Yesterday’s Gas Stations, Don’t Mess With Data, and Gettin’ “Jiggle” With It: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From intentional educational intel to accidental viral stardom, 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.
Artist's interpretation of our input/output relationship with data.
All Data is Local
Good policy starts with good data, and this remarkable project from The Texas Tribune illustrates why. By mapping long-term outcomes for every eighth grader in the state of Texas, broken down by geography, ethnicity, gender, and income status, the Tribune has created a vivid snapshot of how well school districts are meeting their fundamental obligation to launch students into a successful adulthood. “Each student was anonymously tracked over the following 11 years to determine the percentage of Texas eighth graders who achieved a post-secondary certificate or degree from a Texas college or university within six years of their expected high school graduation date,” the Tribune writes, explaining the project.
It may seem abstract to look at students in terms of charts and statistical tables, but only by analyzing this kind of longitudinal, large-scale data can policymakers get a clear-eyed view of where they need to focus attention and resources. You never want to treat individual students as data points, but you absolutely want public officials taking an honest look at how systems and policies are performing for the whole population. Data is how you see equity gaps and stay focused on fixing them. Data is how you find particular districts or schools that are outperforming expectations, so you can use them as models for others. Data is how you decide where to invest millions of dollars in public funds so they can benefit the students who need them most. “In God we trust; all others bring data,” as my friend and former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say. I hope we see more projects like the Tribune’s, keeping public officials focused on the outcome that matter. —Stefanie Sanford
#FriendGoals (Actresses Betty White, left, Rue McClanahan, and Bea Arthur arrive for the DVD release party for the first season of "The Golden Girls" on November 18, 2004, in Los Angeles.)
Thank You For Being a Friend
Thanks to a wedding, college reunion, and some work trips, I've recently had the joy of seeing several long-distance friends in close succession. These get-togethers have been both laughter-filled and introspective, and they have reminded me of the joy and support that come with reuniting with the people who know me best. I could wax lyrical about the beauty of discussing our hopes for the future and I'm thankful for the somber moments of shared pain and comfort. Julie Beck, senior editor at The Atlantic, has interviewed 100 sets of friends for her series "The Friendship Files": from people who became friends after being stuck on a boat together during the pandemic to neighbors who became friends over a period of 20 years to a woman who became friends with her ex's mom. To commemorate this milestone, she wrote an article describing what she learned from these conversations—namely, that there are six forces that help form and maintain friendships. The simple, and at times unlikely, stories that make up the series capture the beauty of everyday life, and Beck's six forces of friendship are no different. Throughout her interviews, Beck identifies accumulation (the amount of time people spend together), attention (looking out for possible friendships), and intention (putting ourselves out there) as forces that forge friendships. Ritual, imagination, and grace keep friends together.
I was especially struck by grace. In almost every reunion over the past month, the conversation ended with either me or my friend saying something along the lines of, "This was so wonderful. I'll try to be better about texting/calling/traveling to visit." These intentions are very real, but I also know myself and know how bad I am about texting and calling and visiting. Beck encourages us to give ourselves grace. She writes that it's almost impossible for anyone to live up to the forces of friendship that she lays out—herself included. Friendship is flexible and, she writes, "bends to fit the shape our lives need it to be." She then adds something that so deeply resonated with me it almost moved me to tears: "I’ve come to believe that friendship doesn’t always have to be about presence; it can also be about love that can weather absence." While a significant part of friendship is about showing up, Beck's message reaffirmed to me that being there for one another doesn't necessarily equate to the number of days in a calendar year we see each other or the precise number of texts we've sent. Instead, it's a deep sense of care, of wanting the best for the other person, of feeling that our friends understand us. It's knowing that despite long absences or silences, we'll be able to pick up where we left off in each other's lives. Friendship isn't an equation; it's love. —Hannah Van Drie
#Symbolism (People dive in front of a rolling inflatable globe as a group call on people to "save the earth" during day two of Glastonbury Festival on June 23, 2022, in Glastonbury, England.)
(Still) Out: Green M&Ms | In: Green Festivals
Whether it’s California’s Coachella, Texas’ SXSW, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, or New York’s Governors Ball, America’s selection of great annual music festivals is a concert-goer's dream. But collecting that many people to one place for multiple days can be a climate nightmare. Across the Atlantic, a 2020 report of the comparatively smaller UK festival and outdoor events industry found that the 4.9 million people attending British music fests generate 24,261 tons of CO2 per year—with each person contributing 1.9 kg per day. It also notes that only 28% of festivals have a specific budget for environmental sustainability. This week, Eco Citizen released their list of eight eco-friendly festivals from around the globe. Topping the list is Glastonbury, headlined in 2022 by Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, and Kendrick Lamar, which features a Green Futures Field where the festival touts “with no exception we take you on a journey from Permaculture to Pedal Power, Sustainability to Solar power.” Next up is America’s most sustainable annual gathering of artists, musicians, progressives, and an infamous smattering of influencers and tech bros: Burning Man. Since its 1986 founding, the environmental sustainability mantra of the Black Rock Desert fest has been “leave no trace.” Africa rounds out the three continents on the list, with Global Citizen Fest in Accra, Ghana. To power its on-site generators, the festival uses Neste MY Renewable Diesel, a “high-performing low-carbon biofuel” that “results in 90% less greenhouse gas emissions.” Now, if only the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office could find a winner for its Sustainable Aviation Fuels Grand Challenge, and decrease all the greenhouse gas emissions from the commercial jets people take to get to those eco-friendly festivals… That just might inspire me to camp out in the mud for a few days, without showers, sharing a latrine with hundreds of people, while listening to a stage show from a hundred yards away. Yessiree, music festivals are the best! -–Christian Niedan
"You want my viral celebrity? Take it—please!" (KSI and Louis Theroux speak to the media during the Prime Video Presents UK media event at at The Londoner Hotel on May 19, 2022 in London, England.)
Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Cringe-Dad-Rap Edition
It’s fairly well established by now that I don’t understand TikTok, or much of anything that happens online. I can barely type a text message on my company-issued iPhone, so there is no chance at all I will be creating any viral sensations. But, then again, that’s probably what the mild-mannered British documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux would have said before he became an online superstar thanks to a decades-old snippet of so-awful-it’s-amazing amateur rapping. “The story of how this middle-aged father of three has taken hold of youth culture with a novelty rap is ‘a baffling 21st century example of just the weirdness of the world that we live in,’” Theroux told the New York Times in this bizarre and hilarious explanation of how the “Jiggle Jiggle” rap took over the internet.
I don’t have the space or cultural competence to recount the whole saga, but my favorite part is that Theroux’s children are now having to incessantly encounter their prim and proper father—previously best known for high-end documentaries about religion, drug policy, and other very grown-up topics—singing an absurdist rap on TikTok. “Why is my dad, the most cringe guy in the universe, everywhere on TikTok?’” Theroux said, giving voice to his son’s reaction. It’s a great question, and the New York Times does its sober-minded best to try and answer it. But there’s an element of gonzo randomness to what clicks and what sinks on the interwebs. There’s also some pathos to someone like Theroux, who has devoted his life to sober exploration of serious topics, having his public reputation forever tied to a few seconds of weirdly compelling joke rapping. I’m impressed that he’s handling this uninvited supernova of fame with good humor. I’d be petitioning for witness protection. —Eric Johnson
"Hey pally, what ya think yer doin'? This is Joisy. I'M the one pumpkin' the gas around here..."
Fill ‘er Up
When I’m on the road, I like pumping my own gas. Not only because it’s habitual—pretty sure I’ve always pumped my own gas—but because I like the ritual of it all: picking the grade, setting the pump, squeegeeing the windows and headlights and whatever else needs a quick rinse, giving the jalopy a once over. I remember full-service attendants handling all that, along with checking the oil, when I was a kid, but once I was behind the wheel it was self-serve or nothing. Which is why driving through New Jersey is such a pain in the neck. It’s full-service only, forever and ever, never to be altered. “There is apparently one thing all New Jerseyans can agree on nowadays, and that's the time-honored Jersey tradition of having your gas pumped for you,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. She’s quoted in Nathaniel Meyersohn’s CNN Business story about why New Jersey, along with Oregon, has steadfastly refused to permit self-service gas stations. To be honest, I didn’t get much more clarity than “this is how it has been in New Jersey since 1949 and it will never change because habits.” (Though I did learn that “New Jersey gas station clickbait” is a thing!) But the story is a fascinating primer on a piece of Americana I, and I’m guessing most people, don’t give much thought to: why our gas stations are the way they are.
Meyersohn writes that self-service stations had been around since the early 1900s, but the industry was totally against them. “Full-service gas stations played up safety hazards around self-service, arguing that untrained drivers would overfill their tanks and start a fire,” he writes. “With support from local fire marshals, gas stations lobbied state legislators to pass bans on self-service. By 1968, self-service was banned in 23 states.” But by 1980, the economics of filling stations changed, driven in large part by a change in vehicle warranties. They “began to stipulate that cars must be serviced at dealerships, a shift that eroded gas stations' service and repair business,” greasing the wheels for self-service to become the norm. But not in Jersey! Or Oregon! (Though things are easing up a bit in Oregon; rural towns of fewer than 40,000 people can have self-service stations now.) I fully appreciate the ease of pulling into a gas station and having some stranger put the pump in the tank, take my credit card, and do the difficult work of pushing buttons. But the American driving experience is all about autonomy (“auto” is right there in the word!) and New Jersey’s stubbornness just feels wrong. "Jersey Girls Don't Pump Gas” is a popular bumper sticker, apparently; another thing I learned from this story. And they don’t have to! Make some stations full-serve and others self-serve and let people do their thing. But having no choice at all in how I fill up my car? Fuhgettaboutit! —Dante A. Ciampaglia