RIP Shane MacGowan: Watch the Celtic Punk Rocker Perform with Nick Cave, Kirsty MacColl & the Dubliners

Shane MacGowan died yesterday, less than a month shy of his 66th birthday — and thus less than a month shy of Christmas, which happened to be the same day. Though coincidental, that association has made perfect sense since 1987, when the Pogues, the Celtic punk band fronted by MacGowan, released “Fairytale of New York.” That duet between MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl (the story of whose production we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture) still reigns supreme as the United Kingdom’s Christmas song, and by now it tends also to make it onto more than a few holiday-season playlists in America and across the world.

Given the popularity of “Fairytale of New York,” many listeners know MacGowan for nothing else. But he was, in fact, a figure of considerable importance to the punk rock of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, to which he brought not just a thoroughly Irish sensibility but also a strong sense of literary craft.

Few well-known punk rockers could inhabit a place with a song in the way he could, or tap into the proper vernacular to inhabit a particular character. (Even the words he gave MacColl to sing as a hard-bitten nineteen-forties woman of the streets have caused no end of struggles with censors.) For this reason, he had the respect of many another serious songwriter: Nick Cave, for instance, with whom he recorded a cover of “What a Wonderful World” in 1992.

During much of MacGowan’s lifetime, his musical achievements were at risk of being overshadowed by the harrowing facts of his life, including his massive, sustained consumption of drugs and alcohol and the variety of injuries and ailments it brought about. In 2015, British television even aired a special about the replacement of his long-lost teeth — which, to judge by the Pogues’ performance of the folk song “The Irish Rover” with the Dubliners above, were barely hanging on even in the late eighties. But in a way, this dissolute appearance was an inseparable part of a distinctive artistic spirit. Shane MacGowan was a rare thing in the world of punk rock (to say nothing of the world of hit Christmas songs): not just an Irish literary voice, but an Irish literary character.

Related content:

The Story of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” the Boozy Ballad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christmas Songs of All Time

A Choir with 1,000 Singers Pays Tribute to Sinéad O’Connor & Performs “Nothing Compares 2 U”

James Joyce Plays the Guitar (1915)

Stream a Playlist of 68 Punk Rock Christmas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Religion & More

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.

Jacques Pépin Teaches You How to Make James Beard’s Famous Onion Sandwich

Worried that holiday entertaining may put you in danger of overspending?

Preserve your bank account and those joyful festive feelings by serving your friends onion sandwiches.

We assure you, they come with the utmost of culinary pedigrees.

Esteemed chef and cookbook author Jacques Pépin happily demonstrates the simple recipe, above, confiding that it was a favorite of his late wife’s.

Everything tastes better when cooked with love, even if the chef’s not doing much more than slicing a couple of half moons from an onion and slathering bread with mayo.

(If you’re allergic to either of those ingredients, try swapping them out for radishes and butter.)

Pépin credits his old friend, James Beard, “America’s first foodie”, with the recipe. It caused a sensation when Beard published it in 1965’s Menus for Entertaining.

He revisited the subject in 1974’s Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom from the Dean of American Cooking, while unabashedly fanboying over the humble vegetable in its many forms, from tiny pearl onions to “big delicate Bermudas and the enormous Spanish variety that are in season from fall to late spring:”

Just the other day I was enchanted to receive a box of these giant golden globes, perfectly matched in size and contour, that flourish in the volcanic soil of Oregon and Idaho. They make absolutely superb eating. I love them raw, thinly sliced, with a hamburger or cold meats or in a hearty, flavorful onion sandwich.

The day my gift box arrived I happened to have some slightly stale homemade bread, about two or three days old. I sliced this very thin, buttered it well, covered it with paper-thin slices of Spanish onion, sprinkled them with some coarse salt, and pressed another slice of bread firmed on the top—and there was my supper. I can easily make a whole meal of onion sandwiches, for to me they are one of the greatest treats I know…

Delightful! But hold up a sec. The New York Times’ Tejal Rao, reports that Beard, who had a “reputation for chronic, unapologetic plagiarism” apparently “lifted” the recipe from cookbook authors Irma and Bill Rhode, his one-time partners in a New York City catering company:

It was basic but confident, and it came together with inexpensive ingredients. It was so good that you could easily eat a dozen, and so simple that it barely required a recipe. You glance at the directions, feeling a little silly rolling the sandwiches in chopped parsley, a crucial step that makes the sandwich, and that Irma Rhode said came from Beard. You’d make it once, and then the dish would be committed to memory — as James Beard’s onion sandwich.

Sandwiches of History’s Barry W. Enderwick digs even deeper, truffling up a remarkably terse onion sandwich recipe in Mattie Lee Wehrley’s The Handy Household Hints and Recipes, from 1916.

Interesting how Ms. Wehrley takes care to note that the Toasted Cheese on Bread published directly below that Onion Sandwich is a recipe of her own invention.

It appears we all borrow from the best. Surely, there’s no reason not to get creative and make that onion sandwich your own.

You could start by varying the ingredients…

Soak some slices of red onion in cold water for 5 minutes to take away their raw bite.

Experiment with pumpernickel or dark rye.

Chop up a blend of windowsill herbs for that showy, savory edge.

Or y’know, buy an onion, a bagel and cream cheese as separate components, assemble, and boom!

As Beard remarked, “Designing hors d’oeuvres is not different from designing sets and costumes . . . Food is very much theater.”

Basic Onion Sandwich (serves one):

Remove the crusts from 2 slices of bread or cut them into rounds, reserving the scraps for a more involved recipe requiring breadcrumbs 

Spread mayonnaise on the face of both pieces

Remove a thin slice from the thickest part of a sweet onion and place atop one of the prepared slices

.Sprinkle with sea salt and top with the other slice of bread.

Spread mayonnaise around the perimeter of the sandwich, and roll in the chopped herbs.

(Can refrigerate for up to 6 hours before serving)

Related Content 

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Juilliard Jazz Drummer Hears & Plays Nirvana For The First Time, Figuring Out the Drum Parts in Real Time

What happens when Ulysses Owens Jr–a Jazz musician and jazz educator at Juilliard–hears Nirvana’s “In Bloom” for the first time (minus the drum parts), and then attempts to drum along? What is he listening for? How does he immediately craft an appropriate drum part? And how does it compare to Dave Grohl’s original? Watch above, and you can see how it unfolds…

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Rome Reborn: A New 3D Virtual Model Lets You Fly Over the Great Monuments of Ancient Rome

Thirteen years ago here on Open Culture, we first featured Rome Reborn 2.2, a digital 3D model of the ancient metropolis at the height of its glory in the fourth century. And that rebirth has continued apace ever since, and just last week bore the fruit of Rome Reborn 4.0, through which you can get a flying tour in the video above. Intercut with the computer-generated reconstructions is footage of the ruins of the very same parts of the city as they exist in Rome today. The opportunity for comparison thus provided allows us to appreciate not just the upgrades in the latest Rome Reborn’s level of detail, but also its degree of realism.

With each revision, the fourth-century Eternal City recreated in Rome Reborn looks more like reality and less like a video game. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get the same thrill of exploring it that you would from a video game, which is part of the appeal of loading up the latest version of the model on the virtual-reality app Yorescape, a product of the “virtual tourism” company Flyover Zone Productions founded by Rome Reborn’s project leader Bernard Frischer.

And it is Frischer himself who leads the in-app tour of “sites exemplifying the city’s geography, markets, temples, and much, much more,” enriched by “Time Warps spread around the city that allow you to toggle between the view today and the view from the same vantage point in antiquity.”

This is heady stuff indeed for enthusiasts of ancient Rome, who will no doubt be eager to see for themselves the new and improved digital models of ancient Roman structures like the Circus Maximus, the Arch of Titus, the Porticus Liviae, and the Temple of Minerva. These and many others besides appear in the Rome Reborn 4.0 demo reel just above, which shows off the culmination of 27 years of work so far by Frischer and his team. A digital archaeologist at Indiana University, Professor Frischer has pointed out still-absent features to come, such as “avatars infused with AI” with whom the twenty-first-century tourist can interact. We’ll have to wait for future iterations to do so, but surely we can summon the patience by remembering that Rome isn’t reborn in a day.

Related content:

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An 8-Minute Animated Flight Over Ancient Rome

The Oldest Known Photographs of Rome (1841-1871)

High-Resolution Walking Tours of Italy’s Most Historic Places: The Colosseum, Pompeii, St. Peter’s Basilica & More

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.

Napoleon’s Kindle: Discover the Miniaturized Traveling Library That the Emperor Took on Military Campaigns

Every piece of technology has a precedent. Most have several different types of precedents. You’ve probably used (and may well own) an eBook reader, for instance, but what would have afforded you a selection of reading material two or three centuries ago? If you were a Jacobean Englishman of means, you might have used the kind of traveling library we featured in 2017, a handsome portable case custom-made for your books. (If you’re Tom Stoppard in the 21st century, you still do.) If you were Napoleon, who seemed to love books as much as he loved military power — he didn’t just amass a vast collection of them, but kept a personal librarian to oversee it — you’d take it a big step further.

“Many of Napoleon’s biographers have incidentally mentioned that he […] used to carry about a certain number of favorite books wherever he went, whether traveling or camping,” says an 1885 Sacramento Daily Union article posted by Austin Kleon, “but it is not generally known that he made several plans for the construction of portable libraries which were to form part of his baggage.” The piece’s main source, a Louvre librarian who grew up as the son of one of Napoleon’s librarians, recalls from his father’s stories that “for a long time Napoleon used to carry about the books he required in several boxes holding about sixty volumes each,” each box first made of mahogany and later of more solid leather-covered oak. “The inside was lined with green leather or velvet, and the books were bound in morocco,” an even softer leather most often used for bookbinding.

To use this early traveling library, Napoleon had his attendants consult “a catalogue for each case, with a corresponding number upon every volume, so that there was never a moment’s delay in picking out any book that was wanted.” This worked well enough for a while, but eventually “Napoleon found that many books which he wanted to consult were not included in the collection,” for obvious reasons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librarian these orders:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

In sum: not only did Napoleon possess a traveling library, but when that traveling library proved too cumbersome for his many and varied literary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cases but even more portable books made for him. (You can see how they looked packed away in the image tweeted by Cork County Library above.) This prefigured in a highly analog manner the digital-age concept of recreating books in another format specifically for compactness and convenience — the kind of compactness and convenience now increasingly available to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon never could have imagined, let alone demanded. It may be good to be the Emperor, but in many ways, it’s better to be a reader in the 21st century.

Note: This post was originally published in 2017. Given that Napoleon is back in the news, with the new Ridley Scott film, we’re bringing it back.

Related Content:

Discover the Jacobean Traveling Library: The 17th Century Precursor to the Kindle

Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waistcoat?: The Origins of This Distinctive Pose Explained

Napoleon’s Disastrous Invasion of Russia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visualization: It’s Been Called “the Best Statistical Graphic Ever Drawn”

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renaissance Invention Created to Make Books Portable & Help Scholars Study (1588)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

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The Surprisingly Long History of Auto-Tune, the Vocal-Processing Technology Music Critics Love to Hate

In the fall of 1998, pop music changed forever — or at least it seems that way today, a quarter-century later. The epochal event in question was the release of Cher’s comeback hit “Believe,” of whose jaggedly fractured vocal glissando no listener had heard the likes of before. “The glow-and-flutter of Cher’s voice at key points in the song announced its own technological artifice,” writes critic Simon Reynolds at Pitchfork, “a blend of posthuman perfection and angelic transcendence ideal for the vague religiosity of the chorus.” As for how that effect had been achieved, only the tech-savviest studio professionals would have suspected a creative misuse of Auto-Tune, a popular digital audio processing tool brought to market the year before.

As its name suggests, Auto-Tune was designed to keep a musical performance in tune automatically. This capability owes to the efforts of one Andy Hildebrand, a classical flute virtuoso turned oil-extraction engineer turned music-technology entrepreneur. Employing the same mathematical acumen he’d used to assist the likes of Exxon in determining the location of prime drilling sites from processed sonar data, he figured out a vast simplification of the calculations theoretically required for an algorithm to put a real vocal recording into a particular key.

Rapidly adopted throughout the music industry, Hildebrand’s invention soon became a generic trademark, like Kleenex, Jell-O, or Google. Even if a studio wasn’t using Auto-Tune, it was almost certainly auto-tuning, and with such subtlety that listeners never noticed.

The producers of “Believe,” for their part, turned the subtlety (or, technically, the “smoothness”) down to zero. In an attempt to keep that discovery a secret, they claimed at first to have used a vocoder, a synthesizer that converts the human voice into manipulable analog or digital signals. Some would also have suspected the even more venerable talkbox, which had been made well-known in the seventies and eighties by Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Roger Troutman of Zapp. Though the “Cher effect,” as it was known for a time, could plausibly be regarded as an aesthetic descendant of those devices, it had an entirely different technological basis. A few years after that basis became widely understood, conspicuous Auto-Tune became ubiquitous, not just in dance music but also in hip-hop, whose artists (not least Rappa Ternt Sanga T-Pain) used Auto-Tune to steer their genre straight into the currents of mainstream pop, if not always to high critical acclaim.

Used as intended, Auto-Tune constituted a godsend for music producers working with any singer less freakishly skilled than, say, Freddie Mercury. Producer-Youtuber Rick Beato admits as much in the video just above, though given his classic rock- and jazz-oriented tastes, it doesn’t come as a surprise also to hear him lament the technology’s overuse. But for those willing to take it to ever-further extremes, Auto-Tune has given rise to previously unimagined subgenres, bringing (as emphasized in a recent Arte documentary) the universal language of melody into the linguistically fragmented arena of global hip-hop. As a means of generating “digital soul, for digital beings, leading digital lives,” in Reynolds’ words, Auto-Tune does reflect our time, for better or for worse. Its detractors can at least take some consolation in the fact that recent releases have come with something called a “humanize knob.”

Related content:

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How the Yamaha DX7 Digital Synthesizer Defined the Sound of 1980s Music

What Makes This Song Great?: Producer Rick Beato Breaks Down the Greatness of Classic Rock Songs in His New Video Series

The Distortion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Created “a McDonald’s Generation of Music Consumers”

How Computers Ruined Rock Music

Brian Eno on the Loss of Humanity in Modern Music

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.

Generative AI for Everyone: A Free Course from AI Pioneer Andrew Ng

Andrew Ng–an AI pioneer and Stanford computer science professor–has released a new course called Generative AI for Everyone. Designed for a non-technical audience, the course will “guide you through how generative AI works and what it can (and can’t) do. It includes hands-on exercises where you’ll learn to use generative AI to help in day-to-day work.”  The course also explains “how to think through the lifecycle of a generative AI project, from conception to launch, including how to build effective prompts,” and it discusses “the potential opportunities and risks that generative AI technologies present to individuals, businesses, and society.” Given the coming prevalence of AI, it’s worth spending six hours with this course (the estimated time needed to complete it). You can audit Generative AI for Everyone for free, and watch all of the lectures at no cost. If you would like to take the course and earn a certificate, it will cost $49.

Generative AI for Everyone will be added to our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Get the First Month of Coursera Plus for $1 (Until December 2): Provides Access to 6,000+ Courses and Many Professional Certificates

A quick heads up on a deal: From now until December 2, you can get the first month of Coursera Plus for just $1. (It normally costs $59 per month.) With a Coursera Plus plan, you will have unlimited access to 6,000 courses from top universities and companies. This includes Professional Certificate programs offered by companies like Google, Meta, and IBM, covering such topics as: Data Analytics, Project Management, UX Design, Cybersecurity, Business Intelligence, and more. The cost of the actual certificate is included in the plan.

You can learn more about Coursera Plus and sign up for $1 here. Please note that the $1 deal is only available to new Coursera Plus subscribers, not existing ones. And, again, the offer expires on December 2.

Nota Bene: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

The New York Public Library Presents an Archive of 860,000 Historical Images: Download Medieval Manuscripts, Japanese Prints, William Blake Illustrations & More

Back when we last featured the New York Public Library’s digital collections in 2016, they contained about 160,000 high-resolution images from various historical periods. This seemed like a fairly vast archive at the time, but in the years since, that number has grown to more than 860,000. If it was difficult to know where to begin exploring it seven years ago — when it already contained such digitized treasures as the Depression-era Farm Security Administration photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks, Walt Whitman’s handwritten preface to Specimen Days, Thomas Jefferson’s list of books for a private library, and sixteenth-century illustrations for The Tale of Genji — it can hardly be easier now.

Or rather, it can hardly be easier unless you start with the NYPL digital collections’ public domain picks, a section of the site that, as of this writing, organizes thousands and thousands of its holdings into thirteen browsable and intriguing categories.

These include the FSA photos, but also book illustrations by William Blake, editions of The Negro Traveler’s Green Book (as previously featured here on Open Culture), the music and lyrics for American popular songs, the papers of Walt Whitman, and the more than 42,000 stereoscopic prints of the Robert N. Dennis collection, which capture an early form of 3D views of a fast-developing (and, often, now-unrecognizable) American continent.

Enthusiasts of New York City itself will no doubt make straight for sections like “changing New York,” “photographs of Ellis Island, 1902-1913,” and “album de la construction de la Statue de la Liberté.” Soon after after its dedication in 1886, the Statue of Liberty came to symbolize not just a city, and not just a country, but the very concept of American civilization and the grand cultural exchange it had already begun to conduct with the rest of the world. 137 years later, you can spend a little time in the NYPL’s digital collections and turn up everything from illuminated manuscripts from medieval and Renaissance Europe to Japanese woodblock prints to color drawings of Indian life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — and you don’t have to be anywhere near New York to do so. Enter the NYPL digital collections here.

Related content:

Foodie Alert: New York Public Library Presents an Archive of 17,000 Restaurant Menus (1851-2008)

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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.

Behold Ancient Egyptian, Greek & Roman Sculptures in Their Original Color

There was a time when we imagined that most ancient sculpture never had any color except for that of the stone from which it was hewed. Doubt fell upon that notion as long ago as the eighteenth century, when archaeological digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum brought up statues whose color had been preserved, but only in recent years has it come to be presented as an exploded myth. Though some of the coverage of the false “whiteness” of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculpture has divided along drearily predictable twenty-first-century cultural battle lines, this moment has also presented an opportunity to stage fascinating, even groundbreaking exhibitions.

Take Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, which ran from the summer of last year to the spring of this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can still see some of its displays in the Smarthistory video at the top of the post, in which art historians Elizabeth Macaulay and Beth Harris discuss the “world of Technicolor” that was antiquity, the Renaissance origins of the “idea that ancient sculpture was not painted,” and the modern attempts to reconstruct the sculptural color schemes almost totally lost to time.

Architect Vinzenz Brinkmann goes deeper into these subjects in the video from the Met itself just above, paying special attention to the museum’s bust of Caligula — not the finest emperor Rome ever had, to put it mildly, but one whose face has become a promising canvas for the restoration of color.

You can see much more of Chroma in the Art Trip tour video just above. Its wonders include not just genuine pieces of ancient sculpture, but strikingly colorful reconstructions of a finial in the form of a sphinx, a Pompeiian statue of the goddess Artemis, a battle-depicting side of the Alexander Sarcophagus, and “a marble archer in the costume of a horseman of the peoples to the north and east of Greece,” to name just a few. You may prefer these historically educated colorizations to the austere monochrome figures you grew up seeing in textbooks, or you may appreciate after all the kind of elegance that only centuries of ruin can bestow. Either way, your relationship to the ancient world will never be quite the same.

Related content:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Restores the Original Colors to Ancient Statues

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The Met Digitally Restores the Colors of an Ancient Egyptian Temple, Using Projection Mapping Technology

The Making of a Marble Sculpture: See Every Stage of the Process, from the Quarry to the Studio

Why Most Ancient Civilizations Had No Word for the Color Blue

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.

Behold LEGO Reenactments of Famous Psychology Experiments, as Imagined by Artificial Intelligence

Cognitive scientist Tomer Ullman, head of Harvard’s Computation, Cognition, and Development lab, may have inadvertently blundered into an untapped vein of LEGO Icon inspiration when his interest in AI led him to stage recreations of famous psych experiments.

If you think Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night LEGO playset is a challenge, imagine putting together the AI-generated playset inspired by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience studies, above.

Participants in these studies were assigned to play one of two parts – teacher or learner. Partner pairs were seated in separate rooms, accessible to each other by microphones. The teacher read the learner a list of matched words they’d expected to remember shortly thereafter. If the learner flubbed up, the teacher was to administer an electric shock via a series of labelled switches, upping it by 15-volts for each successive error. The microphones ensured that the teacher was privy to the learner’s increasingly distressed reactions – screams, desperate protestation, and – at the highest voltage – radio silence.

Should a teacher hesitate, they’d be reminded that the parameters of the experiment, for which they were earning $4.50, required them to continue. They also received reassurance that the painful shocks caused no permanent tissue damage.

Here’s the thing:

The teachers were innocent as to the experiment’s true nature. They thought the study’s focus was punishment’s effect on learning ability, but in fact, Milgram was studying the limits of obedience to authority.

The learners were all in on the ruse. They received no shocks. Their responses were all feigned.

If our eyes don’t deceive us, the Milgram experiment that the AI imagines is even more extreme than the original. It appears all participants, including those waiting for their turn, are in the same room.

As someone commented on Bluesky, the new social media platform on which Ullman shared his hypothetical playsets, “the subtle details the AI has got wrong here are the stuff of nightmares.”

AI’s take on the Stanford prison experiment seems more benign than the controversial 1971 experiment that recruited 24 student participants for a filmed study of prison life to be staged in Stanford University’s psychology department’s basement, randomly dividing them into prisoners and guards.

AI’s faithful recreation of the LEGO figurines’ physical limitations can’t really capture the faux guards’ brutality – making their prisoners clean out toilets with their bare hands, stripping them naked, and depriving them of food and beds. Their power abuses were so wanton, and the prisoners’ distress so extreme, that the planned duration of two weeks was scrapped six days in.

It’s worth noting that all the student participants came to the study with clean bills of physical and mental health, and no histories of criminal arrest.

Far less upsetting are the cognitive science experiment playsets depicting the delayed gratification of the Stanford Marshmallow Test and the selective attention of the Invisible Gorilla Test (both right above).

Ullman also steered AI toward LEGO tributes to B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber and Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness research (below).

No word on whether he has plans to continue experimenting with AI-engineered LEGO playset proposals featuring historic experiments of psychology and cognitive science.

Follow on Bluesky if you’re curious. You’ll need to register for a free account and apply for an invite code, if you haven’t already… wait, are we setting ourselves up to be unwitting participants in another psych experiment?


Via Kottke

Related Content 

The Psychology Experiment That Shocked the World: Milgram’s Obedience Study (1961)

The Little Albert Experiment: The Perverse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of Santa Claus & Bunnies

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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