John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)

I often say that, if you want to vast­ly over­es­ti­mate your own capa­bil­i­ties, you need only do one of two things: (a) get coked out of your mind, or (b) get behind the wheel of a car. But what if the prob­lem runs deep­er in human­i­ty than that? Indeed, what if our inabil­i­ty to per­ceive our own incom­pe­tence exact­ly match­es the degree of the incom­pe­tence itself? Now, none of us can do every­thing well, but we’ve all met peo­ple who, even well out­side of the con­texts of drugs or dri­ving, sim­ply can­not grasp the full extent of how much they can’t do well. “The prob­lem with peo­ple like this is that they are so stu­pid,” explains Mon­ty Python’s John Cleese in the clip above, “they have no idea how stu­pid they are.”

“In order to know how good you are at some­thing requires exact­ly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place,” Cleese elab­o­rates, “which means — and this is ter­ri­bly fun­ny — that if you are absolute­ly no good at some­thing at all, then you lack exact­ly the skills you need to know that you are absolute­ly no good at it.” With that, he gives us an extreme­ly brief intro­duc­tion to the Dunning–Kruger effect, “a cog­ni­tive bias where­in unskilled indi­vid­u­als suf­fer from illu­so­ry supe­ri­or­i­ty, mis­tak­en­ly rat­ing their abil­i­ty much high­er than is accu­rate” owing to “a metacog­ni­tive inabil­i­ty of the unskilled to rec­og­nize their inep­ti­tude” (and, by the same token, of “high­ly skilled indi­vid­u­als to under­es­ti­mate their rel­a­tive com­pe­tence, erro­neous­ly assum­ing that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for oth­ers”).

The effect takes its name from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty researchers Justin Kruger and David Dun­ning, the lat­ter of whom Cleese, who has spent time at Cor­nell as a long-term vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor (where he has, among oth­er projects, tak­en part in a talk about cre­ativ­i­ty, group dynam­ics and celebri­ty), counts as a friend. He orig­i­nal­ly invoked Dun­ning and Kruger’s “won­der­ful bit of research” in the video “John Cleese Con­sid­ers Your Futile Com­ments,” where he talks back to YouTube com­menters on Mon­ty Python videos — in this case, those who men­tioned the names of cer­tain polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors beneath the 1970 sketch “Upper­class Twit of the Year.” “This explains not just Hol­ly­wood,” Cleese con­cludes, “but almost the entire­ty of Fox News.”

Those of you inter­est­ed in both cog­ni­tive phe­nom­e­na and con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­can polit­i­cal fig­ures will sure­ly have seen Gates of Heav­en and A Brief His­to­ry of Time doc­u­men­tar­i­an Errol Mor­ris’ most recent film The Unknown Known, a long-form con­ver­sa­tion with for­mer U.S. Sec­re­tary of Defense Don­ald Rums­feld. In the years before its release, Mor­ris wrote a five-part series for the New York Times called “The Anosog­nosic’s Dilem­ma,” fueled not just by his fas­ci­na­tion with Rums­feld but with his near-obses­sion over the Dun­ning-Kruger effect. In it, he actu­al­ly inter­views Dun­ning him­self, who sum­ma­rizes the issue thus: “We’re not very good at know­ing what we don’t know.”

Dun­ning even brings up the sub­ject of Rums­feld first, specif­i­cal­ly about his speech on “unknown unknowns” that gave Mor­ris’ movie its title. It goes some­thing like this: ‘There are things we know we know about ter­ror­ism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.’ He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, ‘That’s the smartest and most mod­est thing I’ve heard in a year.’ ” When Mor­ris fol­lowed up, Dun­ning added that “the notion of unknown unknowns real­ly does res­onate with me, and per­haps the idea would res­onate with oth­er peo­ple if they knew that it orig­i­nal­ly came from the world of design and engi­neer­ing rather than Rums­feld.” Or maybe they could asso­ciate it with the Min­istry of Sil­ly Walks instead.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

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, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

John Cleese Explains the Brain — and the Plea­sures of DirecTV

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

Jorge Luis Borges: “Soc­cer is Pop­u­lar Because Stu­pid­i­ty is Pop­u­lar”

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Download 140 Free Philosophy Courses: Develop Critical Thinking Skills & Live the Examined Life


What is “Phi­los­o­phy”? Yes, we know, the word comes from the Greek philosophia, which means “the love of wis­dom.” This rote ety­mo­log­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion does lit­tle, I think, to enhance our under­stand­ing of the sub­ject, though it may describe the moti­va­tion of many a stu­dent. Like cer­tain dis­eases, maybe phi­los­o­phy is a spec­trum, a col­lec­tion of loose­ly relat­ed behav­iors. Maybe a bet­ter ques­tion would be, “what are all the symp­toms of this thing we call phi­los­o­phy?” The med­ical metaphor is time­ly. We live in an age when the dis­ci­pline of phi­los­o­phy, like many of the human­i­ties, gets treat­ed like a pathol­o­gy, in uni­ver­si­ties and in the wider cul­ture. See, for exam­ple, pop­u­lar arti­cles on whether sci­ence has ren­dered phi­los­o­phy (and reli­gion) obso­lete. There seems to be an under­ly­ing assump­tion in our soci­ety that phi­los­o­phy is some­thing to be erad­i­cat­ed, like small­pox.

Per­haps this sort of thing is just an emp­ty provo­ca­tion; after all, many log­i­cal pos­i­tivists of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry also claimed to have inval­i­dat­ed large areas of philo­soph­i­cal inquiry by ban­ish­ing every unclear con­cept to the dust­bin. And yet, phi­los­o­phy per­sists, infect­ing us with its relent­less dri­ve to define, inquire, cri­tique, sys­tem­atize, prob­lema­tize, and decon­struct.

And of course, in a less tech­ni­cal sense, phi­los­o­phy infects us with the dri­ve to won­der. With­out its tools, I main­tain, we would not only lack the basis for under­stand­ing the world we live in, but we would also lack impor­tant means of imag­in­ing, and cre­at­ing, a bet­ter one. If this sounds grandiose, wait till you encounter the thought of Pla­to, Spin­oza, Hegel, Kant, Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard, and jazz-futur­ist Sun Ra—all unac­cus­tomed to think­ing small and stay­ing in their lane.

Some philoso­phers are more cir­cum­spect, some more pre­cise, some more lit­er­ary and imag­i­na­tive, some more prac­ti­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly inclined. Like I said, many symp­toms, one dis­ease.

We at Open Cul­ture have com­piled a list of 140 free phi­los­o­phy cours­es from as much of the wide spec­trum as we could, span­ning such diverse ways of think­ing as Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s Leo Strauss on Aristotle’s Ethics (Free Online Audio) and Plato’s Laws (Free Online Audio), to Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Bud­dhist schol­ar Robert Thur­man (Uma’s dad) on “The Cen­tral Phi­los­o­phy of Tibet” (Free Online Audio). We have spe­cif­ic cours­es on Med­ical Ethics, taught by Notre Dame’s David Solomon (Free Online Audio) and the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Orlean’s Frank Schalow (Free iTunes Audio). We have huge­ly gen­er­al cours­es like “The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps,” from King’s College’s Peter Adam­son (Free Course in Mul­ti­ple For­mats). We have phi­los­o­phy cours­es on death, love, reli­gion, film, law, the self, the ancients and the mod­erns…. See what I mean about the spec­trum?

Per­haps phi­los­o­phy incurs resent­ment because it roams at large and won’t be pack­aged into neat­ly salable—or jailable—units. Per­haps its amor­phous nature, its tol­er­ance of uncer­tain­ty and doubt, makes some kinds of peo­ple uncom­fort­able. Or per­haps some think it’s too abstruse and dif­fi­cult to make sense of, or to mat­ter. Not so! Vis­it our list of 140 phi­los­o­phy cours­es and you will sure­ly find a point of entry some­where. One class will lead to anoth­er, and anoth­er, and before you know it, you’ll be ask­ing ques­tions all the time, of every­thing, and think­ing rig­or­ous­ly and crit­i­cal­ly about the answers, and… well, by then it may be too late for a cure.

Look­ing for a good place to start? Try Oxford’s Crit­i­cal Rea­son­ing for Begin­ners

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Down­load 78 Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es: From Ancient Greece to The Mod­ern World

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More 

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

Great Minds Answer the Question “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?” in a New Film

At the start of 2014, posed its annu­al ques­tion to 176 sci­en­tif­ic minds: “What Sci­en­tif­ic Idea is Ready for Retire­ment?” The ques­tion (as we not­ed in Jan­u­ary) came pref­aced by this thought:

Sci­ence advances by dis­cov­er­ing new things and devel­op­ing new ideas. Few tru­ly new ideas are devel­oped with­out aban­don­ing old ones first. As the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Max Planck (1858–1947) not­ed, “A new sci­en­tif­ic truth does not tri­umph by con­vinc­ing its oppo­nents and mak­ing them see the light, but rather because its oppo­nents even­tu­al­ly die, and a new gen­er­a­tion grows up that is famil­iar with it.” In oth­er words, sci­ence advances by a series of funer­als. Why wait that long?

As is its cus­tom, Edge ini­tial­ly gath­ered and pub­lished the respons­es (in text for­mat) from thinkers like Steven Pinker, Kevin Kel­lySher­ry TurkleRobert Sapol­sky, and Daniel Den­nett. Now, as the sun sets on 2014, film­mak­er Jesse Dylan has cre­at­ed a four-minute film based on the project, fea­tur­ing some of the same fig­ures men­tioned above. Watch it up top.

In a few short weeks, we’ll bring you the Edge ques­tion of 2015.

via io9

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

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, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

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Why You Do Your Best Thinking In The Shower: Creativity & the “Incubation Period”

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“The great Tao fades away.”

So begins one trans­la­tion of the Tao Te Ching’s 18th Chap­ter. The sen­tence cap­tures the frus­tra­tion that comes with a lost epiphany. Whether it’s a pro­found real­iza­tion when you just wake up, or moment of clar­i­ty in the show­er, by the time your mind’s gears start turn­ing and you grope for pen and paper, the enlight­en­ment has evap­o­rat­ed, replaced by mud­dle-head­ed, fum­bling “what was that, again?”

“Intel­li­gence comes forth. There is great decep­tion.”

The sud­den flash­es of insight we have in states of med­i­ta­tive distraction—showering, pulling weeds in the gar­den, dri­ving home from work—often elude our con­scious mind pre­cise­ly because they require its dis­en­gage­ment. When we’re too active­ly engaged in con­scious thought—exercising our intel­li­gence, so to speak—our cre­ativ­i­ty and inspi­ra­tion suf­fer. “The great Tao fades away.”

The intu­itive rev­e­la­tions we have while show­er­ing or per­form­ing oth­er mind­less tasks are what psy­chol­o­gists call “incu­ba­tion.” As Men­tal Floss describes the phe­nom­e­non: “Since these rou­tines don’t require much thought, you flip to autopi­lot. This frees up your uncon­scious to work on some­thing else. Your mind goes wan­der­ing, leav­ing your brain to qui­et­ly play a no-holds-barred game of free asso­ci­a­tion.”

Are we always doomed to lose the thread when we get self-con­scious about what we’re doing? Not at all. In fact, some researchers, like Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu, have observed incu­ba­tion at work in very cre­ative­ly engaged indi­vid­u­als, like freestyle rap­pers. Theirs is a skill that must be honed and prac­ticed exhaus­tive­ly, but one that nonethe­less relies on extem­po­ra­ne­ous inspi­ra­tion.

Renowned neu­ro­sci­en­tist Alice Fla­her­ty the­o­rizes that the key bio­log­i­cal ingre­di­ent in incu­ba­tion is dopamine, the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter released when we’re relaxed and com­fort­able. “Peo­ple vary in terms of their lev­el of cre­ative dri­ve,” writes Fla­her­ty, “accord­ing to the activ­i­ty of the dopamine path­ways of the lim­bic sys­tem.” More relax­ation, more dopamine. More dopamine, more cre­ativ­i­ty.

Oth­er researchers, like Ut Na Sio and Thomas C. Ormerod at Lan­cast­er Uni­ver­si­ty, have under­tak­en analy­sis of a more qual­i­ta­tive kind—of “anec­do­tal reports of the intel­lec­tu­al dis­cov­ery process­es of indi­vid­u­als hailed as genius­es.” Here we might think of Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, whose poem “Kublai Khan”—“a vision in a dream”—he sup­pos­ed­ly com­posed in the midst of a spon­ta­neous rev­e­la­tion (or an opi­um haze)—before that annoy­ing “per­son from Por­lock” broke the spell.

Sio and Ormerod sur­vey the lit­er­a­ture of “incu­ba­tion peri­ods,” hop­ing to “allow us to make use of them effec­tive­ly to pro­mote cre­ativ­i­ty in areas such as indi­vid­ual prob­lem solv­ing, class­room learn­ing, and work envi­ron­ments.” Their dense research sug­gests that we can exer­cise some degree of con­trol over incu­ba­tion, build­ing uncon­scious work into our rou­tines. But why is this nec­es­sary?

Psy­chol­o­gist John Kounios of Drex­el Uni­ver­si­ty offers a straight­for­ward expla­na­tion of the uncon­scious process­es he refers to as “the default mode net­work.” Nick Stock­ton in Wired sums up Kounios’ the­o­ry:

Our brains typ­i­cal­ly cat­a­log things by their con­text: Win­dows are parts of build­ings, and the stars belong in the night sky. Ideas will always min­gle to some degree, but when we’re focused on a spe­cif­ic task our think­ing tends to be lin­ear.

The task of showering—or bathing, in the case of Archimedes (above)—gives the mind a break, lets it mix things up and make the odd, ran­dom jux­ta­po­si­tions that are the essen­tial basis of cre­ativ­i­ty. I’m tempt­ed to think Wal­lace Stevens spent a good deal of time in the show­er. Or maybe, like Stock­ton, he kept a “Poop Jour­nal” (exact­ly what it sounds like).

Famous exam­ples aside, what all of this research sug­gests is that peak cre­ativ­i­ty hap­pens when we’re pleas­ant­ly absent-mind­ed. Or, as psy­chol­o­gist Allen Braun writes, “We think what we see is a relax­ation of ‘exec­u­tive func­tions’ to allow more nat­ur­al de-focused atten­tion and uncen­sored process­es to occur that might be the hall­mark of cre­ativ­i­ty.”

None of this means that you’ll always be able to cap­ture those bril­liant ideas before they fade away. There’s no fool­proof method involved in mak­ing use of cre­ative dis­trac­tion. But as Leo Widrich writes at Buffer, there are some tricks that may help. To increase your cre­ative out­put and max­i­mize the insights in incu­ba­tion peri­ods, he rec­om­mends that you:

  1. “Keep a note­book with you at all times, even in the show­er.” (Widrich points us toward a water­proof notepad for that pur­pose.)
  1. “Plan dis­en­gage­ment and dis­trac­tion.” Widrich calls this “the out­er-inner tech­nique.” John Cleese artic­u­lates anoth­er ver­sion of planned inspi­ra­tion.
  1. “Over­whelm your brain: Make the task real­ly hard.” This seems counterintuitive—the oppo­site of relax­ation. But as Widrich explains, when you strain your brain with real­ly dif­fi­cult prob­lems, oth­ers seem much eas­i­er by com­par­i­son.

It may seem like a lot of work get­ting your mind to relax, pro­duce more dopamine, and get weird, cir­cu­lar, and inspired. But the work lies in mak­ing effec­tive use of what’s already hap­pen­ing in your uncon­scious mind. Rather than grop­ing blind­ly for that flash of bril­liance you just had a moment ago, you can learn, writes Men­tal Floss, to “mind your mind­less tasks.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Enhances Our Cre­ativ­i­ty

How To Be Cre­ative: PBS’ Off Book Series Explores the Secret Sauce of Great Ideas

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

Play Chess Against the Ghost of Marcel Duchamp: A Free Online Chess Game

Ear­li­er this year, Col­in Mar­shall told you how “Chess has obsessed many of humanity’s finest minds over cen­turies and cen­turies and Mar­cel Duchamp seems to have shown lit­tle resis­tance to its intel­lec­tu­al and aes­thet­ic pull.” His pas­sion for the game (which he describes above) led him to design a now icon­ic Art Deco chess set, to print an array of chess tour­na­ment posters, and to become a pret­ty adept chess play­er him­self, even­tu­al­ly earn­ing the title of “grand mas­ter” as a result. In a pret­ty neat project, Scott Kil­dall has looked back at records of Ducham­p’s chess match­es and cre­at­ed a com­put­er pro­gram that lets you play against a “Duchampian ghost.” Just click here, and then click on the chess piece you want to move. It will turn green, and then you can move it with your trackpad/mouse. Enjoy.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

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, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Free 700-Page Chess Man­u­al Explains 1,000 Chess Tac­tics in Plain Eng­lish

Clay­ma­tion Film Recre­ates His­toric Chess Match Immor­tal­ized in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

A Human Chess Match Gets Played in Leningrad, 1924

Man Ray Designs a Supreme­ly Ele­gant, Geo­met­ric Chess Set in 1920 (and It’s Now Re-Issued for the Rest of Us)

Play Chess Against the Ghost of Mar­cel Duchamp: A Free Online Chess Game

Watch Bill Gates Lose a Chess Match in 79 Sec­onds to the New World Chess Cham­pi­on Mag­nus Carlsen

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Hear Elementary-School Musicians Perform 43 Songs by Sun Ra (1994)

If you heard Sun Ra’s Christ­mas-day radio broad­cast of poet­ry and music we fea­tured on, well, Christ­mas day, per­haps it inspired you to cre­ate some­thing — music, poet­ry, radio — your­self. More than twen­ty years after his death, the flam­boy­ant jazz vision­ary con­tin­ues to inspire all kinds of cre­ative acts on the part of his lis­ten­ers. Sure­ly he played no small part in moti­vat­ing the pro­duc­tion of Big Music, Lit­tle Musi­cians, an album by the fourth‑, fifth‑, and sixth-graders of music teacher Randy Porter’s class­es at Chabot, Mont­clair, and Thorn­hill ele­men­tary schools in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia. The album offers not just 43 (!) com­po­si­tions by these ele­men­tary school­ers, but, 42 tracks in, their inter­pre­ta­tion of Sun Ra’s “Plan­et Earth” (in its orig­i­nal form the open­ing cut from 1966’s Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra Vis­its Plan­et Earth):

You can hear the entire­ty of this out-of-print 1994 release (inci­den­tal­ly, the year after Sun Ra took his leave of plan­et Earth) at Ubuweb. “With as lit­tle as a cou­ple months of expe­ri­ence under their belts,” say the notes there, the ten‑, eleven‑, and twelve-year-old stu­dents “are encour­aged to impro­vise and com­pose and this disc doc­u­ments it.” And admit­ted­ly, “while some may cringe at some of the tech­ni­cal prob­lems young, inex­pe­ri­enced play­ers are bound to have, the cre­ativ­i­ty exhib­it­ed is unde­ni­able. It is also refresh­ing to hear such unabashed, ego­less joy as we have here. Many a sea­soned play­er could stand to give this a lis­ten.” It puts me in the mind of not just the grade-school­ers who sang David Bowie’s Space Odd­i­ty but the Portsmouth Sin­fo­nia, an ama­teur orches­tra at the Portsmouth School of Art that com­pen­sat­ed for each mem­ber’s shaky grasp of their instru­ment (includ­ing, at one point, none oth­er than Bri­an Eno’s on the clar­inet) with its sheer size and the famous­ness of its selec­tions.

Just above, you can hear a few orig­i­nal cuts of intrigu­ing­ly named big music from these lit­tle musi­cians: “Ghost Train,” “Tom Fool­ery,” and “Help! I’m Drown­ing in a Sea of Har­mo­ny.” See­ing as these kids would be the same age as me today, it would cer­tain­ly inter­est me to hear how they’ve turned out; such an ear­ly and strong dose of Sun Ra cer­tain­ly could­n’t make one’s life less inter­est­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Sun Ra Christ­mas: Hear His 1976 Radio Broad­cast of Poet­ry and Music

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s High­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Film on Jazz & Race in Amer­i­ca (With Music by Sun Ra)

Ele­men­tary School Kids Sing David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty” & Oth­er Rock Hits: A Cult Clas­sic Record­ed in 1976

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Home Movies of Duke Ellington Playing Baseball (And How Baseball Coined the Word “Jazz”)

“When they study our civ­i­liza­tion two thou­sand years from now, there will only be three things that Amer­i­cans will be known for: the Con­sti­tu­tion, base­ball and jazz music. They’re the three most beau­ti­ful things Amer­i­cans have ever cre­at­ed.” — Ger­ald Ear­ly talk­ing to Ken Burns.

In this clip unearthed by the Smith­son­ian ear­li­er this year, we find two great Amer­i­can tra­di­tions inter­twined — base­ball and jazz. As John Edward Has­se explains in his online essay, jazz and base­ball grew up togeth­er. Accord­ing to some, the first doc­u­ment­ed use of the word “jazz” came from a 1913 news­pa­per arti­cle where a reporter, writ­ing about the San Fran­cis­co Seals minor league team, said “The poor old Seals have lost their ‘jazz’ and don’t know where to find it.” “It’s a fact … that the ‘jazz,’ the pep­per, the old life, has been either lost or stolen, and that the San Fran­cis­co club of today is made up of jaz­z­less Seals.” Or, if you lis­ten to this pub­lic radio report, anoth­er use of the word can be traced back to 1912. That’s when a washed-up pitch­er named Ben Hen­der­son claimed that he had invent­ed a new pitch — the “jazz ball.”


Dur­ing the Swing Era, jazz musi­cians often took a keen inter­est in base­ball. Writes Ryan Whir­ty in Off­beat, Louis Arm­strong’s “pas­sion for America’s pas­time was so intense that, in the ear­ly ’30s, he owned his own team, the Secret Nine, in his home­town of New Orleans, even deck­ing the play­ers out in the finest, whitest uni­forms ever seen on the sand­lots of the Big Easy.” (See them in the pho­to above.) And then oth­er band lead­ers like Ben­ny Good­man, Count Basie, Tom­my Dorsey, and Duke Elling­ton formed base­ball teams with mem­bers of their groups.

Above, you can watch Elling­ton play­ing ball in some home videos, both hit­ting and pitch­ing. When the Duke was a kid, he imag­ined him­self becom­ing a pro­fes­sion­al base­ball play­er one day. But the young­ster even­tu­al­ly got hit in the head with a bat dur­ing a game, and that’s where his base­ball career end­ed. He lat­er not­ed, “The mark is still there, but I soon got over it. With that, how­ev­er, my moth­er decid­ed I should take piano lessons.”

Note: The Duke Elling­ton Cen­ter writes on Youtube that “The appear­ance of Ben Web­ster at the end of the clip times the video to around 1940–41.”

via The Smith­son­ian and That Eric Alper

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Video: Fidel Cas­tro Plays Base­ball (1959)

Free: Watch Jack­ie Robin­son Star in The Jack­ie Robin­son Sto­ry (1950)

The Grate­ful Dead Rock the Nation­al Anthem at Can­dle­stick Park: Open­ing Day, 1993

Is There an Afterlife? Christopher Hitchens Speculates in an Animated Video

Ten months before his death — a death he knew was com­ing — Christo­pher Hitchens debat­ed the ques­tion, “Is there an after­life?”.  Shar­ing the stage with Sam Har­ris, and Rab­bis David Wolpe and Bradley Shav­it Art­son at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty in Los Ange­les, Hitchens lament­ed how “It’s con­sid­ered per­fect­ly nor­mal in this soci­ety to approach dying peo­ple who you don’t know, but who are unbe­liev­ers, and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind [about the exis­tence of God]?’ That is con­sid­ered almost a polite ques­tion.” “It’s a reli­gious fal­si­fi­ca­tion that peo­ple like myself scream for a priest at the end. Most of us go to our end with dig­ni­ty.”

After spend­ing years as an unapolo­getic athe­ist, Hitchens also was­n’t going to start believ­ing in an after­life  — or what he half jok­ing­ly called “The Nev­er End­ing Par­ty.” The video above takes some of Hitchens com­ments from the debate and turns them into a whim­si­cal ani­ma­tion. It’s clas­sic Hitchens. Equal parts emphat­ic and fun­ny.  Below, you can watch the orig­i­nal debate in its entire­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Christo­pher Hitchens, Who Mixed Drink­ing & Writ­ing, Names the “Best Scotch in the His­to­ry of the World”

Free Online Reli­gion Cours­es

Christo­pher Hitchens Cre­ates a Read­ing List for Eight-Year-Old Girl

Christo­pher Hitchens Revis­es the Ten Com­mand­ments

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