The Making of Japanese Handmade Paper: A Short Film Documents an 800-Year-Old Tradition

For many of us, washi paper is the art supply equivalent of a dish that’s “too pretty to eat.” I love to look at it, but would be loathe to mar its beauty with my amateur creative efforts.

Originally intended for use in lanterns and shoji screens in Japan, its simplicity makes it a stand out among the far more ornamental decorative sheets populating the fancy international paper selections. Though there is no shortage of machine-produced washi on the market these days, the loveliest examples are still handmade in Kurotani, a small town near Kyoto.

Kurotani has the distinction of being Japan’s oldest paper-making town, and as documented by filmmaker Kuroyanagi Takashi, above, the washi process has changed little in 800 years.

In the pre-industrial age, washi-making was seasonal. Farmers planted the paper mulberry (kozo), mitsumata, and gampi plants essential to the process along with their food crops. Come havest-time, they would soak these plants’ fibrous inner barks until they were soft enough to be cleaned and pounded.

Then as now, the resulting pulp was added mixed with liquid and a mucilage to yield a (not particularly delicious sounding, and definitely not too pretty to eat…) spreadable paste.

The sheets are formed on bamboo screens, then stacked and pressed until dry.

The end result is both strong and flexible, making it a favorite of bookbinders. Its absorbency is prized by printmakers, including Rembrandt.

If you have a yen to witness the labor-intensive, traditional process up close, Dutch washi craftsman Rogier Uitenboogaart runs a guest house as part of his studio in nearby Kamikoya.

The rest of us must content ourselves with Takashi’s meditative 5-minute documentary.

via The Kid Should See This

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She writes a monthly column about people who love their jobs for Mainichi Weekly, a bilingual Japanese newspaper. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Walt Whitman’s Unearthed Health Manual, “Manly Health & Training,” Urges Readers to Stand (Don’t Sit!) and Eat Plenty of Meat (1858)


The idea of “the author,” wrote Roland Barthes, “rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work.” We see this anxiety of authorship in much of Walt Whitman’s personal correspondence. The poet, “could be surprisingly anxious about his own disappearance,” writes Zachary Turpin in the introduction to a recently re-discovered series of Whitman essays called “Manly Health and Training.”

Whitman, however, was just as often anxious to disassociate his person from his work, whether juvenile short stories or his copious amount of journalism and occasional pieces. Originally published in the New York Atlas between 1858 and 1860, “Manly Health and Training”—“part guest editorial, part self-help column”—may indeed represent some of the work Whitman wished would disappear in his late-in-life attempts at “careerist revisionism.” As it happens, reports The New York Times, these articles did just that until Turpin, a graduate student in English at the University of Houston, found the essays last summer while browsing articles written under various journalistic pseudonyms Whitman used.

The work in question appeared under the name “Mose Velsor,” and it’s worth asking, as Barthes might, whether we should consider it by the poetic figure we call “Whitman” at all. Though we encounter in these occasionally “eyebrow-raising” essays the “more-than-typically self-contradictory Whitman,” Turpin comments, “these contradictions display little of the poetic dialecticism of Leaves of Grass”—first published, without the author’s name, in 1855.

The essays are piecemeal distillations of “a huge range of topics” of general interest to male readers of the time—in some respects, a 19th century equivalent of Men’s Health magazine. And yet, argues Ed Folsom, editor of The Walt Whitman Quarterlywhich has published the nearly 47,000 word series of essays online—“One of Whitman’s core beliefs was that the body was the basis of democracy. The series is a hymn to the male body, as well as a guide to taking care of what he saw as the most vital unit of democratic living.” These themes are manifest along with the robust homoeroticism of Whitman’s poetry:

We shall speak by and by of health as being the foundation of all real manly beauty. Perhaps, too, it has more to do than is generally supposed, with the capacity of being agreeable as a companion, a social visitor, always welcome—and with the divine joys of friendship. In these particulars (and they surely include a good part of the best blessings of existence), there is that subtle virtue in a sound body, with all its functions perfect, which nothing else can make up for, and which will itself make up for many other deficiencies, as of education, refinement, and the like.

David Reynolds, professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, concurs: “there’s a kind of health-nut thing about ‘Leaves of Grass’ already. This series sort of codifies it and expands on it, giving us a real regimen.” To that end, two of “Mose Velsor”’s prominent topics are diet and exercise, and whether we consider “Manly Health and Training” a prose addendum to Whitman’s first book or mostly work-for-hire on a range of topics in his general purview, some of the advice, like the poetry, can often sound particularly modern, while at the same time preserving the quaintness of its age.

Anticipating the Paleo craze, for example, Whitman writes, “let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else.” His diet advice is far from systematic from essay to essay, yet he continually insists upon lean meat as the foundation of every meal and refers to beef and lamb as “strengthening materials.” The “simplest and most natural diet,” consists of eating mainly meat, Whitman asserts as he casts aspersions on “a vegetarian or water-gruel diet.” Whitman issues many of his dietary recommendations in the service of vocal training, recommending that his readers “gain serviceable hints from the ancients” in order to “give strength and clearness to their vocalizations.”

Aspirants to manliness should also attend to the ancients’ habit of frequenting “gymnasiums, in order to acquire muscular energy and pliancy of limbs.” Many of Whitman’s training regimens conjure images from The Road to Wellville or of stereotypical 19th-century strong men with handlebar mustaches and funny-looking leotards. But he does intuit the modern identification of a sedentary lifestyle with ill health and premature death, addressing especially “students, clerks, and those in sedentary or mental employments.” He exhorts proto-cubical jockeys and couch potatoes alike: “to you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice. Up!”

Whitman’s “warnings about the dangers of inactivity,” writes The New York Times, “could have been issued from a 19th-century standing desk,” a not unlikely scenario, given the many authors from the past who wrote on their feet.  But should we picture Whitman himself issuing these proclamations on “Health and Training”? No image of the man himself, with cocked elbow and cocked hat, is affixed to the essays. The pseudonymous byline may be no more than a convention, or it may be a desire to inhabit another persona, and to distance the words far from those of “Walt Whitman.”

Did Whitman consider the essays hackwork—populist pabulum of the kind struggling writers today often crank out anonymously as “sponsored content”? The series, Turpin writes “is un-Whitmanian, even unpoetic,” its function “fundamentally utilitarian, a physiological and political document rooted in the (pseudo)sciences of the era.” Not the sort of thing one imagines the highly self-conscious poet would have wanted to claim. “During his lifetime,” Whitman “wasted no time reminding anyone of this series,” likely hoping it would be forgotten.

And yet, it’s interesting nonetheless to compare the exaggerated masculinity of “Manly Health and Training” with much of the belittling personal criticism Whitman received in his lifetime, represented perfectly by one Thomas Wentworth Higginson. This critic and harsh reviewer included Whitman’s “priapism,” his serving as a nurse during the Civil War rather than “going into the army,” and his “not looking… in really good condition for athletic work” as reasons why the poet “never seemed to me a thoroughly wholesome or manly man.”

In addition to thinly veiled homophobia, many of Higginson’s comments suggested, write Robert Nelson and Kenneth Price, that “as a social group, working-class men did not and could not possess the qualities of true manliness.” Perhaps we can read these early Whitman editorials, pseudonymous or not, as democratic instructions for using masculine health as a great social leveler and means to “make up for many other deficiencies, as of education, refinement, and the like.” Or perhaps “Manly Health and Training” was just another assignment—a way to pay the bills by peddling popular male wish-fulfillment while the poet waited for the rest of the world to catch up with his literary genius.

via The New York Times

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

President Obama’s 2016 Stand-Up Comedy Routine

One thing I’ll miss about President Obama is his ability to deliver a good joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. My favorite line from Saturday night:

And then there’s Ted Cruz. Ted had a tough week. He went to Indiana –- Hoosier country –- stood on a basketball court, and called the hoop a “basketball ring.” What else is in his lexicon? Baseball sticks? Football hats? But sure, I’m the foreign one.


And it’s always nice to see John Boehner and Obama sharing a good joke around a smoke. Fast forward to the 27 minute mark for that.

Below, we also have Larry Wilmore’s cutting routine:

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Discover Harvard’s Collection of 2,500 Pigments: Preserving the World’s Rare, Wonderful Colors

If modern paint companies’ pretentiously-named color palettes gall you to the point of an exclusively black-and-white existence, the Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes pigment collection will prove a welcome balm.

The hand and typewritten labels identifying the collection’s 2500+ pigments boast none of the flashy “creativity” that J. Crew employs to peddle its cashmere Boyfriend Cardigans.
Pigment Collection

Images by Harvard News

The benign, and wholly unexciting-sounding “emerald green” is —unsurprisingly—the exact shade legions of Oz fans have come to expect. The thrills here are chemical, not conferred. A mix of crystalline powder copper acetoarsenite, this emerald’s fumes sickened penniless artists as adroitly as they repelled insects.

Look how nicely it goes with Van Gogh’s ruddy hair…

Van Gogh Harvard

“Mummy” is perhaps the closest the Forbes collection comes to 21st- century pigment naming. As Harvard’s Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Narayan Khandekar, notes in the video above, its mushroom shade is no great shakes. The source—the resin used to seal mummies’ bandages—is what distinguishes it.


The collection’s crown jewel is a rich ball of mustard-y Indian Yellow. This pigment comes not from maize, nor earth, but from the dehydrated urine of a cow subsisting exclusively on mango leaves. I’m drawn to it like a moth to the living room walls. I’m sure Benjamin Moore had his reasons for dubbing its urine-free facsimile “Sunny Days.”

pigment_vault India Yellow

The images above, save the Van Gogh painting, comes courtesy of by Harvard News. The video above was created by Great Big Story.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Watch Animated Introductions to 25 Philosophers by The School of Life: From Plato to Kant and Foucault

Philosophy as an academic subject is regularly maligned in popular discourse. Philosophy majors get told that their studies are useless. Philosophy professors find their budgets cut, their courses scrutinized, and their character grossly impeached in propagandistic religious feature films. It’s enough to make one despair over the turgid air of anti-intellectualism that stifles conversation.

But before we start pining for bygone golden ages of rigorous critical thought, let us remember that philosophers have been a thorn in the side of the powerful since the inception of Western philosophy. After all, Socrates, the ancient Greek whose name we associate with philosophy’s most basic maxims and methods, was supposedly put to death for the crime of which today’s professorate so often stand accused: corrupting the youth.

We mostly know of Socrates’ life and death through the written dialogues of his star pupil, Plato, whom Alain de Botton calls in the first video above, “the world’s first true, and perhaps greatest, philosopher.” De Botton quickly explains in his animated School of Life introduction that the core of Plato’s philosophy constitutes a “special kind of therapy” geared toward Eudaimonia, or human fulfillment and well-being. From Plato, De Botton’s series of quick takes on famous philosophers continues, moving through the Enlightenment and the 19th and 20th centuries.

Key to Plato’s thought is the critical examination of Doxa, or the conventional values and “popular opinions” that reveal themselves as “riddled with errors, prejudice, and superstition.” Plato’s most famous illustration of the profound state of ignorance in which most of us live goes by the name “The Allegory of the Cave,” and receives a retelling with commentary by De Botton just above. The parable doesn’t only illustrate the utility of philosophy, as De Botton says; it also serves as a vivid introduction to Plato’s theory of the Forms—an ideal realm of which our phenomenal reality is only a debased copy.

The dualism between the real and the ideal long governed philosophical thought, though many competing schools like the Stoics expressed a healthy degree of skepticism. But we might say that it wasn’t until Immanuel Kant, whom you can learn about above, that Plato really met his match. Along with his famous ethical dictum of the “categorical imperative,” Kant also posited two distinct realms—the noumenal and the phenomenal. And yet, unlike Plato, Kant did not believe we can make any assertions about the properties or existence of the ideal. Whatever lies outside the cave, we cannot access it through our faulty senses.

These central questions about the nature of knowledge and mind not only make philosophy an immanently fascinating discipline—they also make it an increasingly necessary endeavor, as we move further into the realm of constructing artificial minds. Software engineers and video game developers are tasked with philosophical problems related to consciousness, identity, and the possibility of ethical free choice. And at the cutting edge of cognitive science—where evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics rub elbows—we may find that Plato and Kant both intuited some of the most basic problems of consciousness: what we take for reality may be nothing of the kind, and we may have no way of genuinely knowing what the world is like outside our senses.

As 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes feared, but found impossible to believe, our perception of the world may in fact be a deceptive, if useful, illusion. Learn more about Descartes above, and see De Botton’s full School of Life philosophy series at the top of the post. Or watch the series on Youtube.

There are 25 videos in total, which let you become acquainted with, and perhaps corrupted by, a range of thinkers who question orthodoxy and common sense, including Aristotle, Epicurus, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Baruch Spinoza.

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

How Steely Dan Wrote “Deacon Blues,” the Song Audiophiles Use to Test High-End Stereos

Every Steely Dan fan remembers the first time they listened to their music — not just heard it, but listened to it, actively taking notice of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s complexly anachronistic lyrics (long scrutinized by the band’s exegetes), jazz-and-rock-spanning compositional technique, ultra-discerning selection of session musicians, and immaculate studio craft which, by the standards of the 1970s, raised popular music’s bar through the ceiling.

Often, that first real listening session happens in the neighborhood of a high-end stereo dealer. For me, the album was Two Against Nature, their turn-of-the-21st century comeback, but for many more, the album was Aja, which came out in 1977 and soon claimed the status of Steely Dan’s masterpiece. At the end of side one comes “Deacon Blues,” one of their best-loved songs as well as a production that puts audiophile listening equipment to the test. You can see a breakdown of what went into it in Nerdwriter’s new video “How Steely Dan Composes a Song” above.

“There’s a reason why audiophiles use Steely Dan records to test the sound quality of new speakers,” says host Evan Puschak. “The band is among the most sonically sophisticated pop acts of the 20th and 21st centuries,” in both the technical and artistic senses. He goes on to identify some of the signature elements in the mix, including something called the “mu major cord”; the recording methods that allow “every instrument its own life” (especially those played by masters like guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Bernard Purdie); the striking effect of “middle register horns sliding against each other”; and even saxophone soloist Pete Christlieb, whom Becker and Fagen discovered by chance on a Tonight Show broadcast.

Puschak doesn’t ignore the lyrics, without a thorough analysis of which no discussion of Steely Dan’s work would be complete. He mentions the band’s typically wry, sardonic tone, their detached perspective and notes of uncertainty, but in the case of this particular song, it all comes with a “hidden earnestness” that makes it one of the most poignant in their entire catalog. “‘Deacon Blues’ is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” admits Fagen in the television documentary clip just above, which puts him and Becker back into the studio to look back at the song track by isolated track.

“We’re both kids who grew up in the suburbs. We both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the fifties, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture — some kind of escape, really — from where we found ourselves.” Becker describes the song’s eponymous protagonist, who dreams of learning to “work the saxophone” in order to play just how he feels, “drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel,” as not a musician but someone who “just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. Who’s to say that he’s not right?”

You can learn even more about the making (and the magic) of “Deacon Blues” in Marc Myers’ interview with Becker and Fagen in the Wall Street Journal last year. “It’s the only time I remember mixing a record all day and, when the mix was done, feeling like I wanted to hear it over and over again,” says Becker. “It was the comprehensive sound of the thing.” Fagen acknowledges “one thing we did right” in the making of the song: “We never tried to accommodate the mass market. We worked for ourselves and still do.”

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

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

There may be no more contentious an issue at the level of local U.S. government than education. All of the socioeconomic and cultural fault lines communities would rather paper over become fully exposed in debates over funding, curriculum, districting, etc. But we rarely hear discussions about educational policy at the national level these days.

You’ll hear no major political candidate deliver a speech solely focused on education. Debate moderators don’t much ask about it. The United States’ founder’s own thoughts on the subject are occasionally cited—but only in passing, on the way to the latest round of talks on war and wealth. Aside from proposals dismissed as too radical, education is mostly considered a lower priority for the nation’s leaders, or it’s roped into highly charged debates about political and social unrest on university campuses.

This situation can seem odd to the student of political philosophy. Every major political thinker—from Plato to John Locke to John Stuart Mill—has written letters, treatises, even major works on the central role of education. One contemporary political thinker—linguist, anarchist, and retired MIT professor Noam Chomsky—has also devoted quite a lot of thought to education, and has forcefully critiqued what he sees as a corporate attack on its institutions.

Chomsky, however, has no interest in harnessing education to prop up governments or market economies. Nor does he see education as a tool for righting historical wrongs, securing middle class jobs, or meeting any other  agenda.

Chomsky, whose thoughts on education we’ve featured before, tells us in the short video interview at the top of the post how he defines what it means to be truly educated. And to do so, he reaches back to a philosopher whose views you won’t hear referenced often, Wilhelm von Humboldt, German humanist, friend of Goethe and Schiller, and “founder of the modern higher education system.” Humboldt, Chomsky says, “argued, I think, very plausibly, that the core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively, independently, without external controls.” A true education, Chomsky suggests, opens a door to human intellectual freedom and creative autonomy.

To clarify, Chomsky paraphrases a “leading physicist” and former MIT colleague, who would tell his students, “it’s not important what we cover in the class; it’s important what you discover.” On this point of view, to be truly educated means to be resourceful, to be able to “formulate serious questions” and “question standard doctrine, if that’s appropriate”…. It means to “find your own way.” This definition sounds similar to Nietzsche’s views on the subject, though Nietzsche had little hope in very many people attaining a true education. Chomsky, as you might expect, proceeds in a much more democratic spirit.

In the interview above from 2013 (see the second video), you can hear him discuss why he has devoted his life to educating not only his paying students, but also nearly anyone who asks him a question. He also talks about his own education and further elucidates his views on the relationship between education, creativity, and critical inquiry. And, in the very first few minutes, you’ll find out whether Chomsky prefers George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. (Hint: it’s neither.)

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

Peter Frampton Plays a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR, Featuring Acoustic Versions of His Classic Songs

Having recently released a new album featuring acoustic versions of his big hits, Peter Frampton is now back on tour, playing in some smaller venues across the U.S. But no venue–not the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, nor the Tobin Center for Performing Arts in San Antonio, Texas–is quite as small as the one we’re featuring today. Above, watch Frampton perform at the desk of NPR’s All Songs Considered. The performance is part of NPR’s Tiny Desk series, and the setlist includes acoustic versions of “Baby, I Love Your Way,” “Lines On My Face,” and “All I Want To Be (Is By Your Side).” Other recent Tiny Desk performances include Graham Nash, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, and Ben Folds. Enjoy.

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Young Patti Smith Rails Against the Censorship of Her Music: An Animated, NSFW Interview from 1976

The latest installment from Blank on Blank‘s series of animated videos drops us inside the bohemian Portobello Hotel in London. It’s May, 1976, and we hear a young Patti Smith railing against the censorship of her music, using some colorful–that is to say, NSFW–words. She talks Rimbaud. The poetry and combat of rock. The dreams and hallucinations that feed her music. The stuff that would eventually earn her the cred to be called The Godmother of Punk.

The audio is part of a longer, two-hour interview with Mick Gold, which is available through Amazon and iTunes. Enjoy.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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The “Brain Dictionary”: Beautiful 3D Map Shows How Different Brain Areas Respond to Hearing Different Words

We’ve all had those moments of struggle to come up with le mot juste, in our native language or a foreign one. But when we look for a particular word, where exactly do we go to find it? Neuroscientists at Berkeley have made a fascinating start on answering that question by going in the other direction, mapping out which parts of the brain respond to the sound of certain words, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch the action on the cerebral cortices of people listening to The Moth Radio Hour — a popular storytelling podcast you yourself may have spent some time with, albeit under somewhat different circumstances.

“No single brain region holds one word or concept,” writes The Guardian‘s Ian Sample on the “brain dictionary” thus developed by researcher Jack Gallant and his team. “A single brain spot is associated with a number of related words. And each single word lights up many different brain spots. Together they make up networks that represent the meanings of each word we use: life and love; death and taxes; clouds, Florida and bra. All light up their own networks.”

Sample quotes Alexander Huth, the first author on the study: “It is possible that this approach could be used to decode information about what words a person is hearing, reading, or possibly even thinking.” You can learn more about this promising research in the short video from Nature above, which shows how the team mapped out how, during those Moth listening sessions, “different bits of the brain responded to different kinds of words”: some regions lit up in response to those having to do with numbers, for instance, others in response to “social words,” and others in response to those indicating place.

You can also browse this brain dictionary yourself in 3D on the Gallant Lab’s web site, which lets you click on any part of the cortex and see a cluster of the words which generated the most activity there. The other neuroscientists quoted in the Guardian piece acknowledge both the thrilling (if slightly scary, in terms of thought-reading possibilities in the maybe-not-that-far-flung future) implications of the work as well as the huge amount of unknowns that remain. The response of the podcasting community has so far gone unrecorded, but surely they’d like to see the research extended in the direction of other linguistically intensive shows — Marc Maron’s WTF, perhaps.

via The Guardian

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