TikTok Study Buddy, Fashion Forward, and Gotham Gambit: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From the scaring off predators to scaring up inspiration, 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.
Yehya Mougharbel studies, and studies some more, drawing tens of thousands of followers. I'm in the wrong business...
It’s so easy to be jaded about TikTok. The dance challenges. The attention-span-erosion. The potential data espionage. But like all social media, it has its streams of wholesome and uplifting content, like teachers dropping knowledge bombs and generally being goofballs. And then there’s Yehya Mougharbel’s feed, where the 22-year-old University of Surrey student regularly livestreams himself studying. This isn’t someone dominating a video game or pulling wild stunts—it’s literally a dude, at a desk, in front of a computer, doing homework, usually with a soft playlist. How popular could *that* be? Very, per a BBC story. Yehya has more than 470,000 followers, and with each Study Stream he picked up 2,000-3,000 more. "People just enjoy watching me study," he told the BBC. "They study alongside me, and they feel less alone." It’s hard to explain how much I love this. On one hand, it’s reminiscent of an earlier, simpler, more welcoming internet, where users would gather in Usenet groups or ICQ chat rooms (ask your parents) to talk about Twin Peaks or The X-FIles or some other cult pop culture phenomenon. On the other, this internet era is the polar opposite of Web 1.0, alienating, dislocating, and aggressively trollish, which can have serious consequences for young social media users. To find a corner of TikTok that’s, well, gentle and encouraging must be like finding an oasis in the desert.
Or Yehya’s feed is popular because people like having study buddies—especially after the isolation of the pandemic. “A spokeswoman for the app said there had been more than 3.9 billion views of videos with the hashtag #studytok and 5.2 million of posts with the hashtag #studyinspiration,” Hazel Shearing writes. One of them is Casey Keith, who checks into Yehya’s feed from St. Louis. The medical student discovered it while putting off school work, figured she’d watch a bit, and got hooked. "It is so nice to have somebody there right next to you to kind of help motivate you," Keith told the BBC. "I think one of the major things that is the best for me is that I can't physically speak to him. I can't turn to him and say, 'I don't want to do this any more, I'm over it, I just want to eat dinner and go to bed'. Sometimes it can get difficult and sometimes I'm ready to finish, but just watching him inspires me to keep going." What a cool story. And how refreshing to read about an influencer inspiring followers not to invest in scammy cryptocurrencies but to be better students. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Kiki Layne attends the 2022 Met Gala celebrating "In America: An Anthology of Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2022, in New York City.
Art of the Dress
The Met Gala, a fundraising event held to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, is held annually on the first Monday of May. It’s widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious events, and a $35,000 ticket to the event is highly sought after. Chaired by Vogue’s Anna Wintour since 1995, the event is attended by celebrities, politicians, and artists of all varieties. Each gala celebrates the theme of that year’s Costume Institute exhibition, and guests are encouraged to match their attire to the theme. The themes naturally create viral sartorial visuals—as well their share of controversy. Does anyone remember Rihanna dressed as a pope in 2018 (theme: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”), Katy Perry dressed as a hamburger in 2019 (theme: “Camp: Notes on Fashion), or Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress in 2021 (theme: “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion)? There was also the infamous, less sartorially-minded 2014 elevator fight between Jay-Z and Solange. This year’s Met Gala—theme: gilded glamor—had its share of head-turning looks and viral moments (like Blake Lively doing a costume change on the red carpet), and the accompanying Costume Institute show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” explores fashion in the United States from the 18th century to the present. The exhibit, which runs through September 5, features exquisite pieces from fashion designers—including indigenous and historically underrepresented artists—artfully arranged by famous movie directors. If fashion is a form of art that allows for another medium of expression, then the Met Gala—and the exhibit it’s connected with—is more than a superfluous affair. It's an opportunity for artistic and educational exploration. —Michelle Cruz Arnold
No matter what you hear—no matter what you *think*—that is greater mouse-eared bat. Not a dangerous ins... AH! It's a killer bug!!
Nature Gone Batty
The United States, France, Germany, and United Kingdom are unified in their support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. But they’re taking variously measured diplomatic approaches to the speed and size of supplying the country with weapons. Because no one wants to start World War III—or, more precisely, an apocalyptic nuclear war. All of those countries (save Ukraine) have nukes, so one wrong move and… “mutually assured destruction.” To quote the supercomputer from 1983 film WarGames, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” That’s a cinematic expression of a Nash equilibrium, whereby “once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or disarm.” And, wouldn’t you know it, the animal kingdom has its own non-nuclear but apocalyptic version where otherwise-harmless creatures convince predators that an attack might well kill them both. It’s a practice called Batesian mimicry, a kind of “sheep in wolf’s clothing” situation. My favorite example is the hawk moth caterpillar, which can shift its appearance to that of a deadly venomous viper. There’s also the mimic octopus, which adjusts its skin color, pattern, and arm movements to alternately resemble the poisonous banded sole, lionfish, and sea krait. Then there are hover flies, which ward off hungry predators by mimicking stinger-possessing bees and wasps. Those stinging insects have such a bad reputation, in fact, that the first mammal found to express Batesian mimicry—greater mouse-eared bats—replicated bee and wasp buzzing to scare off predators. The findings of an Italian research team, published in Current Biology, detail how the bat makes a bee/wasp-like buzzing sound, confusing predatory owls who hear it causing them to move away from the sound. Now that’s a MAD lesson in non-violent trickery! All the better that it doesn’t involve nuclear annihilation. —Christian Niedan
Russian servicewomen march during a Victory Day parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020. Make this image black and white and it would be indistinguishable from WW2-era propaganda.
Dropping Nostalgia Bombs
For anyone feeling a bit bedraggled by all the debate about how to teach history, I commend Simon Schama’s magnificent essay on power, politics, and historical narrative in last weekend’s Financial Times. He delves into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blinkered recasting of Ukrainian and Russian ties, the weaponization of World War II nostalgia, and the bloody consequences of nursing historical grievance to the point of obsession. There’s also a wonderful riff about History of the PeloponnesianWar, a staple of college curricula (and AP classes!) for very good reason. “The principal protagonist of Thucydides’ book is not a mythic hero but a classical ideal,” Schama writes, referring to Athenian democracy. The book is filled with debates about the ethics and politics of warfare, and with honest recounting of defeats and setbacks. It’s a telling contrast with the triumphalist, revisionist, outright fraudulent retellings that are popular with autocrats and demagogues—the kind of faux-scholarly “militant nostalgia” that Putin has used to rally support for his invasion of Ukraine. “Openness to self-criticism, the mark of strong, honest history, is not, as is sometimes said by flag-waggers and drumbeaters, a sign of national self-hatred. On the contrary, it represents an optimistic patriotic faith that, in free societies, the cohesion of national community is better served by the examination of truth than by otiose flattery.”
I came away from Schama’s stirring essay with an even greater conviction that America’s “history wars,” for all the angst they prompt, are a healthy thing for a democracy. (I also came away with a strong conviction that I need to use “otiose flattery” in a sentence sometime soon.) “History has never been just an escapist exercise in time travel; it has always been entangled in the toils of power,” Schama writes. Insisting that history should be exempt from those entanglements, or that there’s a version of historical scholarship that can somehow avoid political engagement, is to misunderstand the fundamental reason for teaching and learning it. You can’t legislate or censor history into compliance, any more than scholarly debate can permanently “settle” historical disputes. Keeping the conflict contained within legislatures, classrooms, and academic conferences is the real achievement, Schama suggests, because history wars can become all too real. —Eric Johnson
Marcel A., Washington Square Park chess hustler and dispenser of some great wisdom: "The one thing I tell my students is that when you get to a confrontation of any type, you have to remain calm. When you remain calm, you can see the board a lot clearer."
Big Apple Hustle Culture
I moved to New York in 2008; I ain’t never leaving! But no matter how often I tell people that, I still get asked when I’m moving back to Pittsburgh (also never) and why I live here, of all places. It’s a question that took on new contours after the pandemic hit and all the stuff that makes NYC great—the museums, the subways, the restaurants, the parks—essentially shut down. And I confess I had a moment where I thought all the pain, aggravation, frustration, and insanity might not be worth it without that now-absent part of the city. But Jimmy Breslin put it best in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam: This is New York, the city that I love and hate both equally. And I was reminded why I love New York reading Anne Kadet’s interviews with Washington Square Park chess hustlers in her newsletter, Café Anne. She spoke to three guys—Marcel, E.G.G.S., and Nate—who share their experiences at the park’s famous concrete tables, what they’ve learned earning a living teaching and playing chess, and how those lessons can be applied to everyday life. “Chess hustling’s not really good,” Marcel says. “Because not everyone wants to bet a lot of money. And as you play more hustlers, the level of competition goes up. You're playing stronger players. And next thing you know, you might be the one who's getting hustled.” Been there! “You have to be very careful,” he adds. “You can't argue with a fool. You know that, right? Because you know what the fool will do? The fool will drag you down and drown you.” Been there too!
I’ve spent some time in Washington Square Park and I’ve seen the chess hustlers hanging out, working over tourists, teaching kids. I never stopped because, c’mon, I’d get *owned*. But I admired them both as entrepreneurs and as civic institutions. And on both counts I absolutely underestimated them and their place in the tapestry of our city. “This is a New York City public park. First come, first served,” E.G.G.S. says when asked if anyone can claim a table. “But we would like players who come to keep 80 years of tradition going—which is to charge somehow, some way. Whether you’re giving a lesson, providing entertainment, giving them a puzzle like myself or allowing a visitor to challenge you in a championship game for money. But as long as you keep the 80 years of tradition, there being a transaction of money, then I don’t have a problem with you.” If that’s not as perfect and pure an encapsulation of New York City—the place Nate calls the Universal City—I don’t know what is. “I traveled in the Air Force to many places and to different cities. But there is no place like New York,” Nate adds. He’s right, thanks in no small measure to people like the chess hustlers of Washington Square Park. And thanks to Anne Kadet, I love my city a little more. —Dante A. Ciampaglia