David Bowie Sends a Christmas Greeting in the Voice of Elvis Presley

After David Bowie died ear­li­er this year, we dis­cov­ered that the musi­cian had a knack for doing impres­sions of fel­low celebri­ties. Could he sing a song in the style of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and Bruce Spring­steen? Turns out, he could. And yes, he could do an Elvis impres­sion too.

The clip above aired back in 2013 on “This Is Radio Clash,” a radio show host­ed by the Clash’s Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Top­per Head­on. “Hel­lo every­body,” this is David Bowie mak­ing a tele­phone call from the US of A. At this time of the year I can’t help but remem­ber my British-ness and all the jol­ly British folk, so here’s to you and have your­selves a Mer­ry lit­tle Christ­mas and a Hap­py New Year. Thank you very much.”

It’s maybe not as mem­o­rable as his 1977 Christ­mas duet with Bing Cros­by, but, hey, it’s still a fun lit­tle way to get the hol­i­day sea­son in swing.

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:

David Bowie Sings Impres­sions of Bruce Spring­steen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits & More In Stu­dio Out­takes (1985)

Ricky Ger­vais Cre­ates Out­landish Com­e­dy with David Bowie

David Bowie & Bing Cros­by Sing “The Lit­tle Drum­mer Boy” (1977)

Pro­duc­er Tony Vis­con­ti Breaks Down the Mak­ing of David Bowie’s Clas­sic “Heroes,” Track by Track


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Hear the First Live Performance of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar:” Recorded at the Fateful Altamont Free Concert in 1969

In Jan­u­ary, 1970—with a line that might have come right out of any num­ber of cur­rent opin­ion pieces tak­ing the media to task—Rolling Stone ripped into Time, Life, Newsweek, the New York Times for their cov­er­age of the 1969 Alta­mont Free Con­cert: “When the news media know what the pub­lic wants to hear and what they want to believe, they give it to them.”

What did the pub­lic want to hear? Appar­ent­ly that Alta­mont was “Wood­stock West,” full of “peace and love” and “good vibes.” Since, how­ev­er, it was “unde­ni­able that one man was actu­al­ly mur­dered at the con­cert, a cer­tain min­i­mal adjust­ment was made, as if that event had been the result of some sort of unpre­dictable act of God, like a stray bolt of light­ning.” The mur­dered fan, 18-year-old Mered­ith Hunter, was not, of course, killed by light­ning, but stabbed to death by one of the Hell’s Angels who were hired as infor­mal secu­ri­ty guards.

Hunter was killed “just 20 feet in front of the stage where Mick Jag­ger was per­form­ing ‘Under My Thumb,’” writes the His­to­ry Chan­nel: “Unaware of what had just occurred, the Rolling Stones com­plet­ed their set with­out fur­ther inci­dent, bring­ing an end to a tumul­tuous day that also saw three acci­den­tal deaths and four live births.”

We know the moment best from the Maysles broth­ers con­cert film Gimme Shel­ter, which opens with a scene of Jag­ger view­ing footage of the vio­lence. See the unrest dur­ing “Sym­pa­thy for the Dev­il,” above, and the con­fused scene of the killing dur­ing “Under My Thumb,” fur­ther down.

In an inter­view about that grim day, Joel Selvin, music crit­ic and author of a book on Alta­mont, sums up the judg­ment of forty years of his­to­ry:

It’s one of the few dark days in the his­to­ry of rock. This was the anti-Wood­stock. It also took place in Decem­ber of 1969, so it book­marked the end of the ‘60s in a chrono­log­i­cal way. The loss of inno­cence that day real­ly is why this has last­ed and why it endures as a cul­tur­al touch­stone.

The loss of Amer­i­can inno­cence is an old trope that assumes the coun­try, at some myth­i­cal time in the past, was a blame­less par­adise. But who was to blame for Alta­mont? The Stones were not held legal­ly account­able, nor was the bik­er who stabbed Hunter. In anoth­er echo from the past into the present, he was acquit­ted on self-defense grounds. “What hap­pened at Alta­mont,” was also “not the music’s fault,” writes The New York­er’s Richard Brody, who blames “Celebri­ty” and a loss of “benev­o­lent spir­its… the idea of the unpro­duced.”

To ascribe such incred­i­ble weight to this incident—to mark it as the end of peace and love and the birth of “infra­struc­ture” and “author­i­ty,” as Brody does—seems his­tor­i­cal­ly tone deaf. Strict­ly from the point of view of the Stones’ musi­cal devel­op­ment, we might say that the close of the six­ties and the year of Alta­mont marked a tran­si­tion to a dark­er, grit­ti­er peri­od, the end of the band’s for­ays into psy­che­delia and folk music. That sum­mer, Bri­an Jones drowned in his swim­ming pool. And the band fol­lowed the sneer­ing “Under My Thumb” at Alta­mont with a brand new tune, “Brown Sug­ar,” a song about slav­ery and rape.

You can hear the first live per­for­mance of the song at the top of the post, cap­tured in an audi­ence record­ing, two years before its offi­cial record­ing and release on 1971’s Sticky Fin­gers. “It was a song of sadism,” writes Stan­ley Booth, “sav­agery, race hate/love, a song of redemp­tion, a song that accept­ed the fear of night, black­ness, chaos, the unknown.” It’s a song that would face instant back­lash were it released today. “Twit­ter would lam­poon [the band] with care­ful­ly thought out hash­tags,” writes Lau­ret­ta Charl­ton, “Mul­ti­ple Change.org peti­tions would be signed. The band would be forced to issue an apol­o­gy.”

Jag­ger him­self said in 1995, “I would nev­er write that song now. I would prob­a­bly cen­sor myself.” And he has, in many sub­se­quent per­for­mances, changed some of the most out­ra­geous lyrics. Charl­ton con­fess­es to lov­ing and hat­ing the song, call­ing it “gross, sex­ist, and stun­ning­ly offen­sive toward black women.” And yet, she says, “When I hear ‘Brown Sug­ar,’ the out­rage hits me like a post­script, and by that point I’m too busy clap­ping and singing along to be indig­nant.” Sur­round­ed by the vio­lence at Alta­mont, Jag­ger chan­neled the vio­lence of his­to­ry in a raunchy blues that—like “Under My Thumb” and “Sym­pa­thy for the Devil”—captures the seduc­tive nature of pow­er and sex­u­al­ized aggres­sion, and gives the lie to facile ideas of inno­cence, whether of the past or of the con­tem­po­rary social and polit­i­cal late-six­ties scene.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Nev­er Released Ver­sion of The Stones’ “Brown Sug­ar,” With Eric Clap­ton on Slide Gui­tar

The Rolling Stones Intro­duce Blues­man Howl­in’ Wolf on US TV, One of the “Great­est Cul­tur­al Moments of the 20th Cen­tu­ry” (1965)

The Haunt­ing Back­ground Vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shel­ter:” Mer­ry Clay­ton Recalls How They Came to Be

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

Hear “Twas The Night Before Christmas” Read by Stephen Fry & John Cleese

You have to hand it to the Eng­lish: they know how to do Christ­mas right. Maybe it has to do with their respect for tra­di­tion, maybe with their sense of occa­sion, maybe with their apti­tude for pageantry, and maybe with their com­pul­sion, for all that, not to take any­thing too seri­ous­ly. It helps that they also pro­duce per­form­ers of the high­est cal­iber, espe­cial­ly of the ora­tor­i­cal vari­ety: Mon­ty Python’s John Cleese, for instance, or man of let­ters and all-around enter­tain­ing per­son­al­i­ty Stephen Fry. And so today, with its tit­u­lar eve near­ly here, we give you both of those Eng­lish­men’s ren­di­tions of “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christ­mas.”

Fry’s read­ing at the top of the post, which comes with orches­tral back­ing, adheres close­ly to Clement Clarke Moore’s orig­i­nal 1823 text. The poem, for those who’ve nev­er spent Christ­mas in an Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­try, tells of a father awak­ened in the mid­dle of the night by none oth­er than San­ta Claus, come to deliv­er his fam­i­ly’s presents. More recent­ly, Fry nar­rat­ed anoth­er sto­ry of San­ta Claus in “San­ta For­got,” an ani­mat­ed pro­mo­tion­al video for Alzheimer’s Research UK that uses the beloved fig­ure glimpsed so vivid­ly in Moore’s poem to raise aware­ness of demen­tia and the research ded­i­cat­ed to cur­ing it.

In his read­ing of “ ‘Twas The Night Before Christ­mas” just above, John Cleese mod­ern­izes the sto­ry, freight­ing it with ref­er­ences to safe­ty belts, flat-screen tele­vi­sions, and Apple com­put­ers — and end­ing with San­ta Claus cap­tured by the father: “So he now lives with us, locked up in the cel­lar. We go down each day to see the old fel­low and get our new presents. And we ate the rein­deer, so we’re sor­ry but Christ­mas is can­celed next year.” Cleese has a ten­den­cy to dis­play such irrev­er­ence to the hol­i­day. “So sad to see u end with a tirade against Christ­mas,” tweet­ed some­one who’d attend­ed a live show of his and Eric Idle’s last month in Ari­zona. “Not against Christ­mas,” Cleese fired back, “against its com­mer­cial exploita­tion. Big dif­fer­ence, which the rest of the audi­ence under­stood.”

Noth­ing like a brac­ing shot of Eng­lish wit to treat an over­dose of com­mer­cial­ism, espe­cial­ly of the pow­er­ful Amer­i­can vari­ety. But for all the mas­tery of Christ­mas on the oth­er side of the pond, Clarke Moore, an Amer­i­can, defined the very char­ac­ter of San­ta Claus in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion — a spry old gen­tle­man with rose-like cheeks and a cher­ry-line nose, a beard “as white as the snow,” and “a lit­tle round bel­ly that shook when he laughed, like a bowl­ful of jel­ly.” “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christ­mas,” orig­i­nal­ly titled “A Vis­it from Saint Nicholas,” remains quite pos­si­bly the best-known poem ever writ­ten by an Amer­i­can. But wher­ev­er in the world one reads them, San­ta Claus’ final words, and the poem’s, still res­onate: “Hap­py Christ­mas to all, and to all a good-night!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stan Lee Reads “The Night Before Christ­mas,” Telling the Tale of San­ta Claus, the Great­est of Super Heroes

Bob Dylan Reads “‘Twas the Night Before Christ­mas” On His Hol­i­day Radio Show (2006)

“Wern­er Her­zog” Reads ‘Twas The Night Before Christ­mas”

Impres­sion­ist Reads ‘Twas The Night Before Christ­mas in Celebri­ty Voic­es

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. 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.

Introduction to Ancient Greek History: A Free Online Course from Yale

Taught by Yale pro­fes­sor Don­ald Kagan, this intro­duc­to­ry course in Greek his­to­ry traces “the devel­op­ment of Greek civ­i­liza­tion as man­i­fest­ed in polit­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, and cre­ative achieve­ments from the Bronze Age to the end of the clas­si­cal peri­od.” In it, stu­dents “read orig­i­nal sources in trans­la­tion as well as the works of mod­ern schol­ars.” You can watch the 24 video lec­tures above, or find them on YouTube. The lec­tures also appear on iTunes in audio and video. Find the texts used in the course below. More infor­ma­tion about the course, includ­ing the syl­labus, can be found on this Yale web­site.

Intro­duc­tion to Ancient Greek His­to­ry will be added to our col­lec­tion of Free Online His­to­ry cours­es, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

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

Learn Ancient Greek in 64 Free Lessons: A Free Online Course from Bran­deis & Har­vard

Roman Archi­tec­ture: A Free Online Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

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George Orwell’s Life & Literature Presented in a 3‑Hour Radio Documentary: Features Interviews with Those Who Knew Orwell Best

via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Say you find your­self in a one-par­ty state that promis­es to dis­man­tle every civ­il insti­tu­tion you believe in and tram­ple every eth­i­cal prin­ci­ple you hold dear. You may feel a lit­tle despon­dent. While a “this too shall pass” atti­tude may help you gain per­spec­tive, the prob­lem isn’t sim­ply that you’re on the los­ing side of a polit­i­cal con­test. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, total author­i­tar­i­an con­trol means that “Who con­trols the past con­trols the future. Who con­trols the present con­trols the past.” The epis­temic base­line you took for grant­ed may become increas­ing­ly, fright­en­ing­ly elu­sive as the rul­ing par­ty reshapes all of real­i­ty to its designs.

With more vivid clar­i­ty than per­haps any­one since, Orwell char­ac­ter­ized the mech­a­nisms by which total­i­tar­i­an­ism takes hold. His 1948 nov­el has not only giv­en us a near-uni­ver­sal set of terms to describe the phe­nom­e­non, but it also gives us a met­ric: when our soci­ety begins to resem­ble Orwell’s dystopia in per­va­sive and alarm­ing ways, we should know with­out ques­tion things have gone bad­ly wrong. Whether we can do much about it is anoth­er ques­tion, but we should remem­ber that Orwell him­self was not sim­ply an arm­chair observ­er of Fas­cism, Sovi­et total­i­tar­i­an­ism, or oppres­sive Eng­lish colo­nial rule. He fought Franco’s forces in Spain dur­ing the Span­ish Civ­il War and as a jour­nal­ist wrote crit­i­cal arti­cles and essays expos­ing hypocrisies and abus­es of law and lan­guage. The impact of his work on lat­er gen­er­a­tions speaks for itself.

In the CBC radio doc­u­men­tary The Orwell Tapes, in three parts here, we have a com­pre­hen­sive intro­duc­tion to Orwell’s work, thought, and life. It opens with alarm­ing sound­bites from light­ning rods (and vil­lains or heroes, depend­ing on who you ask) Julian Assange and Edward Snow­den. But it doesn’t stray into the clichéd ter­ri­to­ry of over­heat­ed con­spir­a­cy those names often inspire. Instead we’re large­ly treat­ed through­out each episode to first­hand accounts of the sub­ject from those who knew him well.

“CBC is the only media orga­ni­za­tion in the world,” says host Paul Kennedy, “with a com­pre­hen­sive archive of record­ings fea­tur­ing peo­ple who knew Orwell, from his ear­li­est days, to his final moments. 75 peo­ple, 50 hours of record­ings.” Edit­ed snip­pets of these audio record­ings make up the bulk of The Orwell Tapes, hence the title, mak­ing the pro­gram oral his­to­ry rather than sen­sa­tion­al­ism. The inter­vie­wees include friends, for­mer girl­friends, com­rades-in-arms, and crit­i­cal oppo­nents. Each episode’s page on the CBC site fea­tures a list of names and rela­tions to Orwell at the bot­tom.

But of course, accu­sa­tions of sen­sa­tion­al­ism always fol­low those who warn of Orwellian trends and ten­den­cies. Like many of our con­tem­po­raries, Orwell was a con­tra­dic­to­ry fig­ure. He served as a colo­nial police­man in Bur­ma even as he grew dis­gust­ed with Empire; he con­sid­ered him­self a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist, but he nev­er looked away from the author­i­tar­i­an hor­rors of state com­mu­nism; and he has been held up as a pil­lar of resis­tance to state sur­veil­lance and con­trol, even as he also stands accused of “nam­ing names.” But the over­all impres­sion we get from Orwell’s friends and col­leagues is that he was ful­ly committed—to writ­ing, to polit­i­cal engage­ment, to telling the truth as he saw it.

In releas­ing The Orwell Tapes this month, the CBC gives us five rea­sons why Orwell “is still very much with us today.” Some of these—modern sur­veil­lance, the cor­rup­tions of pow­er (and the pow­er of corruption)—will be famil­iar, as will num­ber 3, a vari­a­tion on what we’ve come to call “empa­thy” for one’s oppo­nent. The 4th rea­son, CBC notes, is the renewed rel­e­vance of social­ism as a viable alter­na­tive to cap­i­tal­ist pre­da­tion. And final­ly, we have the con­tin­ued dan­ger of speak­ing truth to pow­er, and to those who serve it reli­gious­ly, uncrit­i­cal­ly, and often vio­lent­ly. As Orwell wrote in the pref­ace to Ani­mal Farm, “If lib­er­ty means any­thing at all, it means the right to tell peo­ple what they don’t want to hear.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

George Orwell Tries to Iden­ti­fy Who Is Real­ly a “Fas­cist” and Define the Mean­ing of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writ­ing Clear and Tight Prose

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

M.C. Escher Cover Art for Great Books by Italo Calvino, George Orwell & Jorge Luis Borges

The writer David Auer­bach once post­ed a fas­ci­nat­ing inquest on left-brained lit­er­a­ture, an exam­i­na­tion of what he calls “a par­al­lel track of lit­er­a­ture that is pop­u­lar specif­i­cal­ly among engi­neers,” exclud­ing genre fic­tion (sci­ence- or oth­er­wise), with an eye toward “which nov­els of some noto­ri­ety and good PR hap­pen to attract mem­bers of the engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sions.” Favored author names turn out to include Richard Pow­ers, Umber­to Eco, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, William Gib­son, Ita­lo Calvi­no, and Jorge Luis Borges.

More of these lit­er­ar­i­ly inclined left-brain­ers exist than one might imag­ine. From the pub­lish­er’s point of view, what cov­er art could best attract them? Books tar­get­ed toward that demo­graph­ic could do far worse than to use the work of M.C. Esch­er, who spent his career with one foot in art and the oth­er in math­e­mat­ics.

In the hith­er­to unseen (and even unimag­ined) worlds pic­tured in his wood­cuts, lith­o­graphs, and mez­zot­ints, he made use of math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts from tes­sel­la­tion to reflec­tion to infin­i­ty in ways at once impos­si­ble and some­how plau­si­ble, all of them still intel­lec­tu­al­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly com­pelling today.

The non-nov­el­ist Dou­glas Hof­s­tadter appears in Auer­bach’s inquest since his best-known work, Gödel, Esch­er, Bach: an Eter­nal Gold­en Braid, “which part­ly uses fic­tion­al forms, is too great not to list.” Not only does Escher’s name appear in Hof­s­tadter’s book title, his art informs its cen­tral con­cepts. “Hof­s­tadter wove a net­work of con­nec­tions link­ing the math­e­mat­ics of Gödel, the art of Esch­er, and the music of Bach,” writes Allene M. Park­er in the paper “Draw­ing Borges: a Two-Part Inven­tion on the Labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges and M.C. Esch­er.” In Gödel, Esch­er, Bach he describes their com­mon denom­i­na­tor as a “strange loop,” a phe­nom­e­non that “occurs when­ev­er, by move­ment upwards (or down­wards) through the lev­els of some hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem, we unex­pect­ed­ly find our­selves right back where we start­ed.”

Park­er iden­ti­fies 1948’s “Draw­ing Hands” as a “par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing and famil­iar exam­ple” of a strange loop in Escher’s work. We can inter­pret that image by rec­og­niz­ing that “it is Esch­er, the artist, who is draw­ing both hands and who stands out­side this par­tic­u­lar puz­zle.” Or we can “adopt a Zen-inspired solu­tion and let mys­tery be mys­tery by choos­ing to embrace a uni­ty which con­tains oppo­si­tions,” such as one described by the open­ing of Borges’ poem “Labyrinths”:

There’ll nev­er be a door. You’re inside

and the keep encom­pass­es the world

and has nei­ther obverse nor reverse

nor cir­cling in secret cen­ter.

The Esch­er-Borges con­nec­tions go deep­er beyond, and as you can see in John Coulthart’s orig­i­nal post, the selec­tion of Esch­er-cov­ered books extends far­ther.

Aside from count­less non­fic­tion pub­li­ca­tions, the Dutch math­e­mat­i­cal mas­ter’s work has graced sci­ence-fic­tion and fan­ta­sy mag­a­zines, one edi­tion of Flat­land, a col­lec­tion of “Forteana, weird fic­tion, occultism and his­tor­i­cal spec­u­la­tion,” Clive Bark­er’s The Damna­tion Game, and George Orwell’s 1984, a nov­el more wide­ly read than ever by the left- and right-brained alike. But no mat­ter which hemi­sphere we favor, Esch­er — like Orwell, Borges, and Calvi­no — shows us how to see real­i­ty in more inter­est­ing ways.

via John Coulthart

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch M.C. Esch­er Make His Final Artis­tic Cre­ation in the 1971 Doc­u­men­tary Adven­tures in Per­cep­tion

Meta­mor­phose: 1999 Doc­u­men­tary Reveals the Life and Work of Artist M.C. Esch­er

Inspi­ra­tions: A Short Film Cel­e­brat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er

The Cov­er of George Orwell’s 1984 Becomes Less Cen­sored with Wear and Tear

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. 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.

75 Years of CIA Maps Now Declassified & Made Available Online


Satel­lite-con­nect­ed devices do all the hard work of nav­i­ga­tion for us: plan jour­neys, plot dis­tances, tell us where we are and where we’re going. The age of the high­ly skilled car­tog­ra­ph­er may be com­ing to an end. But in the past few hun­dred years—since Euro­pean states began carv­ing the world between them—the win­ners of colo­nial con­tests, World War bat­tles, and Cold War skir­mish­es were often those who had the best maps. In addi­tion to their indis­pens­able role in sea­far­ing and bat­tle strat­e­gy, “good maps,” writes Dan­ny Lewis at Smith­son­ian, have been “an inte­gral part of the trade­craft of espi­onage.”

The CIA will tell you as much… or they will now, at least, since they’ve declas­si­fied decades of once-secret maps from the days when they “relied on geo­g­ra­phers and car­tog­ra­phers for plan­ning and exe­cut­ing oper­a­tions around the world” rather than on “dig­i­tal map­ping tech­nolo­gies and satel­lite images.”

Now cel­e­brat­ing its 75th anniver­sary, the CIA’s Car­tog­ra­phy Cen­ter boasts of “a long, proud his­to­ry of ser­vice to the Intel­li­gence Com­mu­ni­ty,” at the Agency’s friend­ly web­site; “Since 1941, the Car­tog­ra­phy Cen­ter maps have told the sto­ries of post-WWII recon­struc­tion, the Suez cri­sis, the Cuban Mis­sile cri­sis, the Falk­lands War, and many oth­er impor­tant events in his­to­ry.”


What­ev­er noble or nefar­i­ous roles the Agency may have played in these and hun­dreds of oth­er events, we can now see–thanks to this new online gallery at Flickr–what pres­i­dents, Direc­tors, and field agents saw when they planned their actions, begin­ning with the country’s first “non-depart­men­tal intel­li­gence orga­ni­za­tion,” the COI (Office of the Coor­di­na­tor of Infor­ma­tion). Once the U.S. entered WWII, it became the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices (OSS). The Car­tog­ra­phy Center’s first chief, Arthur Robin­son, was only 26 and a grad­u­ate stu­dent in geog­ra­phy when COI direc­tor William Dono­van recruit­ed him to lead the orga­ni­za­tion. The office rapid­ly expand­ed dur­ing the war, and by 1943, “geo­g­ra­phers and car­tog­ra­phers amassed what would be the largest col­lec­tion of maps in the world.”


In the ear­ly for­ties, “map lay­ers were draft­ed by hand using pen and ink on translu­cent acetate sheets mount­ed on large Strath­more boards.” These drafts were typ­i­cal­ly four times larg­er than the print­ed maps them­selves, one of which you can see at the top of the post, “The Russ­ian Front in Review.” In the fifties, “improved effi­cien­cy in map com­pi­la­tion and con­struc­tion” pro­duced visu­al­ly strik­ing doc­u­ments like that fur­ther up from 1955, “USSR: Region­al Dis­tri­b­u­tion of Gross Nation­al Prod­uct.” Not a map, but what we would call an info­graph­ic, this image shows how the Car­tog­ra­phy Cen­ter per­formed ser­vices far in excess of the usu­al map app—visualizing threats to the U.S. from Cuban sur­face-to-air mis­sile sites in 1962 (above) and threats to the African ele­phant pop­u­la­tion from poach­ers in 2013 (below). Fur­ther down, you can see a 2003 map of Bagh­dad, with the omi­nous­ly non-threat­en­ing note print­ed at the top and right, “This map is NOT to be used for TARGETING.”


These maps and many more can be found at the CIA Car­tog­ra­phy Flickr account, which has a cat­e­go­ry for each decade since the 1940s. Each map is down­load­able in low to high res­o­lu­tion scans. In addi­tion, one cat­e­go­ry, “Car­tog­ra­phy Tools,” fea­tures high-qual­i­ty pho­tog­ra­phy of vin­tage draughtsman’s instru­ments, all of them, like the Ger­man-made ink pens fur­ther down, sym­bols of the painstak­ing hand­i­craft map­mak­ing once required. While we can prob­a­bly draw any num­ber of polit­i­cal lessons or his­tor­i­cal the­ses from a deep analy­sis of this deep state archive, what it seems to ask of us first and fore­most is that we con­sid­er car­tog­ra­phy as not only a use­ful dis­ci­pline but as a fine art.


As the Car­tog­ra­phy Center’s first direc­tor put it, “a map should be aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing, thought-pro­vok­ing, and com­mu­nica­tive.” Giv­en these stan­dards we might see how cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy, for all its tremen­dous ease of use and unde­ni­able util­i­ty, might improve by look­ing to maps of the past. Vis­it the CIA’s flickr gallery here.


via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Lets You Down­load Thou­sands of Maps from the Unit­ed States Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey

New York Pub­lic Library Puts 20,000 Hi-Res Maps Online & Makes Them Free to Down­load and Use

19th Cen­tu­ry Maps Visu­al­ize Measles in Amer­i­ca Before the Mir­a­cle of Vac­cines

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

Learn Python: A Free Online Course from Google

Google has cre­at­ed a free Python class designed for “peo­ple with a lit­tle bit of pro­gram­ming expe­ri­ence who want to learn Python.” A for­tu­nate thing since Python is a com­put­er lan­guage that’s now strong­ly in demand. (By the way, did you know that Python takes its name from Mon­ty Python? A true sto­ry.)

Accord­ing to Google’s course descrip­tion:

The class includes “writ­ten mate­ri­als, lec­ture videos, and lots of code exer­cis­es to prac­tice Python cod­ing. These mate­ri­als are used with­in Google to intro­duce Python to peo­ple who have just a lit­tle pro­gram­ming expe­ri­ence. The first exer­cis­es work on basic Python con­cepts like strings and lists, build­ing up to the lat­er exer­cis­es which are full pro­grams deal­ing with text files, process­es, and http con­nec­tions. The class is geared for peo­ple who have a lit­tle bit of pro­gram­ming expe­ri­ence in some lan­guage, enough to know what a “vari­able” or “if state­ment” is. Beyond that, you do not need to be an expert pro­gram­mer to use this mate­r­i­al.

This mate­r­i­al was cre­at­ed by Nick Par­lante work­ing in the engE­DU group at Google. Google’s Python class will be added to our list of Free Online Com­put­er Sci­ence Cours­es, a sub­set of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

For any­one inter­est­ed in an intro­duc­to­ry pro­gram­ming course that uses Python, see: Intro­duc­tion to Com­put­er Sci­ence and Pro­gram­ming: A Free Course from MIT.

Oth­er out­fits offer­ing free instruc­tion in Python include Udac­i­tyCodecad­e­my, and Cours­era.

If you’re look­ing for a gen­er­al­ly well-reviewed text­book, con­sid­er Learn­ing Python, 5th edi­tion (from O’Reil­ly Media.

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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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.