Hear Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1967)


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Briefly noted: In 1967, Marshall McLuhan teamed up with graphic designer Quentin Fiore to write The Medium is the Massage, a short 160-page book that offers a condensed, effective presentation of his ideas on the nature of media, communication and technology. The book was soon accompanied by an album bearing the same name, which Wikipedia describes like this:

An audio recording based on the book was made by Columbia Records in the late 1960s, produced by John Simon but otherwise keeping the same credits as the book. The recording consists of a pastiche of statements made by McLuhan interrupted by other speakers, including people speaking in various phonations and falsettos, discordant sounds and 1960s incidental music in what could be considered a deliberate attempt to translate the disconnected images seen on TV into an audio format, resulting in the prevention of a connected stream of conscious thought. Various audio recording techniques and statements are used to illustrate the relationship between spoken, literary speech and the characteristics of electronic audio media. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand called the recording “the 1967 equivalent of a McLuhan video.

One reviewer on Amazon describes it as “more of a performance piece than a treatise.” And thanks to Spotify, you can hear it below, in full. Also find it on YouTube.

The Medium is the Massage–yes, it was originally spelled that way–will be added to our list: 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free

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What Does Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” Look Like? An Accurate Illustration Created with 3D Modeling Software


Sketchup renderings of the Library of Babel. Images courtesy of Jamie Zawinski.

Fulfilling the maxim “write what you know,” Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges penned one of his most extraordinary and bewildering stories, “The Library of Babel,” while employed as an assistant librarian. Borges, it has been noted—by Borges himself in his 1970 New Yorker essay “Autobiographical Notes”—found the work dreary and unfulfilling: “nine years of solid unhappiness,” as he put it plainly. “Sometimes in the evening, as I walked the ten blocks to the tramline, my eyes would be filled with tears.”


And yet, for all of its tedium, his library position suited his needs as a writer like none other could. “I would do all my library work in the first hour,” he remembers, “and then steal away to the basement and pass the other five hours in reading or writing.” During those stolen hours, Borges dreamed up a library the size of the universe, “composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.” Like so many of the objects and places in Borges’ stories, this fantastic structure, Escher-like, is both vividly described and impossible to imagine.


Many have tried their hand at visually rendering the Library of Babel, but according to programmer Jamie Zawinski, “past attempts,” writes Carey Dunne at Hyperallergic, “aren’t faithful to the text,” omitting crucial structures like the “sleep chamber, lavatory, and hallway” and screwing up “the placement of the spiral stairway.” You can see Zawinski’s various critiques of these supposed failures on his blog, JWZ. And you may wonder how it’s even possible to construct an accurate model of a structure that may have no finite boundaries and whose internal architecture the story itself calls into question. Nonetheless, Zawinski has boldly given it a try.


Using the 3D modeling program Sketchup, he has designed what he believes to be a model superior to the rest, though he admits “I don’t think this is quite right either.” If you’re wondering “Why is he doing this?” Zawinski writes, “you and I have that in common.” The Borgesian task, like that of the librarian, is an endless one, pursued with scholastic rigor for its own sake rather than for some great reward. And once one enters the labyrinth of his twisting designs, there may be no way out but eternally through. “The possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication,” writes Borges wearily of certain librarians’ attempts to solve the library’s riddles, “or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.”


So Zawinski trudges on. His “wrestling with the details of his rendering,” writes Dunne, “his obsessive analysis of the wording of Borges’ description, recalls the library inhabitants’ futile quests to decipher the mysteries of the library.” The programmer’s admirable attention to the physics of the space may at times sound like a rather leaden way to approach what is essentially an elaborate metaphor: “I can’t help but think about the weight and pressure of a column of air that high,” he muses in his initial explorations, “and what is it sitting on, and how to route the plumbing from all of those toilets, and that toilets imply digestion, so where does the food come from?”

Such questions take him far afield of Borges’ theo-philosophical parable: “Is there a section of the library devoted to farming, and metallurgy?” Nonetheless, Zawinski’s detailed analysis has produced a visualization of the space like none other, and he admits to “overthinking a sub-infinite but nearly boundless hill of beans.” Borges’ imaginary librarian has abandoned trying to solve the library’s mysteries. Humbled by the failures of those who came before him, he persists in the “elegant hope” that the library “is unlimited and cyclical… repeated in the same disorder… which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order.” He wisely leaves the ultimate metaphysical discovery, however, to “an eternal traveler” with infinite time on their hands.

You can view Zawinski’s commentary here, and see his designs here. On the bottom of this page, he lets you download his Sketchup file.

via Hyperallergic

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

The 20 CDs Curated by Steve Jobs and Placed on Prototype iPods (2001)

On October 23, 2001, almost exactly 15 years ago, Steve Jobs introduced the very first iPod–an mp3 player, capable of “putting 1,000 songs in your pocket” and playing cd-quality music. A novel concept back then. A product we take for granted today.

Above, you can watch Jobs make the first iPod pitch. And below find a list of the 20 cds that came loaded onto iPod prototypes given to journalists attending the launch event. What better way for them to demo the gadget?

The list comes from Nobuyuki Hayashi, a Japanese reporter, who was there that day. If you know something about Jobs’ musical tastes, you’ll see that he had a strong hand in the curation:

h/t Eli

via Daring Fireball

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Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Kids (1962)


“Now of course, the best way to listen to ghost stories is with the lights out,” says the inimitable Alfred Hitchcock, as he introduces his 1962 vinyl release Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Ghost Stories for Young People. “There is nothing like a dark room to attract ghosts and you may like to have some of our mutual friends come and listen with you.”

Just in time for Halloween, we are shining a flickering light on this album, released once before on CD and now on Spotify. (You can also find it on YouTube.) It will either take listeners back to when they were kids, or frighten a new generation of young ones for the first time.

Though Hitchcock’s films toyed with spirits-—Rebecca and Vertigo among them-—he never really made straight up monster movies or ghost stories. (Psycho and The Birds are the closest he ever got.) But once he became a television host and personality in the 1950s, his mischievous character and his macabre voice made him a natural to present all sorts of ghoulish anthologies, resulting in numerous paperbacks and hardbacks, most of which he had little to do with but simply bore his name as a stamp of frightening authority.

And even before that, Hitchcock was putting his name to short suspense story collections, and a mystery magazine that was started in 1956 and continues to this day. We talk about him as one of the best film directors of all time, but he was also a one-man suspense and terror industry in his day, a canny creator who knew the worth of licensing his name.

Of the six stories here, the two given writer’s credit are “Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons” by Walter R. Brooks (a children’s author who created the talking horse character Mr. Ed) and “The Open Window” by Edwardian writer Saki.

Judging from the YouTube comments for the crackly recording posted there, these stories have haunted these listeners since their childhood. Kids these days might prefer a dish of creepypasta, but there’s no denying the power of a voice, creepy music, and sudden sound effects, all delivered by way of headphones…with the lights off.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Green Day Fan Joins Band On Stage, Takes Over on Guitar, and Acts Like He’s Been There Many Times Before

At a Green Day concert in Chicago, a fan held up a sign, “I can play every song on Dookie.” So Billie Joe Armstrong let him pop on stage to play “When I Come Around.” And the fan didn’t disappoint, from the moment he climbed on the amp and kicked things off, to his stage dive back into the crowd. The footage was recorded on October 23rd. Enjoy.

h/t Robin – via SFGate

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What Happens When Blade Runner & A Scanner Darkly Get Remade with an Artificial Neural Network

Philip K. Dick, titling the 1968 novel that would provide the basis for Blade Runner, asked whether androids dream of electric sheep. But what goes on in the “mind” of an artificial intelligence designed specifically to watch movies? Terence Broad, a computing researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, took on a form of that question for his master’s dissertation, using “artificial neural networks to reconstruct films — by training them to reconstruct individual frames from films, and then getting them to reconstruct every frame in a given film and resequencing it.”

Neural networks” sounds like a term straight out of one of Dick’s influential science-fiction novels, but you’ve almost certainly heard quite a bit about them in recent years of real life. A neural network, in the words of neurocomputer pioneer Dr. Robert Hecht-Nielsen, “is a computing system made up of a number of simple, highly interconnected processing elements, which process information by their dynamic state response to external inputs.” These systems, in other words, imitate the problem-solving methods of the human brain as we currently understand them, and can, when provided with suitable data, “learn” from it.

One thinks less of the Replicants, Blade Runner‘s lethally engineered superhumans, than of Number 5, the artificially intelligent robot star of Short Circuit (co-designed, incidentally, by Blade Runner‘s “visual futurist” Syd Mead), with his constant demands for “input.” When it came out in the mid-1980s, that goofy comedy once looked like by far the more successful film, but over the intervening three decades Ridley Scott’s one-time bomb has become perhaps the most respected work of its kind. “The first ever film remade by a neural network had to be Blade Runner,” Terence Broad told Vox, pointing in his explanation of his project to the movie’s prescient treatment of the theme “that the task of determining what is and isn’t human is becoming increasingly difficult, with the ever-increasing technological developments.”

Dick, as his generations of readers know, had deep concerns about the difference between the real and the unreal, and how human beings can ever tell one from the other. He tackled that issue again, from a very different angle, in his 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly. Richard Linklater turned that book into a movie almost thirty years later, one which Broad also fed as input into his neural network, which then attempted to reconstruct it. Though still thematically appropriate, its colorful rotoscoped animation posed more of a challenge, and “the results are less temporally coherent than the Blade Runner model.” But “on the other hand, the images are incredibly unusual and complex, once again producing video with a rich unpredictability.”

At the top of the post, you can watch Broad’s Blade Runner-trained neural network reconstruct Blade Runner‘s trailer, and below that his A Scanner Darkly-trained neural network reconstruct A Scanner Darkly‘s trailer. Curiosity demanded, of course, that Broad let a neural network trained to watch one film have a go at reconstructing the other, and just above we have the A Scanner Darkly-trained neural network’s reconstruction of Blade Runner. He’s also given Scott’s famous 1984-themed Super Bowl Apple ad and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi the neural-network treatment. We read so often, these days, about artificial intelligence’s growing ability to out-think, out-work, and one day even out-create us. What on Earth, the Philip K. Dicks of our day must wonder, will the neural networks come up with when they can finally out-watch us?

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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.

How Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai Perfected the Cinematic Action Scene: A New Video Essay

Jonathan Lethem knows a thing or two about storytelling as well as about caped comic-book characters, and on a recent podcast appearance he accused films about the latter of an inability to do the former: “I think one of the least satisfying film genres I’ve ever encountered is the contemporary superhero movie, which just seems to me kind of dead on arrival. I can’t even get into the hair-splitting about, ‘Oh, but there are three or four good ones.’ I just don’t see any life there.” How can such big productions filled with so much action play out so lifelessly on the screen? Perhaps the work of Akira Kurosawa, known in his day as the “Emperor” of Japanese film, can show us the answer.

“Wouldn’t scenes that display the pinnacle of physicality work better,” asks video essayist Lewis Bond over images of the Avengers battling towering monsters in the centers of major cities, Spider-Man swinging huge arcs through some kind of smoke-and-spark factory, and Batman beating up Superman, “if they also conveyed an emotional intensity to match this? Action and emotion need not be separated by a chasm as they so often are, and this is where the greatness of Seven Samurai lies.” He shows us in “Drama Through Action,” a study of how Kurosawa’s best-known picture delivers its action with impact, which appeared earlier this month on Channel Criswell, previously the source of video essays on such masters of cinema as Yasujirō Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Bond points to several different factors that make the action in Kurosawa’s 1954 epic adventure of the Sengoku era, despite its technological impoverishment compared to the superhero blockbusters of the 21st century, feel so much more meaningful. A focus less on the action itself and the protagonists performing it than on the consequences of that action meaning that “death carries significance.” A “situational awareness” and clear portrayal of “the characters’ short-term objectives” means that the audience can follow, and thus feel, their successes and failures. A clear establishment of geography enables viewers to place the combatants, and themselves, on the battlefield. A sparing use of cutting and slow motion keeps emotionally charged moments charged.

These and other techniques skillfully employed by Kurosawa and his collaborators ensure that, in Seven Samurai, “every moment of action communicates a sense of urgency” — exactly the quality lacked, in other words, by the expensive and furious yet strangely dull superhero spectacles of today. “To me, Seven Samurai is still the most forward-thinking piece of cinema ever created,” says Bond. “What it did for the way action is photographed can still be seen today. And when it isn’t seen, it probably should be.” Take heed, young directors slated to take on the next wave of superhero-franchise cinematic reboots: to make your entries stand out, you have only to learn from the Emperor.

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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.

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