Orson Welles Narrates Animations of Plato’s Cave and Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Two Parables of the Human Condition

You're held captive in an enclosed space, only able faintly to perceive the outside world. Or you're kept outside, unable to cross the threshold of a space you feel a desperate need to enter. If both of these scenarios sound like dreams, they must do so because they tap into the anxieties and suspicions in the depths of our shared subconscious. As such, they've also proven reliable material for storytellers since at least the fourth century B.C., when Plato came up with his allegory of the cave. You know that story nearly as surely as you know the ancient Greek philosopher's name: a group of human beings live, and have always lived, deep in a cave. Chained up to face a wall, they have only ever seen the images of shadow puppets thrown by firelight onto the wall before them.

To these isolated beings, "the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images." So Orson Welles tells it in this 1973 short film by animator Dick Oden. In his timelessly resonant voice that complements the production's hauntingly retro aesthetic, Wells then speaks of what would happen if a cave-dweller were to be unshackled.




"He would be much too dazzled to see distinctly those things whose shadows he had seen before," but as he approaches reality, "he has a clearer vision." Still, "will he not be perplexed? Will he not think that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?" And if brought out of the cave to experience reality in full, would he not pity his old cavemates? "Would he not say, with Homer, better to be the poor servant of a poor master and to endure anything rather than think as they do and live after their manner?"

Plato's cave wasn't the first parable of the human condition Welles narrated. Just over a decade earlier, he engaged pinscreen animator Alexandre Alexeieff (he of Night on Bald Mountain and and "The Nose," previously featured here on Open Culture) to illustrate his reading of Franz Kafka's story "Before the Law." The law, in Kafka's telling, is a building, and before that building stands a guard. "A man comes from the country, begging admittance to the law," says Welles. "But the guard cannot admit him. May he hope to enter at a later time? That is possible, said the guard." Yet somehow that time never comes, and he spends the rest of his life awaiting admission to the law. "Nobody else but you could ever have obtained admittance," the guard admits to the man, not long before the man expires of old age. "This door was intended only for you! And now, I'm going to close it."

"Before the Law" describes a grimly absurd situation, as does Welles' The Trial, the film to which it serves as an introduction. Adapted from another work of Kafka's, specifically his best-known novel, it also concerns itself with the legal side of human affairs, at least on the surface. But when it becomes clear that the crime with which its bureaucrat protagonist Josef K. has been charged will never be specified, the story plunges into an altogether more troubling realm. We've all, at one time or another, felt to some degree like Joseph K., persecuted by an ultimately incomprehensible system, legal, social, or otherwise. And can we help but feel, especially in our highly mediated 21st century, like Plato's immobilized human, raised in darkness and made to build a worldview on illusions? As for how to escape the cave — or indeed to enter the law — it falls to each of us individually to figure out.

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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.

The Only Surviving Script Written by Shakespeare Is Now Online

Four years ago, when the world commemorated the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, some marked the event with reference to a dramatic work hardly anyone’s ever read, and fewer have ever seen performed. Called The Booke of Sir Thomas More, “this late 16th or early 17th-century play,” the British Library notes, “is not always included among the Shakespearean canon, and it was not until the 1800s that it was even associated with the Bard of Avon.”

Since then, Sir Thomas More has become famous, at least among literary scholars, as the only surviving example of Shakespeare’s handwriting next to his will. It also became briefly internet famous in 2016 when Sir Ian McKellen reprised the title role he first played in 1964 for a dramatic reading in London that spoke eloquently, centuries later, to the moment. The play itself is the work of several dramatists, and the original text, from sometime between 1590 and 1605, is a patchwork of pages of insertions and six different scribal hands, Shakespeare’s very likely among them.




That same year, the British Library put a scan of the Shakespeare-penned pages of the play online and put the physical manuscript on display in an exhibit called Shakespeare in Ten Acts. Now, they have uploaded the full, scanned manuscript to their Digitized Manuscripts page and you can view it here. “In these pages we can perhaps see the master playwright at work, musing, composing and correcting his text: a window into Shakespeare's dramatic art, as it were.” We can hear what McKellen calls the “human empathy” in a speech “symbolic and wonderful… so much at the heart of Shakespeare’s humanity.”

The speech, which McKellen discusses above, has the humanist More passionately addressing a mob who are attempting to violently deport French protestant refugees. More did indeed address a rioting mob on May 1, 1517, what came to be known as “Evil May Day” (he was later executed in 1535 for treason when he refused to back Henry VIII against the Catholic Church). The play, which shows his actions as especially heroic, was censored by Edwin Tilney, Master of the Revels, and never performed until McKellen took the role. (He has joked that he may be “the last actor who can say ‘I created a part written by William Shakespeare.’”)

Read a transcription of the full, 147-line More speech thought to be by Shakespeare, and written in his own hand, at Quartz. “Proving that More’s words were indeed written by Shakespeare is not straightforward,” the British Library notes, though scholars have generally agreed on the authorship since the late 19th century, based on evidence you can read about here. But "in their keen sympathy for the plight of the alienated and dispossessed," these lines "seem to prefigure the insights of great dramas of race such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello.”

One can see, given Shakespeare's sympathy for social outsiders, why he would be drawn to More's speech, or why he might have been handpicked among other dramatists at the time to write the philosopher’s broad-minded plea for tolerance. See the full manuscript of The Booke of Sir Thomas More here at the British Library's Digitized Manuscripts.

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

Nursing Home Residents Replace Famous Rock Stars on Iconic Album Covers

Deservedly or not, British care homes have acquired a reputation as especially dreary places, from Victorian novels to dystopian fiction to the flat affect of BBC documentaries. Martin Parr gave the world an especially moving example of the care home documentary in his 1972 photo series on Prestwich Asylum, outside Manchester. The compelling portraits humanize people who were neglected and ignored, yet their lives still look bleak in that austerely post-war British institution kind of way.

One cannot say anything of the kind of the photo series represented here, which casts residents of Sydmar Lodge Care Home in Edgeware, England as rock stars, digitally recreating some of the most famous album covers of all time. This is not, obviously, a candid look at residents’ day-to-day existence. But it suggests a pretty cheerful place. “The main aim was to show that care homes need not be a sad environment, even during this pandemic,” says the photos’ creator Robert Speker, the home’s activities manager.

“Speker tweeted side-by-side photos of the original covers and the Sydmar Lodge residents' new takes, and the tweets quickly took off,” NPR’s Laurel Wamsley writes. He’s made it clear that the primary audience for the recreated covers is the residents themselves: Isolated in lockdown for the past four months; cut off from visits and outings; suffering from an indefinite suspension of familiar routines.




Speker does not deny the grim reality behind the inspiring images. “Elderly people will remain in lockdown for a long time,” he writes on a GoFundMe page he created to help support the home. “It could be months before the situation changes for them.”

But he is optimistic about his abilities to “make their time as happy and full of enjoyment and interest as possible.” Would that all nursing homes had such a dedicated, award-winning coordinator. Residents themselves, he wrote on Twitter, were “enthused and perhaps a bit bemused by the idea, but happy to participate.” When they saw the results—stunning Roma Cohen as Aladdin Sane, defiant Sheila Solomons as Elvis and The Clash's Paul Simenon, casual Martin Steinberg as a “Born in England” Springsteen—they were delighted. Four of the home's carers got their own cover, too, posed as Queen.

Residents, Speker said, were really “having a good giggle about it.” And we can too, as we bear in mind the many elderly people around us who have been locked in for months, with maybe many more months of isolation ahead. Not everyone is as talented as Robert Speker, who did the models’ makeup and tattoos himself (with hair by a care home manager), as well as taking all the photographs and editing the images to convincingly mimic the poses, composition, lighting, font, and color schemes of the originals. But let’s hope his work is a spark that lights up nursing homes and care facilities with all sorts of creative ideas to keep spirits up. See several more covers below and the rest on Twitter.

via the BBC/NPR

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

Cambridge University Professor Cooks 4000-Year-Old Recipes from Ancient Mesopotamia, and Lets You See How They Turned Out

Those of us who’ve dedicated a portion of our isolation to the art of sourdough have not suffered for a lack of information on how that particular sausage should get made.

The Internet harbors hundreds, nay, thousands of complicated, contrary, often contradictory, extremely firm opinions on the subject. You can lose hours…days…weeks, agonizing over which method to use.

The course for Bill Sutherland's recent culinary experiment was much more clearly charted.




As documented in a series of now-viral Twitter posts, the Cambridge University professor of Conservation Biology decided to attempt a Mesopotamian meal, as inscribed on a 3770-year-old recipe tablet containing humankind’s oldest surviving recipes.

As Sutherland told Bored Panda’s Liucija Adomaite and Ilona Baliūnaitė, the translated recipes, found in Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights of the Yale Babylonian Collection, were “astonishingly terse” and “perplexing,” leading to some guess work with regard to onions and garlic.

In addition to 25 recipes, the book has photos and illustrations of various artifacts and essays that “present the ancient Near East in the light of present-day discussion of lived experiences, focusing on family life and love, education and scholarship, identity, crime and transgression, demons, and sickness.”

Kind of like a cradle of civilization Martha Stewart Living, just a bit less user friendly with regard to things like measurements, temperature, and cooking times. Which is not to say the instructions aren't step-by-step:

Stew of Lamb

Meat is used. 

You prepare water. 

You add fat. 

You add fine-grained salt, barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. 

You crush and add leek and garlic.

The meal, which required just a couple hours prep in Sutherland’s non-ancient kitchen sounds like something he might have ordered for delivery from one of Cambridge's Near Eastern restaurants.

The lamb stew was the hit of the night.

Unwinding, a casserole of leeks and spring onion, looked inviting but was “a bit boring.”

Elamite Broth was "peculiar but delicious," possibly because Sutherland substituted tomato sauce for sheep’s blood.

It’s an admittedly meaty proposition. Only 2 of the 25 recipes in the collection are vegetarian (“meat is not used.”)

And even there, to be really authentic, you’d have to sauté everything in sheep fat.

(Sutherland swapped in butter.)

via Bored Panda

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her isolation projects are sourdough and an animation with free downloadable posters, encouraging the use of face coverings to stop the spread of COVID-19. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Introduction to Hagia Sophia: After 85 Years as a Museum, It’s Set to Become a Mosque Again

No tour of Istanbul can fail to include Hagia Sophia. The same is true enough of the British Museum in London or the Louvre in Paris, but Hagia Sophia is more than a museum: it's also spent different stretches of its near-millennium-and-a-half of existence as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a mosque. Stripped of its religious function in the mid-1930s by the administration of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, remembered for his creation of a secular Turkish republic, the majestic building has spent the past 85 years as not just a museum but the country's top tourist attraction. Now, according to a decree issued last week by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hagia Sophia will become a mosque again.

"Erdogan, like his predecessor Ataturk, appears to be using the fate of the Hagia Sophia to make a political statement and score some points with his supporters," writes Ars Technica's Kiona N. Smith. But so did Emperor Justinian I of the Eastern Roman Empire, who "ordered the cathedral’s construction in the first place for similar reasons."




Built on the site where two cathedrals had previously stood, both burned down in different revolts, "the Hagia Sophia has always been as much a political landmark as a religious or cultural one — so it’s not surprising that it has also changed hands, and functions, at least four times in its history." Ataturk's secularization of Hagia Sophia entailed a restoration of its historic features: "Christian mosaics that had been plastered over in the late 1400s were carefully uncovered, and they shared the domed space with Muslim prayer niches and pulpits."

You can get a clearer sense of what the building's architecture and decoration reveal in the animated TED-Ed lesson at the top of the post. Educator Kelly Wall points to, among other features, the ancient fortifications that "hint at the strategic importance of the surrounding city, founded as Byzantium by Greek colonists in 657 BCE."; the foundation stones that "murmur tales from their homelands of Egypt and Syria, while columns taken from the Temple of Artemis recall a more ancient past"; and, beneath the golden dome that "appears suspended from heaven," reinforcing Corinthian columns, "brought from Lebanon after the original dome was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 558 CE," that offer a reminder of "fragility and the engineering skills such a marvel requires." The BBC 360-degree virtual tour just above goes into greater detail on these elements and others.

According to reports cited by Hyperallergic's Hakim Bishara, "tourists will still have access to the site, although it might be closed to visitors during prayer time." Still, "art historians and conservationists worry that the Turkish authorities might decide to cover up or remove the centuries-old Byzantine mosaics and Christian iconography that adorn the celebrated structure, as was done in other converted churches in Turkey in the past." Good job, then, that irrepressible television traveler Rick Steves has already shot his episode on Istanbul, which (from 9:34) naturally features a visit to Hagia Sophia. But whether as a museum, cathedral, a mosque, or whatever it becomes next, the building will surely remain what Steves called "the high point of Byzantine architecture" and "the pinnacle of that society's sixth-century glory days." And no leader of Turkey, no matter what their beliefs about church and state, will want the tourists to stop coming.

via Hyperallergic

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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.

Emma Willard, the First Woman Mapmaker in America, Creates Pioneering Maps of Time to Teach Students about Democracy (Circa 1851)

We all know Marshall McLuhan’s pithy, endlessly quotable line “the medium is the message,” but rarely do we stop to ask which one comes first. The development of communication technologies may genuinely present us with a chicken or egg scenario. After all, only a culture that already prized constant visual stimuli but grossly undervalued physical movement would have invented and adopted television.

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord ties the tendency toward passive visual consumption to “commodity fetishism, the domination of society by ‘intangible as well as tangible things,’ which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.” It seems an apt description of a screen-addicted culture.




What can we say, then, of a culture addicted to charts and graphs? Earliest examples of the form were often more elaborate than we're used to seeing, hand-drawn with care and attention. They were also not coy about their ambitions: to condense the vast dimensions of space and time into a two-dimensional, color-coded format. To tidily sum up all human and natural history in easy-to-read visual metaphors.

This was as much a religious project as it was a philosophical, scientific, historical, political, and pedagogical one. The domains are hopelessly entwined in 18th and 19th century. We should not be surprised to see them freely mingle  the earliest infographics. The creators of such images were polymaths, and deeply devout. Joseph Priestly, English chemist, philosopher, theologian, political theorist and grammarian, made several visual chronologies representing “the lives of two thousand men between 1200 BC and 1750 AD” (conveying a clear message about the sole importance of men).

“After Priestly,” writes the Public Domain Review, “timelines flourished, but they generally lacked any sense of the dimensionality of time, representing the past as a uniform march from left to right.” Emma Willard, “one of the century’s most influential educators” set out to update the technology, “to invest chronology with a sense of perspective.” In her 1836 Picture of Nations; or Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire, above (view and download high resolution images here), she presents “the biblical Creation as the apex of a triangle that then flowed forward in time and space toward the viewer.”

The perspective is also a forced point of view about origins and history. But that was exactly the point: these are didactic tools meant for textbooks and classrooms. Willard, “America’s first professional female mapmaker,” writes Maria Popova, was also a “pioneering educator,” who founded “the first women’s higher education institution in the United States when she was still in her thirties…. In her early forties, she set about composing and publishing a series of history textbooks that raised the standards and sensibilities of scholarship.”

Willard recognized that linear graphs of time did not accurately do justice to a three-dimensional experience of the world. Humans are “embodied creatures who yearn to locate themselves in space and time.” The illusion of space and time on the flat page was an essential feature of Willard’s underlying purpose: “laying out the ground-plan of the intellect, so far as the whole range of history is concerned.” A proper understanding of a Great Man (and at least one Great Woman, Hypatia) version of history—easily condensed, since there were only around 6,000 years from the creation of the universe—would lead to “enlightened and judicious supporters” of democracy.

History is represented literally as a sacred space in Willard’s 1846 Temple of Time, its providential beginnings formally balanced in equal proportion to its every monumental stage. Willard’s intent was expressly patriotic, her trappings self-consciously classical. Her maps of time were ways of situating the nation as a natural successor to the empires of old, which flowed from the divine act of creation. They show a progressive widening of the world.

“Half a century before W.E.B. Du Bois… created his modernist data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair,” Popova writes, The Temple of Time “won a medal at the 1851 World’s Fair in London.” Willard accompanied the infographic with a statement of intent, articulating a media theory, over a hundred years before McLuhan, that sounds strangely anticipatory of his famous dictum.

The poetic idea of “the vista of departed years” is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medium, the picture will, by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.

Learn more about Emma Willard’s infographic revolution at the Public Domain Review and Brain Pickings.

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

A Bear Shows Off Its Nunchuck Skills

The world has gotten truly surreal.

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The Muppets Sing the First Act of Hamilton

Or, at least it's one fine impression of the Muppets.

Here's the cast:

Alexander Hamilton - Kermit the Frog
Aaron Burr - The Great Gonzo
Eliza Schuyler - Miss Piggy
Marquis de LaFozette - Fozzie Bear
George Washington - Sam the Eagle
Angelica Schuyler - Camilla the Chicken
John Laurens - Beaker
Hercules Mulligan - Rowlf the Dog
King George III - Animal
Peggy Schuyler - Janice
Samuel Seabury - The Swedish Chef
Charles Lee - Elmo
Congressional Delegates - Floyd and Zoot
Crazy Patriot - Crazy Harry
Statler and Waldorf - Themselves

via BoingBoing

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Bill Nye Shows How Face Masks Actually Protect You–and Why You Should Wear Them

Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up having things explained to me by Bill Nye. Flight, magnets, simple machines, volcanoes: there seemed to be nothing he and his team of young lieutenants couldn't break down in a clear, humorous, and wholly non-boring manner. He didn't ask us to come to him, but met us where we already were: watching television. The zenith of the popularity of his PBS series Bill Nye the Science Guy passed a quarter-century ago, and the world has changed a bit since then. But even in the 2020s, when the spreading of scientific knowledge is no less important than it was in the 90s, Nye knows where to air his message if he wants the kids to hear it: TikTok.

Hugely popular among people not yet born during Bill Nye the Science Guy's original run, TikTok is a video-based social media platform that accommodates videos of up to 60 seconds — roughly half the length of the "Consider the Following" segments embedded within the episodes of Nye's original show.




This week Nye has revived the format on Tiktok in order to lay out the scientific principles behind something that had recently become a part of all of our lives: face masks. True to form, he explains not just with words but with objects, in this case a series of respiratory system-protecting anti-particle devices from a humble scarf to a homemade cloth face mask (employing that stalwart science-project component, a pipe cleaner) to the medical industry-standard N95.

"The reason we want you to wear a mask is to protect you," says Nye. "But the main reason we want you to wear a mask is to protect me from you, and the particles from your respiratory system from getting into my respiratory system!" As simple a point as this may sound, it has tended to get lost amid the fear and confusion of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: the conflicting information initially published about the advisability of face masks for the general public, but also the ensuing controversy over the implementation and enforcement of mask-related rules. But as Nye reminds us, this is "a matter literally of life and death — and when I use the word literally, I mean literally." As we shore up our knowledge of masks, we Millennials, who throughout our lives have learned so much from Nye, would do well to internalize that point of usage while we're at it.

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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.

A Free Stanford Course on How to Teach Online: Designed for Middle & High School Teachers (July 13 – 17)

This fall, many teachers (across the country and the world) will be asked to teach online--something most teachers have never done before. To assist with that transition, the Stanford Online High School and Stanford Continuing Studies have teamed up to offer a free online course called Teaching Your Class Online: The Essentials. Taught by veteran instructors at Stanford Online High School (OHS), this course "will help middle and high school instructors move from general concepts for teaching online to the practical details of adapting your class for your students." The course is free and runs from 1-3 pm California time, July 13 - 17. You can sign up here.

For anyone interested, Stanford will also offer additional courses that give teachers the chance to practice teaching their material online and get feedback from Stanford Online High School instructors. Offered from July 20 - July 24, those courses cost $95. Click to this page, and scroll down to enroll.

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