Umberto Eco’s 36 Rules for Writing Well (in English or Italian)

Creative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

Umberto Eco knew a great many things. Indeed too many things, at least according to his critics: “Eco knows everything there is to know and spews it in your face in the most blasé manner,” declared Pier Paolo Pasolini, “as if you were listening to a robot.” That line appears quoted in Tim Parks’ review of Pape Satàn Aleppe, a posthumous collection of essays from La Bustina di Minerva, the magazine column Eco had written since 1985. “This phrase means ‘Minerva’s Matchbook,'” Parks explains. “Minerva is a brand of matches, and, being a pipe smoker, Eco used to jot down notes on the inside flap of their packaging. His columns were to be equally extemporaneous, compulsive and incisive, each as illuminating and explosive as a struck match.”

At the same time, “the reference to the Roman goddess Minerva is important; it warns us that in the modern world we may struggle to distinguish between divinities and bric-a-brac.” This was as true, and remains as true, in the realm of letters as in any other. And of all the things Eco knew, he surely knew best how to use words; hence his La Bustina di Minerva column laying out 40 rules for speaking and writing.

This meant, of course, speaking and writing in Italian, his native tongue and the language of which he spent his career demonstrating complete mastery. But as translator Gio Clairval shows in her English rendition of Eco’s rules, most of them apply just as well to this language.

“I’ve found online a series of instructions on how to write well,” says Eco’s introduction to the list. “I adopt them with a few variations because I think they could be useful to writers, particularly those who attend creative writing classes.” A few examples will suffice to give a sense of his guidance:

  • Avoid alliterations, even if they’re manna for morons.
  • Avoid clichés: they’re like death warmed over.
  • Never generalize.
  • Hold those quotes. Emerson aptly said, “I hate quotes. Tell me only what you know.”
  • Don’t write one-word sentences. Ever.
  • Recognize the difference between the semicolon and the colon: even if it’s hard.
  • Do you really need rhetorical questions?
  • Be concise; try expressing your thoughts with the least possible number of words, avoiding long sentences– or sentences interrupted by incidental phrases that always confuse the casual reader– in order to avoid contributing to the general pollution of information, which is surely (particularly when it is uselessly ripe with unnecessary explanations, or at least non indispensable specifications) one of the tragedies of our media-dominated time.
  • Don’t be emphatic! Be careful with exclamation marks!
  • No need to tell you how cloying preteritions are.

Not only does each of Eco’s points offer a useful piece of writing advice, it elegantly demonstrates just how your writing will come off if you fail to follow it. In the event that “you can’t find the appropriate expression,” he writes, “refrain from using colloquial/dialectal expressions.” To this he appends, of course, a colloquial expression, Peso el tacòn del buso: “The patch is worse than the hole.” However clichéd it sounds in Italian, all of us would do well to bear it in mind no matter the language in which we write. (And if you write in Italian, be sure to read Eco’s original column, which contains additional rules applying only to that language: Non usare metafore incongruenti anche se ti paiono “cantare,” for instance. Sono come un cigno che deraglia.)

You can read all 36 of Eco’s English-relevant writing rules at Clairval’s site. If you’d like to hear more of his writing advice, watch the Louisiana Channel interview clip we featured after his death in 2016. And elsewhere in our archives, you can compare and contrast Eco’s list of rules for writing with those drawn up by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Steven Pinker, Stephen King, V.S. Naipaul, Friedrich Nietzsche, Elmore Leonard, and George Orwell. Though Eco could, in his writing, assume what Parks calls an “immeasurably superior” persona, he surely would have agreed with the final, thoroughly English point on Orwell’s list: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Related content:

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Free Italian Lessons

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

The Horrors of Bull Island, “the Worst Music Festival of All Time” (1972)

It’s maybe a little unfair to compare 1972’s “Bull Island” Festival to Fyre Fest, the music festival scam so egregious it warranted dueling documentaries on Hulu and Netflix. But “Bull Island” — or what was originally called the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival — was an epic catastrophe, maybe the worst in music festival history, and well deserving of its own media franchise. Still, its organizers had every intention of following through on the event. What happened wasn’t entirely their fault, but partly the result of a campaign to route thousands of hippies out of the state of Indiana.

Promoters Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander had previously staged a successful festival, the Bosse Field Freedom Fest, in Evansville, an event featuring Tina Turner, Edgar Winter, Dr. John, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker. Eager to top themselves and bring a “bigger-than-Woodstock”-sized happening to the Midwest, they booked “a blockbuster collection of artists” for their next event, writes Patrick Chamberlain at Everfest, “including Black Sabbath, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Ravi Shankar, The Eagles, and even Cheech and Chong.”

Before securing all the permits, they placed ads and started selling tickets. The two eager 20-something organizers both suffered from the tragic flaw of youthful overconfidence, which blinded them to the fact that there was no way their next festival was going to happen in Evansville, or anywhere in Indiana, for that matter. The error led to what may be, as Bandsplaining explains above, the worst music festival of all time. “The lack of preparedness, the lawlessness, the desperation of the crowd; it’s like the bad-acid trip version of Woodstock where [spoiler] everything burns down. [/spoiler].”

Although reports from locals mostly characterized the duo’s previous outdoor festival at Bosse Field as peaceful, Evansville Mayor Russell Lloyd vowed it would never happen again. Yet Duncan and Alexander plowed ahead with planning the Eerie Canal Soda Pop Festival, as Sean Mcdevitt writes at the Courier & Press:

Contracts were signed, helicopters were rented, and holes were being dug for some 500 portable toilets. More than 30 rock groups were booked, and tickets went on sale in several cities around the country.

Oblivious to their fate, the organizers sold almost 9,000 tickets. “Just eight days after its announcement, a restraining order was issued against the event,” followed by a string of similar ordinances in neighboring counties as other locales got wind of the projected 50,000 to 60,000 attendees expected to show up. Soon, those numbers swelled to the hundreds of thousands. Alexander and Duncan went on TV and begged authorities to let the show proceed to prevent mass civil unrest.

Forced to move the festival out of state, they settled on a place called Bull Island, “not in fact an island, but rather a collection of swampy fields,” Chamberlain notes, “under the legal jurisdiction of the town of Carmi, Illinois, but only accessible through Indiana.” When 200,000 hippies arrived on Labor Day weekend, it caused a traffic jam 30 miles long, and they were forced to abandon their cars and hike for miles on foot, resembling “a defeated army,” NBC Nightly News reporter Edwin Newman put it.

Some of the acts — including Ravi Shankar, Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, and Black Oak Arkansas — did make it, choppering in to play a set, then swiftly leaving. “Cheech and Chong were helicoptered in, performed for fifteen minutes in a deluge of rain, cut their set short,” and got out, surely sensing bad vibes everywhere, caused by strychnine-laced acid. Big acts like Rod Stewart and Black Sabbath had already canceled, leaving long stretches of silence between sets.

For most festival attendees, the open-air drug markets stood out most in their memories. “The dope district looked like double rows of fish stands at the county fair!” one remembers. “It was easier to buy drugs than it was to buy water,” recalled another attendee. The police, vastly outnumbered, left well enough alone and stayed outside the fence. Jemayel Khawaja at Ozy paints the scene:

Inside, chaos was already in full swing. The stage was half constructed, and the campgrounds — crammed with over four times as many people as expected — were lined with open drug markets. Hawkers set up stalls selling marijuana, mescaline, LSD and heroin. “I never saw so many drugs in my life,” attendee Ray Kessler recalled to local newspaper The Mount Vernon Democrat. With only six outhouses and half-dug wells to serve as sanitation, thousands instead took to relieving themselves en masse in what became known as “The Turd Fields” and bathing in the Wabash River.

What happened was surely inevitable. Price gouging caused attendees, rabid with hunger and thirst, to attack vendors. Some caught pneumonia in the torrential rains on the third day. One attendee drowned in the Wabash, another was run over by a truck but survived, many were beaten and robbed, one overdosed, one gave birth. By that evening, “the crowd had endured enough,” Chamberlain writes. “The lasting image many have of the festival is the crowd setting the stage on fire. It was a fitting ending. By this point, the populous turned to mass exodus, during which commons themes were intoxication, breakdowns, theft, long drives, and comedowns.”

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

Brian Eno Launches His Own Radio Station with Hundreds of Unreleased Tracks: Hear Two Programs

Creative Commons image via Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2013, Brian Eno gave a talk at the Red Bull Academy, the lecture series that has hosted fellow musicians like Tony Visconti, Debbie Harry, and Nile Rogers. Asked when he knew a piece of music was finished, Eno let drop that he currently had 200,809 works of unreleased music. (The actual answer though? “When there’s a deadline”).

Usually we have to wait for posthumous releases to hear such music, like what is currently happening now to Prince’s “vault” of music. Eno is not waiting. He got the deadline.

Sonos Radio HD, the music division of the speaker and audio system company, announced last week that Eno has curated a radio station that will play nothing but unreleased cuts from his five decades of making music. There’s so much material, the chance of a listener hearing a repeat is slim. (Still, the station promises hundreds of tracks, not hundreds of thousands.)

Now, this is not an advertisement for Sonos, but a heads up that in order to promote “The Lighthouse,” as Eno has called the radio station, Sonos has dropped two Eno-led radio shows where he shares just a fraction of the unreleased material, with a promise of two more episodes to come. One features an interviewer, and the other is just Eno talking about the tracks. (And you *can* get one month free at Sonos if you sign up.)

“(A radio station) is something I’ve been thinking about for years and years and years,” says Eno. “And it’s partly because I have far too much music in my life. I have so much stuff.”

The tracks have been purged of titles and have been instead given the utilitarian monikers of “Lighthouse Number (X)”. Anyway, titles suggest too much thought. “Some are pretty crap titles,” he says. “The problem with working on computers is that you have to give things titles before you’ve actually made them…Sometimes the pieces often quickly outgrow the titles.”

If you’re expecting nothing but ambient washes and generative music, you might be surprised at the variety. In the first Eno-hosted show, he plays a funky jam (“Lighthouse Number 002”) co-composed by Peter Chilvers and stuffed with r’n’b samples; and an almost-completed song featuring the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart on guitar, called “All the Bloody Fighters,” aka “Lighthouse Number 106”.

Why call it “The Lighthouse”? “I like the idea of a sort of beacon calling you, telling you something, warning you perhaps, announcing something.” He also credits a friend who told him his unreleased music is like ships lost at sea. The lighthouse “is calling in some of those lost ships.”

As a bonus, listen below to Eno’s recent interview with Rick Rubin, where they talk about the Sonos project and much more.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

What Makes Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a Great Painting?: An Explanation in 15 Minutes

The Mona Lisa may be on display at the Louvre, but best of luck appreciating it there. The first obstacle, quite literally, is the crowd that’s always massed around it (or, in the time before social-distancing policies, was always massed around it). Even if you maneuver your way to the front of the camera-phoned throng, the painting itself hangs within a thick glass case — can’t have a repeat of the 1911 theft — and has dimensions in any event much smaller than people tend to imagine. After all, we come to know Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting through cultural reference and parody, but also through large-scale reproduction, the better to understand the painstaking and innovative artistic labor that makes the Mona Lisa worth flocking to in the first place.

Still, there are those who come away from the Mona Lisa — assuming they can manage to get back out through the mass of humanity — wondering what all the fuss is about. It was for them, presumably, that curator James Payne chose that painting as the first subject of his Youtube series Great Art Explained.

As he would in his subsequent episodes (such as his three-part series, previously featured here on Open Culture, about Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights), Payne casts off the accumulated historical speculation and other various forms of cultural baggage to find the work’s artistic core. In the case of the Mona Lisa, not just “the greatest psychological portrait ever painted” but “the end product of the greatest inquisitive mind in history,” that still leaves much to discuss.

In under fifteen minutes, Payne explains a host of the techniques Leonardo employed in painting the Mona Lisa that no artist of his time and place had used before — and indeed, that in some cases no other artists mastered until long thereafter. These include working on top of an under-layer of white paint that appears to be “lighting Mona Lisa from within,” stripping his subject of “all the usual high-status symbols” usually seen in aristocratic portraiture, depicting her at three-quarters length rather than in full frame, making the background fade into the distance while also suggesting motion, and combining the techniques of low-contrast sfumato and high-contrast chiaroscuro. And only a painter with Leonardo’s anatomical knowledge could have executed that famously subtle smile, which appears and vanishes again depending on which part of the Mona Lisa we look at — no matter whether we’re doing it at the Louvre or on Youtube.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Hear an Excerpt from the Newly-Released, First Unabridged Audiobook of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Need one go so far in digging out strata of meaning? Only if one wishes to; Finnegans Wake is a puzzle, just as a dream is a puzzle, but the puzzle element is less important than the thrust of the narrative and the shadowy majesty of the characters… and when our eyes grow bewildered with strange roots and incredible compounds, why, then we can switch on our ears. It is astonishing how much of the meaning is conveyed through music: the art of dim-sighted Joyce is, like that of Milton, mainly auditory. — Anthony Burgess

Finnegans Wake is not typically one of those books people pretend they have read, and even when they have read James Joyce’s last novel, no one’s likely to bring it up at dinner. It seems like making sense of Joyce’s polyglot prose — full of peculiar coinages and portmanteaus — takes special training and the kind of dedication and natural polymathic talents few readers possess. Critic, composer, linguist, poet, screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Anthony Burgess was one such reader, spending decades studying Joyce and publishing his first book on the Irish writer, Here Comes Everybody, in 1965.

Burgess published two more Joyce books, edited a shorter Finnegans Wake with his own critical commentary, and released documentary films about the novel, a book he made more approachable with his plain-spoken summaries. From the start, in the introduction to his first Joyce book — and against the evidence of most everyone’s experience with Finnegans Wake — Burgess insisted reading Joyce was not a rarified pursuit. “If ever there was a writer for the people,” Burgess argued, “Joyce was that writer.”

What’s important to keep in mind, Burgess emphasizes, even over and above considerations of meaning, is the music of Joyce’s language. One might go so far as to say, the book is nothing but language that must be read aloud, and, critically, sung. “[Joyce’s] writing is not about something,” wrote Samuel Beckett. “It is that something itself… . When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep… When the sense is dancing the words dance.”

That quote comes from the liner notes of the very first unabridged commercial audiobook recording of Finnegans Wake, read by Irish actor Barry McGovern (handpicked by the Joyce estate), with Marcella Riordan. You can hear an excerpt further up, the first five paragraphs of the book, opening with the famous sentence fragment, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Rolling Stone writes:

As it progresses, McGovern expertly navigates seemingly unpronounceable words like “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk” (which contains 100 characters) and he enunciates every consonant in Joyce’s unusual word inventions like “duskt.”

Yes, in print, it’s daunting stuff, but we should remember that for all Finnegans Wake’s linguistic complexity, its attempts to capture all of human history, its illustrations of the obscure theories of Giambattista Vico and Giordano Bruno and so forth, at its heart, wrote Burgess, is song, which gave the book its title.

“Finnegan’s Wake” is a New York Irish ballad which tells of the death of Tim Finnegan, a builder’s labourer who, fond of the bottle, falls drunk from his ladder… This ballad may be taken as demotic resurrection myth and one can see why, with its core of profundity wrapped round with the language of ordinary people, it appealed so much to Joyce. 

Joyce, the singer and lover of song, heard it everywhere he went, and it’s in every bewildering sentence and paragraph of Finnegans Wake. Hear the entire book, read unabridged for the first time, in the new recording, released on June 16th, Bloomsday, by Naxos Audiobooks. Free alternative versions can be found below…

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

Download Great Works of Art from 40+ Museums Worldwide: Explore Artvee, the New Art Search Engine

Dilbert creator Scott Adams once wrote of his early experiences introducing the World Wide Web to others. “In 1993, there were only a handful of Web sites you could access, such as the Smithsonian’s exhibit of gems. Those pages were slow to load and crashed as often as they worked.” But those who witnessed this technology in action would invariably “get out of their chairs their eyes like saucers, and they would approach the keyboard. They had to touch it themselves. There was something about the internet that was like catnip.” In the intervening decades, the technology powering the internet has only improved, and we’ve all felt how greatly that catnip-like effect has intensified. And the Smithsonian, as we’ve featured here on Open Culture, is still there — now with much more online than gems.

Today, the Smithsonian’s impressive online collections are accessible through Artvee, a new search engine for downloadable high-resolution, public domain artworks. So are the collections of more than 40 other international institutions, from the New York Public Library and the Art Institute of Chicago to the Rijksmuseum and Paris Musées, many of which had little or no online presence back in the early 1990s.

In recent years, they’ve gotten quite serious indeed about digitizing their holdings and making those digitizations freely available to the world, uploading them by the thousand, even by the million. With so many artworks and artifacts already up, and surely much more to come, the question becomes how best to navigate not just one of these collections, but all of them.

Artvee constitutes one answer to this question. Using its search engine, writes Denise Tempone at Domestika, “you can filter categories such as abstract art, landscape, mythology, drawings, illustrations, botany, fashion, figurative art, religion, animal, desserts, history, Japanese art, and still life. The site also gives you the option to search by artist. You will find works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Raphael, and Sandro Botticelli in this amazing gallery.” Other collections, created by Artvee itself as well as by its users, include “illustrations from fairy tales; covers of popular American songs; and some even more peculiar ones, such as adverts selling bicycles that are over a hundred years old.”

The variety of artists browsable on Artvee also includes Alphonse Mucha, Edvard Munch, and Hilma af Kint; other collections offer the wonders of political illustrations, book promo posters, and NASA’s visions of the future. All of the items within, it bears repeating, are in the public domain or distributed under a Creative Commons license, meaning you can use them not just as sources of inspiration but as ingredients in your own work as well, a possibility few us could have imagined at the dawn of the Web. Back then, you’ll recall, we all used a variety of different tools and portals to navigate the internet, according to personal preference. The emerging field of art search engines, which includes not just Artvee but other options like Museo, may remind us of those days — and how far the internet has come since.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Watch Franz Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” Played with the Mesmerizing “Three-Hand Technique”

“Piano education is important for teaching polyphony, improving sight-reading, consolidating the knowledge of harmony and gaining much more musical abilities,” write Turkish researchers in the behavioral sciences journal Procedia. The student of the piano can advance solo or with another player in duets, playing what are called “four-hand pieces.” But learning “to gain the attitudes of duet playing” poses a challenge. Researchers Izzet Yucetoker and Koksal Apaydinli suggest a possible intervention — overcoming the difficulties of playing four-hand pieces by learning to play what are called “three-hand pieces.”

How, you might wonder, does one play the piano with three hands? It does not take an extra limb or a partner with one hand tied behind their back. Three-hand technique is a dextrous sleight-of-hand developed in the 1830s, most prominently by pianist Sigismond Thalberg, a rival of Franz Liszt who could “apparently not only counter Liszt’s legendary fire and thunder with subtlety,” Bryce Morrison writes at Gramophone, “but who played as if with three hands. Three hands were heard, two were visible!” Might this somehow be easier than playing duets?

One contemporary reviewer of Thalberg’s playing described it as “myriads of notes sounding from one extremity of the instrument to the other without disturbing the subject, in which the three distinct features of this combination are clearly brought out by his exquisite touch.” The Polish pianist and student of Liszt Moriz Rosenthal claimed Thalberg adopted the technique from the harp. “Such legerdemain quickly had novelty-conscious Paris by the ears,” Morrison writes, “and an elegant white kid-glove rather than than a mere gauntlet was thrown down before Liszt.”

Liszt would have none of it, deriding three-hand technique as a trick unfit for his virtuosity. Nonetheless, “in 1837, Liszt, arguably the most charismatic virtuoso of all time, was challenged for supremacy by Sigismond Thalberg…. Stung and infuriated by what he saw as Thalberg’s aristocratic pretensions… Liszt replied with corruscating scorn.” He agreed to meet Thalberg, not in a duet but a duel, at “the home of Countess Cristina Belgiojoso — lover of Lafayette, Heine and Liszt,” notes Georg Prodota at Interlude.

The Countess “gave a charity event for the refugees of the Italian war of independence, and the contemporary press compared the concert to the battle between Rome and Carthage.” Countess Belgiojoso herself (as did the press) pronounced the outcome a draw:

Never was Liszt more controlled, more thoughtful, more energetic, more passionate; never has Thalberg played with greater verve and tenderness. Each of them prudently stayed within his harmonic domain, but each used every one of his resources. It was an admirable joust. The most profound silence fell over that noble arena. And finally Liszt and Thalberg were both proclaimed victors by this glittering and intelligent assembly. Thus two victors and no vanquished …

History was not so kind. Liszt is now celebrated as “the most charismatic virtuoso of all time,” while Thalberg is hardly remembered. And some of the most celebrated examples of pieces played with three-hand technique come not from Thalberg but from Liszt, such as “Un Sospiro” (“A Sigh”), the last of his Three Concert Études, composed between 1845 and 1849, not only as performance pieces, but — as it so happens — for the general improvement of a pianist’s technique. Hear pianist Paul Barton play three versions of “Un Sospiro” above and download the sheet music for the piece here.

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

A History of Punk from 1976-78: A Free Online Course from the University of Reading

From Matthew Worley, professor of modern history at the University of Reading, comes the free online course Anarchy in the UK: A History of Punk from 1976-78. (Worley is also the author of the book, No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture.) The course covers the following ground:

In the late 1970s, a new youth subculture emerged in the UK. This, of course, was punk, and a cultural revolt was underway.

In this course, you will learn about the emergence of punk and its diverse range of meanings. You’ll use that lens to explore how youth cultures provided space for people to reimagine, discover and challenge the society and communities in which they were coming of age.

You’ll explore punk as a tool of expression for young people, and how it related to politics and events. You’ll consider punk’s relationship with gender, class, race, sexuality and protest, drawing comparisons with the youth culture of today…

This history course also has an emphasis on the creative side of punk. You’ll explore DIY punk design and writing, epitomised by fanzines. You’ll learn how to create a real-life fanzine of your own, all the way to publishing and distribution. This will help strengthen your communication skills and encourage independent thought and creativity.

Among other things, the course will cover:

  • The diverse meanings of ‘punk’, its roots and its effects on British culture.
  • The originators and defining events that led to punk’s spread across the UK and beyond.
  • The music: how the Sex Pistols opened the way for a wide range of sounds and bands.
  • Why fanzines became the perfect medium for punk.
  • Punk’s influence on publishing, fashion, art and design.
  • Punk’s impact on issues of gender, class, race, sexuality and protest.
  • Punk’s legacy and continuing influence on society.

Anarchy in the UK: A History of Punk from 1976-78 can be taken for free on the FutureLearn platform. The course will be added to our list: 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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The Rashomon Effect: The Phenomenon, Named After Akira Kurosawa’s Classic Film, Where Each of Us Remembers the Same Event Differently

Toward the end of The Simpsons’ golden age, one episode sent the titular family off to Japan, not without resistance from its famously lazy patriarch. “Come on, Homer,” Marge insists, “Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.” To which Homer naturally replies, “That’s not how I remember it!” This joke must have written itself, not as a high-middlebrow cultural reference (as, say, Frasier would later name-check Tampopo) but as a play on a universally understood byword for the nature of human memory. Even those of us who’ve never seen Rashomon, the period crime drama that made its director Akira Kurosawa a household name in the West, know what its title represents: the tendency of each human being to remember the same event in his own way.

“A samurai is found dead in a quiet bamboo grove,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. “One by one, the crime’s only known witnesses recount their version of the events that transpired. But as they each tell their tale, it becomes clear that every testimony is plausible, yet different, and each witness implicates themselves.”

So goes “In a Grove,” a story by celebrated early 20th-century writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. An avid reader, Kurosawa combined that literary work with another of Akutagawa’s to create the script for Rashomon. Both Akutagawa and Kurosawa “use the tools of their media to give each character’s testimony equal weight, transforming each witness into an unreliable narrator.” Neither reader nor viewer can trust anyone — nor, ultimately, can they arrive at a defensible conclusion as to the identity of the killer.

Such conflicts of memory and perception occur everywhere in human affairs: this TED-Ed lesson finds examples in biology, anthropology, politics, and media. Sufficiently many psychological phenomena converge to give rise to the Rashomon effect that it seems almost overdetermined; it may be more illuminating to ask under what conditions doesn’t it occur. But it also makes us ask even tougher questions: “What is truth, anyway? Are there situations when an objective truth doesn’t exist? What can different versions of the same event tell us about the time, place, and people involved? And how can we make group decisions if we’re all working with different information, backgrounds, and biases?” We seem to be no closer to definitive answers than we were when Rashomon came out more than 70 years ago — only one of the reasons the film holds up so well still today.

Related Content:

Why Time Seems to Fly By As You Get Older, and How to Slow It Down: A Scientific Explanation by Neuroscientist David Eagleman

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

How Did Akira Kurosawa Make Such Powerful & Enduring Films? A Wealth of Video Essays Break Down His Cinematic Genius

What Is Déjà Vu? Michio Kaku Wonders If It’s Triggered by Parallel Universes

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Performs The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”

Over the years, we’ve featured The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performing covers of various rock classics–from the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Bowie’s “Heroes,” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Recorded in London back in 2005, this clip features the Orchestra performing The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go.’  The performance is an outtake from the DVD, Anarchy in the Ukulele, which is available in digital format. Enjoy.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content:

Seriously Awesome Ukulele Covers of “Sultans of Swing,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Thunderstruck,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” Shredded on the Ukulele

George Harrison Explains Why Everyone Should Play the Ukulele



Hear The Velvet Underground’s “Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes,” Which Showcases the Brilliance & Innovation of Lou Reed’s Guitar Playing (1969)

What was the Velvet Underground? A Kim Fowly-like art project that outlived its impresario’s interest? A main vehicle for Lou Reed, rock’s egomaniac underdog (who was no one’s ingénue)? Was it three bands? 1. The Velvet Underground and Nico; 2. The Velvet Underground with John Cale; and 3. The Velvet Underground with Doug Yule after Cale’s departure. (Let’s pass by, for the moment, whether VU without Reed warrants a mention…)

Each iteration pioneered essential underground sounds — dirgy Euro-folk rock, strung-out New York garage rock, junkie ballads, psychedelic drone, experimental noise — nearly all of them channeled through Reed’s underrated guitar playing, which was, perhaps the most important member of the band all along. Whoever taped the Velvets (in their second incarnation) on March 15, 1969, on the last night of a three-show engagement at The Boston Tea Party in Boston, MA, seemed to think so. “The entire set was recorded by a fan directly from Lou Reed’s guitar amplifier,” MetaFilter points out.

The mic jammed in the back of Reed’s amp, a Head Heritage reviewer writes, produced “a mighty electronic roar that reveals the depth and layers of Reed’s playing. Over and undertones, feedback, string buzz, the scratch of fingers on frets and the crackle and hum of tube amps combine to create a monolithic blast of metal machine music.” Known as the “legendary guitar amp tape” and long sought by collectors and fans, the bootleg, which you can hear above, “serves as a testament to the brilliance and innovation of Reed’s guitar-playing — both qualities that are often underrated, if not overlooked entirely, by critics of his work,” as Richie Unterberger writes.

It should be evident thus far that these recordings are hardly a comprehensive document of the Velvet Underground in early 1969. Except for Mo Tucker’s glorious, but muffled thumping and some of Sterling Morrison’s excellent guitar interplay, the rest of the band is hardly audible. Songs like “Candy Says” and “Jesus” — on which Reed does not create sublime swirls of noise and feedback — chug along monotonously without their melodies. “It is frustrating,” Unterberger admits, “to hear such a one-dimensional audio-snapshot of what is clearly a good — if not great — night for the band” (who were far more than one of their parts). On the other hand, nowhere else can we hear the nuance, ferocity, and outright insanity of Reed’s playing so amply demonstrated on the majority of this document.

The tape circulated for years as a Japanese bootleg, an interesting fact, notes a Rate Your Music commenter, “considering this bears more similarity to recordings from the likes of [legendary Japanese psych rock band] Les Rallizes Dénudés than most of the Velvet Underground’s other material.” The recordings may have well paved the way for the explosion of Japanese psychedelic rock to come. They also demonstrate the influence of Ornette Coleman in Reed’s playing, and the liberating philosophy Coleman would come to call Harmolodics.

“Alla that boo-ha about whether Reed really was influenced by free jazz,” writes one reviewer quoted on MetaFilter, “can be put to rest here as he pulls the kind of wailing hallucinatory shapes from the guitar that it would take the goddam Blue Humans to decode a couple of decades later.” It may well overstate the case to claim that “Lou Reed single-handedly invented underground music,” but we can hear in these recordings the seeds of everything from Television to Sonic Youth to Pavement to Royal Trux and so much more. See the full tracklist below, a “classic setlist,” notes MetaFilter, “from around the time of their 3rd LP.”

I Can’t Stand It
Candy Says
I’m Waiting For The Man
Ferryboat Bill
I’m Set Free
What Goes On
White Light White Heat
Beginning To See The Light
Heroin / Sister Ray
Move Right In
Run Run Run
Foggy Notion

Related Content: 

Andy Warhol Explains Why He Decided to Give Up Painting & Manage the Velvet Underground Instead (1966)

Hear Ornette Coleman Collaborate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Greatest Moments”

The Velvet Underground Captured in Color Concert Footage by Andy Warhol (1967)

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

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