Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Civilization–and Recommends Ways to Ensure That It Survives (1978)

When we talk about what could put an end to civilization today, we usually talk about climate change. The frightening scientific research behind that phenomenon has, apart from providing a seemingly infinite source of fuel for the blaze of countless political debates, also inspired a variety of dystopian visions, credible and otherwise, of no small number of science-fiction writers. One wonders what a science-fictional mind of, say, Isaac Asimov's caliber would make of it. Asimov died in 1992, a few years before climate change attained the presence in the zeitgeist it has today, but we can still get a sense of his approach to thinking about these kinds of literally existential questions from his 1978 talk above.

When people talked about what could put an end to civilization in 1978, they talked about overpopulation. A decade earlier, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, whose early editions opened with these words: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." With these and other grim pronouncements lodged in their minds, the bestselling book's many readers saw humanity faced with a stark choice: let that death rate increase, or proactively lower the birth rate.




A decade later, Asimov frames the situation in the same basic terms, though he shows more optimism — or at least inventiveness — in addressing it, supported by the workings of his powerful imagination. This isn't to say that the images he throws out are exactly utopian: he sees humanity, growing at then-current rates, ultimately housed in "one world-girdling skyscraper, partially apartment houses, partially factories, partially all kinds of things — schools, colleges — and the entire ocean taken out of its bed and placed on the roof, and growing algae or something like that. Because all those people will have to be fed, and the only way they can be fed is to allow no waste whatever."

This necessity will be the mother of such inventions as "thick conduits leading down into the ocean water from which you take out the algae and all the other plankton, or whatever the heck it is, and you pound it and you separate it and you flavor it and you cook it, and finally you have your pseudo-steak and your mock veal and your healthful sub-vegetables and so on." Where to get the nutrients to fertilize the growth of more algae? "Only from chopped-up corpses and human wastes." It would probably interest Asimov, and certainly amuse him, to see how much research into algae-based food goes on here in the 21st century (let alone the popularity of an algae-utilizing meal replacement beverage called Soylent). But however delicious all those become, humanity will need more to live: energy, space, and yes, a comfortable ambient temperature.

Asimov's suite of proposed solutions, the explanation of which he spins into high and often prescient entertainment, includes birth control, solar power, lunar mining, and the repurposing of some of the immense budget spent on "war machines." The volume of applause in the room shows how heartily some agreed with him then, and perspectives like Asimov's have drawn more adherents in the more than 40 years since, about a decade after Asimov confidently predicted that the world would run out of oil,  a time when an increasing number of developed countries have begun to worry about their falling birthrates. But then, Asimov also imagined that Mount Everest was unconquerable because Martians lived on top of it in a story published a seven months after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it up there — a fact he made a rule of cheerfully admitting whenever he started with the predictions.

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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 or on Facebook.

Virginia Woolf & Friends Name Their Favorite and Least Favorite Writers in a Newly Unearthed 1923 Survey

Celebrity Twitter can be fun… sometimes…. Tabloids still have mass appeal, albeit mainly on the web. But for those who want to see the introverted and bookish caught off-guard and off the cuff, times are a little tough. Writers can more easily control their image than actors or pop stars, naturally. Most aren’t nearly as recognizable and subject to constant pop culture surveillance. Literary scandals rarely go beyond plagiarism or politics. Sometimes one might wish—as in the days of mean drunks like Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway, or Hunter S. Thompson—for a good old-fashioned literary brawl….

Or maybe not. After all, there’s that thing about pens and swords. The sharpest weapons, the tools that cut the deepest, are wielded by wit, whether it’s the flashing of rhetorical steel or the fine needling of elevated pettiness. No clumsy violence can stand up to the literary put-downs we find in the correspondence of, say Flannery O’Connor—who wrote that Ayn Rand “makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky”—or Virginia Woolf, who found Joyce “a bore… ultimately nauseating. When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?”

This is wonderfully nasty stuff: gut-level low blows from the high road of a well-turned phrase. If it’s the kind of thing you enjoy, you’ll love the “bitchy literary burn book," reports Vox, “featuring the unvarnished opinions of Virginia Woof, Margaret Kennedy, and others” which has recently come to light. A collection of answers to 39-questions, “its yellow and curling title page” announces it as “’Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions,” notes William Mackesy, grandson and literary executor of novelist Kennedy.

It was passed around and filled in by hand by a group of ten writers total, also including Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Hilaire Belloc, and Stella Benson, between 1923 and 1927. “Each contribution was sealed up,” Mackesy writes, “presumably to await a distant thriller-opening, which gave safe space for barbs and jokes at contemporaries’ expense.” With their similarities to our own quick-take cultural products, the questionnaires are sure to be a hit on the internet.

These secret literary confessions get prickly, thanks to “waspish” questions like “the most overrated English writer living” and “a deceased writer whose character you most dislike.” Unsurprisingly, Woolf’s answers are some of the sharpest. In answer to the latter question, she wrote “I like all dead men of letters.” As for the living, one unnamed respondent “called T.S. Eliot the worst living English poet as well as the worst living literary critic.”

Rebecca West dismissed the whole thing as “silly… it’s like being asked to select the best sunset.” Nonetheless, in answer to a question about which writer would still be read in 25 years, she simply answered, “me.” Belloc did the same. Kennedy called Woolf the most overrated writer (but greatest living critic), Woolf and West named Belloc most overrated. Joyce appears more than once in that category, as does D.H. Lawrence.

It’s all great fun, but maybe the “bitchy” headline oversells this aspect a little and undersells the less sensational but more informative parts of the exercise. For instance, all of the writers except one (with one write-in for “I don’t know”) cast the same vote for greatest literary genius (spoiler: it’s Shakespeare). They revered James Boswell, Thomas Hardy, Max Beerbohm, Plato, Jane Austen, Homer, Catullus. They ignored many others. “There is no mention anywhere,” Mackesy points out, “of Virgil or Donne, and only one of Chaucer, Dickens, George Eliot and Henry James.”

No matter how forward-looking some of their work turned out to be, they were writers of their time, with typical attitudes, beliefs, and opinions when it came to literature. That said, the casual narcissism and snark some of the questions elicit are timeless qualities. Learn more about the book, including its like origins and mysterious provenance, from Mackesy at the Independent.

via Mental Floss

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

Artificial Intelligence for Everyone: An Introductory Course from Andrew Ng, the Co-Founder of Coursera

If you follow edtech, you know the name Andrew Ng. He's the Stanford computer science professor who co-founded MOOC-provider Coursera and later became chief scientist at Baidu. Since leaving Baidu, he's been working on several artificial intelligence projects, including a series of Deep Learning courses that he unveiled in 2017. And now comes AI for Everyone--an online course that makes artificial intelligence intelligible to a broad audience.

In this largely non-technical course, students will learn:

  • The meaning behind common AI terminology, including neural networks, machine learning, deep learning, and data science.
  • What AI realistically can--and cannot--do.
  • How to spot opportunities to apply AI to problems in your own organization.
  • What it feels like to build machine learning and data science projects.
  • How to work with an AI team and build an AI strategy in an organization.
  • How to navigate ethical and societal discussions surrounding AI.

The four-week course takes about eight hours to complete. You can audit it for free. However if you want to earn a certificate--which you can then share on your LinkedIn profile, printed resumes and CVs--the course will run $49.

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The Gnarly Surf Rock of Dick Dale (RIP): Watch the Legend Play “Misirlou,” Surfin’ the Wedge,” and “Pipeline” (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)

The Endless Summer is over. The archetypal 1966 surf documentary might have been scored by The Sandals, but the sound and the cultural dominance of surf culture would perhaps never come into being, and may not have survived the decade, without Dick Dale, who died on March 18th at the age of 81. His gnarly, menacing guitar on songs like “Miserlou” and “Pipeline” turned a fad dominated by the teen anthems of The Beach Boys and Annette Funicello’s post-Mouseketeers bikini and beehive into genuinely gritty rock and roll.

Dale’s sound defined the risky wanderlust of surfing that early skateboarders picked up on in the 70s and 80s, snowboarders in the 90s, and so on. Hundreds of guitarists stole from his distinctive technique long after the 60s surf rock craze died at the hands of British invaders. Dale rode the sound into the 21st century, touring and performing across a United States whose popular culture he helped invent by appearing on (where else) The Ed Sullivan Show.




But it’s arguable whether his fame would have survived as long without Quentin Tarantino’s shrewd use of “Misirlou” in Pulp Fiction’s opening credits. It so happens that Dale almost didn’t survive past the sixties himself. If he had died from what seemed like a terminal cancer in 1965, it’s possible surf guitar would have died with him, become a curious relic rather than a living tradition.

Jimi Hendrix thought so—at least according to Dale in the liner notes to 1997’s Better Shred Than Dead: The Dick Dale Anthology. “Then you’ll never hear surf music again,” Hendrix supposedly said. Maybe in the purest sense, it’s true. Only Dale truly “transferred,” as he put it, the “tremendous amount of power” of surfing into the guitar. His playing was an extreme sport; his shows were “stomps”; the audience never stopped moving for a minute, whooping and hollering along with him.

And still, his cavernous guitar filled ballrooms. He pushed Fender to build louder and louder amplifiers, and everyone else along with them. Like Hendrix, he was a lefty who played a flipped-over right-handed Fender Strat. Yet Dale didn’t restring the guitar, effectively playing it upside-down. He used the heaviest strings he could find, the loudest amps that could be made, and more reverb than anyone had previously thought advisable. “Bands like the Beach Boys,” writes Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker, “often sang about surfing,” but the genre Dale invented “was wet and gnarly and unconcerned with romance or sweetness.”

His style earned Dale the title of “King of the Surf Guitar,” also the title of his second album and a fact he liked to trumpet as often as he could, along with claims that he was called the “Father of Heavy Metal.” (Link Wray might like a word.) He was a tireless promoter and performer without whose influence there may've been no Endless Summer-scoring Sandals or Surfaris' “Wipe Out”—surf culture essentials that traveled the world.

Surf rock became a niche sound, popular with increasingly specialized audiences, before Quentin Tarantino made it cool again. Pulp Fiction’s use of the song was not an ironic detournement, but a genuine reminder of how dangerous Dale sounded. He buzzsawed through the early-sixties scene of skinny ties and big hair. The footage of him above playing “Misirlou” with The Del Tones—all of whom wear terrified smiles and identical suits, above—is strangely Lynchian.

Part of the incongruity comes from watching square white Americans bounce through a haunting Egyptian folk song, while looking like they should be playing “Mr. Sandman.” Dale made 50s pop seem childish, and sound-tracked the entry of mildly adult situations in 60s surf movies. He deserved to have fared better from his influence and fame.

Dale’s last couple decades were spent like too many other people in the U.S. He couldn’t stop touring, he said, “because I will die. Physically and literally, I will die.” After his first recovery from colorectal cancer in 1965, he continued to battle the disease,” writes The Washington Post. “Up until the end of his life, Dale was explicit that he toured to fund his treatment” after his cancer returned. He couldn’t retire even when his career rebounded, twice after his early sixties’ heyday: first in 1987 when he recorded “Pipeline” (further up) with Stevie Ray Vaughan and again after Pulp Fiction.

His fans continued to support him not because he was a hip nostalgia act, but, he said, because he grew and branched out as a guitar player and he was honest about his difficulties, and people connected. He was an American original. The son of Lebanese immigrants, he took the music of his parents’ home country, blended it with country swing and blues, and played it dirty, wet, and as loud as it could go, something no one had quite done before and thousands have done since.

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

Take a Journey Inside Vincent Van Gogh’s Paintings with a New Digital Exhibition

Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, long before the emergence of any of the visual technologies that impress us here in the 21st century. But the distinctive vision of reality expressed through paintings still captivates us, and perhaps captivates us more than ever: the latest of the many tributes we continue to pay to van Gogh's art takes the form Van Gogh, Starry Night, a "digital exhibition" at the Atelier des Lumières, a disused foundry turned projector- and sound system-laden multimedia space in Paris. "Projected on all the surfaces of the Atelier," its site says of the exhibition, "this new visual and musical production retraces the intense life of the artist."

Van Gogh's intensity manifested in various ways, including more than 2,000 paintings painted in the last decade of his life alone. Van Gogh, Starry Night surrounds its visitors with the painter's work, "which radically evolved over the years, from The Potato Eaters (1885), Sunflowers (1888) and Starry Night (1889) to Bedroom at Arles (1889), from his sunny landscapes and nightscapes to his portraits and still lives."




It also takes them through the journey of his life itself, including his "sojourns in Neunen, Arles, Paris, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and Auvers-sur-Oise." It will also take them to Japan, a land van Gogh dreamed of and that inspired him to create "the art of the future," with a supplemental show titled Dreamed Japan: Images of the Floating World.

Both Van Gogh, Starry Night and Dreamed Japan run until the end of this year. If you happen to have a chance to make it out to the Atelier des Lumières, first consider downloading the exhibition's smartphone and tablet application that provides recorded commentary on van Gogh's masterpieces. That counts as one more layer of this elaborate audiovisual experience that, despite employing the height of modern museum technology, nevertheless draws all its aesthetic inspiration from 19th-century paintings — and will send those who experience it back to those 19th-century paintings with a heightened appreciation. Nearly 130 years after Van Gogh's death, we're still using all the ingenuity we can muster to see the world as he did.

via MyModernmet

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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 or on Facebook.

How Does the Rorschach Inkblot Test Work?: An Animated Primer

A frightening monster?

Two friendly bears?

Say what!?

As anybody with half a brain and the gift of sight knows, the black and red inkblot below resembles nothing so much as a pair of gnomes, gavotting so hard their knees bleed.

...or perhaps it’s open to interpretation.

Back in 2013, when Open Culture celebrated psychologist Hermann Rorschach’s birthday by posting the ten blots that form the basis of his famous personality test, readers reported seeing all sorts of things in Card 2:

A uterus

Lungs

Kissing puppies

A painted face

Little calfs

Tinkerbell checking her butt out in the mirror

Two ouija board enthusiasts, summoning demons

Angels

And yes, high-fiving bears

As Rorshach biographer Damion Searls explains in an animated Ted-ED lesson on how the Rorschach Test can help us understand the patterns of our perceptions, our answers depend on how we as individuals register and transform sensory input.




Rorshach chose the blots that garnered the most nuanced responses, and developed a classification system to help analyze the resulting data, but for much of the test’s history, this code was a highly guarded professional secret.

And when Rorshach died, a year after publishing the images, others began administering the test in service of their own speculative goals—anthropologists, potential employers, researchers trying to figure out what made Nazis tick, comedians…

The range of interpretative approaches earned the test a reputation as pseudo-science, but a 2013 review of Rorshach’s voluminous research went a long way toward restoring its credibility.

Whether or not you believe there’s something to it, it’s still fun to consider the things we bring to the table when examining these cards.

Do we see the image as fixed or something more akin to a freeze frame?

What part of the image do we focus on?

Our records show that Open Culture readers overwhelmingly focus on the hands, at least as far as Card 2 goes, which is to say the portion of the blot that appears to be high-fiving itself.

Never mind that the high five, as a gesture, is rumored to have come into existence sometime in the late 1970s. (Rorschach died in 1922.) That’s what the majority of Open Culture readers saw six years ago, though there was some variety of perception as to who was slapping that skin:

young elephants

despondent humans

monks

lawn gnomes

Disney dwarves

redheaded women in Japanese attire

chimpanzees with traffic cones on their heads

(In full disclosure, it's mostly bears.)

Maybe it's time for a do over?

Readers, what do you see now?

Image 1: Bat, butterfly, moth

Rorschach_blot_01

Image 2: Two humans

Rorschach_blot_02

Image 3: Two humans

800px-Rorschach_blot_03

Image 4: Animal hide, skin, rug

Rorschach_blot_04

Image 5: Bat, butterfly, moth

Rorschach_blot_05

Image 6: Animal hide, skin, rug

Rorschach_blot_06

Image 7: Human heads or faces

Rorschach_blot_07

Image 8: Animal; not cat or dog

689px-Rorschach_blot_08

Image 9: Human

647px-Rorschach_blot_09

Image 10: Crab, lobster, spider,

751px-Rorschach_blot_10

View Searls’ full TED-Ed lesson here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Lou Reed Archive Opens at the New York Public Library: Get Your Own Lou Reed Library Card and Check It Out

This past October marked the fifth anniversary of Lou Reed’s death. This month marks what would have been his 77th birthday. It seems like as good a time as any to revisit his legacy. As of this past Friday, anyone can do exactly that in person at the New York Public Library. And they can do so with their own special edition NYPL Lou Reed library card. The NYPL has just opened to the public the Lou Reed Archive, “approximately 300 linear feet,” the library writes in a press release, “of paper records, electronic records, and photographs, and approximately 3,600 audio and 1,300 video recordings.”

These artifacts span the musician, writer, photographer, and “tai-chi student”’s life from his 1958 high school band The Shades to “his job as a staff songwriter for the budget music label, Pickwick Records, and his rise to prominence through the Velvet Underground and subsequent solo career, to his final performance in 2013.”




It is more than fitting that they should find a home at the New York institution, in the city where Lou Reed became Lou Reed, “the most literary of rock stars,” writes Andrew Epstein for the Poetry Foundation, "one who aspired to make rock music that could stand on the same plane as works of literature.” See a list of the Lou Reed Archive collections below:

  • Original manuscript, lyrics, poetry and handwritten tai-chi notes
  • Photographs of Reed, including artist prints and inscriptions by the photographers
  • Tour itineraries, agreements, road manager notes and paperwork
  • 600+ hours of live recordings, demos, studio recordings and interviews
  • Reed's own extensive photography work
  • Album, book, and tour artwork; mock-ups, proofs and match-prints
  • Lou Reed album and concert posters, handbills, programs, and promotional items
  • Lou Reed press for albums, tours, performances, books, and photography exhibits
  • Fan mail
  • Personal collections of books, LPs and 45s

Reed left his first “lasting legacy” at Syracuse University, as Syracuse itself affirmed after his death in 2013, as “a criminal, a dissident and a poet.” There, he studied under his literary hero, Delmore Schwartz, was reportedly expelled from ROTC for holding an unloaded gun to his superior’s head, and was supposedly turned away from his graduation by police. Once in New York, however, Reed not only piloted the Velvet Underground into everlasting cult infamy, jumpstarting waves of punk, post-punk, new wave, and a few dozen other subgenres. He also carried forth the legacy of the New York poetry, Epstein argues.

He had “serious connections to the poetry world”—not only to Schwartz, but also to the Beats and the New York School—to poets who “played a surprisingly large role in the emergence of the Velvet Underground.” Like all great art, Reed’s best work was more than the sum of its “multiple and complex influences.” But it should be appreciated alongside mid-century New York poets as much as jazz experimentalists like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor who inspired his freeform approach. “Reed’s body of work,” writes Epstein, “represents a crucial but overlooked instance of poetry’s rich back-and-forth dialogue with popular culture.”

Similar things might be said about Reed's engagements with film, theater, the visual arts, and the New York avant-garde generally, which he also transmuted and translated into his scuzzy brand of rock and roll. The NYPL archive documents his relationships with not only his bandmates and manager/patron Andy Warhol, but also Robert Quine, John Zorn, Robert Wilson, Julian Schnabel, and Laurie Anderson. And yet, despite the many rivers he waded into in his long career, immersing in some more deeply than others, it was the New York literary world whom he most wanted to embrace his work.

Accepting an award in 2007 from Syracuse, Reed said, “I hope, Delmore, if you’re listening you are finally proud as well. My name is finally linked to yours in the part of heaven reserved for Brooklyn poets.” Head over to The Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center to get your own Lou Reed library card. If you’re lucky enough to spend some time with this extensive collection, maybe consider how all Reed's work was, in some way or another, informed by a lifelong devotion to New York poetry.

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

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