Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks’ Timeless Comedy Sketch: The 2000-Year-Old-Man

I read the obits. If I’m not in it I’ll have breakfast. —Carl Reiner

Up until this week week, it seemed as if Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner could keep their 2000-Year-Old Man routine going forever.

The premise was simpleReiner as the serious minded announcer, interviewing Brooks as an elder with a Middle European Yiddish accent about some of the historic moments, trends, and celebrities he’d had personal contact with over the years.

The idea originated with Reiner, who, as a young staff writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, thought there was comic gold to be mined from We the Peoplea weekly news program that dramatized important current eventsnotably a plumber who claimed to have overheard some toe curling plans while repairing a faucet in Stalin’s bathroom.




Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, no one else in the writers room had caught the show, so he drafted coworker Brooks to play along, interviewing him as if he were the host of We the People, and Brooks were an average Joe who’d been at the Crucifixion:

Mel, aging before our eyes, sighed and allowed a sad “Oooooh, boy” to escape from the depths of his soul…

I pressured the Old Man and asked, “You knew Jesus?”

“Jesus … yes, yes,” he said, straining to remember, “thin lad … wore sandals … always walked around with twelve other guys … yes, yes, they used to come into the store a lot … never bought anything … they came in for water … I gave it to them … nice boys, well-behaved… .”

For a good part of an hour Mel had us all laughing and appreciating his total recall of life in the year 1 A.D. I called upon Mel that morning because I knew that one of the characters in his comedy arsenal would emerge. The one that did was similar to one he did whenever he felt we needed a laugh break. It was a Yiddish pirate captain who had an accent not unlike the 2,000-Year-Old Man.

The durable, always unscripted 2000-Year-Old Man made an instant splash with friends and family, but his accentwhich came quite naturally to the Brooklyn-born Brookscaused the duo to question the wisdom of trotting him out before a wider audience.

In the 20’s and 30’s Yiddish accents had been a comic staple on the radio, and in Broadway, vaudeville, and burlesque houses, but that changed when the Nazis came to power, as Reiner recalled in his 2003 memoir, My Anecdotal Life:

…when Adolf Hitler came along and decreed that all Jews were dirty, vile, dangerous, subhuman animals and must be put to death, Jewish and non-Jewish writers, producers, and performers started to question the Yiddish accent’s acceptability as a tool of comedy. The accent had a self-deprecating and demeaning quality that gave aid and comfort to the Nazis, who were quite capable of demeaning and deprecating Jews without our help. From 1941 on, the Yiddish accent was slowly, and for the most part, voluntarily, phased out of show business.

Eventually, however, the character found his way onto their 1961 LP 2000 Years with Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks.

They buttressed his 12-minute appearance with sketches involving astronauts, teen heartthrob Fabian, and Method actors, hedging their bets lest the accent flop with both reference-challenged WASPs and fellow Jews nervous about reinforcing problematic stereotypes.

One wonders what the 2000-Year-Old Manwho as a caveman had trouble determining “who was a lady”would have had to say about the movements for Trans Equality#MeToo, and Black Lives Matter.

A quote on Brooks’ website may provide a hint:

It’s OK not to hurt the feelings of various tribes and groups, however, it’s not good for comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It’s the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, telling the truth about human behavior.

Brooks delighted by putting imminently quotable, off-the-cuff punchlines in the mouth of the 2000-Year-Old Man, hooking many young listeners, like veteran comedian and stand up comedy teacher Rick Crom:

The 2000-Year-Old Man was the first comedy album I ever listened to. I was quoting it at 10. I told my Sunday school teacher that before God, people worshipped "a guy...Phil.”

But it was Reinerwho maintained a wish list of questions for the 2000-Year-Old Man and who left us earlier this week at the not-too-shabby age of 98who steered the act, often by pressing his subject to substantiate his wild claims.

As Anne Libera, Director of Comedy Studies at The Second City and Columbia College Chicago, notes:

Carl Reiner was a master of the underrated art of the setup. Most "straight men" are known for their responses that release the laugh. Carl did that too, but even more brilliantly, he subtly puts all of the pieces into play for Mel Brooks to push off of into the comedy stratosphere. You see it in the Dick Van Dyke Show as well —he knew how to create the exact space for a comic character to do their best work.

Copies of the Complete 2000 Year Old Man can be purchased on Amazon.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Here latest project is an animation and a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

16th Century Bookwheels, the E-Readers of the Renaissance, Get Brought to Life by 21st Century Designers

Most of us, through our computers or our even our phones, have access to more books than we could ever read in one lifetime. That certainly wouldn't have been the case in, say, the middle ages, when books — assuming you belonged to the elite who could read them in the first place — were rare and precious objects. Both books and literacy became more common during the Renaissance, though acquaintance with both could still be considered the sign of a potentially serious scholar. And for the most serious Renaissance scholars of all, Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli designed the bookwheel, an elaborate mechanical device allowing the user to turn from one book to another in relatively quick succession.

First drawn by Ramelli in 1588 (and previously featured here on Open Culture in 2017) but never actually constructed by him, the bookwheel has attracted renewed attention in the 21st century. "In 2018, a group of undergraduate engineering students at the Rochester Institute of Technology set out to build two," writes Atlas Obscura's Claire Voon. "They began by diligently studying the Italian engineer’s illustration, then procured historically accurate materials, such as European beech and white oak.




With the help of modern power tools and processes, such as computer modeling and CNC routing, they brought it to life." You can see the RIT bookwheels under construction and in action in the video above. (Its schematics, near-impossibly complex by the standards of Ramelli's day, are also available at RIT's web site.)

Others have also brought Ramelli's design into reality. In the video just above, for example, we have writer Joshua Foer (previously featured here for his work on the science of memorization) taking his own reproduction for a spin. "It's a ferris wheel for books," Foer explains, "so that a scholar can have eight books in front of them, sort of like tabbed browsing before tabbed browsing." The device's cherry wood and laser-cut gears are certainly handsome, but what of its practicality? "I often read multiple books at one time, and this way I can have them all open in front of me." Most all of us start more books than we can finish, and as we attempt to read them all in parallel, occasionally one or two do get forgotten. Hence one advantage, even in our modern times, of Ramelli's book wheel: any book placed on it becomes as unignorable as the machine itself.

Related Content:

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renaissance Invention Created to Make Books Portable & Help Scholars Study (1588)

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Wonderfully Weird & Ingenious Medieval Books

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How to Memorize an Entire Chapter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

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.

When Debbie Harry Combined Artistic Forces with H.R. Giger

After four years of phenomenal chart success, the band Blondie went on hiatus in 1981. While Debbie Harry pursued the acting she had started in punk rock filmmaker Amos Poe’s works, she also went the solo album route. On paper, this album, KooKoo, must have looked like a surefire hit: Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards from the band Chic were brought in to write and produce, hot on the heels of their successful resuscitation of Diana Ross’s career the year before. Harry and boyfriend/band member/guitarist Chris Stein wrote tracks as well, and fully indulged in the Black music genres they had already been toying with on Blondie’s Autoamerican, like “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High.”

But here’s where it gets a bit weird, and everything goes off kilter. The choice for the album art and promotional videos was H.R. Giger, the artist who had rattled moviegoers’ brains the previous year with his designs for Ridley Scott’s Alien.




The couple had met Giger in 1980 at a reception for his paintings at New York’s Hansen Gallery.
“There I was introduced to a very beautiful woman, Debbie Harry, the singer of the group Blondie, and her boyfriend, Chris Stein,” Giger said in an interview. “They were apparently excited about my work and asked me whether I would be prepared to design the cover of the new Debbie Harry album.”

Though he didn’t know the group--Giger preferred to listen to jazz--he agreed to the cover and to the promo videos, even directing when the original director didn’t show.

The album cover is probably better known than the music inside, and no wonder: it features Harry’s face pierced horizontally by four spikes. Her expression is ambiguous, possibly ecstatic. It was in one way a throwback to Giger’s other famous record cover, the one for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. But the cover also would see its influence in films like Hellraiser, the rise of what was called the “modern primitive” movement, and help cultivate the dark masochistic character Harry would play in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. It was a feeling that would flourish in the decadent ‘80s.

Harry wrote about this in Heavy Metal magazine, which often featured the artist, saying “Giger’s work has a subconscious effect: it engenders the fear of being turned into metal.”

The cover was a taster for more menacing things, however. It’s the videos where Harry goes full Giger. First of all, the blonde hair is gone, replaced by black. And Giger puts Harry in a bodysuit, half flayed-human, half machine. The music videos are simple, performance based, though the sunny, alluring Harry has disappeared and a proto-Goth being has taken her place.

But that leaves us with the music, which one has to admit, is completely unsuited for this design. If Harry had made an album closer to Danielle Dax, for example, then we might have seen one of the oddest mid-career shifts in ‘80s music. Instead the commercial flatlining of the album threw Harry off-track, while Giger went on to be the go-to album artist for metal and punk bands, from the Dead Kennedys to Bloodbath.

via Dangerous Minds

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Hear Debbie Harry’s Stunning Ethereal Vocal Tracks from “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “Rapture,” and “One Way or Another”

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.

An Animated Introduction to the Pioneering Anthropologist Margaret Mead

Modern Western societies haven't solved the problem of sex, but Samoa has the answer. Or at least it does according to the work of influential anthropologist Margaret Mead, subject of the animated introduction from Alain de Botton's School of Life above. Her mentor Franz Boas, the founder of anthropology in the United States, saw not a world progressing "in a linear fashion from barbarism to savagery to civilization" but "teeming with separate cultures, each with their own unique perspectives, insights, and efficiencies."

Though Mead's time living among the natives on the distant islands of Samoa came at Boas' suggestion, she already believed that "isolated cultures could serve as laboratories that would reveal ways of living that the modern world had forgotten about, but needed to remember." The resulting book, 1928's Coming of Age in Samoa, turned Mead into the most famous anthropologist in the world. In it she describes Samoan culture as "far more open and comfortable with sex than the modern United States. Little children in Samoa knew all about masturbation, and learned about intercourse and other acts through first-hand observation, but thought of it as no more scandalous or worthy of comment than death or birth."

Mead also noted an acceptance of not just homosexuality but a natural shift in sexual orientation over time — a condition bound to intrigue a serious scholar who herself led a rather unconventional life, "simultaneously involved with successive husbands and her ever-present female lover." Her analysis of Samoa, which informed the worldviews of such influential figures as childrearing guru Benjamin Spock, would take on an even broader appeal in the 1960s, when a rising counterculture sought inspiration in its push to transform Western society. Proponents of the "sexual revolution" and its loosening of norms found a natural ally in Mead, and traces of her life and work remain in fragments of the Summer of Love up to and including Hair, one of whose minor characters has her name.

Mead also comes up in Hunter Thompson's 1971 epitaph for the counterculture, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene is the National District Attorneys Association's Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, at which a participant suggests that Mead partakes in the substance known as marijuana. The "drug expert" onstage replies thus: "At her age, if she did smoke grass, she'd have one hell of a trip." Though Mead publicly showed sympathy for addicts, whom she described as "casualties of a badly organized society," her own experiences with mind-altering substances are less well documented. But then, her time in Samoa may well have been the only consciousness-expanding trip she needed.

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Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss Remembered

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 Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Groundbreaking Linguistic Theories

Most people who know Noam Chomsky know him equally as a giant in academic linguistics and a longtime leftist dissident and political commentator. Only a committed few, however, read much of his work in either—or both—fields. He is one of those thinkers whose major concepts enter the discourse unmoored from their original context. Phrases like “universal grammar” and “manufactured consent” tend to pop up in all kinds of places without reference to Chomsky’s meanings.

If you simply haven’t got the time to read Chomsky (and let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in the world these days), you might familiarize yourself with his media theory in an amusing video here. For an entry into Chomsky’s work in linguistics, see the brief animated TED-Ed video above. The explainer revisits the Chomskyian revolution of 1957, when he articulated his ideas about the universal properties of language in his first book, Syntactic Structures.




Chomsky, the video says, explored the questions, “are there universal grammar rules and are they hardwired into our brains?” He did not invent the concept of “universal grammar”—the idea can be found in the 13th century writing of Roger Bacon—but Chomsky’s specific meaning of the term applies uniquely to language acquisition. Rather than suggesting that language exists as an abstract universal property, Chomsky argued that its basic structure, shared across the world, derives from structures in the brain that take shape in infancy.

Humans physically evolved to acquire and use language in strikingly similar ways that accord with universally observable and applicable rules, Chomsky argued. As the lesson points out, a claim this broad requires a mountain of evidence. At the time, many languages around the world had not been sufficiently studied or recorded. Since Chomsky’s initial arguments, ideas about linguistic similarities have been significantly revised.

Several critics have argued that no amount of data can ever produce "universal" rules. After decades of critique, Chomsky revised his theories, explaining them in different terms as “Principles and Parameters” that govern languages. He has further simplified and specified, proposing one universal criterion: “Recursion.” All languages, he argues, can nest ideas inside other ideas.

Recursion, too, has been forcefully challenged by the study of an Amazonian language that shows none of the characteristics Chomsky globally outlined. The other part of Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar—the idea that the brain develops innate, isolated language-making faculties—has also been refuted by neuroscientists, who have not found evidence of any such specific structures.

Why, then, is Chomsky still so critically important to linguistics, cognitive science, and other fields of study? For one thing, his work encouraged the study of languages that had been neglected and ignored. The debates Chomsky generated pushed the field forward, and broke the spell of the Behaviorism that dominated the human sciences into the mid-20th century. Even where he was wrong, or overconfident, his work remains an essential reference for the kind of thinking that revolutionized linguistics and brain science.

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

John Prine’s Last Song Was Also His First to Go No. 1: Watch Him Perform “I Remember Everything”

It feels cosmically ironic that Great American Songwriter John Prine died of COVID-19 in early April, just before the U.S. response to the virus was developing into what may well be the Greatest Political Folly most Americans have ever witnessed in their lifetimes. Mass death for profit and power, colossal stupidity and bullying ignorance—these were just the kinds of things that got Prine’s wheels turning. His thoughts became folk poetry with teeth.

Prine’s targets included the conservative demonization of single mothers in “Unwed Fathers,” who “can’t be bothered,” he sang, “They run like water, through a mountain stream.” In 1971, he told belligerent American nationalists “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” in a song he’d actually written in the late 60s, calling out America’s “dirty little war.” He revisited this evergreen anti-war theme in 2005’s “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” a song that angered many fans. While Prine’s explicitly political songs are only a small part of his catalogue, his lyricism always clearly reflected his beliefs.




“Bestowing dignity on the overlooked and marginalized was a common theme throughout Prine’s career,” writes Annie Zaleski in an NPR Music tribute. “He became known for detailed vignettes about ordinary people that illustrated truths about society.” His mastery of this form made him the ultimate songwriter’s songwriter. But while he won two Grammys and several other distinguished awards, “inductions into multiple songwriter halls of fame,” notes Eli Enis at Consequence of Sound, “and gushing praise from peers like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty,” Prine never had a No. 1 hit, until now—in a final irony he would have appreciated—with his posthumous release, “I Remember Everything."

The song came out on June 11 and this week “debuted at the top of the Rock Digital Song Sales chart, making it the highest-charting single of the late legend’s entire career.” It showcases Prine’s ability to make the personal reflect larger social realities he may never have seen coming but somehow tuned into nonetheless. In this case, the subject is a man who knows he’s out of time and wants to savor every memory before he goes. Written with longtime collaborator Pat McLaughlin, the lyrics are gorgeously bittersweet, touching the depths of loss and reckoning with mortality.

Prine’s performance at the top was recorded last year by Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb. “Given that Prine passed away back in April following a battle with coronavirus, the song’s life-spanning, self-reflective lyrics are achingly prescient,” writes Enis. And it’s “almost too on-the-nose that the track was presented in a home performance context, months before that setup would become normalized for a world in quarantine.” Prine always had an “uncanny ability to address (if not predict) the societal and political zeitgeist,” Zaleski wrote in April. No matter how ugly the zeitgeist was, he never let it dull his wit or cloud his eye for beauty.

 

I Remember Everything

I've been down this road before
I remember every tree
Every single blade of grass
Holds a special place for me
And I remember every town
And every hotel room
And every song I ever sang
On a guitar out of tune

I remember everything
Things I can't forget
The way you turned and smiled on me
On the night that we first met
And I remember every night
Your ocean eyes of blue
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew

I've been down this road before
Alone as I can be
Careful not to let my past
Go sneaking up on me
Got no future in my happiness
Though regrets are very few
Sometimes a little tenderness
Was the best that I could do

I remember everything
Things I can't forget
Swimming pools of butterflies
That slipped right through the net
And I remember every night
Your ocean eyes of blue
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew

How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew

via Consequence of Sound

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

Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” and Hero Worship: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast Discussion (#50)

The 10-part ESPN documentary dissecting Michael Jordan and the Bulls' six championships has provided some much needed sports during the pandemic, roping in even sports haters with a mix of game highlights and behind-the-scenes drama.

Your hosts Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer are joined by Seth from The Partially Examined Life to interrogate the event: Was it actually worth 10 hours of our time? Did its "time-jumping" structure work? Its its treatment of Jordan really "hagiography" sanctifying the man, or is the picture of grudge-holding ultra-competitiveness actually pretty repulsive? Why was he like that? Why are sports amenable to creating cultural icons out of its heroes in a way that, say, physics isn't? Are we going to see many more of these long-form treatments of sports heroes?

For more discussion, here are some articles we looked at:

If you enjoyed this, check out our episode #25 with sportscaster Dave Revsine.

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.

How Ornette Coleman Shaped the Jazz World: An Introduction to His Irreverent Sound

Ornette Coleman “arrived in New York in 1959,” writes Philip Clark, “with a white plastic saxophone and a set of ideas about improvisation that would shake jazz to its big apple core.” Every big name in jazz was doing something similar at the time, inventing new styles and languages. Coleman went further out there than anyone, infuriating and frustrating other jazz pioneers like Miles Davis.

He called his theory “Harmolodics,” a Buckminster Fuller-like melding of “harmony,” “movement,” and “melody” that he coined in the 1970s. The manifesto explaining his ideas reads like psychedelic Dada:

—I play pure emotion

—In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not

—Blow what you feel – anything. Play the thought, the idea in your mind – Break away from the convention and stagnation – escape!

—My music doesn’t have any real time, no metric time. It has time, but not in the sense that you can time it. It’s more like breathing – a natural, freer time. People have forgotten how beautiful it is to be natural. Even in love.

—Music has no face. Whatever gives oxygen its power, music is cut from the same cloth.

—It was when I realized I could make mistakes that I decided I was really on to something.

—I have found that by eliminating chords or keys or melodies as being the present idea of what you’re trying to feel i think you can play more emotion into the music. in other words, you can have the harmony, melody, intonation all blending into one to the point of your emotional thought.

—There is a music that has the quality to preserve life.

Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come presaged not only what jazz would, and could, become but also outsider rock, from Captain Beefheart to The Royal Trux, and experimental music of all kinds. Coleman resented the idea the music should be subject to categorization or formal constraints, or even that musicians needed have formal training at all. All music is sound, he says, and sound is “as free,” he joked with Clark in a 2015 interview, “as the gas that passes through your butt.”

This irreverent attitude is typical of Coleman’s approach to his art. Some of the highlights of his early career, as laid out in the Polyphonic video above—recording an entire album with his 10-year-old son on drums; getting punched by the drummer after his first New York gig—make him sound like jazz’s first punk, before there was any such thing as punk. He would go on to sit for a famous interview with Jacques Derrida and become one of a handful of musicians to win a Pulitzer Prize. The enigmatic genius’s “audacity, vision, and talent” has made him one of the most mythical figures in music, a reputation that is more than well-deserved. Get a closer look at his legacy at the top.

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Hear Ornette Coleman Collaborate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Greatest Moments”

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

 

A 1947 French Film Accurately Predicted Our 21st-Century Addiction to Smartphones

When we watch a movie from, say, twenty years ago, it strikes us that both nothing and everything has changed. Apart from their slightly baggier clothes, the people look the same as us. But where are their phones? Compared to the recent past, the look of life today hasn't changed much, but thanks to the internet and even more so to smartphones, the feel has changed enormously. Most literary and cinematic predictions of the future got this exactly wrong, envisioning flamboyant aesthetic transformations atop completely unchanged forms of human behavior and society.

But more than 70 years ago, J. K. Raymond-Millet's film Télévision: Oeil de Demain ("Television: Eye of Tomorrow") seems to have scored the bullseye few other visions of the world ahead even aimed for.  "This is one extraordinarily accurate prediction in a work of science fiction," wrote William Gibson as he tweeted out a four-minute clip of the film that has recently gone viral. Though long regarded as a sci-fi prophet, Gibson is the first to admit how little about technology he's accurately foreseen: his breakout novel Neuromancer, for instance, features 21st-century hackers making calls from public telephone booths.

Hence the impressiveness, here in the actual 21st century, of this vision of a future in which people stare near-constantly down at the screens of their handheld devices: on the train, at the café (visited, at 0:13, by what appears to be a time-traveling Gibson himself), in the street, on collision courses with fellow screen-watchers on foot and in cars alike. These handheld televisions remind us of our mobile phones in more ways than one, not least in their being scuffed from sheer use. As with every astute prediction of the future, all this may at first strike us denizens of the actual future as mundane — until we remember that the prediction was made in 1947.

Produced as an educational film, Télévision (viewable in full here) first shows and tells how the eponymous, still-novel technology works, then goes on to imagine the forms in which it could potentially saturate modern society. These include not just the aforementioned "miniature-television devices in public places," as scholar of television Anne-Katrin Weber puts it, but "professional meetings conducted via picture-phones," "cars equipped with television screens," and "shops promoting their goods on television."

We also see that "the small handheld portable devices replace newspapers and air ‘the information broadcast, or the political comment, the fashion show, or the sports bulletin’, while the television set at the travel agency replaces the paper catalogues and invites potential clients to ‘televisually’ visit vacation destinations." Such technology will also offer more "intimate sights," as when "the young woman, stepping out of the shower, has forgotten to turn off her telephone-camera and reveals herself naked to the caller." Yes, of course, "forgotten" — but then, this approaches aspects of the future in which we live that even the boldest technological prophets never dared consider.

via Kottke/William Gibson

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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.

How Two Teenage Dutch Sisters Ended Up Joining the Resistance and Assassinating Nazis During World War II

Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and quickly overpowered the country’s small forces. Nazis arrested and deported Jews, created forced labor, strictly rationed food, and banned all non-Nazi organizations. “Almost every Dutch person was affected by the consequences of the occupation,” the Verzets Resistance Museum writes. “The choices and dilemmas facing the population became more far reaching.” Often those choices were stark: Collaborate and live? Or resist and willingly put oneself at risk of prison or death?




Two sisters, Freddie and Truus Oversteegen, 14 and 16 years old during the German invasion, chose the latter course of action. Along with 19-year-old Hannie Schaft, a Dutch national hero the Nazis called “the girl with the red hair,” they did things they certainly never imagined they would, killing soldiers and collaborators in order to save lives. The sisters learned their first resistance lessons at home. They were raised in the city of Haarlem by their working-class, communist mother, Trijn, who “taught the girls compassion for those less fortunate,” writes Jake Rossen at Mental Floss.

The family sheltered Jews, dissidents, and gays fleeing Germany in the 1930s. “When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands,” Rossen notes, “Freddie and Truus handed out pamphlets opposing the occupation and plastered warnings over propaganda posters.” The Dutch resistance asked the girls to join them, and their mother agreed, knowing little of what lay in store.

Freddie and Truus were, for a time, the only two women in the seven-person rebellion dubbed the Haarlem Council of Resistance. After being recruited by commander Frans van der Wiel in 1941, the two learned the basics of sabotage, picking up tricks like how to rig railways and bridges with dynamite so travel paths would be cut off; how to fire a weapon; and how to roam undetected through an area peppered with Nazi soldiers. The latter ability was a result of their appearance. With her hair in braids, Freddie was said to have looked as young as 12 years old. Few soldiers took notice of the two girls as they rode bicycles through occupied territory, though they were secretly acting as couriers, transporting paperwork and weapons for the resistance. The duo burned down a Nazi warehouse undetected. They escorted small children and refugees to hiding spots and secured false identification for them, which they considered of paramount importance even as Allied bombs went off overhead.

The sisters lured SS officers into deathtraps, acting as lookouts while fighters killed the Germans. They soon “graduated to eliminating their own targets, which Freddie would later describe as ‘liquidations,’” gunning down Nazis from their bicycles. “Sometimes, Freddie said, she would shoot a man and then feel a strange compulsion to try to help him up.” It's a chilling image of a resistance fighter who is also a child soldier in a war she cannot avoid.

“There were a lot of women involved in the resistance in the Netherlands," says Bas von Benda-Beckmann, a former researcher at the Netherlands’ Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, "but not so much in the way these girls were. There are not that many examples of women who actually shot collaborators.” The women never revealed how many people they "liquidated." When asked in interviews, History.com notes, "Freddie would tell people...she and her sister were soldiers, and soldiers don’t say."

Hannie was eventually captured and executed. The Oversteegen sisters survived the war and lived into their 90s, passing away within two years of each other: Truus in 2016 and Freddie in 2018. The traumatic toll these events took on Freddie was evident to the end of her life. “If you ask me,” her son Remi Dekker said after her death, “In her mind [the war] was still going on, and on. It didn’t stop, even until the last day.”

The Oversteegen sisters were part of a handful of Dutch resistance fighters who lived into the 21st century. Another resistance hero, Selma van de Perre, is still alive at 97 and has published a book about her experience and the many other Jewish resistance fighters in the Netherlands during the war. The country “spawned one of Europe’s most formidable anti-Nazi networks,” the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle points out, thanks to the bravery of young fighters like Schaft, the Oversteegan sisters, and van de Perre. Learn more at the Verzets Resistance Museum.

via Mental Floss

Related Content:

The Secret Student Group Who Took on the Nazis: An Introduction to “The White Rose”

How Jazz-Loving Teenagers–the Swingjugend–Fought the Hitler Youth and Resisted Conformity in Nazi Germany

Albert Camus, Editor of the French Resistance Newspaper Combat, Writes Movingly About Life, Politics & War (1944-47)

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





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