“It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” Michael Stipe Proclaims Again, and He Still Feels Fine

It has taken a viral pandemic, and a mountain of tragic folly and more to come, but the internet has finally delivered the quality content we deserve, at least when it comes to celebrities stuck at home. Nightly bedtime stories read by Dolly Parton? Intimate streamed performances from Neil Young, Ben Gibbard, and many, many others, including stars of Broadway and opera house stages? It can feel a little overwhelming, especially for people working, educating, and doing a hundred other things in quarantine. But if there’s someone I really want to hear from, it’s the guy who told us, thirty-some years ago, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

If you remember the Reagan years, you remember living under the threat of mass extinction by nuclear winter and radiation poisoning. The end of the world seemed imminent at the end of the Cold War. And Michael Stipe, in a manically danceable tune (depending on your level of stamina), proclaimed a need for solitude after issuing his many grievances.

It is still the end of the world, he says in a recent video address about coronavirus on his website (and a shorter version released on social media), and “I do feel fine. I feel okay. The important part of that lyric, that song title, is ‘As We Know It.’ We’re about to go through—we are going through something that none of us have ever encountered before….”

The moment is unique, of worldwide historical significance as was the belligerent arms race of the late eighties, the terrible A.I.D.S. epidemic, and other catastrophic events occurring when R.E.M.  released Document, the 1987 album that introduced millions of young fans to art-punk geniuses Wire—whose “Strange” Stipe and company cover; to bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins and red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, who lent their names to two songs; and to Lenny Bruce, pioneering 60s comic, who, like Stipe in the album’s Side One closer, is “not afraid” of earthquakes, birds and snakes, aeroplanes, and other signs of the apocalypse. Things will change irrevocably, and life will probably go on. In the meantime, he says, “don’t mis-serve your own needs.”

You may not be surprised to learn the song re-entered the charts on March 13, 2020, as Polyphonic informs us in their video at the top. “It’s easy to see why.” These days nuclear holocaust seems low on the list of probable causes for the world’s end, what with potential economic collapse and more massive climate events following on COVID-19’s heels. Grim times indeed, as we know them, but they’re hardly the first we’ve faced in living memory. Behind Stipe’s “glib irony” in “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” lies a fierce critique of U.S. greed and violence and, as always, an alternative ethos, one whose call we might especially heed in our days of isolation.

We’re eager to reconnect in myriad ways, but time alone might not be such a bad idea. “Return, listen to yourself churn,” Stipe sings, “listen to your heart beat.” We can hear the final call for solitude as a dig at rugged individualism, or a call to healthy introspection. As the original video suggests, wading through the clutter might help us reclaim the stuff that makes us our best selves. Along with issuing his PSA, Stipe has also released a video, above, of a new demo track, “No Time for Love Like Now.” Here, he ditches the archness and anger of his fiery younger self for a plaintive statement about what the world needs. You guessed it…

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What is Albert Camus’ The Plague About? An Introduction

Topping lists of plague novels circulating these days, Albert Camus’ 1947 The Plague (La Peste), as many have been quick to point out, is about more than its blunt title would suggest. The book incorporates Camus’ experience as editor-in-chief of Combat, a French Resistance newspaper, and serves as an allegory for the spread of fascism and the Nazi occupation of France. It also illustrates the evolution of his philosophical thought: a gradual turn toward the primacy of the absurd, and away from associations with Sartre’s Existentialism.

But The Plague’s primary subject is, of course, a plague—a fictional outbreak in the Algerian “French prefecture” of Oran. Here, Camus relocates a 19th century cholera outbreak to sometime in the 1940s and turns it into the rat-borne epidemic that killed tens of millions in centuries past. As Daniel Defoe had done 175 years before in A Journal of the Plague Yeardrawing on his own experiences as a journalist—Camus “immersed himself in the history of plagues,” notes the School of Life. Camus even quotes Defoe in the novel's epigraph: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not."

Camus “read books on the Black Death that killed 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century; the Italian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000 people across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.” Perhaps more timely now than in its time, The Plague puts Camus’ historical knowledge in the mind of its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who remembers in his growing alarm “the plague at Constantinople that, according to Procopius, caused ten thousand deaths in a single day.”

Rieux embodies another theme in the novel—the seemingly endless human capacity for denial, even among well-meaning, knowledgeable experts. Despite his reading of history and up-close observation of the outbreak, Rieux fails—or refuses—to acknowledge the disease for what it is. That is, until an older colleague says to him, “Naturally, you know what this is.” Forced to say the word “plague” aloud, Rieux allows the spreading epidemic to become real for the first time.

[L]ike our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When a war breaks out, people say: "It's too stupid; it can't last long." But though a war may well be "too stupid," that doesn't prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.

Perpetually busy with mercantile projects and ideas about progress, the town, like "humanists," ignores the reappearance of history and believe plagues to belong to the distant past. Camus writes that such people "pass away… first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Whether we are prepared for them or not, plagues and wars will come upon us, aided by the brute force of human idiocy and irrationality. This terrible truth flies in the face of the untethered freedom of Sartrean existentialism. “They fancied themselves free,” Camus’ narrator says of Oran’s townspeople, “and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” The novel proceeds to illustrate just how devastating a deadly epidemic can be to our most cherished notions.

In Camus’ philosophy, “our lives,” the School of Life points out, “are fundamentally on the edge of what he termed ‘the absurd.’” But this “should not lead us to despair pure and simple,” though the feeling may be a stage along the way to “a redemptive tragi-comic perspective.” The recognition of finitude, of failure, ignorance, and repetition—what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life”—can instead cure us of the “behaviors Camus abhorred: a hardness of heart, an obsession with status, a refusal of joy and gratitude, a tendency to moralize and judge.” Whatever else The Plague is about, Camus shows that in a struggle for survival, these attitudes can prove worse than useless and can be the first to go.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Customize Your Zoom Virtual Background with Free Works of Art

Limitations stimulate creativity. While that phrasing is credited to business-management scholar Henry Mintzberg, the idea itself has a long history. We know we work more fruitfully when we work within boundaries, and we've known ever since our capabilities were limited in ways barely imaginable today. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic having temporarily redrawn the boundaries of our lives, many of us have already begun to rediscover our own creativity. Some have even done it on Zoom, the teleconferencing software used by businesses and institutions to keep their meetings and classes going even in a time of social distancing.

Instead of their bedrooms or offices, students and office workers have started appearing in settings like a 1970s disco, the Taj Mahal, and the starship Enterprise. The technology making this possible is the "virtual background," explained in the official Zoom instructional video down below.

Word of the virtual background's possibilities has spread through institutions everywhere. It certainly has at the Getty, whose digital editor Caitlin Shamberg notes that "the Getty’s Open Content program includes over 100,000 images that are free and downloadable. This means they’re also fair game to use as your own custom background."

From the Getty's digital collection Shamberg offers such works suitable for Zoom as Van Gogh's Irises, Turner's Van Tromp, going about to please his Masters, Ships a Sea, getting a Good Wetting, and other canvasses of such reliably pleasing settings as 18th-century Venice and a 16th-century forest with a rabbit. The Verge's Natt Garun recently rounded up a few resources where you can find more promising virtual-background material, from bingo cards to beaches to "pop culture homes" including "Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment from Sex and the City, your favorite Friends lofts, Seinfeld living rooms, and more."

Here at Open Culture, we'll point you to the thirty world-class museums that have put two million works of art online, many of which institutions have made them available for download. In this post appears, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Katsushika Hokusai's Under the Wave off Kanagawa (whose evolution to the status of an iconic ukiyo-e print we've previously covered); from the Getty, an 18th-century room "originally used as a bedroom or large cabinet in a private Parisian home at number 18 place Vendôme"; and from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, George Bellows' The Coming Storm.

That last work, pictured above, has a certain metaphorical resonance with the situation the world now finds itself in, hoping though we are that the storm of COVID-19 is now passing rather than still coming. But while we're sheltering from it — and continuing to carry on business as usual as best we can — we might as well get take every opportunity to get artistic. Find many more artistic images to download here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

HBO Is Streaming 500 Hours of Shows for Free: The Sopranos, The Wire, and More

We live, one often hears, in a golden age of television. But when did this age begin? Scholars of prestige TV drama — a field that, for both professionals and amateurs, has expanded in recent years — tend to point to The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999. In its eight-year run, David Chase's series about a depressed New Jersey mafia boss, a protagonist analyzed in the Behind the Curtain video essay above, set new standards in its medium for craft and complexity. To understand how much of a departure The Sopranos marked from everything else on television, simply compare it to what was airing on major broadcast networks in the 1990s, most of which now looks unwatchably simplistic and repetitive.

Of course, The Sopranos didn't air on a major broadcast network: it aired on HBO. Originally launched as "Home Box Office" in 1972, the oldest premium cable channel of them all has long since expanded its mandate from airing second-run movies to creating original programming of its own.

Its mid-1990s slogan "It's Not TV. It's HBO" reflects an intent to go beyond what was possible on conventional television networks, an enterprise whose promise The Sopranos signaled to the world. Critics lavished even more praise on The Wire, David Simon's dramatic examination and indictment of American institutions that ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008. In the video essay just above, Thomas Flight explains what makes The Wire, whose fans include everyone from Barack Obama to Slavoj Žižek, "one of the most brilliant TV shows ever."

If you haven't seen these or the other acclaimed HBO shows that have done so much to gild this televisual age, now's your chance to catch up. That's true not just for the obvious reason — the threat of the coronavirus pandemic keeping so many shut in at home — but also because HBO will make 500 hours of its programming free to stream on its HBO Now and HBO Go platforms. If you're in the United States or another area served by HBO online, you can watch not just The Sopranos and The Wire in their entirety, but the vampire-themed True Blood, the undertaking-themed Six Feet Under, and such comedic takes on American business and politics as Silicon Valley and Veep, a video essay from The Take on whose "satire in the age of Trump" appears above. Of all the ways we can define HBO-style prestige television, isn't "TV shows good enough to inspire video essays" the most apt? Get started here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Join Choir! Choir! Choir! for a Community Singalong in Isolation

I love ya, and I think maybe if we sing together, well, we’d just feel a little bit better. Give it a try, okay? —Neil Diamond

Thus quoth singer-songwriter Neil Diamond on March 23, before launching into his surprisingly sturdy monster hit, "Sweet Caroline," having reworked its lyrics to promote hand-washing and social distancing to help control the spread of COVID-19.

He’s not wrong about the therapeutic benefits of group singing. Ditto the imperative to resist gathering publicly, or even in the homes of extended family and close friends, until this crisis is in the rear view.

Choir! Choir! Choir!, an ongoing community sing that’s attained global renown thanks to its frequent tours, charitable work, and the support of such starry personages as Patti Smith and David Byrne, has had to put the kibosh on live group events. (Check out their 2014 singalong of Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," above, for a taste of the proceedings.)

With everyone staying home, founders Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman quickly implemented a digital work around, inviting fans and first-timers alike to weekly online sing-ins.

Their next Social Distan-Sing-Along is coming up this Saturday, April 4th at 3pm EDT, featuring a campfire-themed playlist:

"The Weight"

"Blowin' In The Wind"

"Our House"

"Leaving On A Jet Plane"

"Redemption Song"

"Talkin Bout A Revolution"

"Dust In The Wind"

"Cats In The Cradle"

"Wild World"

(Sadly, no "Titanic," but perhaps that one’s more summer camp than campfire, and these days, it’s probably best to sidestep any number, no matter how silly, that springs from mass casualties…)

Participants are instructed to print a file of the song lyrics in advance and show up to the digital campfire (live streaming on YouTube or Facebook) with a couple of devicesenough to follow along with Adilman and Goldman, while simultaneously Zooming in any friends you've pre-arranged to sing with.

(With 1000s attending, one of Choir! Choir! Choir!’s usual joyslifting one’s voice with a vast chorus of mostly strangersis a logistical and technological impossibility.)

Participants are also encouraged to share footage of themselves singing along, using the hashtag #NeverStopSingingthough we remind our non-performance-oriented readers that this is merely a suggestion.

Choir! Choir! Choir in isolation may well attract shower Sinatras who’d never dream of opening their mouths at an in-person event.

It’s a golden opportunity for the vocally shy to become part of one of the biggest choirs in history, secure in the knowledge that the only people to hear them croaking away will be the cat, the dog, any human co-inhabitants… and, oh dear, what about neighbors in the immediate vicinity?

Don't worry about the neighbors. In fact, prick up your earsyou may hear them singing the exact same tunes.

Download the lyrics for April 4’s campfire here prior to joining in on YouTube or Facebook. If you miss this one, you’ll have another opportunity the following Saturday, when Choir! Choir! Choir! is hosting a virtual "sing-a-thon" in support of the Canadian Cancer Society Daffodil Campaign.

To get you in the mood, here are some of our favorites from Choir! Choir! Choir!’s classic playlist:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Like Choir! Choir! Choir!, she has been crowdsourcing art in isolation, most recently a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew Turns 50: Celebrate the Funk-Jazz-Psych-Rock Masterpiece

I shouldn’t have to tell you that Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, released fifty years ago this month, is a groundbreaking record. The funk-jazz-psych-rock masterpiece has been handed that award in “best of” lists for half a century. “Bitches Brew is NOT LIKE OTHER records of its time, or any other time,” Rick Frystak announced emphatically on the Amoeba Records blog last year, on the 50th anniversary of the album’s 1969 “hatching” onstage and in the studio. How could it be otherwise?

Davis “gave his band very little instruction” about what to do, bassist and Jazz Night in America host Christian McBride tells NPR's Audie Cornish. “Miles might come in with sheet music with, like, four bars. And then you just, do what you do.”

Or as guitarist John McLaughlin remembers it, in the clip above from The Miles Davis Story, “I don’t think even Miles had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. But he was a man of such impeccable intuition that the moment that thing happened, he knew it. He said, ‘that’s it.’”

“What got recorded was the process,” says bassist Dave Holland, of figuring out, for example, how to make three keyboards at once work. Author and Miles Davis scholar Paul Tingen tones down the idea that the band made it all up on the spot. “Three of the pieces had already been broken in during live concerts,” he writes, such as the live clip of “Bitches Brew” in Copenhagen, 1969, above. And many of the musicians did get to rehearse before the studio sessions.

But during much of the album’s making, Miles “brought in these musical sketches that nobody had seen,” Davis himself says, and the band, featuring 13 musicians in total, found their way. Tingen writes:

On the third day the rhythm section consisted of as many as 11 players: three keyboardists, electric guitar, two basses, four drummers/percussionists and a bass clarinet. Miles had pulled out the stops in his search for a heavier bottom end.

The album’s heaviness, Davis' tape echo, and McLaughlin's squealing, distorted guitar turned off many jazzheads. “A lot of people felt that he was an artistic traitor,” McBride explains. “But I think that there were a number of college kids who were listening to progressive rock [and] soul music who absolutely loved this record.” Davis was booked to open for the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, and the Steve Miller Band. A new generation was turned on to jazz almost overnight.

After Bitches Brew, jazz kept fusing with rock instrumentation and overdrive, “from Chick Corea with Return to Forever and Wayne Shorter with Weather Report to Herbie Hancock with The Headhunters”—and, of course, McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. As Coltrane’s experimental 60s records had done, Davis’ bedrock fusion album freed rock from its formulas, giving it space to spread out and explore. Even Radiohead cited it as an influence on their groundbreaking 1997 Ok Computer. “It was building something up and watching it fall apart,” says Thom Yorke, “that’s the beauty of it.”

The album’s initial rejection in jazz circles didn’t last, as anyone familiar with the music’s direction knows. Davis determined its course in the 70s (as cover artist Mati Karwein determined its look). “I’m not sure if jazz ever got unplugged,” says McBride, and influential contemporary jazz fusionists like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and The Comet is Coming prove his point. Fifty years ago, the ground was broken for experimental electric jazz, and musicians are still building on Miles’ Bitches Brew intuitions.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pandemic Literature: A Meta-List of the Books You Should Read in Coronavirus Quarantine

Describing conditions characteristic of life in the early 21st century, future historians may well point to such epidemic viral illnesses as SARS, MERS, and the now-rampaging COVID-19. But those focused on culture will also have their pick of much more benign recurring phenomena to explain: topical book lists, for instance, which crop up in the 21st-century press at the faintest prompting by current events. As the coronavirus has spread through the English-speaking world over the past month, pandemic-themed reading lists have appeared in all manner of outlets: TimePBS, the Hollywood Reporter, the Guardian, the Globe and MailHaaretzVultureElectric Literature, and others besides.

As mankind's oldest deadly foe, disease has provided themes to literature since literature's very invention. In the European canon, no such work is more venerable than The Decameron, written by Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio in the late 1340s and early 1350s. "His protagonists, seven women and three men, retreat to a villa outside Florence to avoid the pandemic," writes The Guardian's Lois Beckett, referring to the bubonic plague, or "Black Death," that ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century. "There, isolated for two weeks, they pass the time by telling each other stories" — and "lively, bizarre, and often very filthy stories" at that — "with a different theme for each day."

A later outbreak of the bubonic plague in London inspired Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe to write the A Journal of the Plague Year. "Set in 1655 and published in 1722, the novel was likely based, in part, on the journals of the author’s uncle," writes the Globe and Mail's Alec Scott. Defoe's diarist "speaks of bodies piling up in mass graves, of sudden deaths and unlikely recoveries from the brink, and also blames those from elsewhere for the outbreak." A Journal of the Plague Year appears on these reading lists as often as Albert Camus' The Plaguepreviously featured here on Open Culture. "Camus’ famous work about the inhabitants of an Algerian town who are stricken by the bubonic plague was published back in 1947," writes PBS' Courtney Vinopal, "but it has struck a chord with readers today living through the coronavirus."

Of novels published in the past decade, none has been selected as a must-read in coronavirus quarantine as often as Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. "After a swine flu pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population, a group of musicians and actors travel around newly formed settlements to keep their art alive," says Time. "Mandel showcases the impact of the pandemic on all of their lives," weaving together "characters’ perspectives from across the planet and over several decades to explore how humanity can fall apart and then, somehow, come back together." Ling Ma's darkly satirical Severance also makes a strong showing: Electric Literature describes it as "a pandemic-zombie-dystopian-novel, but it’s also a relatable millennial coming-of-age story and an intelligent critique of exploitative capitalism, mindless consumerism, and the drudgery of bullshit jobs."

Since a well-balanced reading diet (and those of us stuck at home for weeks on end have given much thought to balanced diets) requires both fiction and nonfiction, several of these lists also include works of scholarship, history, and journalism on the real epidemics that have inspired all this literature. Take Richard Preston's bestseller The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus, which Gregory Eaves at Medium calls "a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their 'crashes' into the human race." For an episode of history more comparable to the coronavirus, there's John M. Barry's The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, "a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon."

Below you'll find a meta-list of all the novels and nonfiction books included on the reading lists linked above. As for the books themselves — libraries and bookstores being a bit difficult to access in many parts of the world at the moment — you might check for them in our collection of books free online, the temporarily opened National Emergency Library at the Internet Archive, and our recent post on classic works of plague literature available to download. However you find these books, happy reading — or, more to the point, healthy reading.


  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
  • Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin
  • Bird Box by Josh Malerman
  • Blindness by José Saramago
  • The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
  • The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
  • Bring Out Your Dead by J.M. Powell
  • The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
  • The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
  • The Companion by Katie M. Flynn
  • The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  • The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz
  • Find Me by Laura van den Berg
  • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
  • Journal of the Plague Years by Norman Spinrad
  • The Last Man by Mary Shelley
  • The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  • My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
  • The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin
  • The Plague by Albert Camus
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • Severance by Ling Ma
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
  • The Training Commission by Ingrid Burrington and Brendan Byrne
  • The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera
  • The White Plague by Frank Herbert
  • Wilder Girls by Rory Power
  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead



  • The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby
  • And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
  • The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
  • Flu: The Story Of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
  • The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John Barry
  • The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly
  • History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
  • The Hot Zone The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston
  • Networked Disease: Emerging Infections in the Global City by A. Harris Ali and Roger Keil
  • Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
  • Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Dolly Parton Will Read Bedtime Stories to You Every Week

Used to be that Dolly Parton was relegated to the country music community--well loved, adored, but hemmed in by her genre. Certainly Gen X’ers like myself didn’t take her too seriously, and having a theme park named after you in Tennessee? Not too cool.

Yet, as we have wandered back into the wretched, burning plains of modern life and found that, yes, Mister Rogers was a good person all along, we have also made space for Dolly Parton. She is a good person, and she is also therefore a Good Person.

Starting today, April 2, 2020, Dolly Parton will join us all in quarantine by way of the Internet to read us bedtime stories. She will be starting with The Little Engine That Could (see below), the classic tale of determination by Watty Piper. And listen, Gen X’ers, this isn’t for you! This is for your kids! (But okay yes, it’s also for you. It’s for all of you who have taken on the role of parent, teacher, entertainer, psychologist, and social worker without any increase in pay during these hard times. You just might be asleep before your kids once Dolly starts reading. I might just join you if I can find a spare blankie.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has been the force behind all this, a non-profit that promotes literacy and parent-child reading by sending a book every month to a child, from their birth till age five. It started in Parton’s home county in the mid-‘80s but now reaches 1,546,000+ children not just in the United States, but in Canada, Australia, the UK and the Republic of Ireland, according to her website.

The Little Engine That Could is a great kick off to a series of weekly bedtime stories. Do you think you can get through this? Just repeat to yourself: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

Related Content:

Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” Slowed Down to 33RPM Sounds Great and Takes on New, Unexpected Meanings

Feel Strangely Nostalgic as You Hear Classic Songs Reworked to Sound as If They’re Playing in an Empty Shopping Mall: David Bowie, Toto, Ah-ha & More

Enter an Archive of 6,000 Historical Children’s Books, All Digitized and Free to Read Online

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

This is What Richard Feynman’s PhD Thesis Looks Like: A Video Introduction

Richard Feynman wasn’t just an “ordinary genius.” He was, according to mathematician Mark Kac “in his taxonomy of the two types of geniuses,” a “magician” and “a champion of scientific knowledge so effective and so beloved that he has generated an entire canon of personal mythology,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings. Many a Feynman anecdote comes from Feynman himself, who burnished his popular image with two bestselling autobiographies. His stories about his life in science are extraordinary, and true, including one he tells the first seminar he gave at Princeton in 1939, attended by Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann, and Albert Einstein.

“Einstein,” Feynman writes in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, “appreciated that things might be different from what his theory stated; he was very tolerant of other ideas.” The young upstart had many other ideas. As biographer James Gleick writes, Feynman was “nearing the crest of his powers. At twenty three… there may now have been no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science.” He had yet to complete his dissertation and would take a break from his doctoral studies to work on the Manhattan Project in 1941.

Then, in 1942, Feynman submitted his thesis, Principles of least action in quantum mechanics, supervised John Archibald Wheeler, with whom Feynman shares the name of an electrodynamic theorem. Published for the first time in 2005 by World Scientific, “its original motive,” notes the publisher, “was to quantize the classical action-at-a-distance electrodynamics”—partly in response to the challenges posed to his early lectures. In order to do this, says Toby, host of the video above, “he’ll need to come up with his own formulation of quantum mechanics, and he does this by first coming up with a new formulation in classical mechanics,” which he must apply to quantum mechanics. “This turns out to be a bit of a challenge.”

Feynman himself found it insurmountable. “I never solved it,” he writes in Surely You’re Joking, “a quantum theory of half-advanced, half-retarded potentials—and I worked on it for years.” But his “field-less electrodynamics” possessed a “stupendous efficiency,” argues physicist Olivier Darrigol, that “appeared like magic to most of his competitors.” The value of this early work, says Toby, lies not in its ability to solve the problems it raises, but to come up with “a new way to approach things”—a method of continual searching that served him his entire career. He may have discarded many of the ideas in the thesis, but his “magical” thinking would nonetheless lead to later massive breakthroughs like Feynman diagrams.

Those who follow the math can do so in the fifteen-minute video walkthrough of the Feynman’s thesis—and read the thesis in pdf form here. Toby lists several sources on key concepts on the video's YouTube page to get you up to speed. If the high-level physics flies right over your head, learn more about how Feynman’s incredible ability to learn and teach almost any subject made him such a flexible and creative thinker in Gleick’s book, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

Related Content:

The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The Most Popular Physics Book Ever Written, Is Now Completely Online

Richard Feynman’s Technique for Learning Something New: An Animated Introduction

Richard Feynman’s “Lost Lecture:” An Animated Retelling

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Did LEGO Become a Media Empire? Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #37

Why has a children's toy become a brand attached to virtually every media type, partnering with the most ubiquitous franchises, and serving as a pastime for many adult hobbyists who will gut you if you call LEGO a "children's toy."

Brian Hirt (our resident AFOL, i.e. adult fan of LEGO) talks with co-hosts Erica Spyres and Mark Linsenmayer about creative play vs. following the printed directions, building purists vs. anthropomorphizers, LEGO qua corporate overlord, the LEGO films and competitive building TV show, and more.

Brian's LEGO designs that we react to are the Mandelbrot fractal, baby Yoda, dreidel, and swimming pool. "AFOL" is but the first of many LEGO-specific initialisms; see the glossary.

Here are some articles we drummed up to prepare:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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