Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. The Best Commencement Speech Ever - Or the Worst?

In 2005, the late author David Foster Wallace gave a graduation talk at Kenyon College that is often “praised as being the best commencement speech of all time.” It was even posthumously published as a book, with the pompous title, “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, on Living a Compassionate Life.” Eleven years later, Emily Harnett offers this sober analysis of Wallace’s speech:

This Is Water is the best commencement speech of all time not because it has transcended the formula, flattery, and platitudes that a graduation speech trades in, but precisely because it has mastered them. Tell your audiences that they’re too smart to want a certain thing and give it to them anyway. Remind everyone that they’re too hip for corny dad sermonizing and then double down on the corny dad sermonizing. This is a great way to write a commencement speech—not by avoiding platitudes, but by drawing an enchanted circle around yourself where the things we thought were platitudes can be revealed as dazzling truths.

2. Will the TV Bubble Burst?

Two critics offer a persuasive account of why we are living at a time of Peak TV. Writing in Vulture, they note that “between 2009 and 2015, the number of scripted shows nearly doubled, from just over 200 to an estimated 409 last year. Netflix alone says it will produce 600 hours of original television.” They also document how the industry fears that we are in a TV bubble that will burst: 

Residents of TV land, busy as they are, can’t help but wonder sometimes if the last five years will ultimately be remembered not as the dawn of a glorious new era but the last gasp of a dying medium called television. “Right now everybody is like, ‘Yay! Free-for-all!’ because nobody outside of the deepest, deepest inner circles knows how anybody monetizes anything anymore,” showrunner Julie Plec says. “It’s like a sleight-of-hand trick. It either makes complete sense and there’s plenty of money to go around — or it’s a total house of cards, where a good sneeze could tear it down.”

Also worthwhile: David Pogue’s case that Virtual Reality will never replace the movies: “In most VR ‘movies,’ there is no plot.”

3. What Happens to Money When the Power Goes Out?

What would happen if the global payment system experienced a wide-scale power outage? Steven Cordray, a payments risk expert at the Atlanta Fed, has been wondering about this:

The odds of a massive geomagnetic solar storm are about 12 percent over the next 10 years. It could result in power outages affecting as many as 20-40 million Americans for a duration ranging from 16 days to two years…Since the contingency systems we have in place to handle a future Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy are likely not sufficient for an extreme event of nationwide scale, some of the issues that need to be resolved include:
  • How does one ensure that sufficient cash is on hand during an emergency?
  • How is cash going to be distributed and accounted for along the supply chain with ATMs and bank offices and their core systems inoperable due to no electricity?

Prepper alert: Cordray admits he doesn’t know the answer to these questions – and that no one else does either. 

4. Science Is Visual

Researchers at the University of Washington created an algorithm to analyze the use of images in scientific papers. After combing through 650,000 papers, they found a correlation between an article’s success and its use of diagrams, data plots, tables, and pictures. The authors offer two explanations why:

1) Visual information improves the clarity of the paper, leading to more citations, and higher impact; 2) high impact papers naturally tend to include new, complex ideas that require visual explanation.

Case in point: this Washington Post chart showing the sources of U.S. immigration over the past 200 years. 

5. What Made "Greatest Hits" Great

Pitchfork offers a wistful look back at the era of the “greatest hits” albums. In retrospect, it’s clear that these re-packaged collections often became the defining products for many iconic bands:

One of the greatest-selling albums is the Eagles' Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, a 1976 collection that rivals Michael Jackson's Thriller as the most popular LP in American history. Thriller was a phenomenon, moving most of its units in the years surrounding its release, but the Eagles comp is the very definition of a catalog success, selling millions of copies year after year. It also redefined the perception of the L.A. group, whose first four albums were spotty and not necessarily blockbusters; "Desperado," a song that later permeated pop culture to such a degree that it served as a punchline on “Seinfeld,” didn't chart at all upon its initial release, but it was an anchor on Their Greatest Hits.

But that’s not all: “Greatest Hits albums sand away the artists’ quirks—Elton's moody meditations are excised, Billy Joel doesn't seem as pugnaciously ambitious, Tom Petty's orneriness and abiding love of '60s garage rock are diminished. But by focusing on the hits, they crystallize the essence of each star.”

6. Stick to Stamps

The journalist Devin Leonard has recently published a new history of the US Postal Service. This excerpt reminds us why the Post Office never became the leader in email:

The USPS had a plan for every American to get a free e-mail address with the suffix .us…Customer e-mail addresses would be composed of their first initials, their nine-digit ZIP code, and the last two numbers of their street address. Here’s how it would have worked for President Bill Clinton. His address at the White House—1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. 20500-0003—would have made his e-mail bc20500000300@usps.com. It was certainly unique, but how would anybody remember all those numbers?


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