In 1886, the US Government Commissioned 7,500 Watercolor Paintings of Every Known Fruit in the World: Download Them in High Resolution

T.S. Eliot asks in the opening stanzas of his Choruses from the Rock, “where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The passage has been called a pointed question for our time, in which we seem to have lost the ability to learn, to make meaningful connections and contextualize events. They fly by us at superhuman speeds; credible sources are buried between spurious links. Truth and falsehood blur beyond distinction.

But there is another feature of the 21st century too-often unremarked upon, one only made possible by the rapid spread of information technology. Vast digital archives of primary sources open up to ordinary users, archives once only available to historians, promising the possibility, at least, of a far more egalitarian spread of both information and knowledge.

Those archives include the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, “over 7,500 paintings, drawings, and wax models commissioned by the USDA between 1886 and 1942,” notes Chloe Olewitz at Morsel. The word “pomology,” “the science and practice of growing fruit,” first appeared in 1818, and the degree to which people depended on fruit trees and fruit stores made it a distinctively popular science, as was so much agriculture at the time.

But pomology was growing from a domestic science into an industrial one, adopted by “farmers across the United States,” writes Olewitz, who “worked with the USDA to set up orchards to serve emerging markets” as “the country’s most prolific fruit-producing regions began to take shape.” Central to the government agency’s growing pomological agenda was the recording of all the various types of fruit being cultivated, hybridized, inspected, and sold from both inside the U.S. and all over the world.

Prior to and even long after photography could do the job, that meant employing the talents of around 65 American artists to “document the thousands and thousands of varieties of heirloom and experimental fruit cultivars sprouting up nationwide.” The USDA made the full collection public after Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015.

Higgins saw the project as an example of “the way free speech issues intersect with questions of copyright and public domain,” as he put it. Historical government-issued fruit watercolors might not seem like the obvious place to start, but they’re as good a place as any. He stumbled on the collection while either randomly collecting information or acquiring knowledge, depending on how you look at it, “challenging himself to discover one new cool public domain thing every day for a month.”

It turned out that access to the USDA images was limited, “with high resolution versions hidden behind a largely untouched paywall.” After investing $300,000, they had made $600 in fees in five years, a losing proposition that would better serve the public, the scholarly community, and those working in-between if it became freely available.

You can explore the entirety of this tantalizing collection of fruit watercolors, ranging in quality from the workmanlike to the near sublime, and from unsung artists like James Marion Shull, who sketched the Cuban pineapple above, Ellen Isham Schutt, who brings us the Aegle marmelos, commonly called “bael” in India, further up, and Deborah Griscom Passmore, whose 1899 Malus domesticus, at the top, describes a U.S. pomological archetype.

It’s easy to see how Higgins could become engrossed in this collection. Its utilitarian purpose belies its simple beauty, and with 3,800 images of apples alone, one could get lost taking in the visual nuances—according to some very prolific naturalist artists—of just one fruit alone. Higgins, of course, created a Twitter bot to send out random images from the archive, an interesting distraction and also, for people inclined to seek it out, a lure to the full USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection.

At what point does an exploration of these images tip from information into knowledge? It's hard to say, but it’s unlikely we would pursue either one if that pursuit didn’t also include its share of pleasure. Enter the USDA's Pomological Watercolor Collection here to new and download over 7,500 high-resolution digital images like those above.

via Morsel.

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

Two Animated Maps Show the Expansion of the U.S. from the Different Perspectives of Settlers & Native Peoples

After John Ford, the history of U.S. expansion went by the name “How the West Was Won.” Decades earlier, in his essay “Annexation,” Jacksonian journalist John O’Sullivan famously coined the phrase “manifest destiny.” Historian Richard Slotkin called it “regeneration through violence” and novelist Cormac McCarthy summed up the jagged, ever-moving line of westward expansion from sea to sea with two words: Blood Meridian.

Indigenous versions of the story do not tend to enter common parlance in quite the same way, a fact upon which Vine Deloria, Jr. remarks in his “Indian Manifesto,” Custer Died for Your Sins. Violence is always central to the story. Usually the savagery of Native people is taken for granted. Savagery of settlers may be more or less emphasized. Yet the long history of land theft over the course of the centuries is also one of broken treaty after treaty.

Few tribes were defeated in war by the United States, but most sold some land and allowed the United States to hold the remainder in trust for them. In turn, the tribes acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States in preference to other possible sovereigns.

Caught between warring European empires, Indigenous nations made the best deals they could with the advancing U.S. and its army of Civil War veterans. “From this humble beginning the federal government stole some two billion acres of land and continues to take what it can without arousing the ire of the ignorant public.”

The brutality of the 19th century became professionalized, carried out by regulars in uniform, hence the detached language of “Indian wars.” These were followed by other kinds of violence: institutionalized paternalism, further encroachment and enclosure, and the forced removal of thousands of children from their parents and into reeducation camps.

The two maps you see here, with sweepingly broad visual gestures in gif form, illustrate the 19th century seizure of land across the North American continent from the perspective of a U.S. national history and that of an Indigenous multi-national history. The map at the top traces the story from the country's beginnings in the 13 colonies to the annexation, purchase, and finally statehood of Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.

The above map is more focused, spanning the years 1810 to 1891. As Nick Routley points out in a post at Visual Capitalist, “five of the largest expansion events in U.S. history” took place during the 1800s, though the first one he cites falls outside the timeline above. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase ended up acquiring what now makes up “nearly 25% of the current territory of the United States, stretching from New Orleans all the way up to Montana and North Dakota.”

Other notable events include the 1819 purchase of Florida from Spain by John Quincy Adams, the aforementioned purchase of Alaska from Russia, and the 1845 annexation of Texas. The Mexican-American War of 1848 gets less mention these days, though it expanded slavery and was quite hotly debated at the time by such principled figures as Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay his poll tax over it and wrote “Civil Disobedience” while in jail.

In the so-called Mexican Cession, Texas became a state and “the United States took control of a huge parcel of land that includes the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.” Mexico, on the other hand, “saw the size of their territory halved.” After each seizure of territory, mass migrations westward commenced in wave upon wave.

Routely does not survey these migration events, but you can learn about them in accounts like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous People’s History of the United States and Deloria’s manifesto. When we approach the founding and expansion of the U.S. from multiple perspectives, both visual and historical, we understand why critical historians often use the phrase “settler colonialism” rather than “westward expansion” or its synonyms. And why the overused and limited phrase “nation of immigrants” might just as well be “nation of migrants.”

via Visual Capitalist

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

The Meandering Mississippi River and How It Evolved Over Thousands of Years Visualized in Brilliant Maps from 1944

Given that Turkey's Büyük Menderes River was historically known as the Meander, you might well imagine how un-straightforward a path it takes through the country. But the English adjective descended from its name describes a fair few other twisting, turning rivers as well, and also a form of river mapping that suits them. "I have long admired the Mississippi River meander maps designed by Army Corps of Engineers cartographer Harold Fisk," writes Jason Kottke at Kottke.org by way of an introduction to his short essay on them at the site of printmaker 20x200.

"In their relentless flow to lower ground, rivers like to roam over the landscape, cutting through solid rock and loamy soil alike, gaining advantage here and there where they can," goes Kottke's explanation of how meandering rivers come to be. "The best and easiest course for a river to take downhill is its current course... right up until the moment when it's not." Each color in Fisk's meander maps of the longest river in North America "represents a new course, a marker of each time a bend had become too bendy and the river 'decided' to take a more direct path." Kottke summarizes these maps' appeal succinctly: "They are time machines."

"Standing before a painting by Hilma af Klint, a sculpture by Bernini, or a cave painting in Chauvet, France draws you back in time in a powerful way: you know you're standing precisely where those artists stood hundreds or even thousands of years ago, laying paint to surface or chisel to stone." Here, thanks to a "clever mapmaker with an artistic eye," we can imagine the Mississippi "as it was during the European exploration of the Americas in the 1500s, during the Cahokia civilization in the 1200s (when this city's population matched London's), when the first humans came upon the river more than 12,000 years ago, and even back to before humans, when mammoths, camels, dire wolves, and giant beavers roamed the land and gazed upon the river."

You can buy prints of three different Mississippi meander maps from 20x200, all of them originally part of Fisk's report "Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River completed in 1944. The study was made to learn about the formation of the valley over time, and about the major factors that dictate its flow and flooding in the modern era." Fisk drew upon data collected through approximately 16,000 borings, and "also found the river's heart in this jumble of loops and purls," producing a reflection of the river's distinctive personality in "this explosive, autumn-colored palette." Regarding these maps, we can't help but wonder in what shape some future team of intrepid surveyors will find the Mississippi a few thousand years hence — and what new words, in what languages, that shape might inspire.

via Kottke

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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.

Cartoonist Lynda Barry Teaches You How to Draw

Friend, are you paralyzed by your ironclad conviction that you can't draw?

Professor Chewbacca aka Professor Old Skull aka cartoonist Lynda Barry has had quite enough of that nonsense!

So stop dissembling, grab a pen and a hand-sized piece of paper, and follow her instructions to Anne Strainchamps, host of NPR's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, below.

It’s better to throw yourself into it without knowing precisely what the ten minute exercise holds (other than drawing, of course).

We know, we know, you can’t, except that you can. Like Strainchamps, you’re probably just rusty.

Don’t judge yourself too harshly if things look “terrible.”

In Barry’s view, that’s relative, particularly if you were drawing with your eyes closed.

A neurology nerd, Barry cites Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, and Juan Muniz’ study Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making. It’s the action, not the subjective artistic merit of what winds up on the page that counts in this regard.

For more of Barry’s exercises and delightfully droll presence, check out this playlist on Dr. Michael Green's Graphic Medicine Channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine... Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Elvis Costello’s List of 500 Albums That Will Improve Your Life

Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich, via Wikimedia Commons

Ask a few friends to draw up sufficiently long lists of their favorite albums, and chances are that more than one of them will include Elvis Costello. But today we have for you a list of 500 essential albums that includes no Elvis Costello records at all — not least because it was put together by Elvis Costello. "Here are 500 albums that can only improve your life," he writes in his introduction to the list, originally published in Vanity Fair. "Many will be quite familiar, others less so." Costello found it impossible "to choose just one title by Miles Davis, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Mingus, etc.," but he also made room for less well-known musical names such as David Ackles, perhaps the greatest unheralded American songwriter of the late 60s."

Costello adds that "you may have to go out of your way" to locate some of the albums he has chosen, but he made this list in 2000, long before the internet brought even the most obscure selections within a few keystrokes' reach with streaming services like Spotify--on which a fan has even made the playlist of Costello's 500 albums below.

And when Costello writes about having mostly excluded "the hit records of today," he means hit records by the likes of "Marilyn, Puffy, Korn, Eddie Money — sorry, Kid Rock — Limp Bizkit, Ricky, Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc." But when he declares "500 albums you need," described only with a highlighted track or two ("When in doubt, play Track 4—it is usually the one you want"), all remain enriching listens today. The list begins as follows:

  • ABBA: Abba Gold (1992), “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
  • DAVID ACKLES: The Road to Cairo (1968), “Down River” Subway to the Country (1969), “That’s No Reason to Cry.”
  • CANNONBALL ADDERLEY: The Best of Cannonball Adderley (1968), “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
  • AMY ALLISON: The Maudlin Years (1996), “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter.”
  • MOSE ALLISON: The Best of Mose Allison (1970), “Your Mind Is on Vacation.”
  • ALMAMEGRETTA: Lingo (1998), “Gramigna.”
  • LOUIS ARMSTRONG: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (2000), “Wild Man Blues,” “Tight Like This.”
  • FRED ASTAIRE: The Astaire Story (1952), “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

How many music collections, let alone lists of essential records, would put all those names together? And a few hundred albums later, the bottom of Costello's alphabetically organized list proves equally diverse and culturally credible:

  • RICHARD WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde (conductor: Wilhelm Furtwangler; 1952); Der Ring des Nibelungen (conductor: George Solti; 1983).
  • PORTER WAGONER AND DOLLY PARTON: The Right Combination: Burning the Midnight Oil (1972), “Her and the Car and the Mobile Home.”
  • TOM WAITS: Swordfishtrombones (1983), “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six,” “In the Neighborhood” Rain Dogs (1985), “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” “Time” Frank’s Wild Years (1987), “Innocent When You Dream,” “Hang on St. Christopher” Bone Machine (1992), “A Little Rain,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” Mule Variations (1999), “Take It with Me,” “Georgia Rae,” “Filipino Box-Spring Hog.”
  • SCOTT WALKER: Tilt (1995), “Farmer in the City.”
  • DIONNE WARWICK: The Windows of the World (1968), “Walk Little Dolly.”
  • MUDDY WATERS: More Real Folk Blues (1967), “Too Young to Know.”
  • DOC WATSON: The Essential Doc Watson (1973), “Tom Dooley.”
  • ANTON WEBERN: Complete Works (conductor: Pierre Boulez; 2000).
  • KURT WEILL: O Moon of Alabama (1994), Lotte Lenya, “Wie lange noch?”
  • KENNY WHEELER with LEE KONITZ, BILL FRISELL and DAVE HOLLAND: Angel Song (1997).
  • THE WHO: My Generation (1965), “The Kids Are Alright” Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (1971), “Substitute.”
  • HANK WILLIAMS: 40 Greatest Hits (1978), “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive.”
  • LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), “Drunken Angel.”
  • SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: The Best of Sonny Boy Williamson (1986), “Your Funeral and My Trial,” “Help Me.”
  • JESSE WINCHESTER: Jesse Winchester (1970), “Quiet About It,” “Black Dog,” “Payday.”
  • WINGS: Band on the Run (1973), “Let Me Roll It.”
  • HUGO WOLF: Lieder (soloist: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; 2000), “Alles Endet, Was Entstehet.”
  • BOBBY WOMACK: The Best of Bobby Womack (1992), “Harry Hippie.”
  • STEVIE WONDER: Talking Book (1972), “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” Innervisions (1973), “Living for the City” Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
  • BETTY WRIGHT: The Best of Betty Wright (1992), “Clean Up Woman,” “The Baby Sitter,” “The Secretary.”
  • ROBERT WYATT: Mid-Eighties (1993), “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”
  • LESTER YOUNG: Ultimate Lester Young (1998), “The Man I Love.”
  • NEIL YOUNG: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), “Down by the River” After the Goldrush (1970), “Birds” Time Fades Away (1973), “Don’t Be Denied” On the Beach (1974), “Ambulance Blues” Freedom (1989), “The Ways of Love” Ragged Glory (1990), “Fuckin’ Up.”
  • ZAMBALLARANA: Zamballarana (1997), “Ventu.”

Zamballarana, for the many who won't recognize the name, is a band from the Corsican village of Pigna whose music, according to one description, combines "archaic male polyphony with elements of jazz, oriental and latin music as well as the innovative way of playing traditional Corsican instruments such as the 16-string Cetrea, the drum Colombu and the flute Pivana." That counts as just one of the unexpected listening experiences awaiting those who fire up their favorite music-streaming service and work their way through Costello's list of 500 essential albums. It may also inspire them to determine their own essential albums, an activity Costello endorses as musically salutary: "Making this list made me listen all over again."

via Far Out Magazine

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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.

An Introduction to the Life & Music of Fela Kuti: Radical Nigerian Bandleader, Political Hero, and Creator of Afrobeat

I cannot write about Nigerian bandleader, saxophonist, and founder of the Afrobeat sound, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with any degree of objectivity, whatever that might mean. Because hearing him counts as one of the greatest musical eye-openers of my life: a feeling of pure elation that still has not gone away. It was not an original discovery by any means. Millions of people could say the same, and far more of those people are African fans with a much better sense of Fela’s mission. In the U.S., the playfully-delivered but fervent urgency of his activist lyricism requires footnotes.

Afrobeat fandom in many countries does not have to personally reckon with the history from which Fela and his band emerged—a Nigeria wracked in the 60s by a military coup, civil war, and rule by a succession of military juntas. Fela (for whom the first name never seems too familiar, so enveloping was his presence on stage and record) created the conditions for a new style of African music to emerge, an earth-shattering fusion of jazz, funk, psych rock, high life from Ghana, salsa, and black power, anti-colonial, and anti-corruption politics.

He took up the cause of the common people by singing in a pan-African English that leapt across borders and cultural divides. In 1967, the year he went to Ghana to craft his new sound and direction, his cousin, Nobel-prize winning writer Wole Soyinka, was jailed for attempting to avert Nigeria’s collapse into civil war. Fela returned home swinging three year later, a burgeoning superstar with a new name (dropping the British “Ransome” and taking on the Yoruba "Anikulapo"), a new sound, and a new vision.

Fela built a commune called Kalakuta Republic, a home for his band, wives, children and entourage. The compound was raided by the military government, his nightclub shut down, he was beaten and jailed hundreds of times. He continued to publish columns and speak out in interviews and performances against colonial hegemony and post-colonial abuse. He championed traditional African religious practices and pan-African socialism. He harshly critiqued the West’s role in propping up corrupt African governments and conducting what he called “psychological warfare."

What would Fela have thought of Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat, the documentary about him here in two parts? I don't know, though he might have had something to say about its source: CGTN Africa, a network funded by the Chinese government and operated by China Central Television. Debate amongst yourselves the possible propaganda aims for disseminating the film; none of them interfere with the vibrant portrait that emerges of Nigeria’s most charismatic musical artist, a man beloved by those closest to him and those farthest away.

Find out why he so enthralls, in interviews with his band and family, flamboyant performance footage, and passionate, filmed interviews. Part guru and radical populist hero, a bandleader and musician as tirelessly perfectionistic as Duke Ellington or James Brown—with the crack band to match—Fela was himself a great propagandist, in the way of the greatest self-made star performers and revolutionaries. With force of will, personality, endless rehearsal, and one of the greatest drummers to come out of the 20th century, Tony Allen, Fela made a national struggle universal, drawing on sources from around the global south and the U.S. and, since his death in 1997, inspiring a Broadway musical and wave upon wave of revival and rediscovery of his music and the jazz/rock/Latin/traditional African fusions happening all over the continent of Africa in the 60s and 70s.

No list of superlatives can convey the feeling of listening to Fela’s music, the unrelenting funkiness that pulses from his band’s complex, interlocking polyrhythms, the serpentine lines his saxophone traces around righteous vocal chants and wah guitars. Learn the history of his struggle, by all means, and cast a wary eye at those who may use it for other means. But let no extra-musical concerns stop you from journeying through Fela's catalog, whether as a curious tourist or as someone who understands firsthand the musical war he waged on the zombie relics of empire and a militarized anti-democratic government.

Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat will be added to our collection Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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

Winston Churchill Gets a Doctor’s Note to Drink “Unlimited” Alcohol in Prohibition America (1932)

churchill alcohol letter

In December 1931, having just embarked on a 40-stop lecture tour of the United States, Winston Churchill was running late to dine with financier Bernard Baruch on New York City’s Upper East Side. He hadn’t bothered to bring Baruch’s address, operating under the incorrect assumption that his friend was so distinguished a personage, any random cab-driving commoner would automatically recognize his building.

Such were the days before cell phones and Google Maps....

Eventually, Churchill bagged the cab, and shot out across 5th Avenue mid-block, thinking he would fare better on foot.

Instead, he was very nearly “squashed like a gooseberry” when he was struck by a car traveling about 35 miles an hour.

Churchill, who wasted no time peddling his memories of the accident and subsequent hospitalization to The Daily Mail, explained his miscalculation thusly:

In England we frequently cross roads along which fast traffic is moving in both directions. I did not think the task I set myself now either difficult or rash. But at this moment habit played me a deadly trick. I no sooner got out of the cab somewhere about the middle of the road and told the driver to wait than I instinctively turned my eyes to the left. About 200 yards away were the yellow headlights of an approaching car. I thought I had just time to cross the road before it arrived; and I started to do so in the prepossession—wholly unwarranted— that my only dangers were from the left.

Yeah, well, that’s why we paint the word “LOOK” in the crosswalk, pal, equipping the Os with left-leaning pupils for good measure.

Another cab ferried the wounded Churchill to Lenox Hill Hospital, where he identified himself as “Winston Churchill, a British Statesman” and was treated for a deep gash to the head, a fractured nose, fractured ribs, and severe shock.

“I do not wish to be hurt any more. Give me chloroform or something,” he directed, while waiting for the anesthetist.

After two weeks in the hospital, where he managed to develop pleurisy in addition to his injuries, Churchill and his family repaired to the Bahamas for some R&R.

It didn’t take long to feel the financial pinch of all those cancelled lecture dates, however. Six weeks after the accident, he resumed an abbreviated but still grueling 14-stop version of the tour, despite his fears that he would prove unfit.

Otto Pickhardt, Lenox Hill’s admitting physician came to the rescue by issuing Churchill the Get Out of Prohibition Free Pass, above. To wit:

…the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters.

Perhaps this is what the eminent British Statesman meant by chloroform "or something"? No doubt he was relieved about those indefinite quantities. Cheers.

Read Churchill’s “My New York Misadventure” in its entirety here. You can also learn more by perusing this section of Martin Gilbert's biography, Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in May, 2016.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She lives in New York City, some 30 blocks to the north of the scene of Churchill’s accident. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Pink Floyd Drummer Nick Mason Presents the History of Music & Technology in a Nine-Part BBC Podcast

Image by Phil Guest, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve seen Pink Floyd in the news lately, it’s maybe because guitarist David Gilmour recently put up his collection of over 120 guitars for a charity auction, fetching “certifiably insane” prices like a whopping $3.975 million for the famous black Strat played on Dark Side of the Moon. (The guitar now “wears the crown as the world’s most expensive six string,” notes Enmore Audio.)

But there’s more going on with ex-Pink Floyd members than Gilmour’s guitars or Roger Waters’ political activism. Drummer Nick Mason, long renowned post-Floyd for his hugely expensive car collection, has taken on another role this month: as a podcast host and music historian in a nine-part series for the Open University/BBC production, The Documentary Podcast.

Titled A History of Music in Technology, Mason’s series covers an awful lot of ground, “charting the history of music and technology and exploring the world of legendary artists, producers and inventors. The series shines a light on game-changing innovations including the synthesizer, electric guitar, samplers, drum machines and the recording studio itself.”

A History of Music in Technology finishes its run tomorrow. Currently, you can stream all but the final installment at BBC News, Apple podcasts, and Stitcher. The first episode— “Sound Recording”—which you can hear above, begins in prehistory. Long before the technology for reproducing sound could be imagined, early humans showed keen interest in the acoustic properties of caves, as University of North Carolina professor Mark Katz explains.

“I think people have always had an infatuation with trying to hold on to [sound], to modify it, to capture it,” says Katz—whether that meant seeking out the best settings for prehistoric drum circles or building structures like cathedrals with specially-designed sonic properties. But for thousands of years, the only way to preserve music was to write it down in notation.

It took until “the back half of the 19th century,” says Mason, “before credible attempts were made to bottle sound for the first time.” (Those very first attempts could record sound but could not play it back.) From the early technological achievements, it’s a long series of leaps, bounds, zig zags, stumbles, and circling back around to find ways not only to record sound but also to amplify and modify it and create it wholesale from electrical signals.

Above and below, you can hear Mason’s hour-long history of the electric guitar (Episode 3), the synthesizer (Episode 5), and samplers and drum machines (Episode 6). Mason dedicates two episodes, 7 and 8, to the development of the recording studio itself—unsurprising for a member of Pink Floyd, a band who, like Hendrix, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, crafted the essence of their psychedelic sound from studio experiments.

“When sound recording first emerged,” says Mason in “The Studio Part 1” intro, “critics claimed it could be the end of music.” For the dozens of new genres recording and production technology has enabled, it was only the very beginning. Those of us who see computers killing the spontaneity of rock and roll, for example, or the very humanity of music itself, might reflect on how our reactions mirror those of some myopic early critics.

American composer John Philip Sousa, for example, saw recording as “reducing the expression of music to a mathematical system of wheels, cogs, discs, and cylinders,” language that sounds very like the complaints of current-day purists. Maybe artificial intelligence will never write a great love song, but it will most certainly help humans create music as unimaginable to us today as the syncopated thump of electronic music would have been unimaginable to Sousa, king of syncopated brass band marches.

Luddites and technophiles and everyone in-between will learn much from Mason’s series, and the kind of musical education he’s offering—replete with expert informed opinion from scholars and musicians like himself—will go a long way to preparing us for a musical future we might only dimly glimpse now in the most innovative technologies Mason is sure to cover in his final episode

Related Content:

Brian Eno Presents a Crash Course on How the Recording Studio Radically Changed Music: Hear His Influential Lecture “The Recording Studio as a Compositional Tool” (1979)

Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

How Computers Ruined Rock Music

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

What the Textbooks Don’t Tell Us About The Atlantic Slave Trade: An Animated Video Fills In Historical Gaps

The scale of the Atlantic Slave Trade is hard to imagine. It can be tempting to minimize it in order to alleviate some anxiety. One way of minimizing slavery assumes a kind of innocence in the enterprise, an “everybody was doing it” attitude. But, of course, not everyone in Europe profited from the kidnapping, sale, and lifetime captive labor of over 10 million African people in the Americas. Only few people on any continent really did, though the institution flooded the markets with often addictive consumer goods that raised the general standard of living for a few more.

Not only did slavery leave a lasting impact on the millions of descendants of enslaved people, but also on “the economies and histories of large parts of the world,” notes Anthony Hazard’s TED-Ed video above. Slavery was integral to the most formative periods of Western capitalist democracies in Europe and the U.S. “The crops grown in the new colonies, sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton,” were commodities traded in the first global markets and built dynasties of capital and wealth.

Slavery has occurred all over the world, with institutionalized inequality and some form of forced labor forming the basis of every empire. The Atlantic slave trade “stands out,” says Hazard, “for both its global scale and its lasting legacy.” At the time, African slavery resembled other forms of forced servitude existing contemporaneously in Europe and the colonies, such as indentured servitude and serfdom. European slave traders exploited tribal divisions, and the greed of African chieftains and kings led to an arms race on the continent.

Some African leaders profited, but a large part of the continent suffered demographic losses that have resonated into the present. “Not only did the continent lose tens of millions of its able-bodied population,” but these losses caused economies to collapse, and the warfare begun by competition for European capital continued, leaving African countries open to colonization. This despoliation and mass rendition of enslaved people was accompanied by racist propaganda that assuaged the consciences of Christians, as Ibram X. Kendi has exhaustively shown in his National Book Award-winning history, Stamped from the Beginning.

Slavery acquired its specifically racialized character. Africans, Europeans were told, were biologically inferior, thus slavery did not violate Christian ethics and, in fact, improved people’s lot by Christianizing and civilizing them. Before the age of printing and a popular press, however, few people in Europe knew what was happening in the colonies, or knew anything at all about African people, who might as well have been the monsters of sailors’ myth and legend in many people’s minds.

As literacy spread, and more people read and heard accounts and arguments, even from former slaves themselves, increasing numbers came to staunchly oppose slavery, as would happen a few decades later in the northern part of the U.S. Partly due to the activities of Quaker publishers and writers, British popular sentiment in the 18th century turned toward abolition in waves. “In 1788 over one hundred petitions were presented to Parliament,” wrote historian John Pinfold on the 100th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade.

“A further wave of petitions followed in 1792,” Pinfold goes on, “when no fewer than 519 were presented, the largest number ever presented during a single session in Parliament. On this occasion every single English county was represented amongst the petitions, with some also from Scotland and Wales, and it has been estimated that around 400,000 people, roughly 13 percent of the adult male population of the time, had put their names to them.” It took another 15 years, but the slave trade was abolished in 1807.

Those numbers don’t necessarily indicate such widespread support for the total abolition of race-based slavery in the colonies. Racist ideology runs through abolitionist literature, as it did, and does, through the culture in general. But they tell an essential part of this hundreds-of-years-long story: one in which access to information swayed huge numbers of people to make what we universally (with exceptions unworthy of mention) believe to be the only moral course of action. Informing ourselves about this history shows us that Atlantic slavery was driven by the desire of a relatively small number of people for a massive accumulation of capital at the cost of millions of lives. And that it took the resistance of much larger numbers to end the indefensible practice.

Related Content:

The “Slave Bible” Removed Key Biblical Passages In Order to Legitimize Slavery & Discourage a Slave Rebellion (1807)

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visualized in Two Minutes: 10 Million Lives, 20,000 Voyages, Over 315 Years

Christopher Hitches Makes the Case for Paying Reparations for Slavery in the United States

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

What Advice Would You Give Your Younger Self?: What Research Shows, and What You Have to Say

Photo of Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy via Wikimedia Commons

Almost everyone has advice they’d gladly give their younger self, so much so that Clemson University psychology professor Robin Kowalski and doctoral student Annie McCord, were moved to initiate a systematic study of it.

The first of its kind, this study compiled the responses of more than 400 participants over 30, whose hypothetical younger self's average age was 18.

The study’s data was culled from a survey conducted over Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace, MTurk. Respondents spent 45 minutes or so answering hypothetical questions online, receiving $3 for their efforts.

Money-grubbing, data-skewing shirkers were held at bay by question 36.

(Play along at home after the fact here.)

Kowalski and McCord’s findings, published in the bimonthly academic Journal of Social Psychology, echo many recurrent themes in their other survey of the same demographic, this one having to do with regret—the one that got away, blown educational opportunities, money squandered, and risks not taken.

Personality and situation figure in, of course, but overwhelmingly, the crowd-sourced advice takes aim at the fateful choices (or non-choices) of youth.

Some common pieces of advice include:

  • “Be kinder to yourself.”
  • “Always know your worth.”
  • “The world is bigger than you think it is and your worries aren't as important as you think they are, just be you.”
  • “Don't worry if you look different, or feel you look different, from most other people. There is much more to you than what others see on the surface.”
  • “Don’t get so caught up in the difficulties of the moment since they are only temporary.”
  • “Don’t dwell on the past. Just because it was that way doesn’t mean it will be that way again.”

There’s not much research to suggest how receptive the participants’ younger selves would have been to these unsolicited pearls of wisdom, but 65.7% of respondents report that they have implemented some changes as a result of taking Kowalksi and McCord’s survey.

Dr. Kowalski, who’s come to believe her “laser-focused on school” younger self would have benefited from some intervals of rose-smelling, writes that the better-late-than-never approach “can facilitate well-being and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.”

If you want to double down, share your advice with children, preferably your own.

And for those who can’t rest easy til they’ve compared themselves with Oprah Winfrey:

Be relaxed

Stop being afraid

Everything will be alright

No surprise there.

READERS—WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELVES? Add your advice to the comments section below. (The author’s is somewhat unprintable…)

For inspiration, see the Advice to My Younger Self Survey Questions here and the related survey dealing with regret here.

via Big Think

Related Content:

Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

36 Artists Give Advice to Young Creators: Wim Wenders, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Umberto Eco & More

Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Her monthly installment book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, will resume in the fall. Follow her @AyunHalliday.





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