NASA Creates Movie Parody Posters for Its Expedition Flights: Download Parodies of Metropolis, The Matrix, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and More

For just over eighteen years now, NASA has been conducting expeditions to the International Space Station. Each of these missions has not just a name, or at least a number (last week saw the launch of Expedition 58), but an official poster with a group photo of the crew. “These posters were used to advertise expeditions and were also hung in NASA facilities and other government organizations,” says Bored Panda. “However, when astronauts got bored of the standard group photos they decided to spice things up a bit.”

And “what’s a better way to do that other than throwing in some pop culture references?” As anyone who has ever worked with scientists knows, a fair few of them have somehow made themselves into living compendia of knowledge of not just their field but their favorite books, movies, and television shows — not always, but very often, books, movies, and television shows science-fictional in nature.

The prime example, it hardly bears mentioning, would be Star Trek, but the well of fandom at NASA runs much deeper than that.

You’ll get a sense of how far that well goes if you have a look through the Expedition poster archive at NASA’s web site. There you’ll find not just pop culture references but elaborately designed tributes — downloadable in high resolution — to the likes of not just Star Trek but Star WarsThe MatrixThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the sole possible theme, Douglas Adams fans will agree, for Expedition 42), and even Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which first gave dystopian sci-fi its visual form in 1927 (and which you can watch here). Albums are also fair game, as evidenced by the Abbey Road poster for Expedition 26.

Bored Panda calls these posters “hilariously awkward,” but opinions do vary: “I love them,” writes Boing Boing’s Rusty Blazenhoff. “I think they’re fun and creative.” And whatever you think of the concepts, can you fail to be impressed by the sheer attention to detail that has clearly gone into replicating the source images? It’s all more or less in line with the formidable graphic design skill at NASA, previously featured here on Open Culture, that has gone into its posters celebrating space travel and the 40th anniversary of the Voyager missions.

Going through the Expedition poster archive, I notice that none seems yet to have paid tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solarissurely one of the most powerful pieces of outer space-related cinema ever made. Granted, that film has much less to do with teamwork and camaraderie than the intense psychological isolation of the individual, which would make it tricky indeed to recreate any of its memorable images as proud group photos. But if NASA’s poster designers can’t take on that mission, nobody can.

via Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

When we talk about country club prison sentences, we tend to imagine a marginal amount of time spent on the inside, though the phrase sounds like an extended vacation. Napoleon Bonaparte—exiled to the island of St. Helena for his crimes against Europe—got the full treatment, what some might even call a sweetheart deal. As the Public Domain Review notes, “the British had agreed to provide Le Petit Caporal with plentiful wine, meat, and musical instruments.” He was given his own comfortable lodgings, a spacious country house, though it’s said to have been draughty and full of rats.

On the other hand, Napoleon had to foreswear “what he most craved—family, power, Europe,” for a condition of extreme isolation. The loss weighed heavily. After spending six years 1200 miles from shore, he died, some say of poisoning, but others say of boredom. Of his few amusements, conversing with Count Emmanuel de Las Cases—“historian and loyal supporter who had been allowed to voyage with him to Saint Helena”—proved most stimulating. Prevented from receiving newspapers in French, he longed to read the few he found in English.

Las Cases endeavored to teach Napoleon the language of his jailers, and the former Emperor struggled mightily to learn it. After three months on the island, he spent the following three studying every day, eventually producing translations from his French like that below:

When will you be wise
Never as long as j should be in this isle
But j shall become wise after having passed the line
When j shall land in France j shall be very content…

My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong if he will be able to trink a bottle of wine at dinner j shall [toast] with him… / The women believe they [are] ever prety / The time has not wings / When you shall come, you shall see that j have ever loved you.

Eight pages in Napoleon’s own hand remain from his time as a student of English on St. Helena in the first few months of 1816. They are “some of the most evocative documents we have from Napoleon’s time” on the island, the Fondation Napoleon writes, bearing “poignant witness to the frustration Napoleon felt in exile…. It is tempting to read a refusal of exile in these sheets, both in the sentences themselves, and in Napoleon’s insistent use of ‘j’ (as in the French ‘je’) rather than the English ‘I.’”

In one letter that survives from March 7, 1816 (see it scanned above), written for Las Cases to correct the following day, Napoleon takes stock of his progress, or lack thereof.

Count lascases — Since sixt week j learn the Englich and j do not any progress. Six week do fourty and two day. If might have learn fivity word four day I could know it two thusands and two hundred. It is in the dictionary more of fourty thousand; even he could must twinty bout much of tems for know it our hundred and twenty week, which do more two yars. After this you shall agrée that to study one tongue is a great labour who it must do into the young aged.

Las Cases reports that his student “had an extraordinary intelligence but a very bad memory.” Grammar came much more easily than vocabulary. His frustration over being “imprisoned in the middle of this language” is recorded in Las Cases’ Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, a record of his fifteen months on the island with Napoleon. The book became “a publishing sensation” and would “do much,” the Public Domain Review writes, “to turn the perception of Napoleon from a dictator into a liberator.”

via Public Domain Review

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

Buckminster Fuller Documented His Life Every 15 Minutes, from 1920 Until 1983

If you’ve heard of Buckminster Fuller, you’ve almost certainly heard the word “Dymaxion.” Despite its strong pre-Space Age redolence, the term has somehow remained compelling into the 21st century. But what does it mean? When Fuller, a self-described “comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist,” first invented a house meant practically to reinvent domestic living, Chicago’s Marshall Field and Company department store put a model on display. The company “wanted a catchy label, so it hired a consultant, who fashioned ‘dymaxion’ out of bits of ‘dynamic,’ ‘maximum,’ and ‘ion,'” writes The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert in a piece on Fuller’s legacy. “Fuller was so taken with the word, which had no known meaning, that he adopted it as a sort of brand name.” After the Dymaxion House came the Dymaxion Vehicle, the Dymaxion Map, and even the two-hour-a-day Dymaxion Sleep Plan.

“As a child, Fuller had assembled scrapbooks of letters and newspaper articles on subjects that interested him,” Kolbert writes. “When, later, he decided to keep a more systematic record of his life, including everything from his correspondence to his dry-cleaning bills, it became the Dymaxion Chronofile.” The Dymaxion Chronofile now resides in the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection at Stanford University, a place that has merited the attention of no less a guide to the fascinating corners of the world than Atlas Obscura.

“The files go back to when he was four-years-old, but he only seriously started the archive in 1917,” writes that site’s Allison C. Meier. “From then until his death in 1983 he collected everything from each day, with ingoing and outgoing correspondence, newspaper clippings, drawings, blueprints, models, and even the mundane ephemera like dry cleaning bills.” Fuller added to the Dymaxion Chronofile not just every day but, from the year 1920 until his death in 1983, every fifteen minutes.

In 1962 Fuller described the Dymaxion Chronofile as what would happen “if somebody kept a very accurate record of a human being, going through the era from the Gay ’90s, from a very different kind of world through the turn of the century — as far into the twentieth century as you might live.” Using himself as the case subject for the project (as he did for many projects, which led him to nickname himself “Guinea Pig B”) meant that “I could not be judge of what was valid to put in or not. I must put everything in, so I started a very rigorous record.” Open Culture’s own Ted Mills has written elsewhere about the rigors of storing and maintaining that record in archive form over the decades since Fuller’s death, and now, as with so much Fuller did, the Dymaxion Chronofile stands as both a compelling oddity and proof of real, if askew, prescience. After all, how many of us have taken to documenting our own lives online with nearly equal intensity — and how many of us do it even more often than every fifteen minutes?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Jazz Musician Plays Acoustic Guitar While Undergoing Brain Surgery, Helping Doctors Monitor Their Progress

Unlike many colorful expressions in English whose origins are lost to us, the comparison of majorly consequential tasks to brain surgery makes perfect sense. One false move or miscalculation can result in instant death. The chances of irreversible, life-altering damage are high, should a scalpel slip or a surgeon mistake healthy brain tissue for diseased. This can happen more readily than we might like to think. “It can be very difficult to tell the difference between the tumor and normal brain tissue,” admits Dr. Basil Enicker, a specialist neurosurgeon at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in South Africa.

An operation Enicker led makes the procedure seem like just as much an art as a science. During an “awake craniotomy,” the surgeon and his team removed a tumor from the brain of Musa Manzini, a South African jazz bassist.

To help them monitor the operation as they went, they had him strum an acoustic guitar in the OR. “Presumably, had he hit a wrong note,” writes Kimon de Greef at The New York Times, “it would have been an immediate signal for the surgeons to probe elsewhere.” He also carried on an extended conversation with one of the surgeons, as you can see in the video above.

Such procedures are not at all unusual. In a similar case at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, young musician Robert Alvarez strummed his guitar while surgeons removed a tumor near his speech and movement centers. In 2014, de Greef reports, “a tenor in the Dutch National Opera, Ambroz Bajec-Lapajne, sang Schubert’s ‘Gute Nacht’ as doctors removed a tumor. In 2015, the saxophonist Carlos Aguilera read music and performed during an operation in Spain.” That same year, a Brazilian man played the Beatles while he underwent brain surgery.

Not all of them are musical, but awake craniotomies are so common that Manzini “watched quite a lot of YouTube videos,” he says, “to prepare myself mentally.” As for the shock of being conscious while surgeons poke around in your most precious of bodily organs, millimeters from possible paralysis, etc., well… it’s certainly more comfortable now than in some of the earliest brain surgeries we have on fossil record—some 8,000 years ago. One wonders how Neolithic patients passed their time under the knife.

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

David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” Gets Psychedelically Covered by The Flaming Lips

By now, you’ve hopefully seen David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s unlikely encounter in 1977, where they sang a hastily prepared medley of “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.” It’s a curious Christmas classic, and now the subject of a tribute by The Flaming Lips. Above, watch their psychedelic take on the mashup. And if you need to revisit the original, just head here.

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When Christmas Was Legally Banned for 22 Years by the Puritans in Colonial Massachusetts

Complaints about the commercial-age corruption of Christmas miss one critical fact: as a mass public celebration, the holiday is a rather recent invention. Whether we credit Charles Dickens, Bing Crosby, or Frank Capra—men not opposed to marketing—we must reckon with Christmas as a product of modernity. That includes the sacred ideas about family, piety, and gratitude we attach to the season.

The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony “despised Christmas,” notes Boing Boing. They associated it with debauchery: heavy drinking, gluttony, riots, “rowdiness and sinful behavior.” Not only that, but they “saw it as a false holiday with stronger ties to paganism than Christianity,” writes Rebecca Beatrice Brooks at the History of Massachusetts blog, and “they were correct, according to the book The Battle for Christmas.”

The History Dose video above informs us that in 1659, “the General Court of Massachusetts made it illegal to celebrate Christmas.” Feasting, or even taking off work on December 25th would result in a fine of five shillings. It seems extreme, but the holiday had a carnivalesque reputation at the time. Not only were revelers, at the end of a long year’s work, eager to enjoy the spoils of their labor, but their caroling might even turn into a kind of violent trick-or-treating.

“On some occasions the carolers would become rowdy and invade wealthy homes demanding food and drink,” Brooks writes. They “would vandalize the home if the owner refused.” The Puritan’s authoritarian streak, and respect for the sanctity of private property, made canceling Christmas the only seemingly logical thing to do, with a ban lasting 22 years. In any case, explicit ban or no, spurning Christmas was common practice for two hundred years of New England’s colonial history.

In the end, for all its supposed intrusions into the snow globe of Christmas purism, “we can partially thank commercialization for sustaining the domestic brand of Christmas we have today”—the brand, that is, that ensures we can’t stop talking about, reading about, and hearing about Christmas, whatever our beliefs, in the several weeks leading up to December 25th.

via Boing Boing

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

Watch The Smiths Play Their Last Live Show (December 12th, 1986)

It couldn’t have lasted—a flame burning twice as bright, and so on. One of the best bands to emerge from the explosion of British new wave and post-punk in the 1980s, The Smiths built a template for thousands of mope-rock bands who followed. Longstanding animosity has meant that their brief time together contains their total legacy. No reunion shows or albums—despite rumors over the decades since they broke up in 1987; no ersatz version of the band, missing key members but limping ever on.

Live albums, compilations, and box sets may have appeared over the years, but they all contain music written, played, and recorded between 1982 and 1987, a period during which the songwriting duo of Morrissey and Marr had as much creative energy and purpose as any of the famous songwriting duos of twenty years earlier. Love them or hate them—there seem to be few people in-between—The Smiths’ importance to alternative and indie rock is inescapable.

Like many other hugely influential bands in popular music, the mythology can eclipse the complexities. Unmentioned in many a glowing account, for example, are the unsung onetime-members who played bass or guitar at points in the band’s short life—most significantly guitarist Craig Gannon, sometimes called the “fifth Smith.” Gannon played on such seminal hits as “Ask” and “Panic” before being let go from the band before they played their final concert, an Artists Against Apartheid benefit at London’s Brixton Academy on December 12th, 1986. See it above in a fan-recorded video.

Delayed after Marr was in a car accident, the concert shows them back to their core four lineup, reunited with fired, then rehired (then arrested) bass player, Andy Rourke. They play “Shoplifters of the World Unite” from their upcoming final album, 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come; they play The Queen is Dead’s “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” for the first, and last, time live onstage; they end the night where they began, with their very first single, “Hand in Glove.” No one knew at the time that it would be their last gig, including the band.

They continued on for the next few months, recording, making TV appearances, and pondering a major label move. Differences personal, legal, and creative soon drove the four members apart. They have all continued to contribute significantly to the direction of alternative rock, as supporting players, superstar indie guitarists, and, well, Morrissey. We might wish for a more polished document of their last show, but so it is. Fans are extremely unlikely to ever get chance to see it happen again.

“Yes, time can heal,” wrote Morrissey in his often embittered autobiography. “But it can also disfigure. And surviving the Smiths is not something that should be attempted twice.” We should count ourselves lucky—those of us in the love-the-Smiths camp—that they survived as long as they did, producing jangly, gorgeous, snide, maudlin, and morbidly hilarious indie-pop gems from the very beginning to the very end of their maybe-perfectly-concise career.

See the full setlist below:

Bigmouth Strikes Again
London/Miserable Lie
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (only live performance)
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
Shoplifters Of The World Unite
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
Is It Really So Strange?
Cemetry Gates
This Night Has Opened My Eyes
Still Ill
/The Queen Is Dead
//William It Was Really Nothing
//Hand In Glove

via Sonic More Music

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

What Makes Music Sound Like Christmas Music? Hear the Single Most Christmassy Chord of All Explained

During the past few months of this year, as in those same months of any year, we’ve been hearing a great deal of Christmas music. Some of the songs in the mix — “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” — few of us have ever known a time without, and others make it in because of their seasonally themed lyrical content. But certain songs just sound like Christmas songs, somehow, and to understand what, in musical terms, fills those compositions with the spirit of the holiday season, watch the five-minute Vox explainer above that reveals “the secret chord that makes Christmas music sound so Christmassy.”

First we should distinguish popular Christmas songs from popular non-Christmas songs, especially ones recorded in the past half-century. “Rock ’n’ roll songs (and the subsequent pop songs influenced by the genre) may only contain three or four chords, each chord usually being just a major or a minor — the two chord ‘flavors’ analogous to chocolate and vanilla,” writes Slate‘s Adam Ragusea. In contrast, a selection from “the Great American Songbook” might “use a Baskin-Robbins shop full of chords and chord flavors — 7ths and 9ths, half and fully diminished, various inversions, and more” under melodies that “tend to include a lot of chromatic notes (the black notes on the piano when playing in the key of C major).”

In the era when most beloved Christmas standards were conceived, songwriters still made much use of that wide musical palette, the sonic colors of which had as much to do with jazz as with pop. But since the 1960s, writers of pop songs  have used these now-exotic harmonies “to get a ‘classic’ sound. For instance, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ includes some notes in its choral parts that I think are intended to recall the harmonic vocabulary of those 1940s Christmas standards.” No coincidence, surely, that Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps the only Christmas song written in recent decades to attain the same popularity as the old standards, uses the same compositional techniques.

“I count at least 13 distinct chords at work in ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You,’ resulting in a sumptuously chromatic melody,” writes Ragusea. “The song also includes what I consider the most Christmassy chord of all — a minor subdominant, or “iv,” chord with an added 6, under the words ‘underneath the Christmas tree,’ among other places.” As in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” he notes, “the chord comes immediately after a major subdominant chord, giving the effect of a ‘bright’ major subdominant that you might say ‘sighs’ or ‘melts’ into a ‘dark’ minor subdominant spiked with a ‘spicy’ extra tone (the added 6), before the songs settle back into their tonic, or ‘home,’ chords.” And so we come to the unexpected finding — though hardly a displeasing one — that a properly made Christmas song has more than a little in common with a properly made Christmas cocktail.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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