N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős, the Most Prolific Mathematician of the 20th Century

For anyone who enjoyed Dangerous Knowledge (the BBC’s 90-minute documentary that takes a close look at four mathematicians – Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing), we bring you this — N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős. Filmed in 1993 by director George Paul Csicsery, the documentary revisits the intellectual contributions of Paul Erdös (1913-1996), perhaps the most prolific mathematician of the last century. The Hungarian-born thinker apparently published more papers than any other mathematician in recorded history and solved seemingly unsolvable problems in graph theory and number theory. Run time is 57 minutes. You can purchase a copy online here.

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William Faulkner Quits His Post Office Job in Splendid Fashion with a 1924 Resignation Letter

Long before William Faulkner got his big break in literature, he, like many of us, had a good old-fashioned day job. Faulkner had a series of odd jobs in fact. But, most famously, he worked from 1921 to 1924 as the postmaster at the University of Mississippi, where, according to legend, he did the following: sometimes threw mail in the garbage, other times read magazines before bringing them to people’s homes, often played cards and wrote fiction during working hours, occasionally went golfing instead of delivering mail, and generally ignored his colleagues and customers. But, who could blame him? Especially when he earned $20,000 in today’s money and had great literary ambitions to pursue. Eventually, when a postal inspector came to investigate, Faulkner resigned. The resignation letter, recently highlighted by Letters of Note, is short (a mere 56 words) and cutting. But, scathing as it was, it didn’t stop the US postal system from issuing a commemorative Faulkner stamp in 1987.

October, 1924

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

(Signed by Faulkner)

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Sean Connery Reads C.P. Cavafy’s Epic Poem “Ithaca,” Set to the Music of Vangelis

This video combines three things that make me happy: the voice of Sean Connery, the music of Vangelis (Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire), and the poetry of C.P. Cavafy. Put them all together and you get a blissful soundscape of rolling synth lines, rolling Scottish R’s, and a succession of Homeric images and anaphoric lines. And the video’s quite nice as well.

Cavafy, whose work, I’m told, is really untranslatable from the original Greek, always seems to come out pretty well to me in English. “Ithaca,” one of his most popular poems, expresses what in lesser hands might be a banal sentiment akin to “it’s the journey, not the destination.” But in Cavafy’s poem, the journey is both Odysseus’s and ours; it’s epic where our lives seem small, and it translates our minor wanderings to the realm of mythic history.

Anyway, it seems rude to say much more and drown the poem in commentary. So, follow along with Sean Connery and enjoy… happy Friday.

Find the text of the poem after the jump. (more…)

How to Make Better Decisions, a Thought-Provoking Documentary by the BBC

“In this program,” says narrator Peter Capaldi at the outset, “we’re going to show you how to be more rational, and deal with some of life’s biggest decisions.” It’s a pretty big claim, and you may doubt that it’s true (especially during the silly opening scene involving a group of nerds trying to score a date) but give this 2008 BBC Horizon program a little time and you might come away with a few things to think about. How to Make Better Decisions takes us inside cognitive science laboratories and out on the streets to demonstrate how the emotional part of our brain gets the better of the rational part. The film introduces a number of intriguing concepts, including Prospect Theory“the framing effect,” and “priming.” More controversially, it highlights some research that suggests the possibility that our intuition may have something to do with an ability to sense future events. How to Make Better Decisions is 49 minutes long, and we’ve decided to add it to our growing collection of Free Movies Online.

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Norman Mailer: Strong Writer, Weak Actor, Brutally Wrestles Actor Rip Torn

“Gorging on the man’s image and voice is a reminder of his strength as a writer that’s easiest to overlook: an awareness of his own limitations. This is a quality that his acting lacks.” This Christine Smallwood writes of the novelist Norman Mailer after having watched the late-sixties/early-seventies trilogy of films he directed and starred in: Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and Maidstone. Her post on the New Yorker‘s blog Page-Turner considers these pictures, recently released as a box set in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series, ultimately finding them hugely flawed but not uninterestingly so. They have cinematography by a young D.A. Pennebaker, they foreshadow reality television in their own skewed way, and they capture the spectacle of Norman Mailer reveling in, essentially, the role of himself. Not that this counts as an acting technique: “Mailer lurches, lumbers, rants, reels,” writes Smallwood. “He doesn’t bother with a story that would drum up interest or fix attention, because he knows, and you know, that you’re watching because he’s Norman Mailer.”

But a force fiercer than Mailer’s will to impose his own reality rips into the very end of Maidstone, and the result has become a popular clip on the internet. That force’s name is Rip Torn. He plays the brother-in-law and would-be assassin of Mailer’s character, an iconoclastic auteur running for President of the United States. On camera, Torn suddenly attacks Mailer, and the two launch into what looks like an actual brawl, involving techniques up to and including a hammer to the ear. “The intrusion of bald ‘real life’ means that Mailer has to reckon with another person,” writes Smallwood. “This, I think, is what motivated his interest in violence more generally: it interrupted the constant preoccupation of being Norman Mailer, forcing him out of himself. In his writing, he could sometimes discipline himself into achieving those moments, as when he imagined the mind-set of a policeman in ‘Armies of the Night,’ but onscreen he needed to get hit.”

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Norman Mailer & Martin Amis, No Strangers to Controversy, Talk in 1991

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

Eisenhower Answers America: The First Political Advertisements on American TV (1952)

Going into the 1952 presidential election, the Democrats had held the White House for nearly twenty years. FDR took office in 1933, beginning the first of twelve years in office. Then Harry S. Truman led the nation for nearly another eight years. During that time, America endured a lot. War, economic depression, and more war — some hot, some cold. By the time the 1950s rolled around, Americans were tired and ready for a change.

In the 1952 election, we find Adlai Stevenson, the reluctant Democratic candidate, squaring off against Dwight D. Eisenhower, the war hero who had led American troops to victory in Europe, instantly becoming the “most admired living American” (according to opinion polls). Eisenhower, it turns out, knew how to win elections as well as wars. In ’52, Ike aired the first ad campaigns on television. Called Eisenhower Answers America, the ads featured “everyday” Americans asking questions about the issues of the day — the war in Korea, inflation, high taxes, etc. PBS has a well-researched introduction to this innovation in American politics, while the nicely-curated web site, The Living Room Candidate, offers a rich collection of campaign commercials aired between 1952 and 2008.

You can watch three ads from Eisenhower Answers America above and below.

Samuel L. Jackson Stars in “Wake the F**ck Up for Obama,” a NSFW Political Children’s Tale

Last summer, Samuel L. Jackson delighted listeners when he narrated the audio version of Adam Mansbach’s twisted little children’s bedtime story, Go the F**k to Sleep. Now, Jackson returns with Wake the F**ck Up for ObamaAccording to the New York Post (if they say it, it must be true!), Mansbach wrote the Dr. Seussian script for the political ad. And it was apparently funded by the Jewish Council for Research and Education, a liberal super PAC funded by George Soros’ 25-year-old son. Until today, I thought that Citizens United, the SCOTUS decision that unleashed a torrent of Super PAC ads on our airwaves, did more to undermine American democracy than any foreign threat. But when the video hit the 2:44 mark, you start to have your doubts.

via Galley Cat

Peter Sellers Gives a Quick Demonstration of British Accents

A while ago we brought you a hilarious series of recordings of the British comedic actor Peter Sellers reading The Beatles’ “She Loves You” in four different accents. Today we have a brief clip from a telephone call by Sellers on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (in which Sellers played three different roles). Here he demonstrates the nuances of a few of the many accents around Great Britain. From cockney to upper class and from London to Edinburgh, it’s classic Sellers all the way.

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Peter Sellers: His Life in Home Movies

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.