Hear Tom Lehrer Sing the Names of 102 Chemical Elements to the Tune of Gilbert & Sullivan

Tom Lehrer earned a BA and MA in mathematics from Harvard during the late 1940s, then taught math courses at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, and UC-Santa Cruz. Math was his vocation. But, all along, Lehrer nurtured an interest in music. And, by the mid 1950s, he became best known for his satirical songs that touched on sometimes political, sometimes academic themes.

Today we're presenting one of his classics: "The Elements." Recorded in 1959, the song features Lehrer reciting the names of the 102 chemical elements known at the time (we now have 115), and it's all sung to the tune of Major-General's Song from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. You can hear a studio version below, and watch a nice live version taped in Copenhagen, Denmark, in September 1967.

Decades later, this classic piece of "Tomfoolery" stays with us, popping up here and there in popular culture. For example, Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) performed Lehrer's song on the BBC's Graham Norton Show in 2010. Enjoy.

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Music from Star Wars, Kubrick, Scorsese & Tim Burton Films Played by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra: Stream Full Albums

Movies and music go way back — back, even, to the era of silent films, when music, provided by any performance outfit, from a full orchestra to a humble upright piano player, constituted the only accompanying sound of any kind. Often, kids who begin choosing music for themselves (at least this held for the kids of my generation) start with movie soundtracks, since they'll usually have done at least a little filmgoing before they come to life as consumers of recorded sound. And modern soundtracks, so often composed in whole or in part of orchestral pieces, also offer a non-intimidating entrée into the wide world of classical music.

Movies and the City of Prague Orchestra also go way back. Founded in the 1940s as the Film Symphony Orchestra, in-house orchestra of Barrandov Film Studios, it eventually went its own way as the Czech Symphony Orchestra, and it has worked, post-Velvet Revolution, under the name we know it by today. We know that name because of the sheer amount of music the City of Prague Orchestra plays, doing 250 recording sessions every year for not just classical albums but a variety of other media as well, including television shows, video games, ringtones, and especially movies. Today we've rounded up a variety of albums on Spotify (whose free software you can download here) that collect the City of Prague Orchestra's work with movie music, which spans scores they first laid down themselves to their interpretations of classic favorites.

First, in celebration of the recent continuation of the Star Wars saga with its new seventh film, the City of Prague Orchestra plays the music from the first six. But if you prefer a different sort of space odyssey, have a listen to the playlist just above featuring, the music from the films of Stanley Kubrick, who said that he didn't need to commission new music for his pictures, since he could hardly do better than simply using the finest classical pieces already in existence — which, as anyone who's seen 2001 knows, he could use suitably indeed. Below, you can hear the Orchestra take on selections from the work of Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese, auteurs well known for their visual inventiveness.

If you enjoy all of those, much more awaits your ears on Spotify from the City of Prague Orchestra's cinematic catalogue, including playlists of music from the films of Steven Spielberg, whose big Hollywood visions depend on their scores for a good deal of their impact; of music from pictures starring iconic actors like John Wayne, Paul Newman, and Johnny Depp; of the pieces that have given the James Bond series their signature (sometimes so-uncool-it's-cool) cool; and even of orchestral work from a swath of Italian film, including movies like La Dolce Vita8 1/2, and of course, Cinema Paradiso. If we find the cinema a paradise, after all, that owes as much to the music we've heard there as the visions we've seen there.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

David Bowie Sings “Changes” in 2006: The Last Time He Performed Live, and Maybe His Last Live Performance Ever

The man of a thousand haircuts, David Bowie has been the vanguard for creative reinvention for longer than many of his fans have been alive. As soon as he’s made us think he’s exhausted his imagination, he reappears with yet another album, another look, another theatrical tour. Except that last bit isn’t likely to happen again. We may have seen the end of Bowie the performer some time ago, according to such sources as longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti (who worked with him on 2013’s The Next Day) and British concert promoter John Giddings.




“David is one of the best artists I’ve ever worked with,” said Giddings in October, ”but every time I see him now, before I even speak to him, he goes, ‘I’m not touring.’” Does this rule out the odd one-off appearance? Who knows. Nothing is for certain with Bowie. But it may well be that the performance above, a duet of “Changes” with Alicia Keys from 2006, represents the legendary shape shifter’s last gig. (And if so, we hope some better-quality video of it surfaces.)

Bowie appeared with Keys, Damian Marley, and comedian Wanda Sykes at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom for a fundraiser and sang Station to Station's “Wild is the Wind” and Lodger's “Fantastic Voyage” in addition to “Changes,” all fitting notes to end on, if this is indeed the end of his live performing career. He had rarely taken the stage since his 2004 heart attack during the Reality tour, but, Rolling Stone points out, “that didn’t stop him from playing with Arcade Fire twice in 2005 and David Gilmour the following year.”

But that was ten years ago. During the recording of The Next Day, Visconti reported that Bowie insisted there would be no live shows, and there weren’t. Now, Bowie’s surprised us again with a new album, Blackstar, and a ten-minute video, above, that looks like all the paranoid dystopian visions in 90s albums like Outside, Earthling, and Heathen come terrifyingly true. I can imagine this most recent, perhaps final, entry in the Bowie canon would make for a hell of a stage show, but it looks like he will pass that torch to the younger artists who continue to inspire him as he ages gracefully. Blackstar will be released on January 8th, Bowie’s 69th birthday.

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

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Creativity

Sleep

Creative Commons image, "Sleep," by Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva

You decide you need some medical advice, so you take to the internet. Whoops! There’s your first mistake. Now you are bombarded with contradictory opinions from questionable sources and you begin to develop symptoms you never knew existed. It’s all downhill from there. So I’ll say this upfront: I have no medical qualifications authorizing me to dispense information about sleep disorders. The only advice I’d venture, should you have such a problem, is to go see a doctor. It might help, or not. I can certainly sympathize. I am a chronic insomniac.




The downside to this condition is obvious. I never get enough sleep. Whenever I consult the internet about this, I learn that it’s probably very dire and that I may lose my mind or die young(ish). The upside---which I learned to master after years of trying and failing to sleep like normal people---is that the nights are quiet and peaceful, and thus a fertile time creatively.

Medical issues aside, what do we know about sleep, insomnia, and creativity? Let us wade into the fray, with the proviso that we will likely reach few conclusions and may have to fall back on our own experience to guide us. In surveying this subject, I was pleased to have my experience validated by an article in Fast Company. Well, not pleased, exactly, as the author, Jane Porter, cites a study in Science that links a lack of sleep to Alzheimer’s and the accumulation of “potentially neurotoxic waste products.”

And yet, in praise of sleeplessness, Porter also recommends turning insomnia into a “productivity tool,” naming famous insomniacs like Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Madonna (not all of whom I’d like to emulate). She then quotes psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of University College London, who made the dubious-sounding claim in Psychology Today that “insomnia is to exceptional achievement what mental illness is to creativity.” Everything about this analogy sounds suspect to me.

But there are more substantive views on the matter. Another study, published in Creativity Research Journal, suggests insomnia may be a symptom of “notable creative potential,” though the authors only go as far as saying the two phenomenon are “associated.” The arrow of causality may point in either direction. Perhaps the most pragmatic view on the subject comes from Michael Perlis, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who says, “What is insomnia, but the gift of more time?”

Dennis Drabelle at The Washington Post, also an insomniac, refers to a recent study (as of 2007) from the University of Canterbury that suggests “insomnia and originality may go hand in hand." He also points out that the notion of sleeplessness as productive, though “counterintuitive,” has plenty of precedent. Drabelle mentions many more famous cases, from W.C. Fields to Theodore Roosevelt to Franz Kafka. The list could go on and on.

Actor and musician Matt Berry tells The Guardian how, after years of tossing and turning, he finally harnessed his sleepless hours to write and record an album, Music for Insomniacs. “I knew that this was dead time,” says Berry, “and I could be doing something instead of sitting worrying about not being asleep.” Another musician, Dave Bayley of band Glass Animals, “owes his career in music to insomnia,” The Guardian writes, then notes a phenomenon sleep researchers call---with some skepticism---“creative insomnia." Other musicians like Chris Martin, Moby, Tricky, and King Krule have all suffered the condition and turned it to good account.

The Guardian also notes that each of these poor souls has found “sleepless nights inspiring as well as tormenting.” Insomnia is not, in fact a gift or talent, but a painful condition that Porter and Drabelle both acknowledge can be associated with depression, addiction, and other serious medical conditions. One might make good use of the time---but perhaps only for a time. A site called Sleepdex----which offers “resources for better sleep”---puts it this way:

Occasional insomnia appears to help some people produce new art and work, but is a detriment to others. It is perhaps true that more people find it a detriment than find it useful. Long-term insomnia and the accompanying sleep debt are almost surely negative for creativity.

This brings us to the subject of sleep---good, restful sleep---and its relationship to creativity. Sleepdex cites several research studies from Swiss and Italian universities, UC San Diego, and UC Davis. The general conclusion is that REM sleep---that period during which dreams “are the most narratively coherent of any during the night”---is also an important stimulus for creativity. There are the numerous anecdotes from artists like Salvador Dali, Paul McCartney, and countless others about famous works of art taking shape in dream states (Keith Richards says he heard the riff from “Satisfaction” in a dream).

And there are the experimental data, purportedly confirming that REM sleep enhances “creative problem solving.” European scientists have found that people were more likely to have creative insights after a long period of restful sleep, when the right brain gets a boost. Likewise, Tom Stafford at the BBC describes the “post-sleep, dreamlike mental state—known as sleep inertia or the hypnopompic state” that infuses our “waking, directed thoughts with a dusting of dreamworld magic.” It isn’t that insomniacs don’t experience this, of course, but we have less of it, as periods of REM sleep can be shorter and often interrupted by the need to scramble out of bed and get to work or get the kids to school not long after hitting the pillow.

Stafford points us toward a UC Berkeley study (apparently the University of California has some sort of monopoly on sleep research) “that helps illustrate the power of sleep to foster unusual connections, or ‘remote associates’ as psychologists call them.” Like nearly all of the scientific literature on sleep, this study expresses little doubt about the importance of sleep to memory function and problem solving. Big Think collects several more studies that confirm the findings.

On the whole, when it comes to the links between sleep---or sleeplessness---and creativity, the data and the stories point in different directions. This is hardly surprising given the slipperiness of that thing we call “creativity.” Like “love” it’s an abstract quality everyone wants and no one knows how to make in a laboratory. If it’s extra time you’re after---and very quiet time at that---I can’t recommend insomnia enough, though I wouldn’t recommend it at all as a voluntary exercise. If it’s the special creative insights only available in dream states, well, you’d best get lots of sleep. If you can, that is. Creative insomniacs---like those wandering in the confines of a dream world---know all too well they don't have much choice in the matter.

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

The Overlook Hotel from The Shining Recreated with Gingerbread & Rice Krispies

From "eudicotyledon" on Reddit comes a holiday project you, too, can maybe try at home. He says: "My family made a gingerbread rendition of the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick's "The Shining," complete with a Rice Krispies treat maze and interior rooms depicting famous scenes." You can flip through 29 images in the gallery above, showing the edible creation from different points of view. Then see a "making-of" gallery here. Enjoy.

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The British Museum Is Now Open To Everyone: Take a Virtual Tour and See 4,737 Artifacts, Including the Rosetta Stone

rosetta stone

"I met a girl at the British Museum once," a fellow said to me at a party last weekend. "Her name was Rosetta. Rosetta Stone." A groaner indeed, but also a reminder of how far we've come: whereas you once really would have had to go all the way to the British Museum (in London) to run into good old Rosetta, now you can get acquainted with her, and 4,633 of the other fascinating artifacts of human civilization held there, without even stepping away from your computer.




The British Museum charges nothing for admission, of course, but now the internet has freed it in the geographical sense as well.

temple relief

"The British Museum recently unveiled the results of its partnership with the Google Cultural Institute (GCI)," writes National Geographic's Kristin Romney, "the world’s largest Google Street View of an interior space, covering nine floors and 85 permanent galleries of the museum." Have a virtual walkthrough, and you'll pass displays of about 80,000 notable objects; the highlights Romney names include the Lewis Chessmen and cat mummies, the Elgin Marbles, and even architectural features of the museum itself such as the "the yawning expanse of the museum’s Great Court, the largest public square in Europe, with early morning light filtering through the 3,312 glass roof panes."

royal game of ur

After you've enjoyed this Street View stroll, you'll surely want to examine some of these items in greater depth. You can do just that at the virtual exhibits of the Google Cultural Institute's British Museum collection, where you'll find high-resolution images of and background information on 4,737 artifacts, the Rosetta Stone included. Or you can take a close look at a segment of the Elgin Marbles, a scene from the Parthenon showing "the sacred robe or peplos of Athena that was escorted to the Acropolis by the procession of the Great Panathenaic Festival, held in Athens every four years." Not old enough for you? Then behold the Royal Game of Ur, an early board game of sorts discovered in the Royal Cemetery of the Mesopotamian city-state of Ur. And even further illumination of the ancient world awaits you beyond that, all thanks to this most modern sort of project. You can enter the collection here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What is the Good Life? Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, & Kant’s Ideas in 4 Animated Videos

We all have some vision of what the good life should look like. Days filled with reading and strolls through museums, retirement to a tropical island, unlimited amounts of time for video games…. Whatever they may be, our concepts tend toward fantasy of the grass is greener variety. But what would it mean to live the good life in the here and now, in the life we’re given, with all its warts, routines, and daily obligations? Though the work of philosophers for the past hundred years or so may seem divorced from mundane concerns and desires, this was not always so. Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche once made the question of the good life central to their philosophy. In the videos here, University of New Orleans philosophy professor Chris Surprenant surveys these four philosophers’ views on that most consequential subject.




The view we’re likely most familiar with comes from Socrates (as imagined by Plato), who, while on trial for corrupting the youth, tells his inquisitors, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Pithy enough for a Twitter bio, the statement itself may too often go unexamined. Socrates does not endorse a life of private self-reflection; he means that “an individual become a master of himself,” says Surprenant,”using his reason to reign in his passions, as well as doing what he can to help promote the stability of his community.” In typical ancient Greek fashion, Plato and his mentor Socrates define the good life in terms of reasonable restraint and civic duty.

The Platonic version of the good life comes in for a thorough drubbing at the hands of Friedrich Nietzsche, as do Aristotelian, Kantian, and Judeo-Christian ideals. Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” and in particular the Christian god, “allows us the possibility of living more meaningful and fulfilling lives,” Surprenant says. Nietzsche, who describes himself as an “amoralist,” uses the proposed death of god---a metaphor for the loss of religious and metaphysical authority governing human behavior---to stage what he calls a “revaluation of values.” His critique of conventional morality pits what he calls life-denying values of self-restraint, democracy, and compassion (“slave morality”) against life-affirming values.

For Nietzsche, life is best affirmed by a striving for individual excellence that he identified with an idealized aristocracy. But before we begin thinking that his definition of the good life might accord well with, say, Ayn Rand’s, we should attend to the thread of skepticism that runs throughout all his work. Despite his contempt for traditional morality, Nietzsche did not seek to replace it with universal prescriptions, but rather to undermine our confidence in all such notions of universality. As Surprenant points out, “Nietzsche is not looking for followers,” but rather attempting to “disrupt old conceptual schemes,” in order to encourage us to think for ourselves and, as much as it’s possible, embrace the hand we’re dealt in life.

For contrast and comparison, see Surprenant’s summaries of Aristotle and Kant’s views above and below. This series of animated videos comes to us from Wireless Philosophy (Wi-Phi for short), a project jointly created by Yale and MIT in 2013. We’ve previously featured video series on metaphysical problems like free will and the existence of god and logical problems like common cognitive biases. The series here on the good life should give you plenty to reflect on, and to study should you decide to take up the challenge and read some of the philosophical arguments about the good life for yourself, if only to refute them and come up with your own. But as the short videos here should make clear, thinking rigorously about the question will likely force us to seriously re-examine our comfortable illusions.

For many more open access philosophy videos, check out the Wi Phi Youtube channel. You can also find complete courses by Prof. Surprenant in our collection of Free Online Philosophy Courses.

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

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