A Brief Animated History of Alcohol

Almost anything can be preserved in alcohol, except health, happiness and money…

Roderick Phillips’ Ted-Ed lesson, a Brief History of Alcohol, above, opens with a bon mot from early 20th-century quote maven Mary Wilson Little, after which, an unwitting chimpanzee quickly discovers the intoxicating effects of overripe plums.

His eyes pinwheel, he falls off a branch, and grins, drunk as a monkey’s uncle.

And though the subject is alcohol, this primate is the only character in Anton Bogaty’s 5-minute animation who could be hauled in on a drunk and disorderly charge.

The others take a more sober, industrious approach, illustrating alcohol’s prominent role in early medicine, religious rituals, and global trading.

Ancient Egyptians harvest the cereal grains that will produce beer, included as part of workers’ rations and available to all classes.

A native of South America stirs a kettle of chicha, a fistful of hallucinogenic herbs held at the ready.

A Greek physician tends to a patient with a goblet of wine, as a nearby poet prepares to deliver an ode on its creative properties.

Students with an interest in the science of alcohol can learn a bit about the fermentation process and how the invention of distillation allowed for much stronger spirits.

Alcohol was a welcome presence aboard seafaring vessels. Not only did this valuable trading commodity spark lively parties on deck, it sanitized the sailors’ drinking water, making longer voyages possible.

Cheers to that.

Educators can customize the lesson here.

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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 tongight, Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Improve Your Memory: Four TED Talks Explain the Techniques to Remember Anything

Offered the ability to remember everything, who among us could turn it down? For that matter, who among us could turn down even a slight increase in our memory capacity? If we're older, we complain of forgetfulness. If we're younger, we complain that so little of what we're supposed to learn for tests sticks. If we're in the middle, we complain of being "bad with names" and having trouble properly organizing all the tasks we need to complete. Whatever our stage in life, we could all use the kind of memory-improving techniques explained in these four TED Talks, the most popular of which offers Swedish "memory athlete" Idriz Zogaj's method of "How to Become a Memory Master."

Framing his talk with the story of how he trained himself to compete in the World Memory Championships (yes, they exist), Zogaj recommends remembering by making "a fun, vivid, animated story," using all your senses." "And do it in 3D, even though you don’t have the 3D goggles. Your brain is amazing; it can do it anyway." Telling yourself a story in such a way that connects seemingly unrelated images, words, numbers, or other pieces of information gives those connections strength in our brains.




In "How to Triple Your Memory by Using This Trick," Ricardo Lieuw On recommends a similarly story-based method, but emphasizes the importance of constructing it with "bizarre images." And "if you tie these bizarre images to a place you know well, like your body, suddenly memorizing things in order becomes a lot easier."

In his TED Talk about daily practices to improve memory, Krishan Chahal divides "the art of memorizing" into two parts. The first entails "designing the information or modifying the information in such a way so that it can catch your attention," making what you want to memorize more naturally palatable to "the taste of human mind" — stories and strong visual images being perhaps the human mind's tastiest treat. The second involves creating what he calls a "self-meaning system," the best-known variety of which is the memory palace. The Memory Techniques Wiki describes a memory palace as "an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images," typically modeled on "a place you know well, like a building or town." When memorizing, you store pieces information in different "locations" within your memory palace; when recalling, you take that same mental journey through your palace and find everything where you left it.

The memory palace came up here on Open Culture earlier this year when we featured a video about how to memorize an entire chapter of Moby-Dick. Its creator drew on Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, and if you want a taste of what Foer has learned about memory, watch his TED Talk above. Foer, too, has spent time at the World Memory Championships, and his questions about how memory athletes do what they do led him to the concept psychologists call "elaborative encoding," the practice of taking information "lacking in context, in significance, in meaning" and transforming it "so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind."

Elaborative encoding underlies the effectiveness of memorizing even the driest lists of facts in the form of stories full of striking and unusual sights. (Foer himself opens with a memory-aiding story starring "a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.") No wonder so many of the greatest storytellers have had a thematic preoccupation with memory. Take Jorge Luis Borges, author of "Shakespeare's Memory" (previously featured here on Open Culture) and the even more (dare I say) memorable "Funes the Memorious." In the latter a horse-riding accident robs a rural teenager of the ability to forget, bestowing upon him an effectively infinite memory — a power that has him taking an entire day to remember an entire day and assigning a different name ("the train," "Máximo Perez," "the whale," "Napoleon") to each and every number in existence. As much as we all want to remember more things, surely none of us wants to remember everything.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Compelling Case That the “Dead Language” Is an “Eternal Language”

"I tried to get Latin canceled for five years," says an exasperated Max Fischer, protagonist of Wes Anderson's Rushmore, when he hears of his school's decision to scrap Latin classes. "'It's a dead language,' I'd always say." Many have made a similarly blunt case against the study of Latin. But as we all remember, Max's educational philosophy overturns just as soon as he meets Miss Cross and brings up the cancellation to make conversation. "That's a shame because all the Romance languages were based on Latin," she says, articulating a standard defense. "Nihilo sanctum estne?" Max's reply, after Miss Cross clarifies that what she said is Latin for "Is nothing sacred?": "Sic transit gloria."

From ad hoc and bona fide to status quo and vice versa, all of us know a little bit of Latin, even the "dead language's" most outspoken opponents. But do any of us have a reason to build deliberately on that inherited knowledge? The video at the top of the post offers not just one but "Three Reasons to Study Latin (for Normal People, Not Language Geeks)."




As its host admits, "I could tell you that studying Latin will set you up to learn the Romance languages or give you a base of knowledge for fine arts and literature. I can tell you that you'll be able to read Latin on old buildings, hymns, state mottoes, or that reading Cicero and Virgil in the original is divinely beautiful." But the number one reason to study Latin, he says, is that it will improve your language acquisition skills.

And language acquisition isn't just the skill of learning languages, but "the skill of learning other skills." It teaches us that "thoughts themselves are formed differently in different languages," and learning even a single foreign word "is the act of learning to think in a new way." Study a foreign language and you enter a community, just as you do "every time you learn a new profession, learn a new hobby," or when you "interact with historians or philosophers, interact with the writers of cookbooks, or gardening books, or even writers of software." Latin in particular will also make you better at speaking English, especially if you already speak it natively. Not only are you "unavoidably blind to the weaknesses and strengths of your native meaning carrying system — your language — until you test drive a new one," the more complex, abstract half of the English vocabulary comes from Latin in the first place.

Above all, Latin promises wisdom. Not only can it "train you to conceptualize one thing in the context of many things and to see the connections between all of them," it can, by the time you're understanding meaning as well as form, "grow you in big-picture and small-picture thinking and give you the dexterity to move back and forth between both." Just as you are what you eat, "your mind becomes like what you spend your time thinking about," and the rigorously structured Latin language can imbue it with "logic, order, discipline, structure, precision." In the TED Talk above, Latin teacher Ryan Sellers builds on this idea, calling the study of Latin "one of the most effective ways of building strong fundamentals in students and preparing them for the future." Among the timeless benefits of the "eternal language" Sellers includes its ability to increase English "word power," its "mathematical" nature, and the connections it makes between the ancient world and the modern one.

Latin used to be more a part of the average school curriculum than it is now, but the debates about its usefulness have been going on for generations. Why Study Latin?, the 1951 classroom film above, covers a wide swath of them in ten minutes, from reading classics in the original to understanding scientific and medical terminology to becoming a sharper writer in English to tracing modern Western governmental and societal principles back to their Roman roots. And as the School of Life video below tells us, some things are still best expressed in Latin, an economical language that can pack a great deal of meaning into relatively few words: Veni, vidi, vici. Carpe diem. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. And of course, Latin makes every expression sound weightier — it gives a certain gravitas, we might say.

If all these arguments have sold you on the benefits of Latin, or at least got you intrigued enough to learn more, watch "How Latin Works" for a brief overview of the history and mechanics of the language, as well as an explanation of what it has given to and how it differs from English and the other European languages we use today. You might then proceed to the free Latin lessons available at the the University of Texas’ Linguistics Research Center, previously featured here on Open Culture. The more Latin you acquire, the more you'll see and hear it everywhere. You might even ask the same question Max Fischer poses to the assembled administrators of Rushmore Academy: "Is Latin dead?" His motivations have more to do with romance than Romance, but there are no bad reasons to learn a language, living or otherwise.

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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.

How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

"I'll sleep when I'm dead": those words have been a mantra to hard-living types everywhere since Warren Zevon first sang them back in 1976, but as Berkeley sleep scientist and Why We Sleep author Matt Walker sees it, taking them to heart is a "mortally unwise" choice. The example of Zevon himself, who died at the age of 53, would seem to validate that judgement, but it also comes backed by serious research. In the TED Talk "Sleep Is Your Superpower" above, Walker builds on what we all know — that we need to sleep, regularly and without interruption — by explaining "the wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep, but the alarmingly bad things that happen when you don’t get enough, both for your brain and for your body."

Not only, for example, do "you need sleep after learning to essentially hit the save button on those new memories so that you don’t forget," you also "need sleep before learning to actually prepare your brain, almost like a dry sponge ready to initially soak up new information."




As anyone who has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test has felt, sleep deprivation shuts down your "your memory inbox," and any incoming files just get "bounced" without being retained. But deep-sleep brainwaves, as Walker puts it, act as a "file-transfer mechanism at night, shifting memories from a short-term vulnerable reservoir to a more permanent long-term storage site within the brain, and therefore protecting them, making them safe."

Improper sleep threatens not just learning but life itself: compromised sleep means a compromised immune system, hence the "significant links between short sleep duration and your risk for the development of numerous forms of cancer" now being discovered. "The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life," as Walker starkly puts it. As far as how to improve your sleep and, with luck, elongate your life, he has two main pieces of advice: "Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, no matter whether it’s the weekday or the weekend," and "aim for a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees, or about 18 degrees Celsius," slightly cooler than may feel normal. We'd also do well to remember the importance of breaking the habit of staying on the internet late into the night — or more specifically, having stayed up well past midnight writing this very post, I'd do well to remember it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Along with hundreds of other seaside cities, island towns, and entire islands, historic Venice, the floating city, may soon sink beneath the waves if sea levels continue their rapid rise. The city is slowly tilting to the East and has seen historic floods inundate over 70 percent of its palazzo- and basilica-lined streets. But should such tragic losses come to pass, we’ll still have Venice, or a digital version of it, at least—one that aggregates 1,000 years of art, architecture, and "mundane paperwork about shops and businesses" to create a virtual time machine. An “ambitious project to digitize 10 centuries of the Venetian state’s archives,” the Venice Time Machine uses the latest in “deep learning” technology for historical reconstructions that won’t get washed away.

The Venice Time Machine doesn’t only proof against future calamity. It also sets machines to a task no living human has yet to undertake. Most of the huge collection at the State Archives “has never been read by modern historians,” points out the narrator of the Nature video at the top.




This endeavor stands apart from other digital humanities projects, Alison Abbott writes at Nature, “because of its ambitious scale and the new technologies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scanners that could even read unopened books, to adaptable algorithms that will turn handwritten documents into digital, searchable text.”

In addition to posterity, the beneficiaries of this effort include historians, economists, and epidemiologists, “eager to access the written records left by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.” Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin describes the anticipation scholars feel in particularly vivid terms: “We are in a state of electrified excitement about the possibilities,” she says, “I am practically salivating.” Project head Frédéric Kaplan, a Professor of Digital Humanities at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), compares the archival collection to “’dark matter’—documents that hardly anyone has studied before.”

Using big data and AI to reconstruct the history of Venice in virtual form will not only make the study of that history a far less hermetic affair; it might also “reshape scholars’ understanding of the past,” Abbott points out, by democratizing narratives and enabling “historians to reconstruct the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people—artisans and shopkeepers, envoys and traders.” The Time Machine’s site touts this development as a “social network of the middle ages,” able to “bring back the past as a common resource for the future.” The comparison might be unfortunate in some respects. Social networks, like cable networks, and like most historical narratives, have become dominated by famous names.

By contrast, the Time Machine model—which could soon lead to AI-created virtual Amsterdam and Paris time machines—promises a more street-level view, and one, moreover, that can engage the public in ways sealed and cloistered artifacts cannot. “We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,” says Daston. “The future may be different.” The future of Venice, in real life, might be uncertain. But thanks to the Venice Time Machine, its past is poised take on thriving new life. See previews of the Time Machine in the videos further up, learn more about the project here, and see Kaplan explain the “information time machine” in his TED talk above.

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

40,000-Year-Old Symbols Found in Caves Worldwide May Be the Earliest Written Language

We may take it for granted that the earliest writing systems developed with the Sumerians around 3400 B.C.E. The archaeological evidence so far supports the theory. But it may also be possible that the earliest writing systems predate 5000-year-old cuneiform tablets by several thousand years. And what’s more, it may be possible, suggests paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, that those prehistoric forms of writing, which include the earliest known hashtag marks, consisted of symbols nearly as universal as emoji.

The study of symbols carved into cave walls all over the world—including penniforms (feather shapes), claviforms (key shapes), and hand stencils—could eventually push us to “abandon the powerful narrative,” writes Frank Jacobs at Big Think, “of history as total darkness until the Sumerians flip the switch.” Though the symbols may never be truly decipherable, their purposes obscured by thousands of years of separation in time, they clearly show humans “undimming the light many millennia earlier.”




While burrowing deep underground to make cave paintings of animals, early humans as far back as 40,000 years ago also developed a system of signs that is remarkably consistent across and between continents. Von Petzinger spent years cataloguing these symbols in Europe, visiting “52 caves,” reports New Scientist’s Alison George, “in France, Span, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, hand stencils, something called a tectiform that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feather shapes called penniforms.”

She discovered 32 signs found all over the continent, carved and painted over a very long period of time. “For tens of thousands of years,” Jacobs points out, “our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used.” Von Petzinger sees this system as a carryover from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” she writes in her book The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols.

In her TED Talk at the top, von Petzinger describes this early system of communication through abstract signs as a precursor to the “global network of information exchange” in the modern world. “We’ve been building on the mental achievements of those who came before us for so long,” she says, “that it’s easy to forget that certain abilities haven’t already existed,” long before the formal written records we recognize. These symbols traveled: they aren’t only found in caves, but also etched into deer teeth strung together in an ancient necklace.

Von Petzinger believes, writes George, that “the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestor’s mental skills,” toward using abstract symbols to communicate. Not everyone agrees with her. As the Bradshaw Foundation notes, when it comes to the European symbols, eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes argues “the signs in the caves are always (or nearly always) associated with animal figures and thus cannot be said to be the first steps toward symbolism.”

Of course, it’s also possible that both the signs and the animals were meant to convey ideas just as a written language does. So argues MIT linguist Cora Lesure and her co-authors in a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. Cave art might show early humans “converting acoustic sounds into drawings,” notes Sarah Gibbens at National Geographic. Lesure says her research “suggests that the cognitive mechanisms necessary for the development of cave and rock art are likely to be analogous to those employed in the expression of the symbolic thinking required for language.”

In other words, under her theory, “cave and rock [art] would represent a modality of linguistic expression.” And the symbols surrounding that art might represent an elaboration on the theme. The very first system of writing, shared by early humans all over the world for tens of thousands of years.

via Big Think

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

Psilocybin Could Soon Be a Legal Treatment for Depression: Johns Hopkins Professor, Roland Griffiths, Explains How Psilocybin Can Relieve Suffering

Much of the recent scientific research into psychedelics has picked up where researchers left off in the mid-20th century, before LSD, psilocybin, and other psychoactive drugs became countercultural means of consciousness expansion, and then banned, illegal substances the government sought to control. Scientists from several fields studied psychedelics as treatments for addiction, depression, and anxiety, and end-of-life care. These applications were conceived and tested several decades ago.

Now, thanks to some serious investment from high-profile institutions like Johns Hopkins University, and thanks to changing government attitudes toward psychoactive drugs, it may be possible for psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to get legal approval for therapy in a clinical setting by 2021. “For the first time in U.S. history,” Shelby Hartman reports at Rolling Stone, “a psychedelic drug is on the fast track to getting approved for treating depression by the federal government.”

As Michael Pollan has detailed in his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, the possibilities for psilocybin and other such drugs are vast. “But before the Food and Drug Administration can be petitioned to reclassify it,” Brittany Shoot notes at Fortune, the drug “first has to clear phase III clinical trials. The entire process is expected to take about five years.” In the TEDMED video above, you can see Roland R. Griffiths, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, discuss the ways in which psilocybin, “under supported conditions, can occasion mystical-type experiences associated with enduring positive changes in attitudes and behavior.”

The implications of this research span the fields of ethics and medicine, psychology and religion, and it’s fitting that Dr. Griffiths leads off with a statement about the compatibility of spirituality and science, supported by a quote from Einstein, who said “the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It’s the source of all true science.” But the work Griffiths and others have been engaged in is primarily practical in nature—though it does not at all exclude the mystical—like finding effective means to treat depression in cancer patients, for example.

“Sixteen million Americans suffer from depression and approximately one-third of them are treatment resistant,” Hartman writes. “Depression is also an epidemic worldwide, affecting 300 million people around the world.” Psychotropic drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA (which is not classified as a psychedelic), have been shown for a long time to work for many people suffering from severe mental illness and addictions.

Although such drugs present some potential for abuse, they are not highly addictive, especially relative to the flood of opioids on the legal market that are currently devastating whole communities as people use them to self-medicate. It seems that what has most prevented psychedelics from being researched and prescribed has as much or more to do with long-standing prejudice and fear as it does with a genuine concern for public health. (And that’s not even to mention the financial interests who exert tremendous pressure on drug policy.)

But now, Hartman writes, “it appears [researchers] have come too far to go back—and the federal government is finally recognizing it, too.” Find out why this research matters in Dr. Griffiths' talk, Pollan’s book, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and some of the posts we’ve linked to below.

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

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