Watch the History of the World Unfold on an Animated Map: From 200,000 BCE to Today

"Where are you from?" a character at one point asks Babe, the hapless protagonist of the Firesign Theatre's classic comedy album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All. "Nairobi, ma'am," Babe replies. "Isn't everybody?" Like most of that psychedelic radio troupe's pieces of apparent nonsense, that memorable line contains a truth: trace human history back far enough and you inevitably end up in east Africa, a point illustrated in reverse by the video above, "A History of the World: Every Year," which traces the march of humanity between 200,000 BCE and the modern day.

To a dramatic soundtrack which opens and closes with the music of Hans Zimmer, video creator Ollie Bye charts mankind's progress out of Africa and, ultimately, into every corner of all the continents of the world.

Real, documented settlements, cities, empires, and entire civilizations rise and fall as they would in a computer game, with a constantly updated global population count and list of the civilizations active in the current year as well as occasional notes about politics and diplomacy, society and culture, and inventions and discoveries.

All that happens in under 20 minutes, a pretty swift clip, though not until the very end does the world take the political shape we know today, including even the late latecomer to civilization that is the United States of America. Bye's many other videos tend to focus on the history of other parts of the world, such as India, the British Isles, and that cradle of our species, the African continent, all of which we can now develop first-hand familiarity with in this age of unprecedented human mobility. Though the condition itself takes the question "Where are you from?" to a degree of complication unknown not only millennia but also centuries and even decades ago, at least now you have a snappy answer at the ready.

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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.

How Isaac Newton Lost $3 Million Dollars in the “South Sea Bubble” of 1720: Even Geniuses Can’t Prevail Against the Machinations of the Markets

The Aristotelian notion of “man” as a “rational animal” has seen its share of detractors, from the Cynics to Bertrand Russell to nearly the whole of Poststructuralist thought. Leave it up to Oscar Wilde to compress the debate between intellect and passion into a pithy aphorism: “Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.”

We no longer need clever verbal barbs to refute too-optimistic assessments of human behavior. Economics is catching up: we have the language of neuroscience and psychology, which consistently tells us that humans decidedly do not behave rationally very often, but are driven by bias and biology in inexplicable ways. And for over a hundred years now, we've known that the clockwork Newtonian view of the physical universe turns out be a much messier and indeterminate affair, as does the universe of the human mind.

Why, then, has so much economic theory operated with a kind of dogged Aristotelianism, insisting that the units of capitalist society, the workers, managers, investors, consumers, owners, renters, speculators, etc. behave in predictable ways? We have case after case showing that intelligence and critical reasoning often have little to do with success or failure in the market. In such cases, however, one often hears the “madness of crowds” or other cliches invoked as an explanation.

To illustrate, market reporters and business writers have seized upon the story of Isaac Newton’s spectacular rise and fall in the so-called “South Sea Bubble” of 1720. We find the story in Benjamin Graham’s 1949 classic The Intelligent Investor, a widely-read book that attributes the irrationality of market systems to an anthropomorphic entity named “Mr. Market.”

Graham writes,

Back in the spring of 1720, Sir Isaac Newton owned shares in the South Sea Company, the hottest stock in England. Sensing that the market was getting out of hand, the great physicist muttered that he 'could calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people.' Newton dumped his South Sea shares, pocketing a 100% profit totaling £7,000. But just months later, swept up in the wild enthusiasm of the market, Newton jumped back in at a much higher price — and lost £20,000 (or more than $3 million in [2002-2003's] money. For the rest of his life, he forbade anyone to speak the words 'South Sea' in his presence.

The quotation in bold may or may not have been uttered by Newton, but the events Graham describes did indeed happen. As the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zwieg relates, University of Minnesota professor Andrew Odlyzko found that “Newton had shifted from a prudent investor with his money spread across several securities to a speculator who had plunged essentially all of his capital into a single stock. The great scientist was chasing hot performance as desperately as a day trader in 1999 or many bitcoin buyers in 2017.” (Odlyzko estimates Newton's losses closer to $4 million.) Perhaps it was not a metaphorical “Mr. Market” who cost Newton up to 77% “on his worst purchases,” nor was it widespread “wild enthusiasm”—the mass movement of passion that Enlightenment philosophers so feared.

Perhaps it was Newton himself who, Elena Holodny writes at Business Insider, “let his emotions get the best of him, and got swayed by the irrationality of the crowd.” Maybe it's more accurate to say Newton succumbed to greed when the bubble expanded. “Throughout history,” Barbara Kollmeyer writes at Market Watch in her interview with author Richard Dale, “people—especially those at the top rung of society—have been greedy and gullible participants in financial bubbles. And Sir Isaac Newton was only human, after all.” (How many at the top rung of society fell prey to Bernie Madoff’s schemes? And a century before the South Sea Bubble, hundreds of wealthy investors lost their shirts in the Dutch Tulip Bulb craze.)

Some business writers, like investment editor Richard Evans at The Telegraph, recommend a calculable formula to avoid losing a fortune in bubbles, advice that takes rational agency for granted. Perhaps it should not. In addition to citing the contagion of crowds, nearly every discussion of Newton’s folly allows that a failure of emotional discipline played a significant role. Benjamin Graham invokes another Aristotelian notion—the idea that “character” counts as much or more than intelligence when it comes to investing. "The investor's chief problem," he writes, "and even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself."

Far fewer commenters note that the South Sea venture was itself a failure of character from its inception. The company had secured an exclusive monopoly on trade with South America; much of that trade involved selling slaves. It is also the case that the company artificially inflated its stock prices, and colluded with several MPs in insider trading schemes. The so-called “Bubble Act” of Parliament in 1720, presumably passed to prevent crashes like the one that devastated Newton, turned out to be corporate giveaway. The terms of the act had been dictated by the South Sea Company in order to prevent other companies from poaching their investors. Although these circumstances are well-known to economic historians, they rarely make their way into commentary on Newton’s great loss.

Economists instead tend to blame abstractions for economic events like the South Sea Bubble, or they blame the overreaching profit-seeking of investors, and maybe for good reason. The other explanations haunt the margins: the inherently exploitative nature of most forms of corporate capitalism, and the corruption and collusion between the state and private enterprise that inhibits fair competition and makes it impossible for investors to evaluate the situation transparently. For all of his scientific and mathematical genius, Isaac Newton was no exception—he was just as subject to irrational greed as the next investor, and to the predatory machinations of “market forces."

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

1,600 Rare Color Photographs Depict Life in the U.S During the Great Depression & World War II

The title of Walker Evans and James Agee’s extraordinary work of literary photojournalism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, may have lost some of its ironic edge with subsequent acclaim and the fame of its writer and photographer. First begun in 1936 as a project documenting the largely invisible lives of white sharecropping families in rural Alabama, when the book appeared in print in 1941 it only sold about 600 copies. But over time, writes Malcolm Jones at Daily Beast, “it has established itself as a unique and enduring mashup of reporting, confession, and oracular prose.” As essential as Agee’s documentary prose poetics is to the book's appeal, Evans' photographs, like those of his many Depression-era contemporaries, have served as models for generations of photographers in decades hence.

Evans "photographs are not illustrative,” wrote Agee in the Preface. “They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.” If “the text was written with reading aloud in mind,” and Agee wanted us to hear, not simply see the language, perhaps we are also meant to see the individuals Evans captured, rather than just gaze at weathered faces and battered clothing, and view their bearers collectively as forlorn objects of pity.

Moreover, we shouldn’t look at these individuals only as members of a particular national group. In the book’s first paragraph, Agee writes:

The world is our home. It is also the home of many, many other children, some of whom live in far-away lands. They are our world brothers and sisters….

We are meant to see the subjects of Evans’ photographs and Agee’s exquisite descriptions as distinctive parts who make up the whole of humanity—or, more precisely, the world's laboring people. Agee opens with a famous epigraph from The Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, unite and fight. You have nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win.” (With a canny qualifying footnote explaining these words and their author as potentially “the property of any political party, faith, or faction”).

Several photographers employed, like Evans, by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression shared these sensibilities. The sympathies of Dorothea Lange, for example, lay with working people, not with the noblesse oblige of middle-class audiences who might support relief efforts but who had little desire to mingle with the great American unwashed. Many viewers—disconnected from rural life—stared at the photographs, writes Carrie Melissa Jones, “in issues of the now-defunct Life magazine, Time, Fortune, Forbes, and more,” and “took a paternalistic view of the south, asking: ‘How do we save them from themselves?’”

Can viewers of Depression-era photographs today put aside their implicit or explicit sense of moral superiority? Perhaps seeing photos of the era in color brings their subjects more immediacy and vividness, and you can see them by the hundreds at the Library of Congress’s online collection of work commissioned by the federal government during the Depression and World War II. Evans himself may have thought color photography “garish” and “vulgar,” Jordan G. Teicher notes at Slate (though Evans began taking his own color images in 1946). But contemporaries like Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, and John Vachon proved him wrong.

At the top of the post, see two photos from Lee—of two homesteaders in New Mexico (1940) and a shepherd with his horse and dog in Montana (1942). Beneath that, we have Wolcott’s striking photo of a rural cabin somewhere “in Southern U.S.,” circa 1940. Further up, see Delano’s image of sharecroppers chopping cotton in White Plains, Georgia (1941), which resembles the heroic figures in a Diego Rivera mural. And just above we have John Vachon’s image of rural school children in San Augustine County, Texas (1943). As we scan these faces and places, we might consider again Agee’s preface: “The governing instrument—which is also one of the centers of the subject—is individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness.” His instructions invite us to both empathy for each person we see and to broad human sympathy for all of them.

Once the U.S. entered the war, many Farm Security Administration photographers were reassigned to make propaganda for the Office of War Information (and a few, like Lange, also received commissions to photograph the Japanese Internment Camps). The nature of documentary photography began to change, largely reflecting small town American industriousness and civic pride, rather than rural desperation and struggle. Images like Fenno Jacobs’ patriotic demonstration in Southington Connecticut (1942) above, are typical. Quaint rows of houses and storefronts dominate during the war years. We also find interesting images like that of the woman below working on a “Vengeance” dive bomber in Tennessee, taken by Alfred T. Palmer in 1943. Aside from the dated clothing and machinery, her photograph seems as fresh and compelling as the day it first appeared.

“In color,” writes Emory University’s Jesse Karlsberg, “these images present themselves as relevant to the present, rather than consigned to the past. By displaying the problems they depict—such as segregation, poverty, and environmental degradation—in a contemporary form, the images imply that such problems may continue to be critical today.” They are indeed critical today. And may become even more so. And one hopes that writers, photographers, and artists, though they will not do so under the aegis of New Deal agencies, can find ways to document what is happening as they did decades ago. Such work carries global significance. And, as a recent Taschen book that collects New Deal photography from 1935 to 1943 describes it, photographs like those you see here “introduced America to Americans.” They also introduced Americans—who have been as divided in the past as they are today—to each other.

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

The American Revolution: A Free Course from Yale University

When you have a little time, you can drop in on a free course that revisits a seminal moment in U.S. history--the American Revolution. Taught by Yale historian Joanne Freeman, the course explores how the Revolution brought about "some remarkable transformations–converting British colonists into American revolutionaries, and a cluster of colonies into a confederation of states with a common cause." You can access the 25 lectures above, or on YouTube and iTunes. Also find a syllabus for the course on this Yale web site.

"The American Revolution" will be added to our list of Free History Courses, a subset of our larger collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Watch Santa Claus, the Earliest Movie About St. Nick in Existence (1898)

Santa Claus Is Comin' to TownThe Santa Clause, Santa Claus: the Movie, Bad Santa, the unforgettable Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: we all have a preferred depiction of Saint Nicholas on film, the selection of which grows larger each and every Christmas. The tradition of Santa in cinema goes back 120 years to a couple of obscure 1897 shorts, Santa Claus Filling Stockings and The Christmas Tree Party, made by a company called American Mutoscope, but it finds its fullest early expression in the following year's Santa Claus.

Directed by hypnotist and magic lanternist turned filmmaker George Albert Smith, this 66-second production, though a highly elaborate one for the time, purports to show just how Santa Claus makes a visit to drop off gifts for a couple of sleeping children. When their nanny turns off the lights for the night, we see superimposed on their darkened wall a vision of the jolly old elf himself landing on the roof and clambering down the chimney.

"What makes this treatment considerably more interesting than a conventional piece of editing," writes the British Film Institute's Michael Brooke, "is the way that Smith links the shots in terms of both space and time, by placing the new image over the space previously occupied by the fireplace, and continuing to show the children sleeping throughout."

Brooke calls that effect "cinema's earliest known example of parallel action and, when coupled with double-exposure techniques" that Smith had developed for his previous films, it makes Santa Claus "one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then." He notes also that Smith corresponded with Georges Méliès, his fellow pioneer of not just special effects but cinema itself, around the time of this film, no surprise since "the two men shared a common goal in terms of creating an authentic cinema of illusion."

Watch Santa Claus on this Christmas Day, and you'll find that, in the words of Kieron Casey at The Totality, "the plot is simple, but the magic is not — viewed over 100 years later, it’s impossible not to be touched to the very core with the wonder on display in the film. In the same way young hands will find the most simple of toys mesmerising when touched for the first time, there is a real innocence and enthusiasm in G.A. Smith’s film – it’s a short movie which is full of imagination and discovery, the type of which will never again be experienced in cinema." But seeing as Santa Claus existed long before cinema and will exist long after it, rest assured that he'll bring his trademark twinkle to any storytelling medium humanity comes up with next.

Santa Claus will be added to our list of Classic Silent Films, a subset of our collection 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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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.

Hear the Christmas Carols Made by Alan Turing’s Computer: Cutting-Edge Versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Good King Wenceslas” (1951)

Alan Turing (right) stands next to the Ferranti Mark I. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester

This Christmas, as our computers fast learn to compose music by themselves, we might gain some perspective by casting our minds back to 66 Christmases ago, a time when a computer's rendition of anything resembling music at all had thousands and thousands listening in wonder. In December of 1951, the BBC's holiday broadcast, in most respects a naturally traditional affair, included the sound of the future: a couple of much-loved Christmas carols performed not by a choir, nor by human beings of any kind, but by an electronic machine the likes of which almost nobody had even laid eyes upon.

"Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognizable, sounded like nothing else on earth," write Jack Copeland and Jason Long at the British Library's Sound and Vision Blog. "They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory" at the Victoria University of Manchester. Turing, whom we now recognize for a variety of achievements in computing, cryptography, and related fields (including cracking the German "Enigma code" during the Second World War), had joined the university in 1948.

That same year, with his former undergraduate colleague D. G. Champernowne, Turing began writing a purely theoretical computer chess program. No computer existed on which he could possibly try running it for the next few years until the Ferranti Mark 1 came along, and even that mammoth proved too slow. But it could, using a function designed to give auditory feedback to its operators, play music — of a kind, anyway. The computer company's "marketing supremo," according to Copeland and Long, called its brief Christmas concert "the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised."

Since no recording of the broadcast survives, what you hear here is a painstaking reconstruction made from tapes of the computer's even earlier renditions of "God Save the King," "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and "In the Mood." By manually chopping up the audio, write Copeland and Long, "we created a palette of notes of various pitches and durations. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musical Lego." But do "beware of occasional dud notes. Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible." Even so, somewhere in there I hear the historical and technological seeds of the much more elaborate electronic Christmas to come, from Mannheim Steamroller to the Jingle Cats and well beyond.

via The British Library

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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.

The First Photographs of Snowflakes: Discover the Groundbreaking Microphotography of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1885)

What kind of a blighted society turns the word “snowflake” into an insult?, I sometimes catch myself thinking, but then again, I’ve never understood why “treehugger” should offend. All irony aside, being known as a person who loves nature or resembles one of its most elegant creations should be a mark of distinction, no? At least that’s what Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley surely thought.

The Vermont farmer, self-educated naturalist, and avid photographer, was the first person to offer the following wisdom on the record, then illustrate it with hundreds upon hundreds of pictures of snowflakes, 5,000 in all:

I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.

Bentley left a considerable record—though still an insignificant sample size given the scope of the object of study. But his photographs give the impression of an infinite variety of different types, each with the same basic crystalline latticework structure. He took his first photograph of a snowflake, the first ever taken, in 1885, by adapting a microscope to a bellows camera, after years of making sketches and much trial and error.

Some great portion of this work must have been tedious and frustrating—Bentley had to hold his breath for each exposure lest he destroy the photographic subject. But it was worth the effort. Bentley, the Smithsonian informs us, “was a pioneer in ‘photomicrography,’ the photographing of very small objects.” Five hundred of his photographs now reside at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, “offered by Bentley in 1903 to protect against ‘all possibility of loss and destruction, through fire or accident.” You can see a huge digital gallery of those hundreds of photos here.

Along with U.S. Weather Bureau physicist William J. Humphreys, he published 2300 of his snowflake photographs in a monograph titled Snow Crystals. Bentley also published over 60 articles on the subject (read two of them here). Despite his contributions, he receives no mention in most histories of photomicrography. This may be due to his provincial location (he never left Jericho, VT) or his lack of scientific training and credentials, or a lack of interest in photos of snowflakes on the part of most photomicrography historians.

Or it may be because Bentley was thought to be a fraud. When a German meteorologist commissioned some images of his own and got some very different results, he accused the farmer of retouching. Bentley readily admitted it, saying, “a true scientist wishes above all to have his photographs as true to nature as possible, and if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified.”

The defense is a good one. Although the “nature” Bentley’s photos show us may be a theoretical idealization, so too are the hand-rendered illustrations of most scientists throughout history (and nearly every medical diagram today). Take, for example, the psychedelic, brightly colored patterns of accomplished biologist Ernst Haeckel, who turned the micro- and macroscopic world into surreally symmetrical art in his drawings. Though he might not have said so directly, Bentley was doing something similar with a camera. Just listen to him describe his process in a 1900 issue of Harper’s:

Quick, the first flakes are coming; the couriers of the coming snow storm. Open the skylight, and directly under it place the carefully prepared blackboard, on whose ebony surface the most minute form of frozen beauty may be welcome from cloud-land. The mysteries of the upper air are about to reveal themselves, if our hands are deft and our eyes quick enough.

In the “quiet frenzy of his winter’s quest,” writes Allison Meier at Hyperallergic, he produced images of “beautiful ghosts from a winter that bristled the air over a century ago.” Learn more about Bentley’s life, work, and the Smithsonian collection in the short documentary further up, the Washington Post video above, and the Radiolab episode below, in which a breathless Latif Nasser takes us into the heart of Bentley’s origin story, and “snowflake expert and photographer Ken Libbrecht helps set the record straight.”

Real snowflakes have many imperfections, and perhaps Bentley did snow a disservice to so strenuously suggest otherwise. But the record he left us, Meier notes, “is appreciated as much as an artistic archive as a meteorological one.” He might have been a scientist when it came to technique, but Bentley was a romantic when it came to snow. His story is as fascinating as his photographs. Maybe a delightful alternative to the usual Christmas fare. There's even a children's book called... what else?...  Snowflake Bentley.

via Smithsonian/Hyperallergic

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

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