Visit Monte Testaccio, the Ancient Roman Hill Made of 50 Million Crushed Olive Oil Jugs

Image by patrimoni gencat, via Flickr Commons

It may be one of the more curious manmade garbage piles on our planet. Located in Rome, and dating back to 140 A.D., Monte Testaccio rises 150 feet high. It covers some 220,000 square feet. And it's made almost entirely of 53 million shattered amphorae--that is, Roman jugs used to transport olive oil during ancient times. How did the remnants of so many amphorae end up here? The web site Olive Oil Times offers this explanation:

Firstly, the site of the mound on the east bank of the Tiber is located near the Horrea Galbae – a huge complex of state controlled warehouses for the public grain supply as well as wine, food and building materials. As ships came from abroad bearing the olive oil supplies, the transport amphorae were decanted into smaller containers and the used vessels discarded nearby.

There’s a reason for this: Due to the clay utilized to make the amphorae not being lined with a glaze, after transportation of olive oil, the amphorae could not be re-used because the oil created a rancid odour within the fabric of the clay.

You might consider this Roman garbage dump an historical oddity. But as they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure. And according to Archaeology (a website of the Archaeological Institute of America) Monte Testaccio promises to reveal much about the inner-workings of the Roman economy. They write:

As the modern global economy depends on light sweet crude, so too the ancient Romans depended on oil—olive oil. And for more than 250 years, from at least the first century A.D., an enormous number of amphoras filled with olive oil came by ship from the Roman provinces into the city itself, where they were unloaded, emptied, and then taken to Monte Testaccio and thrown away. In the absence of written records or literature on the subject, studying these amphoras is the best way to answer some of the most vexing questions concerning the Roman economy—How did it operate? How much control did the emperor exert over it? Which sectors were supported by the state and which operated in a free market environment or in the private sector?

For historians, these are important questions, and they're precisely the questions being asked by University of Barcelona professor, José Remesa, who notes, “There’s no other place where you can study economic history, food production and distribution, and how the state controlled the transport of a product."

Above get a distant view of Monte Testaccio. Below get a close up view of the amphorae shards themselves.

Image by Alex, via Flickr Commons

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George Orwell Predicted Cameras Would Watch Us in Our Homes; He Never Imagined We’d Gladly Buy and Install Them Ourselves

Normalization—the mainstreaming of people and ideas previously banished from public life for good reason—has become the operative description of a massive societal shift toward something awful. Whether it’s puff pieces on neo-Nazis in major national newspapers or elected leaders who are also documented sexual predators, a good deal of work goes into making the previously unthinkable seem mundane or appealing.

I try not to imagine too often where these things might lead, but one previously unthinkable scenario, the openly public mass surveillance apparatus of George Orwell’s 1984 has pretty much arrived, and has been thoroughly normalized and become both mundane and appealing. Networked cameras and microphones are installed throughout millions of homes, and millions of us carry them with us wherever we go. The twist is that we are the ones who installed them.

As comic Keith Lowell Jensen remarked on Twitter a few years ago, “What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching.” By appealing to our basic human need for connection, to vanity, the desire for recognition, and the seemingly instinctual drive for convenience, technology companies have persuaded millions of people to actively surveille themselves and each other. They incessantly gather our data, as Tim Wu shows in The Attention Merchants, and as a byproduct have provided access to our private spaces to government agents and who-knows-who-else.

Computers, smartphones, and "smart" devices can nearly all be hacked or commandeered. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper reported as much last year, telling the U.S. Senate that intelligence agencies might make extended use of consumer devices for government surveillance. Webcams and “other internet-connected cameras,” writes Eric Limer at Popular Mechanics, “such as security cams and high-tech baby monitors, are… notoriously insecure.” James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg both cover the cameras on their computers with tape.

The problem is far from limited to cameras. “Any device that can respond to voice commands is, by its very nature, listening to you all the time.” Although we are assured that those devices only hear certain trigger words “the microphone is definitely on regardless” and “the extent to which this sort of audio is saved or shared is unclear.” (Recordings on an Amazon Echo are pending use as evidence in a murder trial in Arkansas.) Devices like headphones have even been turned into microphones, Limer notes, which means that speakers could be as well, and "Lipreading software is only getting more and more impressive."

I type these words on a Siri-enabled Mac, an iPad lies nearby and an iPhone in my pocket… I won’t deny the appeal—or, for  many, the necessity of connectivity. The always-on variety, with multiple devices responsible for controlling greater aspects of our lives may not be justifiable. Nonetheless, 2017 could “finally be the year of the smart home.” Sales of the iPhone X may not meet Apple’s expectations. But that could have more to do with price or poor reviews than with the creepy new facial recognition technology—a feature likely to remain part of later designs, and one that makes users much less likely to cover or otherwise disable their cameras.

The thing is, we mostly know this, at least abstractly. Bland bulleted how-to guides make the problem seem so ordinary that it begins not to seem like a serious problem at all. As an indication of how mundane insecure networked technology has become in the consumer market, major publications routinely run articles offering helpful tips on how “stop your smart gadgets from ‘spying’ on you” and “how to keep your smart TV from spying on you.” Your TV may be watching you. Your smartphone may be watching you. Your refrigerator may be watching you. Your thermostat is most definitely watching you.

Yes, the situation isn't strictly Orwellian: Oceana's constantly surveilled citizens did not comparison shop, purchase, and customize their own devices voluntarily. (It's not strictly Foucauldian either, but has its close resemblances.) Yet in proper Orwellian doublespeak, "spying" might have a very flexible definition depending on who is on the other end. We might stop "spying" by enabling or disabling certain features, but we might not stop "spying," if you know what I mean.

So who is watching? CIA documents released by a certain unsavory organization show that the Agency might be, as the BBC segment at the top reports. As might any number of other interested parties from data-hoarding corporate bots to tech-savvy voyeurs looking to get off on your candid moments. We might assume that someone could have access at any time, even if we use the privacy controls. That so many people have become dependent on their devices, and will increasingly become so in the future, makes the question of what to do about it a trickier proposition.

via Reddit

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

Lou Reed Sings “Sweet Jane” Live, Julian Schnabel Films It (2006)

"Lou Reed's Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide," wrote Rolling Stone's Stephen Davis in 1973, adding that "there are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them." Could this "last shot at a once-promising career," as Davis described it, really have come from the onetime leader of as influential a band as the Velvet Underground — from the man who could, just three years earlier, have written a song like "Sweet Jane"?

Yet Lou Reed survived Berlin's drubbing, and indeed spent the next forty years fulfilling his promise, to the very end drawing the occasional round of pans (most resoundingly for Lulu, his 2011 collaboration with Metallica) that verified his artistic vitality. By the 21st century, critical opinion had come around on Berlin, and in 2003 even Rolling Stone put it on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Three years later, Reed took the then-33-year-old rock-opera album on tour, playing it live with a 30-piece band and twelve choristers. Painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel designed the tour and shot a documentary of five nights of its performances in Brooklyn, releasing it in 2008 as Lou Reed Berlin.

In the clip above, you can see the very last song of the show, played during the film's closing credits. It isn't "Sad Song," which draws the curtain over Berlin, but the last of a three-part encore that ends with none other than "Sweet Jane." Having first appeared on the Velvet Underground's 1970 album Loaded (#110 on the Rolling Stone list to Berlin's #344), the song became a favorite in Reed's live performances in the decades thereafter, an evocation of a particular creative era in a career that encompassed so many. "Goodbye, Lou," Davis said to Reed at the end of his Berlin review, but for that album, and even more so for the man who made it, the show had only just begun.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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 or on Facebook.

Listen to Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in One Streamable Playlist

Whatever value one places in “best of” or “greatest” lists, it’s hard to deny they can be virtuoso exercises in critical concision. When running through 10, 50, 100 films, albums, novels etc. one can’t wander through the wildflowers but must make sparkly, punchy statements and move on. Rolling Stone's writers have excelled at this form, and expanded the list size to 500, first releasing a book compiling their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003 then following up the next year with the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” a special issue of the magazine with short blurbs about each selection.

In 2010, the magazine updated their massive list, compiled by 162 critics, for a special digital issue, and it now lives on their site with paragraph-length blurbs intact. Each one offers a fun little nugget of fact or opinion about the chosen songs. (Tom Petty, learning that The Strokes admitted to stealing his opening riff for “American Girl,” told the magazine, “I was like, ‘Ok, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.”) There’s hardly room to explain the rankings or justify inclusion. We're asked to take the Rolling Stone writers' collective word for it.

Maybe it's a little difficult to argue with a list this big, since it includes a bit of everything—for the possible dross, there’s a whole lot of gold. The updated list swapped in 25 new songs and added an introduction by Jay-Z: “A great song has all the key elements—melody; emotion; a strong statement that becomes part of the lexicon; and great production.” Broad enough criteria for great, but "greatest"? Put on the Spotify playlist above (or access it here) and judge for yourself whether most of those 500 songs in the updated list—472 to be exact—meet the bar.

You can see the original, 2004 list, sans blurbs, at the Internet Archive. Number one, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (get it?). Number 500, Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” which, well… okay. The updated list gives us Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around” in last place (don’t worry, Smokey fans, “The Tracks of My Tears” makes it to 50.) Still at number one, naturally, “Like a Rolling Stone." Find out which 498 songs sit in-between at the online list here. (Wikipedia has a percentage breakdown for both lists of songs by decade.) The magazine may be up for sale, its journalistic credibility in question, but for comprehensive “best of” lists that keep track of the movement of popular culture, we shouldn't count them out just yet.

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

The Robots of Your Dystopian Future Are Already Here: Two Chilling Videos Drive It All Home

A year ago, Boston Dynamics released a video showing its humanoid robot "Atlas" doing, well, rather human things--opening doors, walking through a snowy forest, hoisting cardboard boxes, and lifting itself off of the ground. Rarely has something so banal seemed so peculiar.

What is "Atlas" doing these days? As shown in this newly-released video above, it's jumping to new heights, twisting in the air, and doing backflips with uncanny ease. Standing six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, Atlas was designed to take care of mundane problems--like assisting  emergency services in search and rescue operations and "operating powered equipment in environments where humans could not survive." But that's not where the applications of Atlas end. Seeing that the Pentagon has helped finance and design Atlas, you can easily see the humanoid fighting on the battlefield. Stay tuned for that clip in 2018.

Which brings us to our next video. The new short film, "Slaughterbots," comes from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and it follows this plot:

A military firm unveils a tiny drone that hunts and kills with ruthless efficiency. But when the technology falls into the wrong hands, no one is safe. Politicians are cut down in broad daylight. The machines descend on a lecture hall and spot activists, who are swiftly dispatched with an explosive to the head.

According to UC Berkeley AI expert Stuart Russell, "Slaughterbots" looks like science fiction. But it's not. "It shows the results of integrating and miniaturizing technologies that we already have.” It is "simply an integration of existing capabilities... In fact, it is easier to achieve than self-driving cars, which require far higher standards of performance.” Recently shown at the United Nations' Convention on Conventional Weapons, "Slaughterbots" comes on the heels of an open letter signed by 116 robotics and AI scientists (including Tesla’s Elon Musk), urging the UN to ban the development and use of killer robots. It reads:

Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.

If we already have military drones taking out enemies across the world (in places like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan), the mental leap to deploying Slaughterbots doesn't seem too great. Do you trust our leaders to make finer distinctions and keep a lid on Pandora's Box? Or could you see them tearing Pandora's Box open like a gift on Christmas day? Yeah, me too. The robots of your dystopian future are now here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Watch Footage of the Velvet Underground Composing “Sunday Morning,” the First Track on Their Seminal Debut Album The Velvet Underground & Nico (1966)

Before its many layers of well-deserved hagiography, the Velvet Underground’s first album emerged in 1967 on its own terms, in near obscurity, introducing something so mysteriously cool and hauntingly grim and beautiful. Goth and punk and post-punk and New Wave and chamber pop and shoegaze and indie folk and Britpop and noise and drone and No Wave… all came decades later. But first there was The Velvet Underground & Nico. Of its unlikely creation, Tyler Wilcox writes, “talent, vision, fearlessness, a touch of genius: they’re all necessary ingredients for the creation of a classic album. But you’re also going to need a lot of luck.”

Wilcox describes in his history how all of those qualities—luck, and Andy Warhol, included—brought the five original VU members together in 1965; how the band debuted with Nico at the Delmonico Hotel 1966, occasioning the New York Herald Tribune’s headline, “Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists”; and how their lo-fi drone and Medieval folk meets decadent, literary 60s pop derived from influences like Booker T. & The MG’s and avant-garde minimalist La Monte Young. It’s one thing to read about this total re-imaging of rock and roll, and another thing entirely to see it. Unfortunately, little film of the band exists from that time—some of it very fragmentary or very rare.

Just above, you can see one of the best pieces of footage: Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison composing the album’s first track, the delicate “Sunday Morning,” whose handful of wistful, ambiguous lyrics introduce Reed’s “spiritual seeking” as a thematic thread that weaves through songs of sadomasochism, heroin, and death. The silent film was shot in 1966 by filmmaker Rosalind Stevenson while the band rehearsed in her apartment. This debut broadcast, with the studio recording overlaid, comes from a 1994 BBC program called Peel Slowly and See (after the instruction telling buyers of the vinyl LP to peel the banana sticker and discover this).

Had the band only recorded their first album, it’s hard to imagine their importance in rock history would be much lessened, but it’s also hard to imagine rock history without follow-ups White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, and Loaded. Yet these were all products of deliberate focus, and a diminishing number of key singers/songwriters. The first Velvet Underground album is magical for its serendipity and almost schizoid collection of fully-formed personalities, each so distinctive that “each track” on The Velvet Underground & Nico “has launched an entire genre.”

So notes WBEZ’s Sound Opinions. Just above you can hear the show’s Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot discuss the influences and significance, with many sonic examples, of the album that launched a few thousand bands. Watch the creation of “Sunday Morning” and think about the number of times you’ve heard it haunting bands like Belle and Sebastian, the Decembrists, or Beach House. And if you’ve somehow missed all the other genres to which this first record gave birth, DeRogatis and Kot should get you caught up on why “no album has had a greater influence on rock in that last half-century than the Velvet Underground’s debut.”

Find more early VU footage in the Relateds right below.

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

How Art Spiegelman Designs Comic Books: A Breakdown of His Masterpiece, Maus

Maus, cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his complicated relationship with his Holocaust survivor father, is a story that lingers.

Spiegelman famously chose to depict the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Non-Jewish civilians of his father’s native Poland were rendered as pigs. He flirted with the idea of depicting his French-born wife, the New Yorker’s art editor, Françoise Mouly, as a frog or a poodle, until she convinced him that her conversion to Judaism merited mousehood, too.

The characters’ anthropomorphism is not the only visual innovation, as the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, points out above.

Drawing on interviews in MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, taped conversations with Neil Gaiman, and the University of Washington’s Marcia Alvar, and other sources, the Nerdwriter pans an eight-panel page from the first chapter for maximum meaning.

On first glance, nothing much appears to be happening on that page—hoping to convince his elderly father to submit to interviews for the book that would eventually become Maus, Spiegelman trails him to his childhood bedroom, which the older man has equipped with an exercise bike that he pedals in dress shoes and black socks.

But, as Spiegelman himself once pointed out:

Those panels are each units of time. You see them simultaneously, so you have various moments in time simultaneously made present. 

Readers must force themselves to proceed slowly in order to fully appreciate the coexistence of all those moments.

Left to our own devices, we might pick up on the senior Spiegelman’s concentration camp tattoo, or the introduction of Art’s late mother via the framed photo he shows himself picking up.

But Puschak takes us on an even deeper dive, noting the significance of Art’s placement in the long mid-page panel. Watch out for the 4:30 mark, another visual stunner is teased out in a manner reminiscent of the revelation of a message written in invisible ink.

So Maus conferred commercial success upon its creator, while hanging onto some of the bold visual experiments from earlier in his career, when he and Mouly helped drive the underground comix scene—the past and present entwined yet again.

And this is just one page. Should you venture forth in search of further visual cues later in the text, please use the comments section to share your discoveries.

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

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