Discover Harvard’s Collection of 2,500 Pigments: Preserving the World’s Rare, Wonderful Colors

If modern paint companies’ pretentiously-named color palettes gall you to the point of an exclusively black-and-white existence, the Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes pigment collection will prove a welcome balm.

The hand and typewritten labels identifying the collection’s 2500+ pigments boast none of the flashy “creativity” that J. Crew employs to peddle its cashmere Boyfriend Cardigans.
Pigment Collection

Images by Harvard News

The benign, and wholly unexciting-sounding “emerald green” is —unsurprisingly—the exact shade legions of Oz fans have come to expect. The thrills here are chemical, not conferred. A mix of crystalline powder copper acetoarsenite, this emerald’s fumes sickened penniless artists as adroitly as they repelled insects.

Look how nicely it goes with Van Gogh’s ruddy hair…

Van Gogh Harvard

“Mummy” is perhaps the closest the Forbes collection comes to 21st- century pigment naming. As Harvard’s Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Narayan Khandekar, notes in the video above, its mushroom shade is no great shakes. The source—the resin used to seal mummies’ bandages—is what distinguishes it.


The collection’s crown jewel is a rich ball of mustard-y Indian Yellow. This pigment comes not from maize, nor earth, but from the dehydrated urine of a cow subsisting exclusively on mango leaves. I’m drawn to it like a moth to the living room walls. I’m sure Benjamin Moore had his reasons for dubbing its urine-free facsimile “Sunny Days.”

pigment_vault India Yellow

The images above, save the Van Gogh painting, comes courtesy of by Harvard News. The video above was created by Great Big Story.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Watch Animated Introductions to 35 Philosophers by The School of Life: From Plato to Kant and Foucault

Philosophy as an academic subject is regularly maligned in popular discourse. Philosophy majors get told that their studies are useless. Philosophy professors find their budgets cut, their courses scrutinized, and their character grossly impeached in propagandistic religious feature films. It’s enough to make one despair over the turgid air of anti-intellectualism that stifles conversation.

But before we start pining for bygone golden ages of rigorous critical thought, let us remember that philosophers have been a thorn in the side of the powerful since the inception of Western philosophy. After all, Socrates, the ancient Greek whose name we associate with philosophy’s most basic maxims and methods, was supposedly put to death for the crime of which today’s professorate so often stand accused: corrupting the youth.

We mostly know of Socrates’ life and death through the written dialogues of his star pupil, Plato, whom Alain de Botton calls in the first video above, “the world’s first true, and perhaps greatest, philosopher.” De Botton quickly explains in his animated School of Life introduction that the core of Plato’s philosophy constitutes a “special kind of therapy” geared toward Eudaimonia, or human fulfillment and well-being. From Plato, De Botton’s series of quick takes on famous philosophers continues, moving through the Enlightenment and the 19th and 20th centuries.

Key to Plato’s thought is the critical examination of Doxa, or the conventional values and “popular opinions” that reveal themselves as “riddled with errors, prejudice, and superstition.” Plato’s most famous illustration of the profound state of ignorance in which most of us live goes by the name “The Allegory of the Cave,” and receives a retelling with commentary by De Botton just above. The parable doesn’t only illustrate the utility of philosophy, as De Botton says; it also serves as a vivid introduction to Plato’s theory of the Forms—an ideal realm of which our phenomenal reality is only a debased copy.

The dualism between the real and the ideal long governed philosophical thought, though many competing schools like the Stoics expressed a healthy degree of skepticism. But we might say that it wasn’t until Immanuel Kant, whom you can learn about above, that Plato really met his match. Along with his famous ethical dictum of the “categorical imperative,” Kant also posited two distinct realms—the noumenal and the phenomenal. And yet, unlike Plato, Kant did not believe we can make any assertions about the properties or existence of the ideal. Whatever lies outside the cave, we cannot access it through our faulty senses.

These central questions about the nature of knowledge and mind not only make philosophy an immanently fascinating discipline—they also make it an increasingly necessary endeavor, as we move further into the realm of constructing artificial minds. Software engineers and video game developers are tasked with philosophical problems related to consciousness, identity, and the possibility of ethical free choice. And at the cutting edge of cognitive science—where evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics rub elbows—we may find that Plato and Kant both intuited some of the most basic problems of consciousness: what we take for reality may be nothing of the kind, and we may have no way of genuinely knowing what the world is like outside our senses.

As 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes feared, but found impossible to believe, our perception of the world may in fact be a deceptive, if useful, illusion. Learn more about Descartes above, and see De Botton’s full School of Life philosophy series at the top of the post. Or watch the series on Youtube.

There are 35 videos in total, which let you become acquainted with, and perhaps corrupted by, a range of thinkers who question orthodoxy and common sense, including Aristotle, Epicurus, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Baruch Spinoza. Watch all of the videos in the playlist right below.

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

How Steely Dan Wrote “Deacon Blues,” the Song Audiophiles Use to Test High-End Stereos

Every Steely Dan fan remembers the first time they listened to their music — not just heard it, but listened to it, actively taking notice of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s complexly anachronistic lyrics (long scrutinized by the band’s exegetes), jazz-and-rock-spanning compositional technique, ultra-discerning selection of session musicians, and immaculate studio craft which, by the standards of the 1970s, raised popular music’s bar through the ceiling.

Often, that first real listening session happens in the neighborhood of a high-end stereo dealer. For me, the album was Two Against Nature, their turn-of-the-21st century comeback, but for many more, the album was Aja, which came out in 1977 and soon claimed the status of Steely Dan’s masterpiece. At the end of side one comes “Deacon Blues,” one of their best-loved songs as well as a production that puts audiophile listening equipment to the test. You can see a breakdown of what went into it in Nerdwriter’s new video “How Steely Dan Composes a Song” above.

“There’s a reason why audiophiles use Steely Dan records to test the sound quality of new speakers,” says host Evan Puschak. “The band is among the most sonically sophisticated pop acts of the 20th and 21st centuries,” in both the technical and artistic senses. He goes on to identify some of the signature elements in the mix, including something called the “mu major cord”; the recording methods that allow “every instrument its own life” (especially those played by masters like guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Bernard Purdie); the striking effect of “middle register horns sliding against each other”; and even saxophone soloist Pete Christlieb, whom Becker and Fagen discovered by chance on a Tonight Show broadcast.

Puschak doesn’t ignore the lyrics, without a thorough analysis of which no discussion of Steely Dan’s work would be complete. He mentions the band’s typically wry, sardonic tone, their detached perspective and notes of uncertainty, but in the case of this particular song, it all comes with a “hidden earnestness” that makes it one of the most poignant in their entire catalog. “‘Deacon Blues’ is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” admits Fagen in the television documentary clip just above, which puts him and Becker back into the studio to look back at the song track by isolated track.

“We’re both kids who grew up in the suburbs. We both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the fifties, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture — some kind of escape, really — from where we found ourselves.” Becker describes the song’s eponymous protagonist, who dreams of learning to “work the saxophone” in order to play just how he feels, “drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel,” as not a musician but someone who “just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. Who’s to say that he’s not right?”

You can learn even more about the making (and the magic) of “Deacon Blues” in Marc Myers’ interview with Becker and Fagen in the Wall Street Journal last year. “It’s the only time I remember mixing a record all day and, when the mix was done, feeling like I wanted to hear it over and over again,” says Becker. “It was the comprehensive sound of the thing.” Fagen acknowledges “one thing we did right” in the making of the song: “We never tried to accommodate the mass market. We worked for ourselves and still do.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

There may be no more contentious an issue at the level of local U.S. government than education. All of the socioeconomic and cultural fault lines communities would rather paper over become fully exposed in debates over funding, curriculum, districting, etc. But we rarely hear discussions about educational policy at the national level these days.

You’ll hear no major political candidate deliver a speech solely focused on education. Debate moderators don’t much ask about it. The United States’ founder’s own thoughts on the subject are occasionally cited—but only in passing, on the way to the latest round of talks on war and wealth. Aside from proposals dismissed as too radical, education is mostly considered a lower priority for the nation’s leaders, or it’s roped into highly charged debates about political and social unrest on university campuses.

This situation can seem odd to the student of political philosophy. Every major political thinker—from Plato to John Locke to John Stuart Mill—has written letters, treatises, even major works on the central role of education. One contemporary political thinker—linguist, anarchist, and retired MIT professor Noam Chomsky—has also devoted quite a lot of thought to education, and has forcefully critiqued what he sees as a corporate attack on its institutions.

Chomsky, however, has no interest in harnessing education to prop up governments or market economies. Nor does he see education as a tool for righting historical wrongs, securing middle class jobs, or meeting any other  agenda.

Chomsky, whose thoughts on education we’ve featured before, tells us in the short video interview at the top of the post how he defines what it means to be truly educated. And to do so, he reaches back to a philosopher whose views you won’t hear referenced often, Wilhelm von Humboldt, German humanist, friend of Goethe and Schiller, and “founder of the modern higher education system.” Humboldt, Chomsky says, “argued, I think, very plausibly, that the core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively, independently, without external controls.” A true education, Chomsky suggests, opens a door to human intellectual freedom and creative autonomy.

To clarify, Chomsky paraphrases a “leading physicist” and former MIT colleague, who would tell his students, “it’s not important what we cover in the class; it’s important what you discover.” On this point of view, to be truly educated means to be resourceful, to be able to “formulate serious questions” and “question standard doctrine, if that’s appropriate”…. It means to “find your own way.” This definition sounds similar to Nietzsche’s views on the subject, though Nietzsche had little hope in very many people attaining a true education. Chomsky, as you might expect, proceeds in a much more democratic spirit.

In the interview above from 2013 (see the second video), you can hear him discuss why he has devoted his life to educating not only his paying students, but also nearly anyone who asks him a question. He also talks about his own education and further elucidates his views on the relationship between education, creativity, and critical inquiry. And, in the very first few minutes, you’ll find out whether Chomsky prefers George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. (Hint: it’s neither.)

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

Peter Frampton Plays a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR, Featuring Acoustic Versions of His Classic Songs

Having recently released a new album featuring acoustic versions of his big hits, Peter Frampton is now back on tour, playing in some smaller venues across the U.S. But no venue–not the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, nor the Tobin Center for Performing Arts in San Antonio, Texas–is quite as small as the one we’re featuring today. Above, watch Frampton perform at the desk of NPR’s All Songs Considered. The performance is part of NPR’s Tiny Desk series, and the setlist includes acoustic versions of “Baby, I Love Your Way,” “Lines On My Face,” and “All I Want To Be (Is By Your Side).” Other recent Tiny Desk performances include Graham Nash, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, and Ben Folds. Enjoy.

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Young Patti Smith Rails Against the Censorship of Her Music: An Animated, NSFW Interview from 1976

The latest installment from Blank on Blank‘s series of animated videos drops us inside the bohemian Portobello Hotel in London. It’s May, 1976, and we hear a young Patti Smith railing against the censorship of her music, using some colorful–that is to say, NSFW–words. She talks Rimbaud. The poetry and combat of rock. The dreams and hallucinations that feed her music. The stuff that would eventually earn her the cred to be called The Godmother of Punk.

The audio is part of a longer, two-hour interview with Mick Gold, which is available through Amazon and iTunes. Enjoy.

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, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

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The “Brain Dictionary”: Beautiful 3D Map Shows How Different Brain Areas Respond to Hearing Different Words

We’ve all had those moments of struggle to come up with le mot juste, in our native language or a foreign one. But when we look for a particular word, where exactly do we go to find it? Neuroscientists at Berkeley have made a fascinating start on answering that question by going in the other direction, mapping out which parts of the brain respond to the sound of certain words, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch the action on the cerebral cortices of people listening to The Moth Radio Hour — a popular storytelling podcast you yourself may have spent some time with, albeit under somewhat different circumstances.

“No single brain region holds one word or concept,” writes The Guardian‘s Ian Sample on the “brain dictionary” thus developed by researcher Jack Gallant and his team. “A single brain spot is associated with a number of related words. And each single word lights up many different brain spots. Together they make up networks that represent the meanings of each word we use: life and love; death and taxes; clouds, Florida and bra. All light up their own networks.”

Sample quotes Alexander Huth, the first author on the study: “It is possible that this approach could be used to decode information about what words a person is hearing, reading, or possibly even thinking.” You can learn more about this promising research in the short video from Nature above, which shows how the team mapped out how, during those Moth listening sessions, “different bits of the brain responded to different kinds of words”: some regions lit up in response to those having to do with numbers, for instance, others in response to “social words,” and others in response to those indicating place.

You can also browse this brain dictionary yourself in 3D on the Gallant Lab’s web site, which lets you click on any part of the cortex and see a cluster of the words which generated the most activity there. The other neuroscientists quoted in the Guardian piece acknowledge both the thrilling (if slightly scary, in terms of thought-reading possibilities in the maybe-not-that-far-flung future) implications of the work as well as the huge amount of unknowns that remain. The response of the podcasting community has so far gone unrecorded, but surely they’d like to see the research extended in the direction of other linguistically intensive shows — Marc Maron’s WTF, perhaps.

via The Guardian

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch a Shot-by-Shot Remake of Kubrick’s The Shining, a 48-Minute Music Video Accompanying the New Album by Aesop Rock

In this increasingly atomized world of music, how does one get a new record release noticed above the hum of the internet? If you’re Beyoncé, you just drop the whole thing unannounced and watch the media play catch up. If you’re not Beyoncé you might consider rapper Aesop Rock’s tactic.

This week, the wordsmithiest of hip hop artists and animator Rob Shaw released a shot-by-shot remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, created with miniatures and made with what looks like spare change as a budget. All of which plays as background video to a full stream of The Impossible Kid, Aesop Rock’s seventh album and his first in four years.

Rob Shaw created the hipster rats skits for Portlandia as well as videos for They Might Be Giants and previous Aesop Rock tracks, but this Shining remake is something else. First you notice the gleeful cheapness of the production, but then as Aesop Rock’s rap lyrics flow over the visuals, memory starts to fill in the gaps of the images. Shaw’s handiwork is literally in the video: we can see his hand in the bathtub scene, or his body’s shadow as he moves the wooden Jack Torrance down the Overlook’s halls. And the tiny camera replicates the film’s Steadicam shots well, creating a work that is like a delirium of the actual movie.

Now, does this have anything to do with The Impossible Kid, really? Well, the rapper did go to live in a Portland barn after divorce and the death of a friend, and instead of writing “All Work and No Play…” over and over wrote this album, and nobody got hurt. Either way, by the time you’ve finished watching you’ll have heard the album, and that’s just one way to play the new music game.

via Noisey

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

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