Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats

A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something rather more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole planet at its feet —Abigail Tucker

As part of its Annals of Obsession video series, The New Yorker invited science journalist Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room, to reflect on “how felines took over the Internet, our homes, and our lives.”

It goes without saying that cats and humans have co-existed for a very long time.

Most of us are acquainted with the high regard in which Ancient Egyptians held Felis catus.

And we may know something of their seafaring history, beginning with the Vikings and continuing on through Unsinkable Sam and other celebrated ship’s cats.

An overwhelming majority of us have spent the last decade or so glued to online examples of their antics—riding robot vacuumsreacting with terror to cucumbers, and pouncing on humans, some of whom have had the temerity to write and record voiceovers that suggest they have insight as to what goes on inside a cat’s hat. (As if!)

It’s gratifying to hear Tucker echo what cat lovers have long suspected (and emblazoned on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and decorative pillows)—the cats, not the owners, are the ones running the show.

Forgive us. Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.

Cats took a commensal path to domestication, motivated, then as now, by the food they knew to be stored in our settlements.

Tucker describes it as a series of cat controlled takeovers—a process of artificial selection, undertaken on the cats’ own initiative:

House cats are supremely adaptable. They can live anywhere and, while they must have plenty of protein, they eat practically anything that moves, from pelicans to crickets, and many things that don’t, like hot dogs. (Some of their imperiled feline relatives, by contrast, are adapted to hunt only a rare species of chinchilla.) House cats can tweak their sleeping schedules and social lives. They can breed like crazy.

In certain ways the house cat’s rise is tragic, for the same forces that favor them have destroyed many other creatures. House cats are carpetbaggers, arrivistes, and they’re among the most transformative invaders the world has ever seen—except for Homo sapiens, of course. It’s no coincidence that when they show up in ecosystems, lions and other megafauna are usually on their way out.

Aloof as many of their number may be, cats have engineered things in such a way as to be physically irresistible to most humans:

Their big heads and big eyes are so cute!

Their fur is so soft!

We can carry them around!

Dress them in doll clothes (sometimes)!

Their cries mimic the cries of hungry human babies, and elicit a similar response from their human caregivers.

We may not love litter box duty, but with 1 in 3 humans infected by Toxoplasma gondii, we’ll likely be tethered to them for all eternity.

For better or worse, we love them. And so do dog lovers. They just don’t know it yet.

But do not ever imagine that the feeling is reciprocal.

They’re archcarnivores who cannot open their own cans. As Tucker wryly observes:

I think it’s fair to say that we are obsessed and they are not.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She loves cats, but most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch “Jackson Pollock 51,” a Historic Short Film That Captures Pollock Creating Abstract Expressionist Art on a Sheet of Glass

Jackson Pollock was described as an “action painter,” a label that surely wouldn’t have stuck if the public never had the chance to see him in action. In that sense, only the era of photography could have produced an artist like him: not just because that technology pushed painting toward abstraction, but because it could disseminate images of the artist himself far and wide. One photographer did more for this cause than any other: the German-born Hans Namuth, who despite a lack of initial interest in Pollock’s work nevertheless took up the challenge of capturing his creative process — and thereby doing much to craft the artist’s image of raw, intuitive and individualistic physicality. Namuth accomplished this even more memorably with a motion picture: the short “Jackson Pollock 51,” which you can watch above.

After attempting some shooting at the artist’s East Hampton, Long Island home,”Namuth was unhappy about having to choose between focusing on the painting or on Pollock,” as the New York Times‘ Sarah Boxer puts it. “He wanted to catch painter and paint at once.” Namuth eventually hit upon a solution: “The painting would have to be on glass, and I would film from underneath.”

You can take this class by signing up for a MasterClass’ All Access Pass. For $180, the All Access Pass will give you instant access to this course and 85 others for a 12-month period. (That’s a little more than $2 per course.)

The film first shows Pollock painting more or less as usual (albeit outdoors, to obviate the need for lighting), and in laconic voiceover the artist describes his development and process. “I can control the flow of the paint,” he says. “There is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end. Sometimes, I lose a painting.” Indeed, he admits, “I lost contact with my first painting on glass, and I started another one.”

This hints at the rigorous standards — and standards entirely his own — to which Pollock held his work. But he also left his second glass painting to ruin, having by some accounts entered personal and professional freefall immediately after he and Namuth wrapped this shoot. The two got into a shouting match that night, accusing one another of phoniness; at its height, Pollock action-painted the dining-room floor by overturning the laden dinner table in anger. “According to Pollock lore, his relationship with the camera was a Faustian bargain,” writes Boxer. “After that night [with Namuth], Pollock never stopped drinking…. Six years later, bloated, depressed and drunk, he drove his car into a tree, killing himself and a friend.” “The implication is that Namuth killed Pollock, that the photographs stole the artist’s ‘savage’ spirit. In doing things for the camera that he once did more spontaneously, Pollock came to feel he was indeed a phony.” But it’s also thanks to Namuth, too-active a director of the action though he may have been, that we can look at a Pollock canvas today and so vividly imagine its creation.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

One of the Greatest Dances Sequences Ever Captured on Film Gets Restored in Color by AI: Watch the Classic Scene from Stormy Weather

It really is a wonder, knowing what we know about the history of racism and discrimination in Hollywood and America in general, that the musical Stormy Weather even got made in 1943. Along with one other similar film Cabin in the Sky, it’s one of the few American musicals of the 20th century with an all-Black cast, top billing and all. And what a cast, just some of the most talented artists of their time: Bojangles Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas Brothers star. Katherine Dunham, the “queen mother of Black dance” performs and choreographs. Coleman Hawkins, though uncredited, is there too, playing sax.

The film also gave you its money’s worth, with nearly two dozen musical numbers in less than 80 minutes. And the top performance is the one that closes the film, seen here remastered from a high quality source (make sure your YouTube is set to 1080p) and colorized with DeOldify, the machine-learning colorization tool. (Your mileage may vary with the colorization, but hey, it’s a start. Check back in a year or so and we might have another version that looks like it was truly shot in color.)

If you’ve never seen the “Jumpin’ Jive” number, or never heard of the Nicholas Brothers, you will soon find out why Fred Astaire called it the greatest dancing he’d ever seen on film. Their journey down the risers, one leapfrogging over the other and landing in the splits, has never been matched. There’s moments where they just seem to float on air. The band leader, Cab Calloway, who knew how to slink and slide around a stage, wisely gives them the floor. And at the end, while applause bursts out, the entire club is invited to flood the dancefloor. It’s pure joy on film.

Older brother Fayard Nicholas was 29 in the film, his younger brother Harold was 22. Eleven years before that they had moved to New York from Philadelphia and wowed the audiences at the Cotton Club with their mix of tap, ballet, and acrobatics. It was when producer Samuel Goldwyn saw them at the Club that their career took off. But their sequences were always separate in white musicals, so that racist cinemas in the South could easily edit them out. Not so in Stormy Weather, where they end the film.

It is often written that this sequence was shot in “one take” and improvised, but that is plainly not the case. There’s eleven cuts in the dance sequence where the camera repositions itself. That’s not to take away from the Nicholas Brothers’ mastery, and hey, maybe they zipped through the sequence, as dancing was like breathing to them. Let’s just celebrate this for what it actually is: the Nicholas Brothers at the height of their powers, bringing the house down.

via Messy Nessy

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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.

A Look into the Wondrous Life & Expansive Work of the Late Jan Morris, Who Wrote the Entire World

Jan Morris spent her long life and career writing about the world. Her voluminous body of work includes books about countries like Spain, the United States, and her ancestral homeland of Wales; cities like Oxford, Trieste, and Sydney; and even city-states like Hong Kong and her beloved (if sometimes resented) Venice. And yet, as she declared on CBS Sunday Morning twenty years ago, “I hate being called a travel writer, and I don’t believe I am one. When I go to a place, I describe its effect upon my own sensibility. I’m not telling the reader what they’re going to find there; I’m just telling people what effect the place has had upon me.” To The Paris Review she called herself a “a belletrist, an old-fashioned word,” and a belletrist “mostly concerned with place.”

“It’s hard not to be fascinated by Jan Morris,” says Observer editor Robert McCrum in the BBC profile just above. This would be true of any writer who had seen and considered so much of the Earth, which in Morris’ case also happens to include the top of Mt. Everest, conquered in 1953 along with the history-making expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary.

She reached the summit as a he, having lived for her first forty or so years as James Morris; becoming Jan, in her perception, constituted a journey of another kind. “I have interpreted this thing romantically, coyly, and tweely as some sort of a quest that has been imposed upon me,” she said in a 1974 talk-show appearance promoting her narrative of transition Conundrum — “an arrogant book, an egotistical book about myself, and I’m afraid that you must take it or leave it.”

Just as Morris never called herself a travel writer, she never spoke of having undergone a sex change. “I did not change sex,” she told her final interviewer, The Guardian‘s Tim Adams. “I really absorbed one into the other. I’m a bit of each now.” For her many readers, this greatly deepens her value as an observer. “I’ve written as an outsider, always,” as she puts it to McCrum. “I’ve never pretended to get inside the spirit, or the thoughts of other cultures, other people, other cities, even. I’m always the onlooker.” And yet this very nature made her, among other things, “the kindest, shrewdest and most indefatigable master portraitist of cities,” as her fellow writer of place Pico Iyer tweeted in response to the news of her death on November 20 at the age of 94.

Among Morris’ work not filed under “travel” one finds subjects like Abraham Lincoln, the Japanese Battleship Yamato, and the rise and fall of the British Empire. To my mind, this historical perspective did a good deal to make her a model “city critic,” and one whose work lights the way for writers of place to come. She continued publishing that work up until the end — and indeed will continue past it, a deliberately posthumous volume called Allegorizings having been completed years ago. “When I die, which I’m going to one of these days, I think people will be able to say that I’ve written an awful lot of books about the whole world at a particular moment,” Morris said in a recent interview on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb. She enjoyed a longer moment, not to mention a wider expanse, than most; through her writing, we’ll carry on enjoying it ourselves.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Power of Empathy: A Quick Animated Lesson from Brené Brown

Several years back, the RSA (Royal Society of the Arts) created a series of distinctive animated shorts where well-known intellectuals presented big ideas, and a talented artist rapidly illustrated them on a whiteboard. Some of those talks featured the likes of Slavoj Zizek, Carol Dweck, Steven Pinker and Barbara Ehrenreich. Now RSA presents a video series created in an entirely different aesthetic. Above, you can watch the first of many “espresso shots for the mind.” This clip features Dr. Brené Brown, a well-known research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, providing some quick insights into the difference between sympathy and empathy, and explaining why empathy is much more meaningful. To learn more about The Power of Empathy, you can watch Brown’s complete RSA lecture below . You can also watch her very popular TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability here.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December, 2013.

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A 1913 Children’s Book Lampoons Duchamp, Picasso & Other Avant-Garde Artists: Read The Cubies’ ABC Online

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, and its violent break from musical and choreographic tradition, so the story goes, pushed the genteel Parisian audience to violent rebellion. That tale may have grown taller over the past century, but public distaste for then-novel trends in all forms of “modern art” has left a paper trail. Here we have a particularly amusing exhibit, and long an obscure one: The Cubies’ ABC, a picture book by a couple named Mary Mills and Earl Harvey Lyall. They were inspired by another major cultural event of 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art, or “Armory Show,” which offered the United States of America its first look at groundbreaking work by Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Wassily Kandinsky, among a host of other foreign artists.

The Lyalls, evidently, were not impressed. In order to ridicule what they seem to have considered the pretensions of the avant-garde, they came up with the Cubies, a trio of angular, wild-haired troublemakers bent on discarding all established conventions in the name of Ego, the Future, and Intuition.

Those three concepts get their own pages in this alphabetically organized book, as do artists — not that the authors would unironically grant them the title — like Duchamp, “the Deep-Dyed Deceiver, who, drawing accordions, labels them stairs”; Kandinsky, painter of “Kute ‘improvisations'”; and even Gertrude Stein, “eloquent scribe of the Futurist soul.” X stands, of course, for “the Xit,” a direction “Xtremely alluring when Cubies invite us to study their Art.”

“We tend to forget, now that the Cubists and Futurists have become as integral to the history of art as the painters of the Dutch Golden Age and the Italian Renaissance, how hostile most people — even most artists — felt toward the non-representational innovations of the artists on display at the Armory,” says the Public Domain Review, where you can read The Cubies’ ABC in full.

You can also buy a copy of the reprint organized by gallerist Francis Naumann in commemoration of the Armory show’s centenary. “People in those days thought that they could stop modern art in its tracks,” says Naumann in New Yorker piece on the book. Did the Lyalls think the Cubies’ antics would land a decisive blow against abstraction and subjectivity? Then again, could they have imagined us enjoying them more than a hundred years later, in a time unknowable to even the most far-sighted Futurist?

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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