episode finds editor-in-chief Corinne Iozzio summarizing Thomas Elway’s PopSci articles that include his May 1930 thought exercise “Do beavers rule on Mars?” and the December 1929 suggestion of possible mutant crabs on the moon. Alas, neither issue used Elway’s story for the cover—which is objectively just poor editorial artistic judgment. —Christian Niedan
Moment from the latest "Blair Witch" movie or an Army recruitment video? Who's to say! Why not both!
Deceit and disinformation have always been part of warfare (Trojan Horse, anyone?). But this unnerving video from the US Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group takes things to a whole new level. “Complete with eerie whistling in the background and suspenseful music, the video is far from the sometimes-cheesy Army recruiting commercials we often see on television,” reports Haley Britsky for Task & Purpose, an outlet for military news and analysis. “It’s dark and palpably tense, the clips of old cartoons and radio segments from world events combining perfectly to create something that is both intriguing and unsettling.” That’s a good description for all of Army PSYOPS, part of the elite Special Operations Command. Born in the trenches of World War I, with efforts to drop morale-dampening leaflets on German troops, the military’s propaganda and information war efforts have grown in size and sophistication.
Several military commentators have pointed out that the new PYSOPs recruiting video is, itself, a clever and creepy bit of information warfare. By asking “Who’s pulling the strings?” over images of protests across the world, and conspicuous shots of Chinese and Russian cities, the three-minute trailer strongly implies that U.S. “ghosts in the machine” are able to conduct influence operations that shape the politics and foment unrest in rival nations. “Given the number of references in the video to Russia and China, it’s also hard not to view this PSYOPS recruiting video itself as a bit of a PSYOP aimed at an overseas audience,” writes Rachel Nostrant in the Army Times. “The field of PSYOPS may be more relevant than ever as the world reaches the third month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. comes out of years of questioning whether Russia was involved in its democratic elections in 2016 and 2020.” Verbum Vincet, as the PSYOPS motto has it: “The word will conquer.” —Eric Johnson
The then-new iPod Classic is held at the UK launch of the product at the BBC on September 5, 2007, in London, England. What a beauty...
iMourn the iPod
There are obviously lots of other things to worry about in the world right now, but Apple’s May 10 announcement that it was retiring the iPod Touch—the final model of the music player still in production—felt in its way momentous. When the digital music player was introduced 20 years ago, it reconfigured culture in a way that’s hard to overstate. The Walkman had a similar impact, giving people the freedom to take music anywhere—but you were still shackled to cassettes, and later CDs. The iPod, as Steve Jobs famously said at the 2001 launch, put 1,000 songs in your pocket. That’s a lot of tapes. I still remember the first time I encountered an iPod IRL, a first- or second-generation version that looked like it fell out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I thought I was so cool with my minidisc player… “The iPod was a phenomenon in design, fashion, and function,” Wired editor at large Steven Levy writes. From the implosion and reshaping of the record industry to the creation of the podcast to how and where we listen to music (and consume content), the iPod injected itself directly into humankind’s cultural DNA. Levy’s was one of many eulogies for this transformational technology—and he’s uniquely qualified to comment on it, as the author of the 2006 book The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. But his essay felt to me more valuable than most because it got at two important aspects of the iPod’s influence.
The first is that the iPod was a device built to do a single task; when it became the iPod Touch, music became “just one of a zillion other functions,” Levy writes. “Our devices are no longer self-contained universes, but portals to a global repository of knowledge and AI training sets. We ourselves are increasingly becoming appendages to that seething digital mass.” As that increasingly means distraction, tracking, and surveillance, it’s no wonder so many people lament the end of the iPod to the point of creating a burgeoning aftermarket for those simpler players. The second thing Levy hits on, which is related and exceptionally important, is that, “in the post-iPod age, we don’t own songs—we access them. … Personal storage of things like songs and music became unnecessary. Instead of a thousand songs in our pocket, we have access to millions of songs through the ether.” This shift from owners to perpetual renters is true across culture and in its way rewiring our society again. But as we all know, songs disappear from Spotify and Netflix loses streaming rights to movies, and when we want to cue up our favorite whatever… it’s gone. The demise of the iPod reminds us—even if it hasn’t really been the “iPod” for a while—that everything’s ephemeral. And I think that explains why vinyl (and even cassettes!) have new life, why I just can’t part with my library of 100 or so Blu-Rays, and a lot of the lamentation about the iPod. “Jobs was adamant for some time that people always wanted to own their music,” Levy writes. “That was the apotheosis of the iPod—a device you owned and cherished that played your painstakingly curated song collection.” And even if the iPod is gone, physically (and maybe spiritually), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (streaming on Paramount+) and Seinfeld (streaming on Netflix) remind us that it’s not truly dead if we find a way to remember it. Take it away, Steven: “Every human rocking down the boulevard with buds hugging their skull, playing tunes from a deep library, or even a podcast, owes a debt to the gadget I called The Perfect Thing. The iPod lives.” —Dante A. Ciampaglia