Van Morrison, Jefferson Airplane & The Grateful Dead: Watch Classic Concerts from Wolfgang’s Vault

In Wolfgang’s Vault, you’ll find Van Morrison singing “Cyprus Avenue.” But it won’t be the original track from his 1968 album Astral Weeks; it’ll be a different, nearly eight-and-a-half-minute rendition, which you’ll watch Morrison perform onstage at New York’s Fillmore East on September 23, 1970. Those who have seen Morrison perform live in any era tend to describe it as an experience highly distinct from hearing him sing on record, and ultimately a necessary one for those seeking to fully appreciate his work. Unlike so many musicians who rose to great popularity in the late sixties and early seventies, Morrison continues to tour, and so these opportunities remain available. But how many of Morrison’s fans could possibly have made it to his shows at the Fillmore East back then? How many, for that matter, were alive back then? Those of us who weren’t have Wolfgang to thank, I suppose, for making available these historic concert clips that deepen our understanding of artists like Morrison.

Yet Wolfgang himself, it turns out, is no longer among us. Known in full as Wolodia “Wolfgang” Grajonca, he rose to prominence when, after a name change and a trying relocation from Berlin to San Francisco, he became the west coast concert promoter and iconic counterculture rock impresario Bill Graham. Small wonder, then, that the internet archive which bears his name contains so much compelling vintage concert footage. Browse it by performer, and you’ll spot many of the names you’d expect to: Jefferson Airplane, The Band, The Grateful Dead. But dig even deeper and you’ll find real surprises, like Yoko Ono playing Giants Stadium in 1986 and a vast cache of songs, captured on thrillingly lo-fi video, performed by visually pioneering and media-satirizing new wave band The Tubes. An afternoon spent in Wolfgang’s Vault makes a fine primer on the most enduring rock played in Graham’s heyday, but also yields some delightfully odd performances you’d never expect to see today.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Isaac Asimov Recalls the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1937-1950)

In this short clip, Isaac Asimov discusses the golden age of science fiction, which began in 1937 (and ended in 1950) when John W. Campbell Jr. took over as editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Prior to Campbell’s editorship, most sci-fi stories were published in the “pulps,” and were in Asimov’s words “heavily adventure-flavored” because underpaid writers often wrote in several genres in order to compete in an overcrowded marketplace for escapist stories of romance, war, jungle and sea adventures, and horror tales. Unlike most of the “pulp” writers, Campbell was a scientist who studied physics at MIT and Duke, not to mention a prolific writer of fiction. (Many of Campbell’s novels and short stories are available in full-text as ePUB and PDF files here).

Campbell’s ascension was a watershed moment for the genre since his “engineering attitude” gave him a high regard for writers of science fiction who understood the science of the day and could portray scientists authentically while still having the freedom to “extrapolate wildly.” Astounding published some of the earliest stories by Asimov, Robert Heinlein (an early story, published under the name “Anson MacDonald” in 1941 is here), and L. Ron Hubbard. The relationship between Campbell and Hubbard is a fascinating story. Campbell published a very early version of what would become the founding text of Scientology in March 1950, and he claimed to be an early supporter of Hubbard’s “science of dianetics.”

Campbell is a complicated figure. In addition to supporting Hubbard’s ideas, writer Harlan Ellison has claimed that Campbell was an adherent of pseudoscience who would “believe anything,” and he apparently held some very objectionable racist and far right political views which he championed in his editorials and which made Asimov uncomfortable, as Asimov writes in his introduction to the golden age collection Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology. Nevertheless, Asimov acknowledges Campbell as a “Father of Science Fiction” who was indispensable in bringing the genre out of the pulp era.

J. David Jones is currently a doctoral student in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.

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Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writers

“If it sounds like writing,” says Elmore Leonard, “I rewrite it.”

Leonard’s writing sounds the way people talk. It rings true. In novels like Get ShortyRum Punch and Out of Sight, Leonard has established himself as a master stylist, and while his characters may be lowlifes, his books are received and admired in the highest circles. In 1998 Martin Amis recalled visiting Saul Bellow and seeing Leonard’s books on the old man’s shelves. “Bellow and I agreed,” said Amis, “that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.”

In 2006 Leonard appeared on BBC Two’s The Culture Show to talk about the craft of writing and give some advice to aspiring authors. In the program, shown above, Leonard talks about his deep appreciation of Ernest Hemingway’s work in general, and about his particular debt to the 1970 crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins. While explaining his approach, Leonard jots down three tips:

  • “You have to listen to your characters.”
  • “Don’t worry about what your mother thinks of your language.”
  • “Try to get a rhythm.”

“I always refer to style as sound,” says Leonard. “The sound of the writing.” Some of Leonard’s suggestions appeared in a 2001 New York Times article that became the basis of his 2007 book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Here are those rules in outline form:

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois,  sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

You can read more from Leonard on his rules in the 2001 Times article. And you can read his new short story, “Ice Man,” in The Atlantic.

Mars Rover, Curiosity, Will Face Seven Minutes of Terror on August 5

In the video above, NASA engineers explain the extremely precise calculations governing the landing of Curiosity, the seventh Mars Rover since the failed Soviet Mars 2 and 3 missions in 1971. Launched in November of 2011, Curiosity is scheduled to touch down in Gale Crater at exactly 10:31PM Pacific time, this August 5th. Using dramatic computer-generated imagery, the video shows the rover’s approach as it breaches the atmosphere and hurtles toward the surface of the planet in several complicated stages, a descent that takes exactly seven minutes. The engineers call this span of time “seven minutes of terror”; since the signal delay from the spacecraft to earth is fourteen minutes, NASA engineers must wait an additional seven minutes after its entry to learn whether the entirely-computer-guided craft has made it safely to the surface or crashed and burned. Since it’s speeding down from the upper atmosphere at 13,000 miles an hour and heating up to 1600 degrees, their fears are certainly warranted. And fear may be a symbolically appropriate emotional response to a planet named for the ancient god of war, with moons named Phobos and Diemos—“fear” and “terror,” respectively.

The Mars program has had several false starts and a history very much rooted in the Cold War space race. During the the 1960s, the U.S. and USSR sent competing flyby and orbiter missions to the red planet, but it wasn’t until July 4, 1997 that NASA was able to land a functioning rover, the Pathfinder, on the surface. A British-led attempt to land another rover, Beagle 2, was a failure, but NASA successfully landed Spirit in January, 2004.  Sadly, Spirit became mired in the thick sand of the planet’s surface and could not be freed. Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, made a successful landing two weeks later and has continued to operate without serious incident, save periods of downtime over the Mars winter, when its solar panels cannot collect enough sunlight to power it. Intended to find signs of water on the planet, Opportunity has made discoveries that provide clues to the geological history of Mars. After its ninth year of work, NASA’s only functioning rover is beginning to show its age. NASA engineers hope the S.U.V.-sized Curiosity will survive its ordeal and continue the work of its predecessors, seeking more signs of water, and maybe finding signs of life.

J. David Jones is currently a doctoral student in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.

Woody Allen Lives the “Delicious Life” in Early-80s Japanese Commercials

Sometimes I think the only real advantage of American celebrity would be the offers to act in Japanese television commercials. We’ve previously featured James Brown pitching Nissin noodles, Harrison Ford’s Japanese-speaking spots for Kirin Beer remain beloved pop-cultural artifacts, and evidently Jodie Foster sends cosmetics and coffee flying off the shelves. Sofia Coppola even built her film Lost in Translation around a Hollywood actor, portrayed with unforgettable resignation by Bill Murray, visiting Tokyo to shoot a Suntory Whisky ad. Above you’ll find a series of commercials from the early eighties for the Japanese department store Seibu, featuring none other than Woody Allen. He arranges his desk, paints calligraphy, wincingly receives some kind of moxibustion treatment, and makes a purchase from a vending machine emblazoned with a picture of himself, all while a singer (as far as my limited Japanese allows me to understand) rattles off a list of durable and edible goods.

When these spots first aired, many Japanese viewers didn’t recognize Allen. According to a contemporary Lakeland Ledger article, Seibu’s marketers planned it that way, intending to introduce him to Japan themselves as a representative of their sensibility : “Responding to the decline in the youth market, Seibu wanted the store represented by ‘an adult’ [ … ] With his multiple talents, Mr. Allen seemed ideal to personify Seibu’s multiple features.” In each of these clips, Allen presents (and the singer sings) the Japanese phrase “おいしい生活,” which I read as “delicious life,” which the Ledger article translates as “tasteful life,” and which one YouTube commenter translates as “delicious lifestyle.” (“The sweet life” might convey a similar idea.) For evidence of this campaign’s cultural impact, look no further than Japan’s title for the Woody Allen film, released nearly twenty years later, that we know as Small Time Crooksおいしい生活. Woody, you’ve done London, you’ve done Barcelona, you’ve done Paris, you’ve done Rome — hasn’t the time come to take your camera to Tokyo?

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

The LEGO Turing Machine Gives a Quick Primer on How Your Computer Works

This past Saturday, we celebrated the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth by presenting two films that explore the life and achievements of the great mathematician/father of computer science: Dangerous Knowledge and Breaking the Code. Today, before the anniversary fades into the background, let us send one more film your way — this one a “short documentary” that brings Turing’s famous computing machine to life. The device, as Turing imagined it in 1936, was meant to simulate the logic of computer algorithms, revealing the extent and limits of what can be computed. Turing never built the machine. He only offered a conceptual blueprint. But two researchers at the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica in Amsterdam have kindly recreated the Turing Machine with LEGO, and then produced a short film demonstrating how the machine carries out the most basic functions of your computer. Watch it go.

You can find more information on the building and inner-workings of the LEGO Turing Machine here.

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If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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Dangerous Knowledge & Breaking the Code: Two Films about Alan Turing on His 100th Birthday

Today marks what would be the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, who laid the foundations for computer science by developing the concepts of “algorithms” and “computing machines.” (See his seminal 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers.”) Turing also played a key role in breaking the Nazi Enigma code during World War II. In 1952 he was convicted of homosexuality and chemically castrated by the British government. Not long after, in 1954, he committed suicide. Although the British government has since offered an apology for bringing Turing to ruin, it has steadfastly refused to pardon him.

To pay tribute to Turing, we’re bringing back from our archive two films exploring Turing’s life and times. Above, we first have Dangerous Knowledge, the BBC’s 90-minute documentary that takes a close look at four mathematicians – Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Turing – whose thinking profoundly influenced modern mathematics but also drove them (or so the program argues) to insanity and eventually suicide. Part 1 is above, and Part 2 is here.

And then to learn more about Turing’s exploits as a World War II code breaker, you can watch the 1996 BBC film Breaking the Codefeaturing Derek Jacobi as Turing and Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter as the mysterious “Man from the Ministry.” Directed by Herbert Wise, the film is based on a 1986 play by Hugh Whitemore, which in turn was based on Andrew Hodge’s 1983 book Alan Turing: The EnigmaBreaking the Code has been added to our collection of Free Movies Online.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

Mathematics Made Visible: The Extraordinary Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher

The eye and the intellect play off one another in surprising and beautiful ways in the art of M.C. Escher. Where the Renaissance masters used shading and perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth on two dimensional surfaces, Escher turned those tricks in on themselves to create puzzles and paradoxes. He manipulated our faculties of perception not simply to please the senses, but to stimulate the mind.

His cool, analytic tendency was apparent from the start. “Maurits Escher is a good graphic artist,” wrote the headmaster of the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in 1922, the year of Escher’s graduation, “but he lacks the right artistic temperament. His work is to too cerebral–neither emotional nor lyrical enough.” Escher’s work became even more cerebral over time, as it grew in geometric sophistication. In describing what went into the creation of his woodcuts and engravings, Escher wrote:

The ideas that are basic to them often bear witness to my amazement and wonder at the laws of nature which operate in the world around us. He who wonders discovers that this is in itself a wonder. By keenly confronting the enigmas that surround us, and by considering and analyzing the observations that I had made, I ended up in the domain of mathematics. Although I am absolutely innocent of training or knowledge in the exact sciences, I often seem to have more in common with mathematicians than with my fellow artists.

The affinity between Escher and mathematicians is described in the scene above from the the BBC documentary, The Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher. “Mathematicians know their subject is beautiful,” says Ian Stewart of the University of Warwick. “Escher shows us that it’s beautiful.”

If the BBC clip whets your appetite, be sure to watch Metamorphose: M.C. Escher, 1898-1972, a 2002 documentary by Jan Brodriesz. The one-hour film gives an excellent overview of the Dutch artist’s life and work, and features a rare interview with Escher, along with scenes of him creating his art. If you’re a fan of Escher, this film is a must-see.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.