Watch the Trippy 1970s Animated Film Quasi at the Quackadero: Voted One of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time

There cer­tain­ly are a lot of weirdos out today. —Qua­si at the Quack­adero

Ani­ma­tion is a pro­fes­sion where­in child­hood influ­ences hold vis­i­ble sway.

Today’s young ani­ma­tors are like­ly to cite the for­ma­tive pow­ers of Sponge­bob SquarepantsAvatar: The Last Air­ben­derThe Ren & Stimpy Show, and the films of Japan­ese mas­ter, Hayao Miyaza­ki.

As a child of the 50s, Sal­ly Cruik­shank, cre­ator of cult favorite Qua­si at the Quack­adero, above, mar­i­nat­ed in Carl Barks’ Don­ald Duck comics. In The Ani­ma­tors, an early-80’s PBS doc­u­men­tary cen­tered on the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area scene, she mused that “the images of the mon­ey bin and Don­ald Duck and the nephews and Uncle Scrooge all sunk into my sub­con­scious and came out lat­er, not real­ly look­ing like ducks to any­one but me, but in my mind they are ducks—Quasi, Snozzy, and Ani­ta.”

Qua­si at the Quack­adero places two of those odd ducks, con­tent­ed loafer Qua­si and his con­trol­ling, lisp­ing ladyfriend, Ani­ta, in a bizarre amuse­ment park where the attrac­tions include oppor­tu­ni­ties to “Relive One of the Shin­ing Moments of Your Life” and “See Last Night’s Dreams Today.”

The fun house mir­rors in the 3:10 mark’s Hall of Time are a par­tic­u­lar treat, con­tribut­ing to a car­ni­val of sen­so­ry over­load that’s as old timey as it is trip­py.

“You don’t need to take acid to have weird thoughts and imag­ine weird things,” Cruik­shank, whose oth­er favorites, telling­ly, include Win­sor McCayMax Fleis­ch­er, and Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, replied to an admir­er on YouTube.

In 2009, Cruikshank’s dement­ed vision found its way into the Library of Con­gress’ Nation­al Film Reg­istryan hon­or she cel­e­brat­ed with a blog post toast­ing her late boss, E.E. Gregg Snazelle of Snazelle Films:

The job was to exper­i­ment with ani­ma­tion, and do com­mer­cials for him when the jobs came in. He also hoped I’d fig­ure out how to solve 3‑d with­out glass­es.

Need­less to say I did­n’t solve 3‑d. I did­n’t even do very many com­mer­cials over ten years, but I showed up at 8:30, took an hour off for lunch and worked till 5:30. I was paid $350 a month, and I could live on that then.

He encour­aged me gen­er­ous­ly with­out ever pay­ing much atten­tion to me. These days if an oppor­tu­ni­ty like that even exist­ed, you’d be forced to sign all kinds of rights state­ments for char­ac­ters and con­tent cre­at­ed, but this was before “Star Wars” and he just seemed to be hap­py to have me around. We were nev­er par­tic­u­lar­ly close. It spoiled me for any job after that.

I made all my “Qua­si” films while I was work­ing at Snazelle. Unfor­tu­nate­ly he’s no longer alive, but here’s to you, Gregg, with a big heart and much thanks.

Cruik­shank was indeed lucky to have secured a day job in her cho­sen field, pro­vid­ing her with access to pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive equip­ment.

Remem­ber that her 1975 short pre­dates per­son­al com­put­ers, afford­able ani­ma­tion soft­ware, and a pletho­ra of free shar­ing plat­forms. Cruik­shank says that Qua­si at the Quack­adero required two years of near dai­ly work, liken­ing its ani­ma­tion process to “some­thing from the Mid­dle Ages.”

Of course, 1975 was also a peak year for under­ground comix, anoth­er tra­di­tion from which Qua­si sprung, right into the arms of a recep­tive audi­ence. Ani­ta and Qua­si also appear in Cruikshank’s one and only com­ic, Mag­ic Clams. In addi­tion to her work at Snazelle Stu­dios, Cruik­shank cock­tail wait­ressed in a hang­out for San Francisco’s under­ground car­toon­ists, includ­ing then-boyfriend Kim Deitch, Quasi’s “Spe­cial Art Assis­tant.” Bob Arm­strong and Al Dodge of R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Ser­e­naders con­tributed the short’s score. Oth­er friends from the indie comix scene were enlist­ed to paint cells at 50 cents per.

Quasi’s inclu­sion in the Nation­al Film Reg­istry not only car­ries the impri­matur of cul­tur­al, his­toric, and aes­thet­ic sig­nif­i­cance, it sug­gests the psy­che­del­ic short is a sem­i­nal influ­ence in its own right.

We agree with KQED’s Sarah Hotchkiss that “the sat­u­rat­ed col­ors, hard edges, and con­stant move­ment of Cruik­shank’s ani­ma­tion could be source mate­r­i­al for the future real­iza­tion of Pee-wee’s Play­house.”

Both deliv­er us from real­i­ty into the lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties of an anthro­po­mor­phic uni­verse.

Explore more of Sal­ly Cruickshank’s ani­ma­tions on her You Tube chan­nel, includ­ing her  car­toons for Sesame Street. Some of her ani­ma­tion cels, includ­ing ones from Qua­si at the Quack­adero are for sale in her Etsy shop.

Qua­si at the Quack­adero–vot­ed one of the 50 Great­est Car­toons, in a poll of 1,000 Ani­ma­tion Pro­fes­sion­als–will be added to our list of ani­ma­tions, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ani­ma­tions That Changed Cin­e­ma: The Ground­break­ing Lega­cies of Prince Achmed, Aki­ra, The Iron Giant & More

The Ori­gins of Ani­me: Watch Free Online 64 Ani­ma­tions That Launched the Japan­ese Ani­me Tra­di­tion

Bam­bi Meets Godzil­la: #38 on the List of The 50 Great­est Car­toons of All Time

Free Ani­mat­ed Films: From Clas­sic to Mod­ern 

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

What are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)? And How Can a Work of Digital Art Sell for $69 Million

Val­ue in the art world depends on man­u­fac­tured desire for objects that serve no pur­pose and have no intrin­sic mean­ing out­side of the sto­ries that sur­round them, which is why it can be easy to fool oth­ers with fraud­u­lent copies. Col­lec­tors and experts are often eager to believe a well-told tale of spe­cial prove­nance. As Orson Welles says in F is for Fake, “Lots of oys­ters, only a few pearls. Rar­i­ty. The chief cause and encour­age­ment of fak­ery and phoni­ness.”

“Con­cepts of fak­ery and orig­i­nal­i­ty bounce off one anoth­er as reflec­tions,” Lidi­ja Groz­dan­ic writes of Welles’ doc­u­men­tary on “our innate infat­u­a­tion with exclu­siv­i­ty,” a film made when the inter­net con­sist­ed of 36 routers and 42 host com­put­ers — in total (includ­ing a link in Hawaii!). Now we are immersed in hyper­re­al­i­ty. Copies of dig­i­tal art­works are indis­tin­guish­able from each oth­er, since they can­not be said to exist in any mate­r­i­al sense. How can they be authen­ti­cat­ed? How can they become exclu­sive place­hold­ers for wealth?

The ques­tions have been tak­en up, and answered rather abrupt­ly, it seems, by the archi­tects of blockchain tech­nol­o­gy, who bring us NFTs, or “Non-Fun­gi­ble Tokens,” an acronym and phrase­ol­o­gy you’ve sure­ly heard, whether you’ve felt inclined to learn what they mean. The videos fea­tured today offer brief expla­na­tions, by ref­er­ence espe­cial­ly to the case of South Car­oli­na-based dig­i­tal artist named Mike Win­kle­mann, who goes by Beeple, and who first har­nessed the pow­er of NFTs to make mil­lions.

Most recent­ly, in a first-of-its-kind online auc­tion at Christies, Beeple’s mon­tage “‘Every­days — The First 5000 Days’… became the ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ of art sales,” writes Erin Grif­fiths at The New York Times.

A cryp­to whale known only by the pseu­do­nym Metako­van paid $69 mil­lion (with fees) for some indis­crim­i­nate­ly col­lat­ed pic­tures of car­toon mon­sters, gross-out gags and a breast­feed­ing Don­ald Trump — which sud­den­ly makes this com­put­er illus­tra­tor the third-high­est-sell­ing artist alive.

The crit­i­cism is per­haps unfair. As Christies argues in its defense, the piece reveals “Beeple’s enor­mous evo­lu­tion as an artist” over five years. Spe­cial­ist Noah Davis calls the col­lage, stitched togeth­er from Beeple’s body of work on Insta­gram, “a kind of Duchampian ready­made.” But it does­n’t real­ly mat­ter if Beeple’s work is avant-garde high art.

The lib­er­tar­i­an econo-speak “non­fun­gi­ble token” reveals itself as part of a world divorced from the usu­al cri­te­ria art his­to­ri­ans, cura­tors, auc­tion hous­es, and oth­ers apply in their judg­ments of authen­tic­i­ty and worth. Instead, the val­ue of NFTs rests main­ly on the fact that they are exclu­sive, with­out par­tic­u­lar­ly high regard for what they include. One may love the work of Beeple, but we should be clear, “what Christie’s sold was not an object” — there is no object — “but a ‘non­fun­gi­ble token,’” which is “bit­coinese for unique string of char­ac­ters, logged on a blockchain,” that can­not be exchanged or replaced… like own­ing a Mon­et with­out own­ing a Mon­et.

Unlike the Wu Tang album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, bought for $2 mil­lion in 2015 by Mar­tin Shkre­li, con­tent attached to NFTs can be shared, viewed, copied, etc. over and over. “Mil­lions of peo­ple have seen Beeple’s art,” the BBC explains, “and the image has been copied and shared count­less times. In many cas­es, the artist even retains the copy­right own­er­ship of their work, so they can con­tin­ue to pro­duce and sell copies.”

Oth­er sales of NFTs include a ver­sion of the 10-year-old inter­net meme Nyan Cat that sold for $600,000, a clip of LeBon James block­ing a shot for $100,000, and a pic­ture of Lind­say Lohan for $17,000, which then resold for $57,000. Lohan artic­u­lat­ed the NFT ethos in a state­ment, say­ing, “I believe in a world which is finan­cial­ly decen­tral­ized.” This is not a world where judg­ments about the val­ue of art and cul­ture can be cen­tral­ized either. But pow­er can be, pre­sum­ably, in the form of cur­ren­cy, cryp­to-and oth­er­wise, trad­ed in spec­u­la­tive bub­bles.

“Some peo­ple com­pare it to buy­ing an auto­graphed print,” the BBC writes. Some com­pare it to the age-old scams warned of in folk tales. David Ger­ard, author of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, calls NFT sell­ers “cryp­to-grifters… the same guys who’ve always been at it, try­ing to come up with a new form of worth­less bean that they can sell for mon­ey.” This eter­nal scam exists beyond the bina­ries posed by F is for Fake. Orig­i­nal­i­ty, authen­tic­i­ty, or oth­er­wise are most­ly beside the point.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Art Mar­ket Demys­ti­fied in Four Short Doc­u­men­taries

Banksy Shreds His $1.4 Mil­lion Paint­ing at Auc­tion, Tak­ing a Tra­di­tion of Artists Destroy­ing Art to New Heights

Warhol: The Bell­wether of the Art Mar­ket

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

The Story Behind the Iconic Bass-Smashing Photo on the Clash’s London Calling

Pen­nie Smith was not a fan. Maybe that’s what made her the per­fect pho­tog­ra­ph­er for The Clash. “She was nev­er par­tic­u­lar­ly into rock music,” writes Rob Walk­er at The Guardian; she wasn’t starstruck or over­awed by her sub­jects; and she also was­n’t even par­tic­u­lar­ly in love with the most famous shot of her career — the icon­ic pho­to of bassist Paul Simonon rais­ing his Fend­er Pre­ci­sion at New York’s Pal­la­di­um, sec­onds before smash­ing it to bits. “I said, ‘it’s com­plete­ly out of focus,’” Smith remem­bers of the image when Joe Strum­mer insist­ed on using it for the cov­er of leg­endary dou­ble-LP Lon­don Call­ing. “But Joe wouldn’t have it. He said, ‘That one is the pho­to.’”

He was obvi­ous­ly cor­rect, though Smith still doesn’t sound con­vinced. “I’m pleased I took it,” she says, “but it’s a bit of a weight around my neck. It keeps com­ing back to whack me on the back of the head — nice­ly in some instances, but aggra­vat­ing­ly in oth­ers.” Hit­ting one in the head — front or back — is the aim of the best album cov­ers in punk, and “punk rock’s rage and dis­sent have always been easy to rep­re­sent visu­al­ly,” says Noah Lefevre in the Poly­phon­ic video above. Tak­ing the per­fect punk pho­to­graph, how­ev­er, depend­ed on a num­ber of vari­ables all com­ing togeth­er per­fect­ly for a once-in-a-life­time shot.

For one thing, Smith had to have made the gig. She near­ly accept­ed an offer to go out with friends instead. She also decid­ed to change it up that night and stand on Simonon’s side of the stage instead of next to gui­tarist Mick Jones. And then, as Lefevre explains, there was the show itself. “In Lon­don, the Clash would play rau­cous punk bars and dance­halls full of stand­ing room crowds. In the U.S.,” dur­ing their first tour in 1979, “they often found them­selves play­ing in the­aters with fixed seat­ing.” The Pal­la­di­um was such a venue. “Bounc­ers would hold crowds back, make sure they stayed sta­pled to their seats.”

The seden­tary crowd killed the vibe. By the end of the show, “Paul’s frus­tra­tion turned to anger,” notes Snap Gal­leries, “and then he lost it com­plete­ly. His watch stopped at 9:50pm.” Smith remem­bers see­ing him sud­den­ly spin toward her. “He was in a real­ly bad mood, and that wasn’t like him.” She was so star­tled, she got the pho­to­graph. “It wasn’t a choice to take the shot. My fin­ger just went off.” That chance moment gave the band an ide­al image for the Lon­don Call­ing cov­er.

It was illus­tra­tor Ray Lowry’s idea to crib the typog­ra­phy of Elvis’ first record, and the font “called back to the roots of punk rock,” born out of the ‘50s rock­a­bil­ly tra­di­tion of sim­ple songs and bare-bones instru­men­ta­tion and arrange­ments. “Punk and rock and roll held the same cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance,” Lefevre says, but The Clash announced them­selves on the album cov­er as puri­fiers of the tra­di­tion, strip­ping out the “pho­ny Beat­le­ma­nia” Strum­mer decried in the title track and replac­ing it with right­eous, if bare­ly-in-focus, rage. Hear the full gig just above, includ­ing the bass-smash­ing at the end at 1:08:10.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Rare Live Footage Doc­u­ments The Clash From Their Raw Debut to the Career-Defin­ing Lon­don Call­ing (1977–1980)

“Stay Free: The Sto­ry of the Clash” Nar­rat­ed by Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D: A New 8‑Episode Pod­cast

The Clash Play Their Final Show (San Bernardi­no, 1983)

The Clash Live in Tokyo, 1982: Watch the Com­plete Con­cert

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

Brian Eno Explains the Origins of Ambient Music

When William Basin­s­ki released The Dis­in­te­gra­tion Loops in the years after the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 attacks, it was the sound of decay pre­served for pos­ter­i­ty — record­ings of decades-old tape loops lit­er­al­ly falling apart on their reels, as the World Trade Cen­ter ruins smol­dered across the riv­er from the composer’s Brook­lyn stu­dio. The piece was per­formed ten years lat­er by an orches­tra at the Tem­ple of Den­dur, at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, for the tenth anniver­sary of the attacks. Anohni (then known as Antony of Antony and the John­sons) called it “the most help­ful and use­ful music I have ever known.”

This might mark the first time a piece of ambi­ent music has been award­ed such grav­i­tas and made the cen­ter­piece of a sig­nif­i­cant memo­r­i­al. It seems a long way from the ori­gins of the form in Bri­an Eno’s Dis­creet Music (1975) and Music for Air­ports (1978), in which Eno pushed music to the periph­ery of expe­ri­ence, turn­ing it into unob­tru­sive back­ground stim­u­lus that “cre­at­ed a sort of land­scape you could belong to,” he says above, like the end­less­ly repeat­ing worlds of a video game. In music, how­ev­er, “rep­e­ti­tion is a form of change,” Eno remind­ed us, or as Basinski’s loops sug­gest­ed, writes Sasha Frere-Jones at The New York­er, “rep­e­ti­tion is change.”

Anoth­er curi­ous trait links Basinski’s 21st cen­tu­ry lamen­ta­tions and Eno’s 70s air­port lounge music, one that seems to change the terms of the con­tract that ambi­ent music, as we usu­al­ly under­stand it, makes with the lis­ten­er. We might think of it as music that makes no par­tic­u­lar demands on us and take Eno’s state­ments about it as encour­ag­ing a kind of pas­sive con­sump­tion: ambi­ent music as no more than pleas­ant accom­pa­ni­ment for bet­ter queu­ing-up and calmer shop­ping. (Not that there’s any­thing wrong with stress relief….)

But what Basin­s­ki and Eno both describe in intense acts of ambi­ent cre­ation is more extreme. It begins with a kind of help­less­ness in the face of dis­tress — in the first case an of help­less­ly watch­ing low­er Man­hat­tan burn from the roof of a Williams­burg loft. Eno’s predica­ment was more per­son­al and inti­mate, he tells Riz Khan above, but no less help­less. Con­va­lesc­ing in his bed after a car acci­dent, he found him­self unable to move when a friend put on a record and left him alone. The expe­ri­ence of immo­bil­i­ty became a cat­a­lyst.

The album of “18th cen­tu­ry harp music” was too qui­et. He couldn’t turn it up over the sound of rain out­side his win­dow. At first, Eno says, he was frus­trat­ed by his lack of con­trol over the envi­ron­ment. But as he “start­ed lis­ten­ing to the rain and lis­ten­ing to these odd notes of the harp that were just loud enough to be heard above the rain,” it became for him “a great musi­cal expe­ri­ence…. I sud­den­ly thought of this idea of mak­ing music that didn’t impose itself on your space in the same way.”

In pay­ing atten­tion to a loss of con­trol, Eno dis­cov­ered music that relin­quish­es con­trol over the lis­ten­er. In lis­ten­ing to his own shock and grief, Basin­s­ki dis­cov­ered music that lets itself fall apart, slow­ly and beau­ti­ful­ly over time. What he “pompous­ly called” ambi­ent music, Eno jokes above, “became some­thing I no longer rec­og­nize.” And, yes, it may have come to take up more space than he intend­ed. But it still func­tions as a cre­ative response to cir­cum­stances in which, it seems, there may be lit­tle else to do but lis­ten care­ful­ly and wait.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear Bri­an Eno Rein­vent Pachelbel’s Canon (1975)

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

Dis­cov­er the Ambi­ent Music of Hiroshi Yoshimu­ra, the Pio­neer­ing Japan­ese Com­pos­er

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

The Letters of Mozart’s Sister Maria Anna Get Transformed into Music

The tal­ent of an indi­vid­ual may not always run in the fam­i­ly, but we can nev­er dis­count the pos­si­bil­i­ty of its doing so. This is true even in the case of Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart, not just one of the best-known com­posers ever to live, but a byword for deep, innate, and unre­peat­able genius. Mozart was com­pos­ing orig­i­nal music at the age of of four or five, an aston­ish­ing fact we know today in part because his old­er sis­ter wit­nessed and lat­er attest­ed to it. Known as Nan­nerl, Maria Anna Mozart pre­ced­ed her both­er into key­board lessons from their father Leopold, a com­pos­er and teacher. Togeth­er Wolf­gang and Maria Anna toured Europe as a per­form­ing duo of child prodi­gies, until Maria Anna’s attain­ment of mar­riage­able age took her off the cir­cuit.

If Maria Anna ever com­posed music of her own, none of it has sur­vived. But she did leave behind a fair few diaries and let­ters, many of the lat­ter exchanged with her broth­er. These writ­ings pro­vid­ed the mate­r­i­al for pianist Heloísa Fer­nan­des to cre­ate a piece in trib­ute to the less­er-known Mozart sib­ling.

“The writ­ing, all in Ger­man, under­went painstak­ing analy­sis so that its tone and pro­nun­ci­a­tion could be trans­lat­ed into musi­cal notes,” says Lit­tle Black Book. “A Ger­man inter­preter was invit­ed to read the let­ters and diary of Maria Anna Mozart out loud,” and a piece of soft­ware “trans­lat­ed the record­ing into musi­cal notes by tun­ing the syl­la­bles. If a spo­ken syl­la­ble hit 387 Hz, for exam­ple, the pro­gram inter­pret­ed it as G.” Thus were Nan­ner­l’s words trans­formed into music.

The result­ing piece, “Das Kön­i­gre­ich Rück­en,” is named after “an imag­i­nary king­dom that Maria and Wolf­gang made ref­er­ence to in their let­ters to each oth­er,” as Sara Spary notes in Adweek — a pub­li­ca­tion that would nat­u­ral­ly cov­er it, com­mis­sioned as it was by an ad cam­paign for LG Elec­tron­ics. Devel­oped by Brazil­ian firm AlmapBB­DO in coop­er­a­tion with the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Super­sôni­ca, “Pro­jec­to Ms. Mozart” is meant to pro­mote LG’s XBOOM Go Blue­tooth speak­er. But whichev­er device you use to hear “Das Kön­i­gre­ich Rück­en,” you’ll sure­ly find that it sounds quite unlike any piece you’ve heard before. Fans of Maria Anna Mozart as a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure will lis­ten and won­der what could have been, and even those igno­rant of her can’t but wel­come these three addi­tion­al min­utes of Mozart into the world.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Maria Anna Mozart Was a Musi­cal Prodi­gy Like Her Broth­er Wolf­gang, So Why Did She Get Erased from His­to­ry?

Mozart’s Diary Where He Com­posed His Final Mas­ter­pieces Is Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

Hear the Pieces Mozart Com­posed When He Was Only Five Years Old

See Mozart Played on Mozart’s Own Fortepi­ano, the Instru­ment That Most Authen­ti­cal­ly Cap­tures the Sound of His Music

12-Year-Old Piano Prodi­gy Takes Four Notes Ran­dom­ly Picked from a Hat and Instant­ly Uses Them to Impro­vise a Sonata

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Yo-Yo Ma Plays an Impromptu Performance in Vaccine Clinic After Receiving 2nd Dose

After get­ting his sec­ond dose of the COVID-19 vac­cine, Yo-Yo Ma “took a seat along the wall of the obser­va­tion area, masked and social­ly dis­tanced away from the oth­ers. He went on to pass 15 min­utes in obser­va­tion play­ing cel­lo for an applaud­ing audi­ence,” writes the Berk­shire Eagle. You can watch the scene above, which played out at Berk­shire Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege this week­end. And read more about it here.

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:

Yo-Yo Ma Per­forms the First Clas­si­cal Piece He Ever Learned: Take a 12-Minute Men­tal Health Break and Watch His Mov­ing “Tiny Desk” Con­cert

Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces 7‑Year-Old Yo-Yo Ma: Watch the Young­ster Per­form for John F. Kennedy (1962)

How Do Vac­cines (Includ­ing the COVID-19 Vac­cines) Work?: Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions

MIT Presents a Free Course on the COVID-19 Pan­dem­ic, Fea­tur­ing Antho­ny Fau­ci & Oth­er Experts



All Praise Lou Ottens: The Inventor of the Cassette Tape Dies at Age 94

The cas­sette tape is so ubiq­ui­tous, so much a part of my life since I can even remem­ber music as a thing, that it was a shock to find out that the man who invent­ed it, Lou Ottens, passed away at the age of 94. Of course, some­body did have to invent the cas­sette tape, but in all these years I nev­er thought to look the per­son up. Such an inven­tion first makes you think of the world before it: records (dear­ly beloved, still around), and reel-to-reel tape (not so dear­ly beloved). The for­mer was a fixed object, an art object, immutable (until turntab­lists came along). The lat­ter was a way to record our­selves, but so much more was involved in the act. Peo­ple had to wind the spin­dle, to thread the tape through the cap­stan and heads, and record usu­al­ly in mono. You can see an overview of a mod­el from the 1950s here.

Ottens was a Dutch engi­neer work­ing at Philips who became head of new prod­uct devel­op­ment in Has­selt, Bel­gium. His assign­ment was to shrink the reel-to-reel and, like the radio, make it more portable. And here is the most impor­tant deci­sion: Ottens want­ed the for­mat to be licensed to oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ers for free, so every­body could par­take. Con­sid­er­ing the end­less for­mat bat­tles that we fight every day, this deci­sion was as mon­u­men­tal as it was human­ist.

He designed his pro­to­type out of wood and sized it to fit into a pock­et for true porta­bil­i­ty. (This pro­to­type, by the way, dis­ap­peared from his­to­ry after he used it to prop up a jack when fix­ing a flat tire.) The actu­al com­pact cas­sette, pro­mot­ed as a cheap­er and small­er for­mat for major label releas­es, imme­di­ate­ly gained a sec­ond life as an artis­tic tool: a way for reg­u­lar folk to record what­ev­er they want­ed. Kei­th Richards report­ed­ly record­ed the riff for “Sat­is­fac­tion” on the portable cas­sette play­er near his bed. Peo­ple record­ed lec­tures, the tele­vi­sion, the radio, their rel­a­tives, their friends, the ran­dom sound of life. Peo­ple start­ed to curate: their favorite music, their favorite peo­ple, their favorite sounds. Peo­ple pre­tend­ed to be DJs, pre­tend­ed to be artists, pre­tend­ed to be tele­vi­sion hosts, pre­tend­ed to be authors, pre­tend­ed to be crit­ics. And some through pre­tend­ing became the things they want­ed to be.

Peo­ple made mix­tapes for friends and for lovers. They looked at the remain­ing tape on the spin­dle and won­dered if the song they had to end side two would fit. Peo­ple real­ized that cas­sette tape could be a col­lage of sounds, cut up by the pause but­ton.

Ottens may not have real­ized it, but he had cre­at­ed a com­plete­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic for­mat. In the 1980s, the back pages of music mag­a­zines flour­ished with the cat­a­logs of cas­sette-only album releas­es. If you had a Walk­man and a friend with a halfway decent tape recorder, you could car­ry around your favorite music and lis­ten to it when­ev­er you want­ed.

The record indus­try rebelled (for a while). They want­ed you to know that “home tap­ing is killing music” but did so with a skull and bones graph­ic that made it that much cool­er. In the end it didn’t real­ly mat­ter. The music fans repur­chased every­thing on CD any­way. (Apart from the peo­ple who taped CDs and even then after that *those* peo­ple down­loaded the mp3s.)

And here’s the thing. Ottens wasn’t pre­cious about any of it. He was part of the devel­op­ment of the Com­pact Disc. The cas­sette was just anoth­er step­ping stone.

But despite the numer­ous arti­cles that cas­settes were a dead medi­um, they kept com­ing back. Mix­tapes, the lifeblood of hip hop cul­ture con­tin­ued to thrive, even if by the end of the cen­tu­ry the idea was more of a con­cept. And then in the mid­dle of the 2010s cas­settes came roar­ing back after the vinyl resur­gence. For bands it was a cheap way to pro­vide a phys­i­cal prod­uct, what with vinyl still being very expen­sive to pro­duce. Band­camp, the place to go for cas­sette-only releas­es, offers artis­tic tapes for the same price as a dig­i­tal down­load. So why not get both and start your library again?

Ottens nev­er fore­saw any of this hap­pen­ing, but it speaks to some­thing very human: we want con­trol of our music, and dig­i­tal music, espe­cial­ly in the cloud, ain’t cut­ting it. We want to hold some­thing in our hands and claim it as our own.

So pour one out for Lou Ottens, who start­ed a rev­o­lu­tion that hasn’t fin­ished. Do *not* press pause.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Home Tap­ing Is Killing Music: When the Music Indus­try Waged War on the Cas­sette Tape in the 1980s, and Punk Bands Fought Back

2,000+ Cas­settes from the Allen Gins­berg Audio Col­lec­tion Now Stream­ing Online

Lis­ten to Audio Arts: The 1970s Tape Cas­sette Arts Mag­a­zine Fea­tur­ing Andy Warhol, Mar­cel Duchamp & Many Oth­ers

Stream a Mas­sive Col­lec­tion of Indie, Noise Indus­tri­al Mix­tapes from the 80s and 90s

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 2

Edi­tor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kauf­man has pub­lished The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge, a book that takes a his­tor­i­cal look at the pow­er­ful forces that have pur­pose­ly crip­pled our efforts to share knowl­edge wide­ly and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the com­ing days, Peter will be mak­ing his book avail­able through Open Cul­ture by pub­lish­ing three short essays along with links to cor­re­spond­ing sec­tions of his book. Today, you can read his sec­ond essay “On Wikipedia, the Ency­clopédie, and the Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty of Infor­ma­tion” (below), plus down­load the sec­ond chap­ter of his book here. Read his first essay, “The Mon­ster­verse” here, and pur­chase the entire book online.

When the ideas that mat­ter most to us – lib­er­als, democ­rats, pro­gres­sives, repub­li­cans, all in the orig­i­nal sense of the words – were first put for­ward in soci­ety in order to change soci­ety, they were advanced fore­most in print. The new rules, new def­i­n­i­tions, and new cod­i­cils of human and civ­il rights that under­gird many of the free­doms we val­ue today had as their heart text and its main deliv­ery mech­a­nism, the print­ing press.

In that sense the first Enlight­en­ment was based upon the foun­da­tion of the print­ed word. And of the 18th century’s con­tri­bu­tions to knowl­edge and soci­ety – Newton’s physics, Montesquieu’s laws, Linnaeus’s tax­onomies, Rousseau’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man – there was per­haps no greater print­ed offer­ing than the 22-mil­lion-word Ency­clopédie that the French Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers start­ing writ­ing, com­pil­ing, and offer­ing to the pub­lic in 1750.

The Ency­clopédie was mon­u­men­tal. Not just from a con­tent-assem­bly per­spec­tive – an effort to gath­er all the world’s knowl­edge and to print and pub­lish it – but also from a sociopo­lit­i­cal one, giv­en the pow­er­ful forces sup­press­ing knowl­edge that such an effort would pro­voke. The Ency­clopédie found the state and the church ban­ning at one time or anoth­er almost every one of its 72,000 arti­cles, 18,000 pages, and 28 vol­umes and invok­ing a hun­dred ways to for­bid its dis­tri­b­u­tion.

The encyclopedia’s entire approach to col­lect­ing and pre­sent­ing knowl­edge was rad­i­cal.  The arti­cles pre­sent­ed truths – some hereti­cal, some blas­phe­mous – that aston­ished con­tem­po­rary read­ers.  And its inno­v­a­tive approach to the ver­i­fi­ca­tion its own con­tent, to prov­ing what could be proved, which was real­ly its nuclear core, rocked the West­ern world.

The Ency­clopédie smote 18th-cen­tu­ry ortho­doxy with ink-and-paper sledge­ham­mers. The arti­cle on “RAISON,” or “REASON,” for exam­ple, told every read­er who for cen­turies had been steeped in church doc­trine and the divine rights of roy­als that:

No propo­si­tion can be accept­ed as divine rev­e­la­tion if it con­tra­dicts what is known to us, either by imme­di­ate intu­ition, as in the case of self-evi­dent propo­si­tions, or by obvi­ous deduc­tions of rea­son, as in demon­stra­tions.  It would be ridicu­lous to give pref­er­ence to such rev­e­la­tions, because the evi­dence that caus­es us to adopt them can­not sur­pass the cer­tain­ty of our intu­itive or demon­stra­tive knowl­edge…

Cler­ics and kings, need­less to say, were not fans. Arti­cles on reli­gion, phi­los­o­phy, and pol­i­tics and soci­ety chal­lenged the gov­ern­ment and the church even as the cen­sors watched.  Direct swipes at the monar­chy and the church appeared even where you might not expect – in arti­cles on CONSCIENCE, LIBERTÉ DE; CROISADES; FANATISME; TOLÉRANCE; etc.  The entry for FORTUNE spot­light­ed the gross inequal­i­ties of wealth already evi­dent in 18th-cen­tu­ry Europe. And a zing­ing con­dem­na­tion of slav­ery in the arti­cle on the SLAVE TRADE made few friends among any who had a hand any­where in the busi­ness.

Slave trade is the pur­chase of Negroes made by Euro­peans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfor­tu­nate men as slaves in their colonies. This pur­chase of Negroes to reduce them into slav­ery […] vio­lates all reli­gion, morals, nat­ur­al law, and human rights.

The Ency­clopédistes announced from day one that this new work would be, as we would say today, fact-based. There would be an under­ly­ing and over­ar­ch­ing com­mit­ment on the part of all con­trib­u­tors and the work as a whole to the ver­i­fi­ca­tion of all of its source mate­ri­als. Ver­i­fi­ca­tion is poten­tial­ly “a long and painful process,” Diderot wrote in his intro­duc­tion to the whole enter­prise – the famous “Pre­lim­i­nary Dis­course” that these philoso­phers used to sell in the whole project:

We have tried as much as pos­si­ble to avoid this incon­ve­nience by cit­ing direct­ly, in the body of the arti­cles, the authors on whose evi­dence we have relied and by quot­ing their own text when it is nec­es­sary.

We have every­where com­pared opin­ions, weighed rea­sons, and pro­posed means of doubt­ing or of escap­ing from doubt; at times we have even set­tled con­test­ed mat­ters.… Facts are cit­ed, exper­i­ments com­pared, and meth­ods elab­o­rat­ed … in order to excite genius to open unknown routes, and to advance onward to new dis­cov­er­ies, using the place where great men have end­ed their careers as the first step.

What this meant in prac­tice was rev­o­lu­tion­ary.  There would be no accept­ed truths but for those that could be proven and cit­ed. Fact-based ver­sus faith- and belief-based: the start and spark of the Enlight­en­ment.  One of Diderot’s biog­ra­phers explains that approx­i­mate­ly 23,000 arti­cles had at least one cross-ref­er­ence to anoth­er arti­cle in one of the encyclopedia’s 28 vol­umes. “The total num­ber of links – some arti­cles had five or six – reached almost 62,000.” And all while retain­ing a sly sense of humor.  The arti­cle on CANNIBALS end­ed with “the mis­chie­vous cross-ref­er­ence,” as anoth­er his­to­ri­an would lat­er describe it: “See Eucharist, Com­mu­nion, Altar, etc.”

That com­mit­ment to ref­er­ence cita­tion con­tin­ues in the Enlightenment’s most impor­tant suc­ces­sor project – Wikipedia, found­ed by Jim­my Wales and col­leagues 20 years ago this year. It’s the foun­da­tion of what today’s Wikipedia terms ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty, and in many key ways it’s the foun­da­tion for truth in knowl­edge and soci­ety today:

“Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty” … mean[s] that mate­r­i­al added to Wikipedia must have been pub­lished pre­vi­ous­ly by a reli­able source. Edi­tors may not add their own views to arti­cles sim­ply because they believe them to be cor­rect, and may not remove sources’ views from arti­cles sim­ply because they dis­agree with them.

[V]erifiability is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion (a min­i­mum require­ment) for the inclu­sion of mate­r­i­al, though it is not a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion (it may not be enough).

In 1999, free-soft­ware activist Richard M. Stall­man called for this uni­ver­sal online ency­clo­pe­dia cov­er­ing all areas of knowl­edge, along with a com­plete library of instruc­tion­al cours­es – and, equal­ly impor­tant, a move­ment to devel­op it, “much as the Free Soft­ware Move­ment gave us the free oper­at­ing sys­tem GNU/Linux.”  That call (repro­duced in full as the appen­dix in my book) is cred­it­ed by Wikipedia as the ori­gins of the work that is now the largest knowl­edge resource in his­to­ry.

The free ency­clo­pe­dia will pro­vide an alter­na­tive to the restrict­ed ones that media cor­po­ra­tions will write.

Stall­man pub­lished a list of what that the ency­clo­pe­dia would need to do, what sort of free­doms it would need to give to the pub­lic, and how it could get start­ed.

An ency­clo­pe­dia locat­ed every­where.

An ency­clo­pe­dia open to anyone—but, most promis­ing­ly, to teach­ers and stu­dents.

An ency­clo­pe­dia built of small steps.

An ency­clo­pe­dia built on the long view: “If it takes twen­ty years to com­plete the free ency­clo­pe­dia, that will be but an instant in the his­to­ry of lit­er­a­ture and civ­i­liza­tion.”

An ency­clo­pe­dia con­tain­ing one or more arti­cles for any top­ic you would expect to find in anoth­er ency­clo­pe­dia – “for exam­ple, bird watch­ers might even­tu­al­ly con­tribute an arti­cle on each species of bird, along with pic­tures and record­ings of its calls” – and “cours­es for all aca­d­e­m­ic sub­jects.”

1999, and it sounds famil­iar. Wikipedia, of course, is one of the world’s most pop­u­lar web­sites (the world’s most pop­u­lar non­com­mer­cial one) now and an irre­place­able source of ver­i­fi­able infor­ma­tion – open to any and all.  Its process­es are trans­par­ent, and thanks to hack­ers affil­i­at­ed with the project, you now can watch and lis­ten to its edits live online:

Com­mu­ni­ties that work with Wikipedia are like­ly to ben­e­fit from this com­mit­ment to cita­tion, and new col­lab­o­ra­tions that take effect around it are like­ly to ben­e­fit soci­ety. The Inter­net Archive is work­ing with Wikipedia now, dig­i­tiz­ing books so that links to sources in Wikipedia link all the way through to the books them­selves – and ren­der images and text on the cit­ed pages. The ref­er­ence link to a biog­ra­phy by Tay­lor Branch at the bot­tom of a Wikipedia arti­cle on Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., for exam­ple, now hotlinks to the read­able book online at  That work is essen­tial.  “Only the use of foot­notes and the research tech­niques asso­ci­at­ed with them” – as Prince­ton his­to­ri­an Antho­ny Grafton writes – “makes it pos­si­ble to resist the efforts of mod­ern gov­ern­ments, tyran­ni­cal and demo­c­ra­t­ic alike, to con­ceal the com­pro­mis­es they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tor­tures they or their allies have inflict­ed.…  Only the use of foot­notes enables his­to­ri­ans to make their texts not mono­logues but con­ver­sa­tions, in which mod­ern schol­ars, their pre­de­ces­sors, and their sub­jects all take part.”

Can we take ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty fur­ther now, espe­cial­ly as our epis­temic cri­sis deep­ens?  Can we improve cita­tion for the medi­um that’s begin­ning to over­take us all, which is video?  Can we make resources on the web – also a new thing – ver­i­fi­able?  What is a cita­tion like in a … pod­cast?

The great his­to­ri­an of the Ency­clopédie, Robert Darn­ton, tells us in his new book, “When the print­ed word appeared in France in 1470, the state did not know what to make of it.”  So, 700 years from now, what will tomorrow’s his­to­ri­ans say about us?  Fur­ther thoughts about how we can start more con­scious­ly col­lab­o­rat­ing with one anoth­er and pro­duc­ing – but imme­di­ate­ly – for our bur­geon­ing knowl­edge net­works: next week.

Peter B. Kauf­man works at MIT Open Learn­ing and is the author of The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge. This is the sec­ond of three arti­cles. You can find the first one in the Relat­eds below:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge: Part 1

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Voltaire: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher of Plu­ral­ism & Tol­er­ance

The Diderot Effect: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher Denis Diderot Explains the Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­sumerism & Our Waste­ful Spend­ing

Social Media in the Age of Enlight­en­ment and Rev­o­lu­tion

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