I’m Just a Pill: A Schoolhouse Rock Classic Gets Reimagined to Defend Reproductive Rights in 2017

Like many American children of the 70s and 80s, my understanding of how our government is supposed to function was shaped by Schoolhouse Rock.

Immigration, separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers and of course, the promise of the Constitution (“a list of principles for keepin’ people free”) were just a few of the topics the animated musical series covered with clarity and wit.

The new world order in which we’ve recently found ourselves suggests that 2017 would be a grand year to start rolling out more such videos.

The Lady Parts Justice League, a self-declared “cabal of comics and writers exposing creeps hellbent on destroying access to birth control and abortion” leads the charge with the above homage to Schoolhouse Rock's 1976 hit, “I’m Just a Bill,” recasting the original’s glum aspirant law as a feisty Plan B contraceptive pill. The red haired boy who kept the bill company on the steps of the Capital is now a teenage girl, confused as to how any legal, over-the-counter method for reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy could have so many enemies.

As with the original series, the prime objective is to educate, and comic Lea DeLaria’s Pill happily obliges, explaining that while people may disagree as to when “life” begins, it’s a scientific fact that pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg lodges itself in the uterus. (DeLaria plays Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, by the way.) That process takes a while---72 hours to be exact. Plenty of time for the participants to scuttle off to the drugstore for emergency contraception, aka Plan B, the so called "morning-after" pill.

As per the drug’s website, if taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, Plan B  can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 89%. Taken within 24 hours, it is about 95% effective.

And yes, teenagers can legally purchase it, though Teen Vogue has reported on numerous stores who’ve made it difficult, if not impossible, for shoppers to gain access to the pill.

(The Reproductive Justice Project encourages consumers to help them collect data on whether Plan B is correctly displayed on the shelves as available for sale to any woman of childbearing age.)

There’s a helpful football analogy for those who may be a bit slow in understanding that Plan B is indeed a bonafide contraceptive, and not the abortifacient some mistakenly make it out to be. It’s NSFW, but only just, as a team of cartoon penis-outlines push down the field toward the uterine wall in the end zone.

The other bills who once stood in line awaiting the president’s signature have been reimagined as sperm, while songwriter Holly Miranda pays tribute to Dave Frishberg’s lyrics with a pizzazz worthy of the original:

I’m just a pill

A helpful birth control pill

No matter what they say on Capital Hill

So now you know my truth

I’m all about prevention

If your condom breaks

I’m here for intervention

Join me take a stand today

I really hope and pray that you will

Drop some facts

Tell the world

I’m a pill.

Let's hope the resistance yields more catchy, educational animations!

And here, for comparison's sake, is the magnificent original:

Via BUST Magazine

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

Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vigorous” and “Alert”

One potential drawback of genius, it seems, is restlessness, a mind perpetually on the move. Of course, this is what makes many celebrated thinkers and artists so productive. That and the extra hours some gain by sacrificing sleep. Voltaire reportedly drank up to 50 cups of coffee a day, and seems to have suffered no particularly ill effects. Balzac did the same, and died at 51. The caffeine may have had something to do with it. Both Socrates and Samuel Johnson believed that sleep is wasted time, and “so for years has thought grey-haired Richard Buckminster Fuller,” wrote Time magazine in 1943, “futurific inventor of the Dymaxion house, the Dymaxion car and the Dymaxion globe.”

Engineer and visionary Fuller intended his “Dymaxion” brand to revolutionize every aspect of human life, or---in the now-slightly-dated parlance of our obsession with all things hacking---he engineered a series of radical “lifehacks.” Given his views on sleep, that seemingly essential activity also received a Dymaxion upgrade, the trademarked name combining “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” “Two hours of sleep a day,” Fuller announced, “is plenty.” Did he consult with specialists? Medical doctors? Biologists? Nothing as dull as that. He did what many a mad scientist does in the movies. (In the search, as Vincent Price says at the end of The Fly, “for the truth.”) He cooked up a theory, and tested it on himself.


“Fuller,” Time reported, “reasoned that man has a primary store of energy, quickly replenished, and a secondary reserve (second wind) that takes longer to restore.” He hypothesized that we would need less sleep if we stopped to take a nap at “the first sign of fatigue.” Fuller trained himself to do just that, forgoing the typical eight hours, more or less, most of us get per night. He found—as have many artists and researchers over the years—that “after a half-hour nap he was completely refreshed.” Naps every six hours allowed him to shrink his total sleep per 24-hour period to two hours. Did he, like the 50s mad scientist, become a tragic victim of his own experiment?

No danger of merging him with a fly or turning him invisible. The experiment’s failure may have meant a day in bed catching up on lost sleep. Instead, Fuller kept up it for two full years, 1932 and 1933, and reported feeling in “the most vigorous and alert condition that I have ever enjoyed.” He might have slept two hours a day in 30 minute increments indefinitely, Time suggests, but found that his “business associates… insisted on sleeping like other men,” and wouldn’t adapt to his eccentric schedule, though some not for lack of trying. In his book BuckyWorks J. Baldwin claims, “I can personally attest that many of his younger colleagues and students could not keep up with him. He never seemed to tire.”

A research organization looked into the sleep system and “noted that not everyone was able to train themselves to sleep on command.” The point may seem obvious to the significant number of people who suffer from insomnia. “Bucky disconcerted observers,” Baldwin writes, “by going to sleep in thirty seconds, as if he had thrown an Off switch in his head. It happened so quickly that it looked like he had had a seizure.” Buckminster Fuller was undoubtedly an unusual human, but human all the same. Time reported that “most sleep investigators agree that the first hours of sleep are the soundest.” A Colgate University researcher at the time discovered that “people awakened after four hours’ sleep were just as alert, well-coordinated physically and resistant to fatigue” as those who slept the full eight.

Sleep research since the forties has made a number of other findings about variable sleep schedules among humans, studying shift workers' sleep and the so-called “biphasic” pattern common in cultures with very late bedtimes and siestas in the middle of the day. The success of this sleep rhythm “contradicts the normal idea of a monophasic sleeping schedule,” writes Evan Murray at MIT’s Culture Shock, “in which all our time asleep is lumped into one block." Biphasic sleep results in six or seven hours of sleep rather than the seven to nine of monophasic sleepers. Polyphasic sleeping, however, the kind pioneered by Fuller, seems to genuinely result in even less needed sleep for many. It’s an idea that’s only become widespread “within roughly the last decade,” Murray noted in 2009. He points to the rediscovery, without any clear indebtedness, of Fuller’s Dymaxion system by college student Maria Staver, who named her method “Uberman,” in honor of Nietzsche, and spread its popularity through a blog and a book.

Murray also reports on another blogger, Steve Pavlina, who conducted the experiment on himself and found that “over a period of 5 1/2 months, he was successful in adapting completely,” reaping the benefits of increased productivity. But like Fuller, Pavlina gave it up, not for “health reasons,” but because, he wrote, “the rest of the world is monophasic” or close to it. Our long block of sleep apparently contains a good deal of “wasted transition time” before we arrive at the necessary REM state. Polyphasic sleep trains our brains to get to REM more quickly and efficiently. For this reason, writes Murray, “I believe it can work for everyone.” Perhaps it can, provided they are willing to bear the social cost of being out of sync with the rest of the world. But people likely to practice Dymaxion Sleep for several months or years probably already are.

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

How Did Beethoven Compose His 9th Symphony After He Went Completely Deaf?

You don’t need to know anything at all about classical music, nor have any liking for it even, to be deeply moved by that most famous of symphonies, Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th---“perhaps the most iconic work of the Western musical tradition,” writes The Juilliard Journal in an article about its handwritten score. Commissioned in 1817, the sublime work was only completed in 1824. By that time, its composer was completely and totally deaf. At the first performance, Beethoven did not notice that the massive final choral movement had ended, and one of the musicians had to turn him around to acknowledge the audience.

This may seem, says researcher Natalya St. Clair in the TED-Ed video above, like some “cruel joke,” but it’s the truth. Beethoven was so deaf that some of the most interesting artifacts he left behind are the so-called “conversation books,” kept from 1818 onward to communicate with visitors who had to write down their questions and replies. How then might it have been possible for the composer to create such enduringly thrilling, rapturous works of aural art?


Using the delicate, melancholy “Moonlight Sonata” (which the composer wrote in 1801, when he could still hear), St. Clair attempts to show us how Beethoven used mathematical “patterns hidden beneath the beautiful sounds.” (In the short video below from documentary The Genius of Beethoven, see the onset of Beethoven's hearing loss in a dramatic reading of his letters.) According to St. Clair’s theory, Beethoven composed by observing “the mathematical relationship between the pitch frequency of different notes,” though he did not write his symphonies in calculus. It’s left rather unclear how the composer's supposed intuition of mathematics and pitch corresponds with his ability to express such a range of emotions through music.

We can learn more about Beethoven's deafness and its biological relationship to his compositional style in the short video below with research fellow Edoardo Saccenti and his colleague Age Smilde from the Biosystems Data Analysis Group at Amsterdam’s Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences. By counting the high and low frequencies in Beethoven’s complete string quartets, a task that took Saccenti many weeks, he and his team were able to show how three distinct compositional styles “correspond to stages in the progression of his deafness,” as they write in their paper (which you can download in PDF here).

The progression is unusual. As his condition worsened, Beethoven included fewer and fewer high frequency sounds in his compositions (giving cellists much more to do). By the time we get to 1824-26, “the years of the late string quartets and of complete deafness”---and of the completion of the 9th---the high notes have returned, due in part, Smilde says, to “the balance between an auditory feedback and the inner ear.” Beethoven’s reliance on his “inner ear” made his music “much and much richer.” How? As one violinist in the clip puts it, he was “given more freedom because he was not attached anymore to the physical sound, [he could] just use his imagination.”

For all of the compelling evidence presented here, whether Beethoven’s genius in his painful later years is attributable to his intuition of complex mathematical patterns or to the total free reign of his imaginative inner ear may in fact be undiscoverable. In any case, no amount of rational explanation can explain away our astonishment that the man who wrote the unfailingly powerful, awesomely dynamic “Ode to Joy” finale (conducted above by Leonard Bernstein), couldn’t actually hear any of the music.

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

Giant Dinosaurs Travel Down the Hudson River: See What Awestruck New Yorkers Witnessed in 1963

Amazing things happen every day in New York City---some spontaneous, some whose execution is carefully planned over weeks and months.

Equally amazing is the total ignorance with which one can go about one’s business at just a few blocks remove … be it the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, Egg Rolls and Egg Creams, or the Three Kings Day Parade, some folks only have eyes for brunch.


But it would have been difficult for anyone to overlook seven animatronic dinosaurs, traveling by barge on October 15, 1963, bound for the Sinclair Oil Corporation’s “Dinoland” exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair.

In a stunt worthy of Barnum, the synthetic beasts trekked 150 miles from the exhibit's designer, Jonas Studios, to the World's Fair site in Flushing, Queens, hailed by fireboats and an enthusiastic throng. The sponsoring corporation, whose highly recognizable logo was a brontosaurus, had furnished the public with a timetable of estimated arrivals along the route.

dinopress

For good measure, every family to visit the exhibit within the first year was offered a coupon for a free gallon of gasoline.

Installed in what the marvelously evocative Jam Handy short below termed a “prime location surrounded by titans of American industry,” the dinosaurs attracted over 10 million “car-owning, traveling” fans. (That’s a lot of fossil fuel.)

On the way out, visitors were encouraged to avail themselves of the Mold-A-Rama machine, which pumped out miniature plastic dinosaur souvenirs at 25¢ a pop.

After the fair closed, the dinosaurs went on tour, put in an appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and eventually settled into zoos and natural history museums around the country.

Read the Dinoland guidebook here. A sample:

Sinclair uses the Dinosaur "Brontosaurus" as a symbol to dramatize the age and quality of the crude oils from which Sinclair Petroleum Products are made -- crudes which were mellowing in the earth millions of years ago when Dinosaurs lived.

via @Pickover

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Birth Control Handbook: The Underground Student Publication That Let Women Take Control of Their Bodies (1968)

birth-control-handbook

Central to Michel Foucault’s theory of “governmentality” is what he calls “biopower,” an "explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations." Where debates over abortion and contraception generally coalesce around questions of religion and rights, the French theorist of power saw these issues as part of the bio-political struggle between “governing the self” and “governing others.”

Those who resist repressive biopower seize on the former definition of government. Take a very pointed example of both restrictive government biopower and creative resistance to the same: the 1968 Birth Control Handbook you see here, printed illegally by undergraduate students at Montreal’s McGill University. At the time of this text’s creation, notes Atlas Obscura, “under Canada’s Criminal Code, the dissemination, sale, and advertisement of birth control methods were all illegal, and abortion was punishable by life imprisonment.”

Despite facing the possible consequences of up to two years in prison, the McGill Student Society “sold millions of copies” of The Birth Control Handbook, writes Amanda Edgley, “in Canada and internationally.” Maya Koropatnitsky describes the tremendous social impact of the handbook:

Students at McGill as well as other Quebec campuses snapped up the first run of 17,000 copies. Due to its major success, the committee came out with a second issue of the handbook in 1969. This handbook is seen to be a major player in women’s liberation because it gave young women the knowledge and the ability to control reproductive functions.  

The handbook furthermore “mobilized women into forming meetings and groups to talk about consciousness-raising issues.” This informal education was invaluable for millions of women, who were “desperate for this information,” writes author Laura Kaplan, “so starved for information. You wanted it, in as much detail as you could get it, as graphic as it could be made.”

birth-control-3

What the Canadian, and U.S., governments saw as sexually explicit will look to us like standard biology textbook illustrations, mundane charts and graphs, ordinary pictures of the birth experience, and tasteful, rather tame nude photos. Original authors Allan Feingold and Donna Cherniak “pored through books in the medical library," Atlas Obscura writes, "and consulted medical advisors, compiling detailed information on topics like sexual intercourse, menstrual cycles, surgical abortion techniques (accompanied by prices and statistics), and how, exactly, to contact abortion providers.”

Illustrating another Foucauldian insight into the relationship between knowledge and power, not only were birth control methods under the strict control of mostly male doctors (and only available with permission from a husband), but even basic information on reproduction and birth control was difficult for most women to access. “To have all the information on the various methods of birth control in one place,” says Kaplan, “with pros and cons and what you needed to know about them, was a revelation.” Cherniak later remembered, “We joked that after the Bible, we were probably one of the most widely distributed publications in Canada.”

birth-control-2

Both editions of the handbook addressed the controversial topic of abortion, citing the Canadian criminal code along the way. “Concerned with the problem of illegal abortion,” writes University of Ottowa professor Christabelle Sethna, “the council mandated the publication” of the handbook, which also “contained editorial commentary that took Western population-control experts to task for their racism and that supported women’s reproductive rights as a function of women’s liberation.” Sethna situates The Birth Control Handbook within a much larger Canadian movement, just “one of the ways,” writes Edgeley, “Canadians took control over their own bodies.” Its creators saw it as a means of changing the world. “Those were the years,” Cherniak says, “in which you thought you could do anything.”

birth-control-5

Two years after the first print run of The Birth Control Handbook, the ur-text of feminist bio-politics, Our Bodies, Ourselves, was published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. This book “became its own widely circulated women’s health text,” Atlas Obscura writes, “translated into 29 languages.” But while Our Bodies, Ourselves remains famous for its key role in spreading much-needed information about reproductive health, “its Canadian counterpart has been mostly forgotten." The Birth Control Handbook gave millions of women the information they needed to govern their own lives. Rediscover the complete text of the first, 1968 edition and second, 1969 edition at the Internet Archive, where you can see a scan, read transcribed full text, and download PDF, Kindle, and other formats.

via Atlas Obscura

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

The Science of Why We Laugh

Laughter is universal. And yet strange when you think about it. One moment we're doing nothing particularly noteworthy. The next moment we're convulsing and making these loud staccato guffaws. Odd that.

So why do we laugh? It's a question that Robert Provine, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, has been studying for 20+ years, trying to understand laughter's social, neurological, and evolutionary roots. In the video above, he gives you a sense of the "sidewalk" research he conducts, and some of the conclusions he has drawn--e.g., laughter is often not a reaction to something funny per se; it's something that helps build social relationships with others. And it's a reaction that's hardwired in the brain.

At the video's end, Provine tells us that the study of laughter has just begun. But, if you're interested in what we know so far, see his two books: Laughter: A Scientific Investigation and Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond, an exploration of neglected human instincts.

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. 

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Was There a First Human Language?: Theories from the Enlightenment Through Noam Chomsky

During the 17th and 18th centuries, European Enlightenment philosophers discarded the origin stories in religious texts as wildly implausible or simply allegorical. But they found themselves charged with coming up with their own, naturalistic explanations for the origins of life, law, morality, etc. And most pressingly for their inquiries into psychology and cognition, many of those thinkers sought to explain the origins of language.

The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel had long been widely accepted, either literally or metaphorically, as indicative that all humans once spoke the same language (The so-called “Adamic Language”). Many competing theories came from philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, Condillac, Herder, and the Scottish jurist and philosopher James Burnett, known by his hereditary title, Monboddo.

Anticipating Darwinian evolution as well as comparative linguistics, Monboddo argued that language arose as a response to a changing environment, and that it came into being, along with human beings, in one place, then diversified as humans spread across the globe and diverged culturally. This was known as the theory of monogenesis, or the “single-origin theory” of language.

As the narrator in the video above, from linguistics YouTube channel NativLang, puts it, even after the story had been naturalized---and the languages of the world mapped into proto-evolutionary family trees---“Babel still held one intriguing idea over us; that original language.” And yet, rather than search for the mystical Adamic Language—the revelation of a divinity—as many alchemists and occultists had done, natural philosophers like Monboddo used emerging comparative linguistics methods to attempt a historical reconstruction of the first human language.

They were less than successful. Giving it up as futile, in 1866, the Society of Linguistics in Paris banned all discussion of the issue. “Enter the late Joseph Greenberg” to begin the search anew, says NativLang. A 20th-century American linguist, Greenberg used mass comparison and typology to compare “superfamilies.” Later linguists took up the challenge, including Merritt Ruhlen, who “compared vocabulary from across the globe and reconstructed 27 proto-words” supposedly belonging to the first human language, called “Proto-World.” Ruhlen's theory has since been critically savaged, says NativLang, and “confidently tossed... into the bins of fringe linguistics, pseudoscience... and yet, Babel’s first, and biggest claim lingers.”

The intellectual history in this five-minute video is obviously oversimplified, but it highlights some fascinating features of the current debate. As Avi Lifschitz, historian of Enlightenment theory of language, writes, we tend “to assume that our own cognitive theories are the latest word when compared with those of our predecessors. Yet in some areas, the questions we are now asking are not too different from those posed some two or three centuries ago.” In the case of the origins of language, that is most certainly so. Central to the theories of Locke and others, for example, "the precise role of language in the brain and in human perception" remains "one of the most topical questions in today’s cognitive science."

Although many scholars have given up attempting to reconstruct the original language, linguists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary biologists continue to find compelling evidence for the single-origin theory. The NativLang video omits perhaps the most famous modern linguist, Noam Chomsky, who argued that a chance mutation occurred some 100,000 years ago, giving rise to language. Even as languages have diverged into what’s currently estimated at around 6,000 different tongues, Chomsky claimed, they all retain a common structure, a “universal grammar.”

Whatever it might have sounded like, original language would likely have arisen in Sub-Saharan Africa, where modern humans evolved somewhere between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago. In 2011, University of Auckland biologist Quentin Atkinson used linguistic techniques somewhat like Monboddo’s to show that African languages—especially click languages like the South African Xu—have considerably more individual sounds (phonemes) than others. And that languages around the world have fewer and fewer phonemes the further they are from southern Africa.

Most scientists agree with the basic evolutionary history of human origins. But like Ruhlen's "Proto-World," Atkinson’s linguistic theory “caused something of a sensation,” writes Science Daily, and has since come in for severe critique. The debate over many of those Enlightenment questions about the origins of language continues. Barring some draconian ban, “the search for the site of origin of language,” and for the language itself and the evolutionary mechanisms that produced it, “remains very much alive.”

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

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