The Science of Caffeine: The World’s Most Popular Drug

Here’s a quick shot of science to start your day. The American Chemical Society, an organization representing chemists across the US, has released the latest in a series of Reactions videos. Attempting to explain the science of everyday things, previous Reactions videos have demystified the chemistry of Sriracha, LovePepper and more. This latest video breaks down the world’s most widely used stimulant, caffeine. If you haven’t had your morning cup of coffee, you may need to watch this video twice.

On a side note, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, consider spending Saturday, May 3rd at Stanford’s one-day coffee symposium. Organized by Stanford Continuing Studies, the symposium – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between – will feature guest speakers (historians, scientists, the CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee, etc.) talking about what goes into making this great beverage of ours. Students will also have the opportunity to participate in coffee tasting and evaluation sessions. In full disclosure, I helped put the program together. It promises to be a great day. So I had to give a plug. You can learn more and sign up here.


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Take Free Online Courses at Hogwarts: Charms, Potions, Defense Against the Dark Arts & More

free hogwarts courses

A group of dedicated Harry Potter fans have created a new educational website called Hogwarts is Here. The site is free — you only have to spend fake Galleons on the site — and it lets users enroll at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and work through a seven-year curriculum, taking the same courses that Harry, Ron and Hermione did in the great Harry Potter series. The first year consists of courses that will sound familiar to any Harry Potter reader: Charms, Potions, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Astronomy, Herbology, History of Magic, and Transfiguration. The 9-week online courses feature homework assignment and quizzes. Students can also read digital textbooks, such as A Standard Book of Spells and A Beginner’s Guide to Transfiguration. We have yet to enroll in a course, so we would be curious get your feedback.

Fans of fantasy literature will also want to check out the Tolkien courses listed in our collection of 900 Free Online Courses. Also see this complete reading of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, found in our collection of Free Audio Books.


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Watch Film, Samuel Beckett’s Only Movie, Starring Buster Keaton

Fresh off the international success of his play Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett made a film, called aptly enough Film. It came out in 1965 and proved to be the only motion picture the soon-to-be Nobel Prize winner would ever make. As you might expect, it is enigmatic, bleakly funny and very, very odd. You can check it out above.

The 17-minute silent short is essentially a chase movie between the camera and the main character O  – as in object. Film opens with O cowering from the gaze of a couple he passes on the street. Meanwhile, the camera looms just behind his head. At his stark, typically Beckettesque flat, O covers the mirror, throws his cat and his chihuahua outside and even trashes a picture — the only piece of decoration in the flat — that seems to be staring back at him. Yet try as he might, O ultimately can’t quite evade being observed by the gaze of the camera.

Barney Rosset, editor of Grove Press, commissioned the movie and regular Beckett collaborator Alan Schneider was tapped to direct. As Schneider recalled, the first draft of the screenplay was unorthodox.

The script appeared in the spring of 1963 as a fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable six-page outline. Along with pages of addenda in Sam’s inimitable informal style: explanatory notes, a philosophical supplement, modest production suggestions, a series of hand-drawn diagrams.

It took almost a year of discussion to bring the movie’s themes and story into focus.

For the lead character Beckett wanted to hire Charlie Chaplin until he was informed by an officious secretary that Chaplin doesn’t read scripts. Beckett then suggested Buster Keaton. The playwright was a longtime fan of the silent film legend. Keaton was even offered the role of Lucky on the original American production of Godot, though the actor declined. This time around, though, Keaton signed on, even if he couldn’t make heads or tales of the script.

And he wasn’t the only one. Ever since it came out, critics have been puzzling what Film is really about. Is it a statement on voyeurism in cinema? On human consciousness? On death? Beckett gave his take on the movie to the New Yorker: “It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver — two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.”

Keaton himself defined the movie even more succinctly, “A man may keep away from everybody but he can’t get away from himself.”

Related Content:

Samuel Beckett Speaks

Samuel Beckett Directs His Absurdist Play Waiting for Godot (1985)

Rare Audio: Samuel Beckett Reads Two Poems From His Novel Watt

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.


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Hear Patti Smith Read 12 Poems From Seventh Heaven, Her First Collection (1972)

So it’s National Poetry Month, and the Academy of American Poets recommends 30 Ways to Celebrate, including some old standbys like memorizing a poem, reading a poem a day, and attending a reading. All sensible, if somewhat staid, suggestions (I myself have been re-reading all of Wallace Stevens’ work—make of that what you will). Here’s a suggestion that didn’t make the list: spend some time digging the poetry of Patti Smith.

A living breathing legend, Smith doesn’t appear in many academic anthologies, and that’s just fine. What she offers are bridges from the Beats to the sixties New York art scene to seventies punk poetry and beyond, with spandrels made from French surrealist leanings and rock and roll obsessions. A 1977 Oxford Literary Review article aptly describes Smith in her heyday:

In the late sixties and early seventies Patti Smith was a member of Warhol’s androgynous beauties living under the fluorescent lights of New York City’s Chelsea Hotel…Her performances were sexual bruisings with the spasms of Jagger and the off-key of Dylan. Her musical poems often came from her poetical fantasies of Rimbaud.

Smith’s work is sensual and wildly kinetic, as is her process, which she once described as “a real physical act.”

When I’m home writing on the typewriter, I go crazy
I move like a monkey
I’ve wet myself, I’ve come in my pants writing

Emily Dickenson she ain’t, but Smith also has an abiding love and respect for her literary forebears, whether now-almost-establishment figures like Virginia Woolf or still-somewhat-outré characters like Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet.

Smith’s first published collection of poetry, Seventh Heaven, appeared in 1972 and included tributes to Edie Sedgwick and Marianne Faithfull. She dedicated the book to gangster writer Mickey Spillane and Rolling Stones’ muse, and partner of both Brian Jones and Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg.

The book has not been reissued, and print copies are rare. Yet, as the afore-quoted article notes, Patti Smith’s is an “oral poetics” that “uses much of her voice rhythms.” The line between her work as a punk singer and performance poet is ephemeral, perhaps nonexistent—Patti Smith on the page is great, but Patti Smith on stage is greater. Hear for yourself, above, in a 1972 recording of Smith reading twelve poems from her first collection at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. She sounds almost exactly like Linda Manz from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a streetwise kid with a romantic streak a mile wide.

Over three decades and many more publications later, Smith is now a National Book Award winner and a considerably mellower presence, but she has never strayed far from her roots. Above, see her at back at St. Marks in 2011, reading her poem “Oath,” first written in 1966, whose famous first line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” became the unforgettable opening to her equally unforgettable “Gloria.” For contrast, hear her read the same poem below, in 1973, over squalling guitar feedback (and with the famous line beginning “Christ died…”). Classic, classic stuff.

See and hear many more of her readings on Youtube, and see this site for a partial Patti Smith bibliography, publication history, and selected archive of poems, essays, and reviews.

Smith’s readings of Seventh Heaven will be added to our collection of Free Audio Books.

via Flavorwire

Related Content:

Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Surviving Recording of Woolf’s Voice

See Patti Smith Give Two Dramatic Readings of Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”

Patti Smith Plays Songs by The Ramones, Rolling Stones, Lou Reed & More on CBGB’s Closing Night (2006)

Patti Smith Documentary Dream of Life Beautifully Captures the Author’s Life and Long Career (2008)

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


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Science & Cooking: Harvard’s Free Course on Making Cakes, Paella & Other Delicious Food

I can hardly think of a more appealing nexus of the sciences, for most of us and for obvious (and delicious) reasons, than food. Add a kind of engineering to the mix, and you get the study of cooking. Back in 2012, we featured the first few lectures from Harvard University’s course Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft MatterTheir collection of rigorous and entertaining presentations of that which we love to prepare and, even more so, to eat has since expanded to include one- to two-hour lectures delivered by sharp professors in cooperation with respected chefs and other food luminaries on culinary subjects like the science of sweets (featuring Flour Bakery’s Joanne Chang), how to do cutting-edge modernist cuisine at home (featuring Nathan Myhrvold, who wrote an enormous book on it), and the relevance of microbes, misos, and olives (featuring David Chang of Momofuku fame). You can watch all of the lectures, in order, with the playlist embedded at the top of this post.

Alternatively, you can pick and choose from the complete list of Harvard’s Science and Cooking lectures on Youtube or on iTunes. Some get deep into the natural workings of specific dishes, ingredients and preparation methods; others, like “The Science of Good Cooking” with a couple of editors from Cook’s Illustrated, take a broader view. That lecture and others will certainly help build an intellectual framework for those of us who want to improve our cooking — and even those of us who can already cook decently, or at least reliably follow a recipe — but can’t quite attain the next level without understanding exactly what happens when we flick on the heat. One school of thought holds that, to come off as reasonably skilled in the kitchen, you need only master one or two showcase meals. When asked to cook something, I, for instance, have tended to make paella almost every time, almost out of sheer habit. But now that I’ve found Raül Balam Ruscalleda’s talk on the science of that traditional Spanish dish, I can see that I must now, on several levels, raise my game. View it below, and feel free to take notes alongside me. You can find Science and Cooking in our collection of 900 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Related Content:

Science & Cooking: Harvard Profs Meet World-Class Chefs in Unique Online Course

MIT Teaches You How to Speak Italian & Cook Italian Cuisine All at Once (Free Online Course)

How Cooking Can Change Your Life: A Short Animated Film Featuring the Wisdom of Michael Pollan

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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Oxford University Press Gives You Free Access to Books, Dictionaries & More During National Library Week

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It’s National Library Week, and to celebrate Oxford University Press is making many of its online resources free for users in the U.S. and Canada this week. Access will be open until the end of Saturday, the 19th. You will be able to read Oxford’s online dictionaries, online scholarly editions, extensive reference materials, and the popular series of Very Short Introductions, which “offer concise introductions to a diverse range of subject areas from Climate to ConsciousnessGame Theory to Ancient WarfarePrivacy to Islamic HistoryEconomics to Literary Theory.” (To access the texts, type “libraryweek” as the username and password in the Subscriber Login area. It appears halfway down the page, on the left.)

The open access period excludes Oxford University Press scholarly journals. This is unfortunate. As you probably know, most of the research published by university presses resides behind prohibitive paywalls that make it difficult for independent scholars and laypeople to read current scholarship. It would be nice to see Oxford and other presses make such grace periods more frequent and inclusive in the future. But for now, OUP’s open access week is a great way to entice non-professionals into academic scholarship and temporarily ease the burden on those without regular access to their databases. Visit Oxford’s site and sign in with username and password “libraryweek” to begin reading.

Related Content:

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Reuse & Remix

Read All of Shakespeare’s Plays Free Online, Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

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


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Free Online: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

fear and loathing original

Last week, we revisited Johnny Depp’s reading of the famous “wave speech” from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wouldn’t you know it, a week later, we’ve discovered that you can read the entire text of the original novel, online, for free.  The Gonzo journalism classic first appeared as a two-part series in Rolling Stone magazine in November 1971, complete with illustrations from Ralph Steadman, before being published as a book in 1972.  Rolling Stone has posted the original version on its web site. The 23,000 word manuscript famously begins:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

Down the line, you can find this text permanently listed in our collection of Free eBooks, as well as in our List of 10 Free Articles by Hunter S. Thompson That Span His Gonzo Journalist Career (1965-2005). Enjoy.

via @SteveSilberman


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Vintage Audio: William Faulkner Reads From As I Lay Dying

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William Faulkner wrote his seventh novel As I Lay Dying in the last months of 1929, almost immediately after another stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury. Like the Shakespearean title of that work, As I Lay Dying’s title, which comes from Homer’s Odyssey, indicates the literary ambitions of its author. Only thirty-two at the time of its writing, Faulkner composed the novel in eight weeks (six by his accounting) while working nights at the University of Mississippi’s power plant, deciding in advance that he would stake his entire reputation as a writer on the book: “Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first words, I knew what the last word would be… Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again.” His passionate conviction is evident in the original manuscript—the first and only draft—which reveals “an ease in creation unlike his other novels.”

Perhaps the most narratively straightforward of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels—set in a fictional Mississippi region based on his own home county of Lafayette— As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundrens, a poor white family on a perilous journey to honor their matriarch Addie’s request for a burial in the town of Jefferson. Despite the seeming simplicity of its plot, the book’s style is incredibly complex, told from the perspective of fifteen different characters in rough-hewn country dialect and arresting lyrical fugues. It is the novel’s “coarse language and dialect,” that is “exactly Faulkner’s project,” writes Tin House editor Rob Spillman: “Faulkner, a Mississippi high school dropout, made it his mission to capture the emotional lives of the rural poor, unflinchingly writing about race, gender, sexuality, and power.” Through the power of his language and—in the words of Robert Penn Warren—the “range of effect, philosophical weight, originality of style, variety of characterization, humor, and tragic intensity,” the Southern novelist elevated his humble subjects to truly mythic status.

Thanks to HarperCollins, you can listen to Faulkner himself read from his masterpiece: .au file (4.4 Mb), .gsm file (0.9 Mb), .ra file (0.5 Mb). You’ll have to listen carefully to hear the author’s soft southern drawl, which gets lost at times in the poor quality recording. As you do, follow along with the text in Google Books. Faulkner reads from the twelfth chapter, told by Darl, Addie’s second oldest son, a sensitive, poetic thinker who narrates nineteen of the novel’s 59 chapters (and who James Franco plays in his film adaptation of the book). In this passage, Darl observes his mother’s death, and each family member’s immediate reaction, from sister Dewey Dell’s dramatic expressions of grief, to older brother Cash’s taciturn response and father Anse’s tragic-comic insensitivity: “God’s will be done…. Now I can get them teeth.”

To hear much more of Faulkner’s voice, visit Faulkner at Virginia: An Audio Archive, which catalogs and stores digital audio of the author’s lectures, readings, and question and answer sessions during his tenure as writer in residence at the University of Virginia in 1957-58. In one particular session with a group of engineering school students, Faulkner gives us a clue for how we might approach his work, which can seem so strange to those unfamiliar with the history, customs, and speech patterns of the American Deep South. Each of us, he says, “reads into the—the books, things the writer didn’t put in there, in the terms that—that his and the writer’s experience could not possibly be identical. That there are things the writer might think is in that book, which the reader doesn’t find for the same reason that—that no two experiences can be identical, but everyone reads according to—to his own—own lights, his own experience, his own observation, imagination, and experience.” For all of their provincial peculiarities, the Bundren’s epic struggle with the grief and pain of loss has universal reach and resonance.

Related Content:

William Faulkner Names His Best Novel, And the First Faulkner Novel You Should Read

William Faulkner Reads His Nobel Prize Speech

Seven Tips From William Faulkner on How to Write Fiction

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


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David Brooks: Should You Live for Your Résumé … Or Your Eulogy?

David Brooks’ short talk at last month’s TED conference is quintessential David Brooks. If you read his column in the Times, you’ll recognize his themes and concerns right away. It’s a bit preachy, sure. But it will get you thinking, maybe for a few minutes, about which self is winning out in your life — the self who craves success, builds a great résumé, and almost invariably bruises others — family, friends and strangers — along the way. Or the self “who seeks connection, community, love — the values that make for a great eulogy.” Just a little food for thought.


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Rare Audio: Albert Einstein Explains “Why I Am an American” on Day He Passes Citizenship Test (1940)

Most Americans by birth, myself included, have little reason to think about the process of attaining our highly sought-after nationality. But it only takes a moment’s reflection on the millions upon millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the twentieth century alone to get us pondering not just the how but the why of American citizenship. It’s become more relevant than ever today, when we need not look far to notice how many trans-national projects, careers, couples, and families have sprung up around us. Not only do a wider variety of people come to America today, but more Americans base themselves elsewhere than ever before. For some serious thoughts on changing nations, have a listen to the radio clip above, a brief interview with German-born theoretical physicist (and internationally known icon of science and intelligence) Albert Einstein. Last year, we featured footage of Einstein’s 1933 speech in praise of individual liberty at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He gave it not long after the Nazis took power in his homeland;  just four days later, he set sail for America and never looked back.

This broadcast went out in 1940, not long before the United States joined the Second World War, as part of I’m An American, a joint effort of the NBC network and the Immigration and Nationalization Service to invite “a number of naturalized citizens to talk about the American citizenship which they have recently acquired, a possession which we ourselves take for granted, but which is still new and thrilling to them.” Einstein, an articulate if still thickly accented speaker of English, calls this rare media appearance a “self-evident duty,” and praises the egalitarianism and cooperative spirit that inclines America toward ”the development of the individual and his creative power.” The famed scientist’s interlocutor, Second Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor Marshall E. Dimock, asks him about the reasons he appreciates his new citizenship, why he prefers to live in America given his “international outlook,” and whether he feels America still lives up to its grand promise of liberty. Whether you believe America has improved or gone downhill since that era, I think you’ll find in Einstein’s proud responses a reminder that it often takes a former outsider to clearly see the qualities that have given the country its place in history.

Related Content:

Albert Einstein on Individual Liberty, Without Which There Would Be ‘No Shakespeare, No Goethe, No Newton’

Albert Einstein Called Racism “A Disease of White People” in His Little-Known Fight for Civil Rights

Listen as Albert Einstein Reads ‘The Common Language of Science’ (1941)

Einstein for the Masses: Yale Presents a Primer on the Great Physicist’s Thinking

Albert Einstein Holding an Albert Einstein Puppet (Circa 1931)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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