An Animated History of Tea

Self proclaimed tea geek, Shunan Teng’s knowledge of her chosen subject extends well beyond the proper way to serve and prepare her best-loved beverage.

Her recent TED-Ed lesson on the History of Tea, above, hints at centuries of bloodshed and mercenary trade practices, discreetly masked by Steff Lee’s benign animation.

Addiction, war, and child labor---the last, a grim ongoing reality…. Meditate on that the next time you’re enjoying a nice cup of Darjeeling, or better yet, matcha, a preparation whose Western buzz is starting to approximate that of the Tang dynasty.

Even die-hard coffee loyalists with little patience for the ritualistic niceties of tea culture can indulge in some fascinating trivia, from the invention of the clipper ship to the possible health benefits of eating rather than drinking those green leaves.

Test your TQ post-lesson with TED-Ed’s quiz, or this one from Tea Drunk, Teng’s authentic Manhattan tea house.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She’ll be appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Map of Chemistry: New Animation Summarizes the Entire Field of Chemistry in 12 Minutes

Philosophers, technologists, and futurists spend a good deal of time obsessing about the nature of reality. Recently, no small number of such people have come together to endorse the so-called “simulation argument,” the mind-boggling, sci-fi idea that everything we experience exists as a virtual performance inside a computer system more sophisticated than we could ever imagine. It’s a scenario right out of Philip K. Dick, and one Dick believed possible. It’s also, perhaps, terminally theoretical and impossible to verify.

So... where might the perplexed turn should they want to understand the world around them? Are we doomed to experience reality—as postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard thought—as nothing more than endless simulation? It's a little old-fashioned, but maybe we could ask a scientist? One like physicist, science writer, educator Dominic Walliman, whose series of short videos offer to the layperson “maps” of physics, math, and, just above, chemistry.




Walliman’s ingenious teaching tools excel in conveying a tremendous amount of complex information in a comprehensive and intelligible way. We not only get an overview of each field’s intellectual history, but we see how the various subdisciplines interact.

One of the oddities of chemistry is that it was once just as much, if not more, concerned with what isn’t. Many of the tools and techniques of modern chemistry were developed by alchemists—magicians, essentially, whom we would see as charlatans even though they included in their number such towering intellects as Isaac Newton. Walliman does not get into this strange story, interesting as it is. Instead, he begins with a prehistory of sorts, pointing out that since humans started using fire, cooking, and working with metal we have been engaging in chemistry.

Then we’re launched right into the basic building blocks—the parts of the atom and the periodic table. If, like me, you passed high school chemistry by writing a song about the elements as a final project, you may be unlikely to remember the various types of chemical bonds and may never have heard of “Van der Waals bonding.” There's an opportunity to look something up. And there's nothing wrong with being a primarily auditory or visual learner. Walliman's instruction does a real service for those who are.

Walliman moves through the basics briskly and into the differences between and uses of organic and inorganic chemistry. As the animation pulls back to reveal the full map, we see it is comprised of two halves: “rules of chemistry” and “areas of chemistry.” We do not get explanations for the extreme end of the latter category. Fields like “computational chemistry” are left unexplored, perhaps because they are too far outside Walliman's expertise. One refreshing feature of the videos on his “Domain of Science” channel is their intellectual humility.

If you’ve enjoyed the physics and mathematics videos, for example, you should check back in with their Youtube pages, where Walliman has posted lists of corrections. He has a list as well on the chemistry video page. “I endeavour to be as accurate as possible in my videos," he writes here, "but I am human and definitely don’t know everything, so there are sometimes mistakes. Also, due to the nature of my videos, there are bound to be oversimplifications." It’s an admission that, from my perspective, should inspire more, not less, confidence in his instruction. Ideally, scientists should be driven by curiosity, not vanity, though that is also an all-too-human trait. (See many more maps, experiments, instructional videos, and talks on Walliman's website.)

In the “Map of Physics,” you’ll note that we eventually reach a gaping “chasm of ignorance”—a place where no one has any idea what’s going on. Maybe this is where we reach the edges of the simulation. But most scientists, whether physicists, chemists, or mathematicians, would rather reserve judgment and keep building on what they know with some degree of certainty. You can see a full image of the “Map of Chemistry” further up, and purchase a poster version here.

Find Free Chemistry Courses in our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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

All 886 episodes of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood Streaming Online (for a Limited Time)

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, kids. On Monday, at noon California time, Twitch will start a marathon airing of Mister Roger's Neighborhood, streaming all 886 episodes of the classic children’s TV show. If you have 17 free days, you can watch the marathon from start to finish. During this time, Twitch will also be running a fundraiser for PBS, which faces stiff funding cuts if  "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" has his way.

Enjoy the epic broadcast, and don't miss some classic Mister Rogers scenes in the Relateds below.

PBS has more information on the Twitch-PBS partnership here.

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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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Read Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Children’s Book Whom Should I Be?: A Classic from the “Golden Age” in Soviet Children’s Literature

In the first decade or so of the Soviet Union’s existence, “avant-garde experimenters emerged from obscurity to benefit from actual state sponsorship," writes Harvard professor of Russian Literature Ainsley Morse. Their  "aesthetic radicalism jibed nicely with political turmoil.” Among these artists were Futurists and Formalists, poets, painters, actors, directors, and many who fit into all of these categories. Most famous among them—the rakish romantic poet, writer, artist, actor, playwright, and filmmaker Vladimir Mayakovsky—had already achieved a great deal of notoriety by 1917. After the Revolution, he threw himself, “wholeheartedly” into creating playful, optimistic agitprop for the Party and “became a foghorn for socialism.”

At least at first. “In hindsight,” Morse laments, it’s hard to see the careers of these early Soviet artists “without wincing: all of these artists and writers getting cozy with the state machine that would shortly bring about their mental and physical destruction: imprisonment, exile, starvation, and suicide.” Sadly, the last of these was to be Mayakovsky’s fate; he killed himself in 1930, as Stalin’s paranoid totalitarianism began to gain strength. Yet throughout the 1920s, Mayakovsky was “driven by ideological commitment,” as well as “financial exigency,” writes Robert Bird at the University of Chicago’s “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary.” The wildly imaginative and idealistic poet “transformed the popular media landscape of Russia" under Lenin.

Though he was harshly criticized by other artists for his work as a propagandist, “under his pen Russian poetry began to speak with a more flexible and expressive (even anarchic) play of sound and rhythm." Maykovsky applied his talents not only to posters and poetry for adults, but to works for children as well. “The early years of the Soviet Union were a golden age for children’s literature,” notes the New York Review of Books in their description of The Fire Horse, an early example of Soviet pedagogy from Mayakovsky and fellow poets Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms. The pages you see here come from the first edition of another classic Mayakovsky children’s work—a long poem called Whom Shall I Be?, first published, with illustrations by Nisson Shifrin, in 1932, two years after the author’s death.

In these verses, Mayakovsky exhorts his readers to choose their own path, “create their own identities,” even as the book channels their desires “into specific existing roles" predetermined by a seemingly very limited number of professional choices (all for men). Nevertheless, in final lines of Whom Shall I Be? Mayakovsky writes, “All jobs are fine for you: / Choose / for your own taste!” The book illustrates what Ruxi Zhang calls the “ineffectiveness of Soviet pedagogy” in its earliest stages. Lenin and his even more iron-fisted successor desired a “generation of faithful workers.” Instead, children’s books like Mayakovsky’s “overplayed Soviet fantasy,” often advocating for “freedom that fundamentally countered Soviet expectations for children to follow directions from the regime without questioning or interpreting them.”

In Mayakovsky’s earlier children’s story, The Fire Horse, several craftsmen get together to make a beautiful toy horse—which cannot be bought at the store—for a young boy who dreams of being a cavalryman. The book, writes Morse, is “transparently didactic,” explaining “in detail how the horse is made, and at the cost of whose labor.” Nonetheless, its story sounds less like an exemplar from the state's idea of a worker’s paradise and more like a vignette from anarchist, aristocrat, and naturalist Peter Kropotkin’s society of “mutual aid.” It’s only natural that Mayakovsky and his comrades’ children’s books would reflect their stylistic daring, individualism, and wit. “It wasn’t much of a leap” for Futurist artists whose “mainstay” had been artist’s books with “interdependent text and illustrations.” Eventually, however, avant-garde artists like Mayakovsky were purged or “tamed” by the new regime.

Bird demonstrates this with the pages below from a 1947 edition of Whom Should I Be? These correspond to the pages above from 1932, showing an engineer. In addition to the replacing of an enthusiastic adult worker with an obedient, dutiful child, “the abstract depictions of constructivist buildings are replaced by realistic renderings of neo-classical edifices.” In 1932, Socialist Realism had only just become the official style of the Soviet Union. By 1947, its absolute authority was mostly unquestionable. Browse (and read, if you read Russian) all of Mayakovsky's Whom Should I Be? at the Internet Archive, or at the top of this post.

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

Oscar-Winning Actress Viola Davis Reads the Children’s Story, Rent Party Jazz, for Jazz Appreciation Month

FYI: In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, Viola Davis treats us to a reading of Rent Party Jazz, a children's book written by William Miller and illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Here's a quick synopsis of the story:

This story is set in New Orleans in the 1930s. Sonny and his mother are scraping by to pay their rent. Mama works in a fish canning factory, and Sonny works for the coal man before school each morning. When Mama loses her job, they no longer have enough money for the rent and fear that the landlord will turn them out. One day Sonny meets Smilin’ Jack, a jazz musician who is playing his trumpet in Jackson Square. Smilin’ Jack offers to play at a party at Sonny’s house to help raise money for the rent. The neighbors all come to sing and dance and before they leave, drop some coins in a bucket. Sonny learns how people can help one another “if they put their minds and hearts to it.”

For anyone not familiar with them, rent parties started in Harlem during the 1920s, when jazz musicians would play at a friend's apartment to help them raise enough money to pay the rent. If you hop over to the website of Yale's Beinecke Library, you can see a collection of rent cards that belonged to Langston Hughes.

This video comes from the Storyline Online Youtube Channel, sponsored by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s children’s literacy website. The channel features celebrated actors "reading children’s books alongside creatively produced illustrations, helping to inspire a love of reading in children."

Viola Davis' reading will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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For Sale: The Building Blocks of Albert Einstein’s Creative Mind

Calling all parents with a hedge fund--or big trust fund. If you really love your kids (wink), you can let them play with the building blocks that once belonged to young Albert Einstein. According to Einstein's own sister, Albert used these blocks to build “complicated structures” during his childhood in Germany, sowing the seeds of his creativity. Now, after having been recently auctioned off by Einstein’s descendants, they're being sold online for $160,000--plus $3 shipping within the US). AbeBooks, the online vendor of rare books and ephemera--has a blog post with more information on this collectible.

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Pixar & Khan Academy Offer a Free Online Course on Storytelling

It doesn’t take much to spark a good story.

A tall man, a short woman, a setting that’s sterile to the point of soulless, and a couple dozen bananas…

It practically writes itself!

If you’re slow to recognize the potential in these extremely potent elements (culled from the above video’s opening shot), this free online course on storytelling, part of Khan Academy’s popular Pixar In A Box series, might help strengthen those slack storytelling muscles.




The lessons will hold immense appeal for young Pixar fans, but adults students stand to gain too. Children are naturally confident storytellers. Unfortunately, time can do a number on both fluency and one’s belief in one’s own ability to string together narratives that others will enjoy.

The Pixar directors and story artists drafted to serve as instructors for this course are as deft at encouragement as they are at their craft. They’ll help you move that rubber tree plant… for free.

Each short, example-packed video lesson is followed with an activity in which the viewer is asked to parse his or her favorite stories.

One of the most compelling aspects of the series is hearing about the stories that matter deeply to the teachers.

Mark Andrews, who wrote and directed Brave, recalls his visceral response to the injustice of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’s Island of Misfit Toys.

Domee Shi who storyboarded Inside Out had to bail on The Lion King, she was so effected by Simba’s discovery of his dead father.

Ratatouille animator Sanjay Patel, whose observations consistently struck me as the most profound and out of the box, went with The Killing Fields, a title that’s probably not on the radar of those most squarely in Pixar's demographic.

The first installment stresses the importance of providing a rich setting for well-developed characters to explore, though the teachers are divided on which should come first.

Director Pete Docter, whose daughter’s tweenage passage into the Reviving Ophelia-land inspired Inside Out, stresses “writing what you know” need not pin you to the narrow confines of your own backyard. He was well into production on Monsters, Inc. when he realized it wasn’t so much a tale of a monster whose job is scaring little kids as a story of his own journey to fatherhood.

As you may have guessed, examples from the Pixar canon abound.

Khan Academy will be taking the whole of 2017 to roll out Pixar in a Box’s five remaining Storytelling units

You can complete the first unit here, then revisit their previous course on making animations, while waiting for the rest of the curriculum to drop.

Find more free courses in our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and theater maker, whose new play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in less than two weeks. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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