“Odyssey of the Ear”: A Beautiful Animation Shows How Sounds Travel Into Our Ears and Become Thoughts in Our Brain

As all schoolchildren know, we hear with our ears. And as all schoolchildren also probably know, we hear with our brains — or if they don't know it, at least they must suspect it, given the way sounds around us seem to turn without effort into thoughts in our heads. But how? It's the interface between ear and brain where things get more complicated, but "Odyssey of the Ear," the six-minute video above, makes it much clearer just how sound gets through our ears and into our brains. Suitable for viewers of nearly any age, it combines silhouette animation (of the kind pioneered by Lotte Reiniger) with live action, projection, and even dance.

According to the video, which was originally produced as part of HarvardX's Fundamentals of Neuroscience course, the process works something like this. Our outer ear collects sounds from our environment when things vibrate in the physical world, producing variations in air pressure, or "sound waves" that pass through the air.




The sound waves enter the ear and pass down through the auditory canal, at the end of which they hit the ear drum. The ear drum transfers the vibrations of the sound waves to a "series of little bones," three of them, called the ossicles, or "hammer, anvil, and stirrup." These transmit the sounds to the fluid-filled inner ear through a membrane called the "oval window."

Inside the inner ear is the snail-shaped organ known as the cochlea, and inside the cochlea is the organ of corti, and inside the organ of corti are "thousands of auditory hair cells," actually receptor neurons called stereocilia, that "convert the motion energy of sound waves into electrical signals that are communicated to the auditory nerve." From there, "the signal goes into structures deeper in the brain, until at last it reaches the auditory cortex, where we consciously experience sound." That conscious experience of sound may make it feel as if we immediately recognize and consider all the noises, voices, or music we hear, but as "Odyssey of the Ear" reveals, sound waves have to make quite an epic journey before they reach our brains at all. At that point the waves themselves may have dissipated, but they live on in our consciousness. In other words, "the brain has taken what was outside and made it inside."

via The Kids Should See This

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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.

Librarian Honors a Dying Tree by Turning It Into a Little Free Library

And then she said to Annika, "Why don't you feel in that old tree stump? One practically always finds things in old tree stumps." 

- Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren 

Remember that other classic of children's literature, wherein a boy runs from the city to a secluded mountain, taking up residence in an old tree he hollows into a cozy shelter?

Public librarian and artist Sharalee Armitage Howard’s Little Free Library is a bit like that, except there was no running involved.

When the venerable and ailing cottonwood in her Coeur d’Alene front yard began dropping branches on cars parked below, Howard faced the inevitable. But rather than chop the tree even with the ground, she arranged with the removal crew to leave a considerable amount of stump intact.




Then, in a Pippi Longstocking-ish move, she filled it with books for her neighbors and strangers to discover.

The interior has a snug, woodland vibe, worthy of Beatrix Potter or Alison Uttley, with tidy shelves, soft lighting, and a shingled roof to protect the contents from the elements.

Ever since December, when Howard posted photos to social media, the fairytale-like structure has been engendering epic amounts of global goodwill.

What a beautiful way to preserve and honor a tree that stood for well over a century.

One of the few naysayers is Reddit user discerningpervert, who is perhaps not giving voice to the Lorax, so much as Thalia, Muse of Comedy, when he writes:

It's like a house of horrors for trees. Inside the corpse of their former comrade are the processed remnants of their treebrothers and treesisters.

A literal Treehouse of Horror...

Visit Howard’s Little Free Library (charter #8206) the next time you're in Idaho. Or install one of your own.

(Those with trees to throw at the cause may want to begin with the stump hollowing tutorial below.)

via Twisted Sifter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Zora Neale Hurston & Eleanor Roosevelt Helped Create the First Realistic African American Baby Doll (1951)

In the 1930s and 40s, child psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark found that very young black children in the U.S. usually chose dolls with lighter skin colors when given a choice. The findings suggested that the children had internalized dominant prejudices against them “by the time they reached nursery school,” notes the National Museum of Play. “These studies played an important role in the NAACP’s battle in the 1950s to end segregation in public schools.”

What often goes unremarked in accounts of this research is that at the time “almost all of the African American dolls on the market were modeled after racist stereotypes,” as Emily Temple notes in an article on LitHub drawing on the work of historian Gordon Patterson. "Those that weren’t" caricatures "were just white dolls that had been painted brown.” This had been the case for two centuries, as Collectors Weekly explains. Black children had been internalizing racism—learning to associate positive attributes with white dolls and negative attributes with black dolls.




But those children (and their parents) had also been rejecting the racist caricatures and forms of erasure on offer. Temple writes of how one white woman, Sara Lee Creech “noticed two black children playing with white dolls in a car outside of a post office in Belle Glade, Florida.” She felt that they should have toys that represented their experience as well. Already a social justice warrior, as they say—“active in the women’s movements since the mid 1930s” and helping to found “an Interracial Council in Belle Glade”—Creech decided she would create a doll that “would represent the beauty and diversity of black children.”

If this “sounds a little white savior-y,” writes Temple, “I’m with you,” but there’s much more to the story. Creech submitted the idea to her friend Zora Neale Hurston, pioneering ethnographer of African American culture and premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston “was enthusiastic about the project” and, in turn, pledged to “show pictures of the doll to the ‘well known and influential members’ of the black community with whom she had connections.”

In 1950, Hurston wrote to Creech in praise of her intention to “meet our longing for understanding of us as we really are, and not as some would have us.” At the same time, Creech’s friend Maxeda von Hesse brought Eleanor Roosevelt onto the project, who enthusiastically supported it as well, going so far as to host a tea with Mary Bethune, Ralph Bunche, and Jackie Robinson, among other influential figures, “to consult on the appropriate skin.”

The Ideal Toy Company—founded by the creators of the first mass-produced Teddy Bear—took on the enterprise of manufacturing the doll, named Sara Lee, selling the toy between 1951 and 1953. It was the first attempt to mass-market a realistic African American baby doll. She first appeared in the 1951 Sears Roebuck Christmas Catalog. Major magazines like Esquire, Life, Time, Ebony, and Newsweek announced the doll’s arrival, but sales were eventually disappointing due to manufacturing flaws.

The demand, however, had always been there. Filmmaker Samantha Knowles and doll collectors like Debra Britt and Debbie Behan Garrett describe their experiences with the scarcity of black dolls on the market. During her childhood in the 1950s and 60s, Garrett remarks, “black dolls were just not readily available, and those that were available, my mother felt were not true representations of black people. So all of my dolls were white.” (In his article, Patterson cites Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye as the classically tragic literary treatment of the situation.)

Even after the brief introduction of the Sara Lee doll, Garrett's experience continued to be that of most back children. As the Museum of Play notes, it wouldn’t be until 1968 that major companies would again mass-market black dolls, starting with Barbie’s friend Christie. That year also saw the release of “Baby Nancy,writes Garrett, made by newly-founded black-owned doll company Shindana toys, which became “the nation’s largest manufacturer of black dolls and games.”

Read more at LitHub about how Zora Neale Hurston, Eleanor Roosevelt, and an unknown activist in the late 1940s and early 50s first opened the door to a more inclusive toy market that treated its customers more equally. Using commercial means to effect social change may remain a debatable tactic, but there’s no question that positive cultural representation matters for children’s development. Intentional or otherwise, exclusion and stereotyping cause real harm. As Debbie Garrett puts it, “if black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”

via LitHub

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

Vintage Geological Maps Get Turned Into 3D Topographical Wonders

What good is an old-fashioned map in the age of apps?

One need not be a mountaineer, geoscientist, or civil engineer to get the topographical lay of the land with a speed and accuracy that would have blown Lewis and Clark’s minds’ right through the top of the lynx and otter toppers they took to wearing after their standard issue army lids wore out.

There’s still something to be said for the old ways, though.




Graphic designer Scott Reinhard has all the latest technological advances at his disposal, but it took combining them with hundred-year-old maps for him to get a truly 3-D appreciation for locations he has visited around the United States, as well as his childhood home.

A son of Indiana, Reinhard told Colossal’s Kate Sierzputowski that he found some Grand Teton-type excitement in the notoriously flat Hoosier State once he started marrying official national geospatial data to vintage map designs:

 When I began rendering the elevation data for the state, the story of the land emerged. The glaciers that receded across the northern half of the state after the last ice age scraped and gouged and shaped the land in a way that is spectacularly clear…I felt empowered by the ability to collect and process the vast amounts of information freely available, and create beautiful images.

(The government shut-down has not damaged the accuracy of Reinhard’s maps, but the U.S. Geological Survey’s website does warn the public that the effects of any earthquakes or other force majeure occurring during this black-out period will not immediately be reflected in their topos.)

(Nor are they able to respond to any inquiries, which puts a damper on holiday weekend plans for making salt dough maps, another Hoosier state fave, at least in 1974...)

As writer Jason Kottke notes, the shadows the mountains cast on the margins of Reinhard’s maps are a particularly effective optical trick.

You can see more of Reinhard’s digitally enhanced maps from the late 19th and early 20th-century, and order prints in his online shop.

via Kottke/Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How a Word Enters the Dictionary: A Quick Primer

Given that you’re reading this on the Internet, we presume you'll be able to define many of the over 800 words that were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018:

biohacking

bougie

bingeable

guac

hangry

Latinx

mocktail

zoodles

But what about some of the humdingers lexicographer Kory Stamper, former associate editor for Merriam-Webster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, unleashes in the above video?

prescriptivism

descriptivism

sprachgefühl

etymological fallicist

(Bonus: bird strike)

And here we thought we were fluent in our native tongue. Face palm, to use another newish entry and an example of descriptivism. (It’s when the dictionary follows the culture’s lead, according novelty its due by officially recognizing words that have entered the parlance, rather than prescribing the way citizens should be speaking.)




To hear Stamper tell it, dictionary writing is a dream gig for readers as well as word lovers.

Part of every day is spent reading, flagging any unfamiliar words that may pop up for further research.

Did teenage slang give rise to it?

Was it born of business trends or tech industry advances?

Stamper is adamant that language is not fixed, but rather a living organism. Words go in and out of fashion, and take on meanings beyond the ones they sported when first included in the dictionary. (Have a look at “extra” to see some evolutionary effects of the English language and back it up with a peek inside the Urban Dictionary.)

Before a word passes dictionary muster, it must meet three criteria: it must have crossed into widespread use, it seems likely to stick around for a while, and it must have some sort of substantive meaning, as opposed to being known solely for its length (“antidisestablishmentarianism”), or some other structural wonder.

“Iouea” contains all five regular vowels and no other letters. The fact that it exists to describe a genus of sea sponges may seem somewhat beside the point to all but marine biologists.

What new words will enter the lexicon in 2019?

Perhaps we should look to the past. We set Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler dial back 100 years to discover the words that debuted in 1919. There’s an abundance of goodies here, some of whose WWI-era context has already expanded to accommodate modern meaning (anti-stress, fanboy, superpimp, unbuffered). Readers, care to take a stab at freshening up some other candidates:

apple-knocker

buckshee

capeskin

cultigen

gametophore

interrogee

micromethod

neuroprotective

outgas

prereturn

putsch

scenarist

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City January 14 as host of Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Peter Jackson Made His State-of-the-Art World War I Documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old: An Inside Look

There are very few working directors today who can do what Peter Jackson does so well—create extraordinary spectacles on the grandest of scales while also staying tightly focused on character development and emotional depth. He’s made missteps. His Hobbit trilogy felt bloated, busy and unnecessary, but one reason it so disappointed was because he’d already shown himself a master of fantasy filmmaking with what many considered the unfilmmable Lord of the Rings.

Of course non-Tolkien-related Jackson films like Heavenly Creatures also showcase these strengths, on a smaller scale: the ability to retain the human dimension amidst cinematic spectacles and inhuman darkness (a quality he mined explicitly in his years as a horror director). All of these sensibilities, including a pronounced streak of dark humor and talent for manipulating his audiences, make him the ideal director for a documentary on World War I.




It's a conflict that makes little historical sense to most of us, that unfolded on a scale few of us can imagine, with few identifiable heroes and villains and a complicated geopolitical situation that can feel out of our grasp.

Many documentaries on the war are informative but, frankly, quite dull. In striving for objectivity, they lose sight of humanity. Rather than adopt the voice of god and newsreel look that characterizes the usual fare, Jackson has taken an active role in shaping the narrative for us with cutting-edge blockbuster cinematic techniques. He gives us characters to care about in showing the horror of trench warfare, the confusion and camaraderie of war. Though he uses original footage, it is digitally enhanced and colorized, screened in 3D, with recordings of remembrances from the soldiers themselves dramatically overlaid to create the sense that the figures we see onscreen are speaking to us.

The result, as Guy Lodge writes at Variety, “is a technical dazzler with a surprisingly humane streak…. So dazzlingly transformative is the restoration of this footage that it may as well be the product of a movie shoot.” Indeed, once the credits roll, viewers see the same “veritable army of magic-working technicians’ names” as they would on any big-budget action movie. Jackson has, in effect, produced “the world’s most state-of-the-art educational film,” applying all the emotional levers and pulleys of feature filmmaking to a historical archive.

Like most of us, students have trouble understanding the scale of the war and connecting with the lives of people so indistinctly photographed and far away in time. Jackson makes sure that they can do both, and his film will be sent to every high school in the U.K. Those schools will not, of course, be able to reproduce the 3D effects. Yet even these, though they sound “gimmicky on the face of it,” writes Lodge, prove “to have an experiential purpose, conveying the juddering movement and chaos of a conflict many of us have largely viewed through calcified still images.”

In the interviews and behind the scenes videos here, we learn how Jackson and his team solved the film speed problem to make the old reels look natural, how they created a color palette and removed blurriness and blemishes. Jackson also talks about his own personal stake in the project, imagining what his grandfather endured in the Great War. This connection seems to have spurred him all the more in the effort.

"To memorialize these soldiers a hundred years later," he says, "is to try to bring some of their humanity back into the world again, to stop them being a black and white cliché.” In creating this moving memorial, Jackson goes far beyond the mandate of an educational film. He has used all the techniques at his disposal to make good on the promise in Robert Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fallen,” from which the documentary takes its title:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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

The Solar System Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Creates a Handcrafted Quilt to Use as a Teaching Aid in Her Astronomy Class

Dedicated teachers often go well beyond the call of duty, sacrificing large amounts of free time for the betterment of their classrooms and their pupils.

Any teacher who’s ever paid for supplies out of their own pocket, then spent the weekend constructing an elaborate bulletin board display, will appreciate the herculean efforts of Sarah Ellen Harding Baker.

Baker, a teacher and astronomer in Cedar County, Iowa, is rumored to have spent 7 years embroidering a beautiful appliquéd quilt to use as a visual aid in lectures.




Finished in 1876, the quilt is large enough that even a near-sighted student could see its planets and moons from the back row.

Orbits are indicated with silken threads against a black background.

A comet in the upper left is thought to be Halley's Comet, whose last appearance would have been in 1835, 12 years before Baker’s birth.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where Baker’s quilt is housed, notes that astronomy was deemed an acceptable interest for 19th-century women, which may explain the number of celestial-themed quilts that date to the period.

Author and quilt historian Barbara Brackman includes a few on her Material Culture blog, while her Historically Modern blog visits some more recent examples, including one that makes use of a stars-and-earth hot-iron transfer published in Good Housekeeping magazine, to accompany an article celebrating the winners of its 1939 World of Tomorrow Quilt Contest.

Baker got just ten years out of her quilt before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 39, the mother of 7 children, 5 of whom survived her.

via Messy Nessy

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this December for the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the next monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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