Public Thinker: T. L. Taylor On Gamergate, Live-Streaming, and Esports

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

The qualitative sociologist T. L. Taylor is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and cofounder and director of research for AnyKey, an organization dedicated to supporting and developing fair and inclusive esports. She explores the interrelations of culture and technology in online leisure environments, writing in a clear style and with an evocative voice about gender, inclusivity, and diversity in those virtual spaces. Around this research she has built a career that has taken her from California to North Carolina to Denmark to Cambridge, brought her in front of audiences at the White House and the International Olympic Committee, and led her to speak to the New York Times, PBS, and the BBC as a gaming expert.

She is the author of three books and the coauthor of another. Her latest, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, was published last fall. We spoke about that work, and in particular about online gaming culture, esports, and the economies of live-streaming, and put it in conversation with the Gamergate controversy, noting how the virtual worlds shaped by broader cultural currents might build a more welcoming and accessible future.


B. R. Cohen (BRC): Your research and teaching look at online gaming, esports, the sociology of virtual spaces, and the like. But I want to start with Gamergate. I should know what it is and understand its nuances, but maybe I don’t.

T. L. Taylor (TLT): Well, it began about five years ago, and you might think of it in two ways. First, Gamergate was targeted, systematic harassment of women in gaming, including developers, academics, and game critics. Although it was cloaked in the language of concern about “ethics in gaming,” it was essentially a targeted anti-feminist movement primarily against a host of women. But there’s the second way to think about it. We’ve now seen how its shape and method were a kind of template or dress rehearsal for the alt-right movement, which has been front and center in the last couple years.

BRC: Was that apparent at the time, or has it become clearer since?

TLT: Maybe a little of both. A number of commentaries have since connected what happened in Gamergate with patterns we now see with the alt-right. The forms of harassment are similar, as are the use of various online sites like 4Chan and Reddit.

BRC: Direct connections, too?

TLT: Yeah, definitely. Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart played a part in Gamergate. Brett Kavanagh’s friend Mark Judge, and many alt-right guys, were involved in attacking women like Anita Sarkeesian, who is a leading voice on women and video games. She was viciously harassed. Her life was threatened, and she was doxxed. These Gamergate tactics are the bread and butter of what we see in the alt-right movement more generally. To be frank, I often say that—for good or ill—gaming is the canary in the coal mine for broader cultural, critical, and political issues. Gamergate is a profoundly unfortunate example. To call it misogyny would be an understatement.

BRC: This was in 2014?

TLT: Around then, yes. I should say, too, as someone who studies gaming culture, gender, and technology, a pattern often emerges here. You start seeing a reactionary response when you get a critical mass of women, people of color, or queer folks in a space expressing their own thoughts about their circumstances, pushing back on the culture, and not merely echoing whatever the dominant culture is saying. This is when you get people involved in things like Gamergate or the alt-right purportedly defending “ethics in games” when, in fact, they’re mostly just perpetuating hate and fear. So it was a really nasty time. The people who bore the brunt of it were developers and people like Sarkeesian.

BRC: As a scholar studying this phenomenon, how much did you get caught up in it?

TLT: I got tagged in briefly early on, but I think in part because of my name I’m often seen as a man online, so I was not targeted in the same way.

BRC: You pointed me to the Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology (ACE) just last fall to show that this is still going on.

TLT: In fact, there was a huge controversy and protest movement that eventually led to the conference being cancelled. The ACE conference chair had invited Steve Bannon as its keynote speaker. I mean, the ACE Twitter account previously had Ada Lovelace and all these amazing women in technology in its header image, and yet two years ago the conference chair behaved appallingly on Twitter toward women, particularly junior women scholars. And then he tried to bring Bannon to a conference he was chairing. Gamergate wasn’t some isolated aberration; it was a convergence of off-line misogyny with online platforms and gaming spaces. The alt-right dovetails into that all too well.

BRC: So Gamergate is about gender and technology, certainly, but more broadly it’s about how marginalized peoples use these games to connect with each other and are re-marginalized within these online communities.

TLT: It’s this strange unfortunate double side of game culture. Gaming and geek culture have historically been places where people who felt like outsiders found connection through geeky loves and pastimes, whether they are games, anime, or comics. But as is often the case with subcultures, they also have heavily policed themselves. They police the boundaries of what they are and who is allowed in. As gaming has become mainstream, the stakes in policing those boundaries seem to have gotten even higher for many people. The question of whether you’re a “real gamer” or a “real comics fan” becomes more intense. It’s happened in a number of related subcultures. We have Gamergate, yes, but both the comics and science fiction communities, for example, have had their own version of this.

BRC: How did you come to this topic, this field? These are all social spaces that I see a sociologist would study. How do you make sense of these gaming and esports cultures in your work?

TLT: Well, I studied sociology as an undergrad at Berkeley and as a graduate student at Brandeis. From early on I was drawn to qualitative work and ethnography in particular. I’m probably not an anthropologist, though, because I’m also drawn to thinking about institutions and organizations in particular ways. Not that anthropologists don’t do that, but sociologists do something slightly different. I ended up at Brandeis, because there were only a handful of places to do qualitative sociology in the US at the time.

BRC: Where did your interest in computers and gaming come from?

TLT: I should’ve also mentioned that I was a community college student before Berkeley, and I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family. I didn’t grow up with a computer in my home. We didn’t even have an early Atari. I played video games at the arcade but that was about it. My undergraduate thesis was on consumption practices among young Cambodian refugees in San Francisco. It had nothing to do with technology. But in 1991 I went to graduate school, moving from California to Boston, and started using the internet mostly because it was available and I wanted to stay in touch with a few friends from undergrad. I started spending a lot of time online and ended up doing my dissertation on embodiment in early virtual environments. This was before Second Life. These were text-based worlds, multiuser dungeons. Did you ever get into these things?

BRC: I didn’t. I’m not sure why. I think SimCity was the height of it for me.

TLT: You missed out on a host of early text-based games. Zork was one, in which you look around the room, go left, go right, by typing the commands. I got interested in the multiplayer ones because you’d head into online text-based worlds full of random people, bringing to mind that old New Yorker “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon. In that spirit, a good part of the conversation in the 1990s was about identity on the internet. Sherry Turkle was thinking about identity in new and important ways in Life on the Screen. I was her research assistant in the 1990s, which helped develop my thinking on it. I noticed, though, that there was a sense of a presence in these worlds, which got me thinking about embodiment in online spaces, not just about identities. That’s what I worked on.

BRC: I take it that EverQuest was an exemplar of these games?

TLT: Right, that is what’s known as an MMO or MMORPG, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. EverQuest wasn’t the only one, but in the 1990s it was one of the big ones. Unlike all those text-based worlds we’d been hanging out in, EverQuest and other MMOs brought graphics. My first book [Play between Worlds] was about MMOs.

BRC: Last fall I spoke with Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose research on social media grew along with his own biography as someone coming of academic age in the 1990s, when the internet was taking its current form. It sounds like you had a similar trajectory, but how did you come to study that game?

TLT: By the end of my dissertation I was mostly tired of it, as grad students usually are. Some of the people I met doing my dissertation research started telling me about this game, EverQuest. I thought, “Oh, that sounds like a fun distraction,” so I started playing it. Pretty quickly I realized, “Oh, no, wait, wait, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff happening here.” That’s how I got into the game as a player, and that was the hook that got me studying it as a sociologist.

BRC: When you were in those virtual worlds thinking about identity and then embodiment, did gender dynamics stand out right away?

TLT: Yes, right away. They were clear and crystalized within the game spaces in particular. In my early work on embodiment, I wrote about gender and sexuality, but because game spaces so clearly represent the gender issues visually, they’re hard to miss. Or in the case of esports, they’re so egregious; it’s stark. You asked about gender dynamics but, honestly, it wasn’t until grad school that I had any kind of serious feminist awareness. My eyes were always focused on class and socioeconomic issues when I was younger, because of my own biography coming from a working-class family. So for me, socioeconomic class issues were the early hook, while the feminist and gender questions came later.

BRC: It’s difficult in the necessary discussions of intersectionality to think of socioeconomic factors as an intersection, too. So many things can intersect.

TLT: It’s funny, I teach a games and culture class in which we do sessions on gender and race. I try to model thinking on how various aspects of our identities and biographies interact and collide. I talk about how I am a woman, but I’m also from a working-class family—and a white one at that. It’s very hard to do it all, but thinking across these areas is key. And intersectionality, as a way of thinking about interlocking systems of oppression—particularly for people of color—is such an important concept to expose students to.

BRC: How do you approach it?

TLT: I think for me it’s about the sociological imagination, something that the sociologist C. Wright Mills talked about. When I started taking sociology classes, I was like, “Holy shit.” This idea helped me take what felt deeply personal, individual, and family-based and link it to a bigger conversation. That was the first critical intellectual intervention in my life.

BRC: Your work beyond the MIT classroom is in touch with the gaming world as well. You used the phrases “gamers,” “game space,” and “gaming space.” Are those common terms? You’ve got gamers; you’ve got fans, audiences, and markets; and the rise of professionalization comes up in your books. But what is your relationship with the gaming community?

TLT: That’s a tricky question. I’m a low theory person at best, which means I don’t have typological models in my head, so I use those terms a bit colloquially. There isn’t one single game community or one kind of person who is a gamer. Each of my projects tries in some way to show the heterogeneity of the gaming space.

BRC: I don’t know much about those gamer spaces, those social worlds. That’s probably obvious by now. A few years ago, I was playing a game with my kids, Game of War, which we all joined on our devices, made our avatars, and played and chatted with people from all over the world. It didn’t take long to learn about the ways that personalities stuck out in those games, the ways people played them—aggressively, congenially, or otherwise. This was my first experience seeing that this was an entire social system worth examining. But even that felt different than the trolls on Twitter or the comment threads on Facebook. How do the social networks in these games differ from other social media, from Twitter or Facebook? Is it a whole different beast?

TLT: I would say there are many things happening. For example, much of what I talk about in my new book on live-streaming, Watch Me Play, would look familiar to people who study social networks. And some things would look familiar to people who study precarious labor and the gig economy. The stuff that’s happening in gaming is not separate from those broader cultural trends and developments. But it’s even messier, because people very regularly use a variety of other social networking sites to facilitate their game play or live-streaming.

One of the things I talk about in the book is how people are using Twitch to live broadcast their game play to each other, but they’re also using Twitter to keep in contact with fans and audience members. So one consistent thread in my various studies of online gaming is this notion of the assemblage, an assemblage of sites and practices that people rely on to make up their gaming or online experience. You can’t just take the artifact of the game—the specific software or platform—and fixate on it and think you understand something meaningful about gaming. The assemblage notion extends to different actors, stakeholders, institutions, and platforms; they all have to come together to make a particular game or cultural activity around a game happen.

BRC: You’re marking the development of the combination of so many different networks that couldn’t have happened at any other time.

TLT: Exactly. And for me it’s also a bit of a methodological intervention. If you want to understand these spaces and experiences, you have to understand that people aren’t just Twitter users, they aren’t just television watchers, and so on. We have a range of things cobbled together to make up our leisure or recreational practices.

BRC: You’re being technically intersectional.

TLT: Yes, yes, I like that. I think it would be an analytic mistake to focus on individual artifacts, even if methodologically we sometimes have to home in on particular platforms. But your participants often lead you elsewhere. You miss the dynamic interplay and misunderstand a lot of the social practice if you don’t follow those other threads.

BRC: You also write about structural cultural differences across the world, so it isn’t just about the context of cross-platform gaming experiences at one point in time. It’s also about cultural differences. In preparing for this conversation I kept seeing references to South Korea as a pioneer in a lot of these areas, or to Europe and North America as different regions with similar technical things that play out differently.

TLT: That is the sociology side of me, to be honest. With esports, people will often say “Oh, if we could just be like South Korea.” I wrote about that in Raising the Stakes. At the time, South Korea had television stations broadcasting esports and esports teams and sponsors. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that we can’t be like South Korea. Their esports culture came from a set of government policies, technological infrastructure, and cultural patterns of use based on the way youth culture is organized. So if you build your model based on a particular piece of hardware, software, or infrastructure, you’ll likely miss how it’s developing in other places in completely different ways. It’s a bit “Science & Technology Studies 101” to say that cultural context shapes technologies, but with new fields arising and new social spaces like esports, I’ve found that we need to keep showing this.

BRC: There’s more to it than drag and drop. Do you still see that kind of a drag-and-drop version of technology transfer circulating in mainstream media?

TLT: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s funny because in the spaces that I study, whether it’s esports or live-streaming, people build elaborate imagined audience-use models in their heads. I think that’s a lovely model, but it depends on so many complex factors that the technological determinists fail to acknowledge. How does the harassment of women and girls or the regulation of their leisure in particular ways shape their participation in gaming? This is where the nastiness of gaming sometimes comes into play, where models circulate in game communities about what “real gaming” is and what “real gamers” look like. And those are often deeply out of touch with the complexity of context in which people game or how taste and preference develop.

BRC: How do your studies of gaming fit with media portrayals of online communities, esports, or otherwise? You just mentioned determinism, and I think there’s a tendency in the broader media to focus too much on causation and impact, which we probably see with all new technologies. They’ll say, for example, that gaming is causing a problem, gaming is causing a new market, gaming generates harassment, gaming provides new opportunities. Your research helps correct that, I think, by also talking about what leads to gaming, not just what gaming leads to. If people want to talk about how gaming is increasing cultural friction, as with the harassment or gender issues, it would seem that we should attend to its foundations beforehand and not just its outcomes.

TLT: That determinist impulse is so common. When I’m talking to press, I often get the “Where’s it going?” or “What’s next for esports?” questions. And I answer that I am not a futurologist; there’s too much contingency. For me, the most interesting parts of the story are all those contingencies. I’m drawn to skirmishes, gaps, breakdown moments, and the little stories about everything falling apart. Those help to highlight the stakes. None of that is terribly satisfying for people looking for causality models. Esports and live-streaming are closely tied to commercial interests and are in a hype bubble right now. And so I think when I get those questions these days, I just have to say that it’s tied up in pure financial speculation. It’s kind of awful what’s happening in that regard. A lot of people just want to make a lot of money by figuring out what the next thing is. I couldn’t care less about that. For me, those aren’t the most interesting questions.

BRC: Studying commercial spaces and entertainment technologies must bring its own difficulties as a scholar.

TLT: That’s true. Much of the stuff I study either has an inherent commercial element, or there’s somebody who comes along and wants to commercialize it. But I tend to focus on things that have arisen out of user desire and community practice. I think that’s what makes the hype stuff tricky. Even though we’re in an esports bubble right now, I don’t think this thing called esports will ever go away, because it comes from actual people and users building grassroots communities.

BRC: On that point, I want to get back to Twitch and the rise of game live-streaming. Twitch is one of the things that’s commercializing esports, I take it?

TLT: Absolutely. Live-streaming amplified broadcasting, which brought in a bigger audience. That, in turn, has caught the eye of commercial interests. I was just at TwitchCon. It’s now a huge convention, which I guess speaks to the growing phenomenon. It’s massive. Twitch is a video platform on which people stream and watch games. Game live-streaming on a site like Twitch taps into the long-standing pleasures people take in sharing their play with each other, whether that’s sitting on a sofa watching your friend play or making and uploading your own videos. Twitch found a way to build a platform around that user activity. They are, of course, trying to commercialize it. It comes from an authentic and true experience but is now part of a larger culture of monetization and platform economies. Those who are now trying to earn a living or make ends meet by streaming games are tied to gig economies and precarious labor.

BRC: It makes me realize that I didn’t find Dragon’s Lair in your index. That’s my go-to when you talk about spectator video games. I remember arcades in the 1980s, everybody crowded in to see. It was the only video game with a TV screen above it so others could watch. Everybody would huddle around.

TLT: Right, that old arcade game, exactly. That sense of spectating is an important part of gaming. Sure, sometimes we play alone, and nobody’s there to watch, but the pleasure of watching and being watched has always been a part of gaming. Esports and Twitch as a platform tapped into that for the digital age. I was trying to understand that space as a sociologist for this new book. I got into the project because I saw that people were trying to bring gaming to spectator audiences and doing so in all kinds of creative ways, jamming technologies together. Then Twitch came along as a platform and made it easy. Or easier, I should say. Part of this story was coming to understand the dynamics of live-streaming not necessarily as sports but as entertainment, as media entertainment.

BRC: So who is the audience for your work? You’ve published books with academic presses and written in an accessible voice about complicated social and technical issues. You also teach about these things at MIT. But you’re also working with, writing about, and writing for these dynamic communities that are still in the making.

TLT: I think the books have been picked up by nonacademics because they act as a kind of legitimizing artifact and help chronicle a history. With esports folks I think they felt like, “Oh my God, somebody is paying serious attention to us.” It was a totem of legitimation, which is gratifying. I honestly don’t expect nonacademics to read my books. I really don’t, but of course it’s rewarding when the communities I study pick them up.

BRC: You do more specific public-facing things, too, like AnyKey, which, and I’m quoting your mission statement here, aims “to help create fair and inclusive spaces” for marginalized communities online.

TLT: That’s right, AnyKey has been a more explicitly publicly engaged project. Public talks, stuff on YouTube, things like that. AnyKey is where I try to do most of the public-facing work. My work with the initiative has also involved doing shorter white papers meant to actually provide helpful guidelines or insights, because just trying to distill these complicated things is a monumental task.

BRC: What are the general basics of AnyKey?

TLT: It started a few years ago. This actually dovetails with our conversation about Gamergate. When Gamergate was happening, Intel sort of blew it on their first-pass response. They got a lot of heat at the time, but they actually learned a lesson and made a big announcement that they would be supporting a number of different diversity initiatives. They were going to start taking diversity and inclusion more seriously and dedicated a chunk of money to sponsoring various measures. Because of the esports work I had done, I knew people at the Electronic Sports League (ESL), and one of them who’d been hearing me talk about gender for many years came to me and said, “Do you think there’s something we could do? Should we try to get in on this Intel stuff?” ESL has been working with Intel for years on esports. I said “Sure, let’s try to do something.” We connected up with Morgan Romine, who has a PhD in anthropology and who I codirect AnyKey with, and pitched to Intel research-driven initiatives around diversity and inclusion in esports. It worked, and we got some sponsorship money.

BRC: What exactly do you do there?

TLT: We’ve tried to do a range of things so far. Like I said, it’s research driven so we do fieldwork studies, we do workshops in which we try to get a sense of the key issues by working with various stakeholders, and we spend a lot of time talking to lots of folks in the esports space about the challenges they are facing. I’m the director of research and Morgan, my cofounder and director of initiatives, is the one who spins up concrete projects based on our findings. It covers everything, from practical skills like how to moderate chats to more symbolic issues. As an example, one of the things we heard early on is that women who were active and thriving in the esports space all had had these formative moments in which they saw another woman doing it, being involved in esports in some way, and it gave them a sense of like, “Oh wait, I could do that.” That led us to produce a series of videos profiling women in the scene. It was a “if you could see it, you could be it” kind of thing.

BRC: A kind of social inoculation, exposing them to the possibility?

TLT: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of amazing when you start talking to people who are really making it. I love it. I have always been very interested in the women who manage to stay in a space that is so hostile to them. I mean anywhere, in any forum, not just online. Like, how the hell are they doing that? What is going on? It was the same way with esports, leading us to think about what we can learn from the women who are there. There was this thing they had come across and someone else was doing it, playing in that space, and it became seared into their imagination that they could do it too. That doesn’t remove all of the barriers, not by a long shot, but that power of the symbolic was real. So we do studies as well as practical things.

BRC: Like the chat moderation guides?

TLT: Right, yes, and we put out other guidelines like that. We have one on gender-inclusive tournaments, for example. We often support women’s tournaments, but we want those tournaments to be trans inclusive. So we did a whole …

BRC: That’s a thing, gender-defined tournaments?

TLT: Yeah, yeah, and women’s tournaments in esports are tricky because I think most of us who support them see them as a stopgap. Ultimately, we don’t want a world in which men and women are playing on separate teams. There’s no good reason for that. But the harassment of women in this space is so strong that we tend to feel that if you don’t give them opportunities in women-only tournaments, they won’t get the experience. So we see women’s tournaments as necessary for now while working toward gender inclusivity more broadly in esports.</

But even then, we were seeing tournaments happen that were women-only, but the language around them was not trans inclusive. That led us to put out a white paper covering a variety of issues like, for example, how to be gender inclusive when taking photos for your event, making sure that all the photos aren’t just of men. Even that degree of guidance was necessary. But also explaining to people how pronouns work and how to think about having trans inclusivity based on a “you are who you say you are” rule. It’s all in the research section of the AnyKey website.

One of the things we do with those best practices is simply to try to help people who want to make this space better and to give them language and frameworks. We just released another set of guidelines maybe a month ago on how to moderate your chat if you are streaming your esports tournament. Because the chat can be really awful if left unmoderated. And, again, a lot of people want it to be better but they don’t know where to start. So we put out these guidelines to help people.

BRC: Is this extracurricular for you? Or is it part of your job description?

TLT: Yeah, I don’t get paid for it. It’s extra. [Laughs] Public-facing work is such an interesting challenge, and this work with AnyKey has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. We’re trying to take critical or feminist frameworks and interventions and make them accessible, spread them widely, and get them out of the classroom. It’s hard. I find a lot of people want things to be better, they want to do better, but they don’t have the tools or alternative language to get there. Once you give them that, they’re like, “Oh, okay, yeah, I can do that.”

T.L. Taylor Watch Me Play book cover

 

This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.

Featured image: T. L. Taylor. Photograph by Bryce Vickmark

Adom Getachew: The Anti-imperial Vision of the Postwar International Order

On a petition with almost 500 signatures that first appeared as a paid advertisement in the New York Times, leading scholars of international relations defended postwar international institutions like the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the European Union against the “reckless attacks” of Donald J. Trump. According to the signatories, the postwar international order led by the United States “help[ed] to provide economic stability and international security, contributing to unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers.”

If the contemporary challenges to the postwar international order appear unprecedented, we should remember that the institutions that emerged after 1945 were subject to critique and political contestation from the very beginning. For the anticolonial nationalists who championed decolonization after World War II, institutions like the United Nations were continuous with the imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Immediately after reading the UN Charter agreed to during the April 1945 San Francisco conference, the Nigerian nationalist Nnamdi Azikiwe proclaimed, “there is no new deal for the black man at San Francisco … Colonialism and economic enslavement of the Negro are to be maintained.”

Azikiwe’s critique of the United Nations, echoed by W.E.B Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, and George Padmore, drew on an account of empire as an institution of international racial hierarchy. According to these anticolonial critics, the imperial international order had unequally integrated the colonized world to facilitate European domination. The UN Charter institutionalized the hierarchical world of empire: Members of the Security Council issued binding resolutions and had the power of the veto, the League of Nations mandates persisted under the new trusteeship system, and colonies were euphemistically described as “non-self-governing territories.” Self-determination, the anticolonial demand for independence and popular sovereignty, was only mentioned in Article 1 and Article 55. In both instances, the “principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” was subordinated to the larger aim of securing “peaceful and friendly relations among nations.”  

Having lost faith in the UN, Nkrumah and Padmore organized the Fifth Pan-African Congress as a rejoinder to the hierarchical vision of the international order outlined in San Francisco. At Manchester, a city which emerged from the profits of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, African, African-American, and Caribbean anti-colonial critics declared an alternative vision for the postwar international order predicated on the right to self-determination and racial equality. Extending beyond the nation, the gathered Pan-Africanists called for “autonomy and independence, so far and no further than it is possible in this ‘One World’ for groups and people to rule themselves subject to inevitable world unity and federation.” In their vision, national independence and internationalist federation were to go hand in hand. The achievement of national self-determination and decolonization required the remaking of the international order.

Over the next 30 years, anticolonial nationalists pioneered ambitious worldmaking projects to transcend empire’s world of dependence and domination and inaugurate in its place an egalitarian and domination-free international order. By 1960, they had institutionalized a universal right to self-determination, which secured equal legal standing to all states for the first time in modern international society. At the same time, nationalists in the British West Indies and in West Africa sought to constitute regional federations through which postcolonial states might escape their economic dependence and create egalitarian regional economies. Finally, through the New International Economic Order (NIEO), the most ambitious project of anticolonial worldmaking, nationalists directly challenged the economic hierarchies of the international realm and laid foundations of an egalitarian global economy. The NIEO was the culmination of anticolonial worldmaking. Its vision of democratizing international economic law and equitably distributing the world’s wealth rejected the world of hierarchy that persisted in the postwar international institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It look forward instead to an egalitarian post-imperial world order where national self-determination was situated within redistributive and democratic international institutions.    

The contemporary nostalgia for the postwar international order depends on forgetting that its guarantees of peace and prosperity were limited to the North Atlantic world. While pitched as “a new deal for the world,” to use Elizabeth Borgwardt’s term, the new international institutions promised nothing of the sort to the colonial subjects fighting for independence and equality around the world. There was, as Azikiwe put it, “no new deal for the black man.” If we are to draw lessons for our present political predicaments from the postwar international order, we should turn to the anticolonial nationalists who fought for three decades to build a word after empire. Their anti-imperial vision of international order was never realized and it might appear from our vantage point that it was a utopian and unrealistic project. But if we are to navigate the impasses of our contemporary moment, if we are to build a viable alternative to the authoritarian populism resurgent in the United State and Europe, we cannot settle for a minimalist internationalism born in 1945 to preserve a hierarchical world order. Instead, we should draw on the tradition of anti-imperial internationalism to imagine our own ambitious projects of worldmaking.       

Adom Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharon Marcus: Sarah Bernhardt, the Godmother of Modern Celebrity Culture

Celebrity is probably as old as language itself. It’s easy to imagine prehistoric humans using speech to gossip about people they had never met in person but could talk about as if they had. Recent history, however, tends to contrast celebrity to fame. Fame is supposedly worthy and lasting, celebrity is allegedly baseless and ephemeral. Fame derives from worthy public achievements, celebrity focuses on trivial private scandals. In cultures that value men over women—which is most of them – fame comes to seem masculine, celebrity feminine.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century England, France, and the United States were no strangers to strict gender oppositions. Yet those eras also made celebrity and fame inseparable. Newspapers treated daily events as the stuff of history. Engravings, lithographs, and photographs encouraged millions to identify public men as well as women with their looks. Lord Byron became as famous for his long, flowing hair as for his poetic genius. Abraham Lincoln as known for his distinctive height, beard, and profile as well as for his eloquence and leadership.  

One woman, Sarah Bernhardt, cannily took the measure of this new media environment and used her insights to become a global star. No mere product of modern celebrity culture, Bernhardt also helped to produce it. With a genius for acting matched by a flair for self-promotion, Bernhardt became as well known in her lifetime as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson in theirs.

Born in Paris in 1844 to a Dutch Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt won admission at age sixteen to the prestigious Paris dramatic conservatory, and soon after secured a place in France’s revered national theater troupe, the Théâtre Français. In the late 1860s and 1870s, Bernhardt became a celebrity throughout France, thanks to electrifying stage performances as a young male troubadour, a blind grandmother in ancient Rome, a biracial woman avenging her enslaved mother, and a classic turn as Racine’s Phèdre.

Bernhardt’s fame became global when, in June 1879, she traveled to London and thousands of fans – male and female, young and old, aristocratic and middle class – contracted a serious case of Bernhardt mania. An agent convinced her to spend the next year and a half touring North America. There, her acclaimed performances made her reputation and fortune and enabled her have a long career as an independent performer, director, and manager. In 1923, a million mourners witnessed Bernhardt’s Parisian funeral procession. For weeks after her death, her name and image dominated international newspaper headlines and magazine covers.

One part Meryl Streep, one part Miley Cyrus, Bernhardt owed her enormous success both to her formidable acting talent and to the offstage publicity tactics that she devised to capture and hold the attention of the Parisian public. On the one hand, her flair for marketing made her a talented impresario. She arranged to be photographed in her own bedroom, sleeping in a coffin. She sat for dozens of photographs and paintings and invited journalists to her home for interviews. Most importantly, she never hesitated to send letters to editors protesting her press coverage. In 1878, she responded to one newspaper’s speculations about her true hair color by dryly observing, “I regret that I cannot prove that I am a natural blonde.”

On the other hand, even as newspapers and magazines reported on Bernhardt’s exotic pets and outlandish dresses, they also hailed her as a genius, one of the world’s greatest artists. A French theater journal, summing up the star’s achievements after her death, described her as “a queen and priestess before whom frontiers did not exist…. her prestige was such, universally, that a sort of international religion arose around her.” Other French journalists vaunted her merits as a “powerful ambassador” who had extended their nation’s prestige by “incarnating French thought” abroad, naming her the best-known French person in the world since Napoleon.

Today, we might be tempted to choose between viewing Bernhardt either as a central figure in the history of great acting or as the forebear of everything that is wrong with celebrity culture. But forcing that choice misses the point of Bernhardt’s achievement, which was to make her excellence inseparable from her exploits. Her lesson to us today is that we do not have to decide whether celebrity is serious or silly, well-deserved or worthless, masculine or feminine: inevitably and interestingly, it is always and has always been both.

Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is a founding editor of Public Books and the author of the award-winning Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England(Princeton) and Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London. Twitter @MarcusSharon

 

 

‘Cute’ around the world

kittenCuteness has taken the planet by storm. Global sensations Hello Kitty and Pokémon, the works of artists Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, Heidi the cross-eyed opossum and E.T.—all reflect its gathering power. But what does “cute” mean, as a sensibility and style? Why is it so pervasive? Is it all infantile fluff, or is there something more uncanny and even menacing going on—in a lighthearted way? In The Power of Cute, Simon May provides nuanced and surprising answers. 

Although “cute” is a versatile word in English, we questioned our multilingual colleagues and learned that that’s not necessarily the case in other languages. Read on for an exploration of “cute” around the world.birds

 

Brigitta van Rheinberg, Director of Global Development
German

I think the closest equivalent to the English “cute” would be the German word “süß,” which means “sweet” or “adorable.” Babies can be “süß” as can animals or people, or you could use the word to describe a certain behavior (as in how somebody smiles). Other words that get close to the English “cute” are “niedlich,” or “reizend” or, very colloquially (and in my opinion inappropriate and outdated because it is used in a more sexual way for young females): “schnuckelig.”  That word in fact seems straight from the 50s and 60s, so one would hope not to hear it much any longer except perhaps in an ironic and self-reflective way, we hope? Then there is “putzig” (somewhat arcane, perhaps for a small furry animal) or “goldig” for a young child. On reflection, there isn’t quite one exact word that expresses all the connotations that we have for the English “cute.”

Marlene Richardson, Administrative Assistant
Jamaican Patois

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of CUTE being expressed in our Jamaican culture, or “patois,” is in describing a woman—is a “Miss Hottie Hottie.” A “Miss Hottie Hottie” isn’t limited to North America’s standard of beauty; her body type can be big, medium, or small, her complexion can be medium, dark, or fair. It doesn’t matter her class status. A CUTE ‘ooman (note the spelling of the word woman in our patois language) know how fi put dem self together! Di clothes don’t have to be expensive. Dem just know how fi wear di clothes to look fashionable.

Chris Lapinski, Design Coordinator
Polish

The English word “cute” is astonishingly versatile. A vast range of living things, inanimate objects, and places can be called cute. If you’re visiting a charming little town, for instance, you might remark on how “cute” it is. The closest equivalent to cute in Polish is the word “słodki,” a homonym that means sweet. It is pronounced swuht·kee. Słodki can be used literally and figuratively, but only within certain limits. I could call a baby “słodki” or a puppy “słodki” or a cup of tea “słodki,” but I would be remiss to describe a town as słodki. For that, I would have to say “uroczy” (oo·ruh·chih), which translates roughly to “charming”—but uroczy too has its limits. Alas, there is no word in Polish with the same distinctiveness and adaptability as cute. 

Ines ter Horst, Director of Contracts, Rights, and Permissions
Venezuelan Spanish

Depending in which Spanish speaking country you are, there are many particular ways of saying cute. In Venezuela, the word cute would translate as “cuchi,” and refers to something or someone small and cute, as a baby or a figurine such as Hello Kitty. It would also apply to a sweet situation, such as a small kid randomly giving someone a hug. In Spain, cute is ‘mono/mona’ and applies to babies, and is used to describe an attractive person of any age.

Dimitri Karetnikov, Illustration Manager
Russian

There are some words that do not translate seamlessly into Russian, “privacy” and “savory” are classic examples. I think cute is one of them. The common translation of “cute” is милый or милая (female), it sounds like miliy /milaya. However, this translation has other meanings, depending on the context. Generally it covers the more romantic aspect of cute, and it is often used to describe a kind and/or attractive person, it is quite beyond the cute spectrum. If I wanted to describe a cute comedy, or a comically cute puppy, I would say забавный or забавная (female) sounds like: zabavniy /zabavnaya.

Xuetong Zhou, Associate Marketing Manager 
Chinese

In Chinese, there are two different ways to describe cute. One is “可爱”, which means loveable, in the sense of being cute. The other expression is “萌”, which actually derives from a Japanese word “萌え”. “萌” means something new born, for example we would refer to a sprout as “萌芽.” Another word to describe cute things that illicit an emotional reaction is “萌”, used most often by the younger generation.

Sarah Miller Davenport: Racists in Congress fought statehood for Hawaii, but lost that battle 60 years ago

Sarah Miller Davenport, University of Sheffield

Sixty years ago, Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation making Hawaii America’s 50th state. The Hawaii admission act followed a centuries-old tradition in which American territories –acquired through war, conquest and purchase – became fully integrated states of the union.

But Hawaii was not an ordinary United States territory and would be unlike any other American state.

For one, Hawaii was not actually in America, at least not physically. Its islands lay in the Pacific, some 2,000 miles from the U.S. west coast.

And Hawaii would become the first state with a majority of people of Asian descent. Many had been ineligible for U.S. citizenship only a few years earlier, before the end of racial restrictions to naturalization.

These two defining characteristics – of Hawaii’s geography and demography – had led Congress to dismiss earlier bids for statehood before World War II. Hawaii was too far away and too Asian to be joined with the continental United States.

Asian migration conduit

Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898. That was five years after white settlers in the islands overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy to establish an American-led government.

Americans had first arrived as missionaries in 1820, and stayed on to establish sugar and pineapple plantations throughout the islands. A shortage of Hawaiian labor led them to seek workers from Asia – first China and later Japan and the Philippines.

Hawaii’s first American settlers were missionaries.
The Hawaiian gazette, 23 May 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Hawaii became a major conduit for Asian migration to the American mainland, where anti-Asian racism led to a series of immigration exclusion acts. The first of these was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which eventually led to the near-total restriction of Asian migration in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act.

Throughout this period, the American settlers who dominated Hawaii’s economy and governance were happy with the territorial status quo. They had carved out a comfortable enclave of wealth and influence, from which they ruled over a racialized working class. Any increased power that statehood might confer on Native Hawaiians and Asians would necessarily undermine white supremacy in the islands.

But the Sugar Act of 1934, which set quotas on Hawaii sugar exports to the continental U.S., changed the calculus of the territory’s white leaders, who now saw the advantage of being a fully equal U.S. state with federal representation. They launched an organized push for statehood.

By 1937, however, the statehood campaign had stalled on the back of a congressional investigation that called into question the loyalty of the islands’ Japanese population, Hawaii’s largest ethnic group.

According to one statehood opponent, the very idea of statehood was “preposterous,” since people of Japanese descent in Hawaii held allegiance to Japan, “which they could not disavow if they would, and would not if they could.”

Not surprisingly, Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor appeared to put statehood even further out of reach. For most of the war, the islands were subject to martial law. There was no mass internment of Hawaii’s Japanese population as in the continental U.S. To do so in Hawaii would have been logistically and economically infeasible given the numbers. But martial law imposed particular burdens on people of Japanese ancestry and severely limited political activity in the islands.

Statehood push stalled by racism

After World War II, statehood advocates in Hawaii regrouped, with a new Hawaii Statehood Commission acting as an official arm of the territorial legislature.

Fears of Japanese disloyalty had faded. Japan was now a U.S. ally and popular stories of the heroism of Japanese-Americans soldiers in Europe papered over the wartime anti-Japanese racism that had justified internment.

But the forces of segregation and racism in Congress effectively derailed statehood for more than a decade. It was not until 1959 that a bill finally passed both houses.

Japanese immigrant women who worked in the Hawaiian sugar cane fields, 1919.
University of Hawaiʻi – West Oʻahu Center for Labor Education and Research

The base of opposition to statehood in Congress was Southern Democrats. To them, Hawaii was a dangerous portent of an interracial future.

“Perhaps we should become the United States of the Pacific, and finally should become the United States of the Orient,” said Sen. George Smathers. The Florida lawmaker went on to claim that Hawaii statehood threatened “our high standard of living” and “the purity of our democracy.”

Segregationists also worried that Hawaii statehood would mean an end to Jim Crow, the systematic, legal enshrinement of racist policies in the South. Texas Rep. W.R. Poage suggested that the proposal for Hawaii statehood might result in “two more votes in the Senate” for civil rights.

From rejection to embrace

How, then, do we account for the dramatic shift in Hawaii’s fortunes, from racist exclusion to full legal inclusion in the nation? The answer lies in the intersection of global decolonization, the Cold War and the end of legal segregation in the U.S.

The Cold War, which followed World War II, was in part a struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for the allegiance of the “Third World.”

From a 1957 booklet by the Hawaii Statehood Commission, titled ‘Hawaii USA, Communist Beachhead or Showcase for Americanism.’
University of Hawaii

One tactic the Soviets used in that battle was to call attention to segregation and racism in the U.S. By doing that, the Soviets had identified America’s “Achilles’ heel,” in the words of Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state.

Hawaii statehood advocates claimed that the new state would convince people in the decolonizing nations of Asia that the U.S. was committed to both racial equality and self-governance.

Mike Masaoka, representing the Japanese American Citizen League, argued that Hawaii’s racial composition was “one of the most potent arguments” for statehood. “To the millions of dark-skinned people” around the world, America’s denial of statehood to Hawaii was proof of the claims of “Communist hatemongers” that the U.S. was racist and anti-democratic.

By the mid-1950s, Hawaii, as America’s western frontier and host to the U.S. Pacific Command, was gaining new strategic and symbolic importance as the Cold War in Asia heated up.

American foreign policy had focused primarily on Europe in the 1940s, but by the next decade it was Asia that most worried the foreign policy establishment. The communist victory in China in 1949, North Korea’s breach of the South Korean border a year later, and the push for decolonization in Southeast Asia combined to draw American attention to the Pacific.

Katsuro Miho, a member of the Hawaii Statehood Commission, warned Congress that Asian nationalist leaders were scrutinizing the statehood debates. According to Miho, Mohammed Roem, the former vice prime minister of Indonesia, had told the Hawaii legislature that Indonesians “were watching to see if the United States will grant statehood to ‘racially tolerant Hawaii.’”

Hawaii was formally admitted as a state on Aug. 21, 1959, necessitating a 50th star on the U.S. flag. President Dwight Eisenhower holds a corner of a new flag.
AP/Byron Rollins

Bridge to Asia

Statehood advocates won the argument by emphasizing Hawaii’s cultural and geographic distance from the rest of the U.S. – the very obstacles to statehood before World War II.

Now, in the context of the Cold War, Hawaii could be America’s “bridge to Asia.”

In urging Congress to vote for statehood in early 1959, Fred Seaton, Eisenhower’s secretary of the interior, celebrated Hawaii’s connection to Asia as useful to American foreign policy.

Hawaii, he said, “is the picture window of the Pacific through which the peoples of the East look into our American front room.” This was vital to “future dealings with the peoples of Asia,” because most of Hawaii’s people were “of oriental or Polynesian racial extraction.”

After statehood, policymakers in Hawaii and on the mainland sought to solidify the new state’s role as bridge to Asia by establishing a series of educational cultural exchange initiatives aimed at fostering “mutual understanding” between Americans and Asians.

Yet the language of connection that gave meaning to Hawaii statehood also served to distort the relationship between Asia and the U.S., particularly as Hawaii became a staging ground for various American military interventions in Vietnam and elsewhere. A bridge can link peoples and cultures, but it can also carry tanks.

Sarah Miller Davenport is the author of:

Gateway State: Hawai‘i in American Culture, 1945-1978The Conversation

Princeton University Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Sarah Miller Davenport, Lecturer in 20th Century US History, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bird Fact Friday: New Thinking on the Avian Brain

Adapted from pages 17 of Bird Brain:

The 1990s saw a flurry of interesting studies on avian behaviors thought to be uniquely human or only seen in great apes. Gavin Hunt found that New Caledonian crows made two different types of tools—Pandanus leaf and hook stick—that were used for different tasks. Irene Pepperberg revealed previously unheard-of linguistic abilities in a language-trained African grey parrot called Alex. Nicky Clayton and Tony Dickinson developed a method based on caching to discover that Western scrub jays thought about specific past events, so-called episodic-like memory.

In parallel to the exciting findings in avian cognition were findings from avian neuroscience. Bird brains were found to do things not seen in mammalian brains that could explain how birds could achieve identifiable cognitive feats with brains much smaller than mammals. Bird brains could support multitasking, with one hemisphere controlling one behavior (such as looking out for predators) while the other hemisphere controlled a different behavior simultaneously (such as looking for food). Adult brains could produce new neurons (neurogenesis)—either seasonally, as in the case of the hippocampus or song control system, or when needed, such as remembering caching events.

Edinger’s earlier ideas on the avian brain were questioned by studies on neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, evolution, and development with the result that in 2004 a complete change was made to the naming of the parts of the avian brain, reflecting a new understanding of how it had evolved. No longer was the avian forebrain seen as consisting of the striatum; rather the forebrain evolved from a pallium shared with ancestral reptilian and mammalian cousins. These new findings placed the new study of avian cognition on a strong foundation—so much so that more recent findings suggest the term “birdbrain” should now be used as a compliment not an insult!

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

90 Years Ago Today: Einstein’s 50th Birthday

This post is made available by the Einstein Papers Project

Einstein’s fiftieth birthday appears to have been more of a cause for celebration by others than for himself. Having lived under intense scrutiny from the (mostly) adoring public and intrusive journalists for 10 years already, Einstein made valiant efforts to avoid attention from the press on this momentous occasion. He was particularly keen to avoid the hullabaloo ratcheting up for his fiftieth in Berlin. The day before his birthday, a New York Times article, Einstein Flees Berlin to Avoid Being Feted reported that: “To evade all ceremonies and celebrations, he suddenly departed from Berlin last night and left no address. Even his most intimate friends will not know his whereabouts.”

Einstein’s decision allowed him and his family relative respite. While Einstein hid in a countryside retreat, “[t]elegraph messengers, postmen and delivery boys had to wait in line hours today in front of the house No. 5 Haberland Strasse, delivering congratulations and gifts to Albert Einstein on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday today,” according to the March 15 issue of the Jewish Daily Bulletin. Above is one card of the many that Einstein received on and around his birthday; it was made by a pupil at the Jüdische Knabenschule, Hermann Küchler.

After all, an intrepid reporter did find Einstein – in a leafy neighborhood of Berlin called Gatow, half an hour from the city center. A report for avid fans, Einstein Found Hiding on his Birthday, in the March 15 edition of The New York Times provides a gamut of details from the color of his sweater to the menu for his birthday dinner and the array of gifts found on a side table. Happy reading, on this, the 140th anniversary of Einstein’s birth!

03-07-19

Einstein’s 50th will be covered in Volume 16 of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Of the many and various resources we refer to for historical research, the two used for this web post were: The New York Times archive: Times Machine and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Archive. Access to the Times Machine requires a subscription to The New York Times. The card, item number 30-349, is held at the Albert Einstein Archives at HUJI.

Pi: A Window into the World of Mathematics

Mathematicians have always been fascinated by Pi, the famous never-ending never-repeating decimal that rounds to 3.14. But why? What makes Pi such an interesting number? Every mathematician has their own answer to that question. For me, Pi’s allure is that it illustrates perfectly the arc of mathematics. Let me explain what I mean by taking you on a short mathematical adventure.

Picture yourself in a kitchen, rummaging the pantry for two cans of food. Let’s say you’ve found two that have circular bases of different diameters d1 and d2. Associated with each circle is a circumference value, the distance you’d measure if you walked all the way around the circle.

Were you to perfectly measure each circle’s circumference and diameter you would discover an intriguing relationship:

In other words, the ratio of each circle’s circumference to its diameter doesn’t change, even though one circle is bigger than the other. (This circumference-to-diameter number is  (“Pi”), the familiar 3.14-ish number.) This is the first stop along the arc of mathematics: the discovery of a relationship between two quantities.

Where this story gets very interesting is when, after grabbing even more cans and measuring the ratio of their circumferences to their diameters—you seem to have lots of free time on your hands—you keep finding the same ratio. Every. Time. This is the second stop along the arc of mathematics: the discovery of a pattern. Shortly after that, you begin to wonder: does every circle, no matter its size, have the same circumference-to-diameter ratio? You have reached the third stop along the arc of mathematics: conjecture. (Let’s call our circumference-to-diameter conjecture The Circle Conjecture.)

At first you consider proving The Circle Conjecture by measuring the ratio C/d for every circle. But you soon realize that this is impossible. And that’s the moment when you start truly thinking like a mathematician and begin to wonder: Can I prove The Circle Conjecture true using mathematics? You have now reached the most important stop along the arc of mathematics: the search for universal truth.

One of the first thinkers to make progress on The Circle Conjecture was the Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria. Euclid published a mammoth 13-book treatise text called Elements circa 300 BC in which he, among other accomplishments, derived all the geometry you learned in high school from just five postulates. One of Euclid’s results was that the ratio of a circle’s area A to the square of its diameter d2 is the same for all circles:

This is close to what we are trying to prove in The Circle Conjecture, but not the same. It would take another giant of mathematics—the Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse—to move us onto what is often the last stop on the arc of mathematics: thinking outside the box.

Archimedes went back to Euclid’s five postulates, all but one of which dealt with lines, and extended some of Euclid’s postulates to handle curves. With these new postulates Archimedes was able to prove in his treatise Measurement of a Circle (circa 250 BC) that the area, circumference, and radius r of a circle are related by the equation:

(You may recognize this as the area of a triangle with base C and height r. Indeed, Archimedes’ proof of the formula effectively “unrolls” a circle to produce a triangle and then calculates its area.) Combining Archimedes’ formula with Euclid’s result, and using the fact that r = d/2, yields:

Et Voilà! The Circle Conjecture is proved! (To read more about the mathematical details involved in proving The Circle Conjecture, I recommend this excellent article.)

This little Pi adventure illustrated the core arc of mathematics: discovery of a relationship between to quantities; discovery of a more general pattern; statement of a conjecture; search for a proof of that conjecture; and thinking outside the box to help generate a proof. Let me end our mathematical adventure by encouraging you to embark on your own. Find things you experience in your life that are quantifiable and seem to be related (e.g., how much sleep you get and how awake you feel) and follow the stops along the arc of mathematics. You may soon afterward discover another universal truth: anyone can do mathematics! All it takes is curiosity, persistence, and creative thinking. Happy Pi Day!

 

Oscar E. Fernandez is associate professor of mathematics at Wellesley College. He is the author of Calculus Simplified, Everyday Calculus, and The Calculus of Happiness (all Princeton).

Ken Steiglitz: Happy π Day!

As every grammar school student knows, π is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. Its value is approximately 3.14…, and today is March 14th, so Happy π Day! The digits go on forever, and without a pattern. The number has many connections with computers, some obvious, some not so obvious, and I’ll mention a few.

The most obvious connection, I suppose, is that computers have allowed enthusiasts to find the value of π to great accuracy. But how accurately do we really need to know its value? Well, if we knew the diameter of the Earth precisely, knowing π to 14 or 15 decimal places would enable us to compute the length of the equator to within the width of a virus. This accuracy was achieved by the Persian mathematician Jamshīd al-Kāshī in the early 15th century. Of course humans let loose with digital computers can be counted on to go crazy; the current record is more than 22 trillion digits. (For a delightful and off-center account of the history of π, see A History of Pi, third edition, by Petr Beckmann, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1971. The anti-Roman rant in chapter 5 alone is worth the price of admission.)

A photo of a European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris. The original photo is on the left. On the right is a version where the compression ratio gradually increases from right to left, thereby decreasing the image quality. The original photograph is by Michael Ga¨bler; it was modified by AzaToth to illustrate the effects of compression by JPEG. [Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons]

Don’t condemn the apparent absurdity of setting world records like this; the results can be useful. Running the programs on new hardware or software and comparing results is a good test for bugs. But more interesting is the question of just how the digits of π are distributed. Are they essentially random? Do any patterns appear? Is there a message from God hidden in this number that, after all, God created? Alas, so far no pattern has been found, and the digits appear to be “random” as far as statistical tests show. On the other hand, mathematicians have not been able to prove this one way or another.

Putting aside these more or less academic thoughts, the value of π is embedded deep in the code on your smartphone or computer and plays an important part in storing the images that people are constantly (it seems to me) scrolling through. Those images take up lots of space in memory, and they are often compressed by an algorithm like JPEG to economize on that storage. And that algorithm uses what are called “circular functions,” which, being based on the circle, depend for their very life on… π. The figure shows how the quality of an original image (left) degrades as it is compressed more and more, as shown on the right.

I’ll close with an example of an analog computer which we can use to find the value of π. The computer consists of a piece of paper that is ruled with parallel lines 3 inches (say) apart, and a needle 3 inches long. Toss the needle so that it has an equal chance of landing anywhere on the paper, and an equal chance of being at any angle. Then it turns out that the chance of the needle intersecting a line on the piece of paper is 2/π, so that by repeatedly tossing the needle and counting the number of times it does hit a line we can estimate the value of π. Of course to find the value of π to any decent accuracy we need to toss the needle an awfully large number of times. The problem of finding the probability of a needle tossed this way was posed and solved by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in 1777, and the setup is now called Buffon’s Needle. This is just one example of an analog computer, in contrast to our beloved digital computers, and you can find much more about them in The Discrete Charm of the Machine.

Ken Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include The Discrete Charm of the MachineCombinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks (Princeton). He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Marcia Bjornerud: Grandmothers of Geoscience

A sheepish admission:  I intermittently check the reviews of my books posted by readers on the website of an online retail behemoth.  I smile at benevolent judgments, cringe at misspellings and misreadings, wonder whether some of the more generic entries were written by bots, and occasionally obsess about comments that get under my skin.  A few weeks ago, in a generally positive review of my PUP book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, a reader commented that the tone of the text was “grandmotherly”.    

In an instant, several thoughts collided in my head.  The first was indignation – I’m not a grandmother!  Nanoseconds later, I reminded myself that as a fifty-something mother of three sons I certainly could be (and in fact hope to be in a few years).  Next, I chastised myself for falling into the very trap of vanity-rooted time denial that my book exhorts us all to avoid.  And then, my mind moved to the question of what exactly “grandmotherly” means in our culture, and whether a reader would apply the word “grandfatherly” to a work written by a male scientist in his 50s.  On that count, I felt less sure about the right answer.

So many words for women in our culture are tinged with accusation or insult: “mistress” is freighted in a way that “master” is not; “dame” has been demoted to slang (and has horsy connotations) but “sir” hasn’t; “matronly” is not exactly a compliment.  And I chafe, as a “Fellow” of a couple of professional organizations that there is no obvious female equivalent:  Am I a “Gal of the Geological Society of America”?

But as I turned the word “grandmotherly” over in my mind, viewing it from all sides, I saw mostly respect: acknowledgment of experience, persistence, hard-won wisdom, and the right to a voice that should be heard and heeded. 

The fact is that there are far too few grandmothers in any of the sciences and certainly the geosciences in particular.  There was Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme Regis, discoverer of Jurassic sea monsters and arguably the first professional paleontologist;  geophysicist Inge Lehmann (1888-1993), who showed that the Earth’s inner core is solid, a discovery essential to understanding the planet’s magnetic field;  Marie Tharp (1920-2006) who created the first maps of the deep seafloor – more than half of Earth’s surface; Tanya Atwater (born 1942) who worked out the tectonic evolution of western North America over the past 60 million years. 

But I personally had no senior female mentors in my undergraduate and graduate school years.  And according to the American Geological Institute, even today women represent only 15% of the full professors in the geosciences in US universities[1].  I wasn’t fully aware of it as a student, but I see now that the absence of academic grandmothers was an impediment to my own development as a scientist.  There were no exemplars for how to be taken seriously in an overwhelmingly male, highly competitive work environment; no instructions for how to synchronize biological and tenure clocks; no reassurances that success was even possible.  In graduate school, the small cohort of women in my program supported each other but on our own could not allay the chronic anxieties we all shared.  How different our experiences as young scientists would have been with just one grandmotherly figure to turn to.

So, if I am now being bestowed the mantle of grandmother, honoris causa, I humbly accept.  Perhaps one day, our most esteemed scientists, both male and female, will be recognized with that most coveted of all awards: “Grandmother of the National Academy of Sciences”.

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.