Creative Thinking: A Free Online Course from Imperial College London

From Peter Childs (Head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London) comes a free course that explores creative thinking techniques, and how to apply them to everyday problems and global challenges. The course description for Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success reads:

In today’s ever-growing and changing world, being able to think creatively and innovatively are essential skills. It can sometimes be challenging to step back and reflect in an environment which is fast paced or when you are required to assimilate large amounts of information. Making sense of or communicating new ideas in an innovative and engaging way, approaching problems from fresh angles, and producing novel solutions are all traits which are highly sought after by employers.

The greatest innovators aren’t necessarily the people who have the most original idea. Often, they are people- or teams- that have harnessed their creativity to develop a new perspective or more effective way of communicating an idea. You can train your imagination to seize opportunities, break away from routine and habit, and tap into your natural creativity.

This course will equip you with a ‘tool-box’, introducing you to a selection of behaviours and techniques that will augment your innate creativity. Some of the tools are suited to use on your own and others work well for a group, enabling you to leverage the power of several minds.

You can take Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

Creative Thinking will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Learn to Play Senet, the 5,000-Year Old Ancient Egyptian Game Beloved by Queens & Pharaohs

Senet gaming board inscribed for Amenhotep III with separate sliding drawer, via Wikimedia Commons

Games don’t just pass the time, they enact battles of wits, proxy wars, training exercises…. And historically, games are correlated with, if not inseparable from, forms of divination and occult knowledge. We might point to the ancient practice of “astragalomancy,” for example: reading one’s fate in random throws of knucklebones, which were the original dice. Games played with bones or dice date back thousands of years. One of the most popular of the ancient world, the Egyptian Senet, may not be the oldest known, but it could be “the original board game of death,” Colin Barras writes at Science, predating the Ouija board by millennia.

Beginning as “a mere pastime,” Senet evolved “over nearly 2 millennia… into a game with deep links to the afterlife, played on a board that represented the underworld.” There’s no evidence the Egyptians who played around 5000 years ago believed the game’s dice rolls meant anything in particular.

Over the course of a few hundred years, however, images of Senet began appearing in tombs, showing the dead playing against surviving friends and family. “Texts from the time suggest the game had begun to be seen as a conduit through which the dead could communicate with the living” through moves over a grid of 30 squares arranged in three rows of ten.

Facsimile copy of ca. 1279–1213 B.C. painting of Queen Nefertiti playing Senet, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Beloved by such luminaries as the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II,” Meilan Solly notes at Smithsonian, Senet was played on “ornate game boards, examples of which still survive today.” (Four boards were found in Tut’s tomb.) “Those with fewer resources at their disposal made do with grids scratched on stone surfaces, tables or the floor.” As the game became a tool for glimpsing one’s fate, its last five spaces acquired hieroglyphics symbolizing “special playing circumstances. Pieces that landed in square 27’s ‘waters of chaos,’ for example, were sent all the way back to square 15 — or removed from the board entirely,” sort of like hitting the wrong square in Chutes and Ladders.

Senet gameplay was complicated. “Two players determined their moves by throwing casting sticks or bones,” notes the Met. The object was to get all of one’s pieces across square 30 — each move represented an obstacle to the afterlife, trials Egyptians believed the dead had to endure and pass or fail (the game’s name itself means “passing”). “Because of this connection, senet was not just a game; it was also a symbol for the struggle to obtain immortality, or endless life,” as well as a means of understanding what might get in the way of that goal.

The game’s rules likely changed with its evolving purpose, and might have been played several different ways over the course 2500 years or so. As Brandeis University professor Jim Storer notes in an explanation of possible gameplay, “the exact rules are not known; scholars have studied old drawings to speculate on the rules” — hardly the most reliable guide. If you’re interested, however, in playing Senet yourself, resurrecting, so to speak, the ancient tradition for fun or otherwise, you can easily make your own board. Storer’s presentation of what are known as Jequier’s Rules can be found here. For another version of Senet play, see the video above from Egyptology Lessons.

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

Watch 1,000 Musicians Play the Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” and The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

In the 1980s, avant-garde composer, guitarist Glenn Branca began writing symphonies for electric guitars — dozens of them, all playing at once, creating unprecedented psychoacoustic effects — sometimes beautiful harmony, sometimes unsettling dissonance — that reduced Branca himself to tears. “I remember one rehearsal where I actually had to stop and cry,” he once said. “I could not believe that I was getting this sound.” Branca brought together hundreds of electric guitarists and percussionists, but he never realized his ambition of bringing together 2,000 guitarists at once in Paris for celebrations of the year 2000, settling for 100.

These numbers pale next to the largest guitar ensemble on record, 6,346 people in Poland in 2009. In 2018, the year of Branca’s death, another record attempt saw 457 guitarists come together in Canberra, Australia to play AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Not exactly Branca’s cup of tea, but he probably had some hand in the inspiration, if only indirectly. Standing amidst those hundreds of ringing guitars while they banged out the song’s famed opening chords surely made many an Angus Young devotee cry that day.

What, then, would it feel like to stand amidst the cacophony of 1000 musicians — drummers, guitarists, bassists, and singers — bashing out a cover of Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly”? Assembled in 2015 in Italy, the Rockin’1000 was originally intended as a one-off project to accomplish “four miracles,” notes the project’s site: “find one thousand musicians, get them to play simultaneously of the biggest Rock show ever, collect enough money to make it real, convince the Foo Fighters to play a gig in Cesena.” (You can see their impassioned plea to Dave Grohl at the video’s end.)

After accomplishing their goals “with a bang” (the Foo Fighters later played a 3-hour concert dedicated to the project), the core team decided to get “the biggest Rock Band on Earth” back together for an entire concert the following year: “17 songs played all together at Manuzzi Stadium.” The full show has been released on CD and vinyl, but I’d hazard that music written for four people and played by 1000 doesn’t sound quite as interesting on record as in person, where the sheer massiveness might make listeners weep. As the bandleaders themselves admit, “without an audience, who’s been a part of the whole process, Rockin’1000 wouldn’t make sense.”

They’ve performed for audiences, in various configurations, every year since their founding until 2020. See them here play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” If you sing or play a rock instrument, you can sign up to be a part of Rockin’1000’s next gig, in Paris, in May 2022, here.

With a band composed of 1000 people, the musicians are also the audience, and the musicians can be anyone. What separates Rockin’1000 from some other celebrations of popular music is that it does position itself as a road to fame and fortune or a way to meet celebrities. “No rankings, no prizes, no winners, no losers,” they write: “everyone can be part of this, either an audience or a member of ‘the biggest Rock Band on Earth.’ No barriers here, all emotions are equal, same intensity.” But what emotions do we experience as a virtual audience of the Biggest Band on Earth?

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

How the Survivors of Pompeii Escaped Mount Vesuvius’ Deadly Eruption: A TED-Ed Animation Tells the Story

We tend to imagine Pompeii as a city frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, inhabitants and all, but most Pompeiians actually survived the disaster. “The volcano’s molten rock, scorching debris and poisonous gases killed nearly 2,000 people” in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, writes Live Science’s Laura Geggel. Of the 15,000 and 20,000 people in total who’d lived there, “most stayed along the southern Italian coast, resettling in the communities of Cumae, Naples, Ostia and Puteoli,” according to the latest archaeological research. Vesuvius may have made refugees of them, but history has revealed that they made the right choice.

Pompeiians in particular, as the TED-Ed lesson above depicts it, faced three choices: “seek shelter, escape to the south on foot, or flee to the west by sea,” the latter made a viable proposition by the town’s location near the coast. The video’s animation (scripted by archaeology Gary Devore) dramatizes the fates of three siblings, Lucius, Marcus, and Fabia, on that fateful day in A.D. 79. “Fabia and her brothers discuss the recent tremors everyone’s been feeling,” says the narrator. “Lucius jokes that there’ll always be work for men who rebuild walls in Pompeii.” It is then that the long-rumbling Vesuvius emits a “deafening boom,” then spews “smoke, ash, and rock high into the air.”

Gathering up his own family from Herculaneum, Marcus goes seaward, but the waves are “brimming with volcanic matter, making it impossible for boats to navigate close enough to shore.” As subsequent phases of the eruption further devastate the towns, the luckless Lucius finds himself entombed in the room where he’d been awaiting his fiancée. Sheltering with her husband and daughters, and hearing the roof of her home “groan under the weight of volcanic debris,” Fabia alone makes the choice to join the stream of humanity walking southeast, away from the volcano. This sounds reasonable, although when Wired‘s Cody Cassidy asks University of Naples Federico II forensic anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone to recommend the best course of action, the expert suggests fleeing to the north, toward Herculaneum and finally Naples — and more immediately, toward Vesuvius.

“The road between Pompeii and Naples was well maintained,” Petrone tells Cassidy, “and the written records of those who survived suggest that most of the successful escapees went north — while most of the bodies of the attempted escapees (who admittedly left far too late) have been found to the south.” Should you find yourself walking the thirteen miles between between Pompeii and Naples in the midst of a volcanic eruption, you should “avoid overexertion and take any opportunity to drink fresh water.” As Petrone writes, “only those who managed to understand from the beginning the gravity of the situation” — the Fabias, in other words — “escaped in time.” The likes of Mount Vesuvius would seem to rank low on the list of dangers facing humanity today, but nearly two millennia after Pompeii, it is, after all, still active.

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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.

The Incredible Engineering of Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, the World’s Oldest Construction Project

When (or if) it is finally finished in 2026, a full 100 years after its architect Antoni Gaudí’s death, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia will be the largest church in the world — making it, on the one hand, a distinctly 19th century phenomenon much like other structures designed in the late 1800s. The Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, became the longest suspension bridge in the world in 1883, the same year Gaudí took over the Sagrada Familia project; the Eiffel Tower took the honor of tallest structure in the world when it opened six years later. Biggest was in the briefs for major industrial building projects of the age.

Most other monumental construction projects of the time, however, excelled in one category Gaudí rejected: speed. While the Brooklyn Bridge took 14 years to build, cost many lives, including its chief architect’s, and suffered several setbacks, its construction was still quite a contrast to the medieval architecture from which its designs drew. Prague’s 14th century Charles Bridge took 45 years to finish. Half a century was standard for gothic cathedrals in the Middle Ages. (Notre-Dame was under construction for hundreds of years.) Their original architects hardly ever lived to see their projects to completion.

Gaudí’s enormous modernist cathedral was as much a personal labor of love as a gift to Barcelona, but unlike his contemporaries, he had no personal need to see it done. He was “unfazed by its glacial progress,” notes Atlas Obscura. The architect himself said, “There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church. I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.”

Perhaps even Gaudí could not have foreseen Sagrada Familia would take over 130 years, its cranes and scaffolding dominating the city’s skyline, decade after decade. A few things — the Spanish Civil War, inevitable funding issues — got in the way. But it’s also the case that Sagrada Familia is unlike anything else ever built. Gaudí “found much of his inspiration and meaning in architecture,” the Real Engineering video above notes, “by following the patterns of nature, using the beauty that he saw as a gift from God as the ultimate blueprint to the world.”

Learn above what sets Sagrada Familia apart — its creator was not only a master architect and artist, he was also a master engineer who understood how the strange, organic shapes of his designs “impacted the structural integrity of the building. Rather than fight against the laws of nature, he worked with them.” And nature, we know, likes to take its time.

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

Revisiting Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” and the Album That Opened R&B to Resistance: Revisited 50 Years Later

I just want to be heard and that’s all that matters. — Marvin Gaye

R&B superstar Marvin Gaye was more than willing to risk his career on a record.

His polished public persona was a false front behind which lurked some serious demons — depression and addiction, exacerbated by the illness and death of his close friend and duet mate, Tammi Terrell.

His downward spiral was also fueled by his distress over events of the late 60s.

How else to respond to the Vietnam War, the murder of civil rights leaders, police brutality, the Watts Riots, a dire environmental situation, and the disenfranchisement and abandonment of lower income Black communities?

Perhaps by refusing to adhere to producer Barry Gordy‘s mandate that all Motown artists were to steer clear of overt political stances….

He controlled their careers, but art is a powerful outlet.

Obie Benson also came under Gordy’s thumb as a member of the R&B quartet, the Four Tops. The shocking violence he witnessed in Berkeley’s People’s Park on Bloody Thursday while on tour with his band provided the lyrical inspiration for “What’s Goin’ On.”

When the other members of the group refused to touch it, not wanting to rock the boat with a protest song, he took it to Gaye, who had lost all enthusiasm for the “bullshit” love songs that had made him a star

Benson recalled that Gaye added some “things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song… we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.”

Gordy was not pleased with the song’s message, nor his loosey goosey approach to laying down the track. Eli Fontaine’s famous saxophone intro was improvised and “Motown’s secret weapon,” bassist James Jamerson was so plastered on Metaxa, he was recorded sprawling on the floor.

Jamerson told his wife they’d been working on a “masterpiece,” but Gordy dubbed “What’s Going On” “the worst thing I ever heard in my life,” pooh-poohing the “Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting.” He refused to release it.

Gaye stonewalled by going on strike, refusing to record any music whatsoever.

Eight months in, Motown’s A&R Head Harry Balk, desperate for another release from one of the label’s most popular acts, directed sales vice president Barney Ales to drop the new single behind Gordy’s back.

It immediately shot to the top of the charts, selling 70,000 copies in its first week.

Gordy, warming to the idea of more sales, abruptly reversed course, directing Gaye to come up with an entire album of protest songs. It ushered in a new era in which Black recording artists were not only free, but encouraged to use their voices to bring about social change.

The album, What’s Going On, recently claimed top honors when Rolling Stone updated its  500 Greatest Albums list. Now, it is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and as Polyphonic, producers of the mini-doc above note, its sentiments couldn’t be more timely.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

John Steinbeck Wrote a Werewolf Novel, and His Estate Won’t Let the World Read It: The Story of Murder at Full Moon

Photo of Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, via Wikimedia Commons

John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and MenThe Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden, but not before he’d put a few less-acclaimed novels under his belt. He didn’t even break through to success of any kind until 1935’s Tortilla Flat, which later became a popular romantic-comedy film with Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. That was already Steinbeck’s fourth published novel, and he’d written nearly as many unpublished ones. Two of those three manuscripts he destroyed, but a fourth survives at the University of Texas in Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, which specialized in hoarding literary ephemera, especially from Nobel laureates. The unpublished novel deals not with laborers, farmers, or wastrels, but a werewolf.

“Set in a fictional Californian coastal town, Murder at Full Moon tells the story of a community gripped by fear after a series of gruesome murders takes place under a full moon,” writes The Guardian‘s Dalya Alberge. “Investigators fear that a supernatural monster has emerged from the nearby marshes. Its characters include a cub reporter, a mysterious man who runs a local gun club and an eccentric amateur sleuth who sets out to solve the crime using techniques based on his obsession with pulp detective fiction.”

Alberge quotes Stanford literary scholar Gavin Jones describing the book as related to Steinbeck’s “interest in violent human transformation – the kind of human-animal connection that you find all over his work; his interest in mob violence and how humans are capable of other states of being, including particularly violent murderers.”

Then still in his twenties, Steinbeck wrote Murder at Full Moon under the pseudonym Peter Pym. After receiving only rejections from publishers, he shelved the manuscript and seems not to have given it another thought, even in order to dispose of it. Though Steinbeck’s estate has declared its lack of interest in its posthumous publication, Jones believes it would find a receptive readership today:  “It’s a horror potboiler, which is why I think readers would find it more interesting than a more typical Steinbeck.” It also “predicts Californian noir detective fiction. It is an unsettling story whose atmosphere is one of fog-bound, malicious, malignant secrecy.” It could at least have made quite a noir film, ideally one starring Lon Chaney, Jr., whose performance in Of Mice and Men proved he could play a Steinbeck character — to say nothing of his subsequent turn in The Wolf Man.

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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.

Ancient Philosophy: Free Online Course from the University of Pennsylvania

This two part course from the University of Pennsylvania (Part 1 herePart 2 here) “traces the origins of philosophy in the Western tradition in the thinkers of Ancient Greece,” beginning with “the Presocratic natural philosophers who were active in Ionia in the 6th century BCE and are also credited with being the first scientists.” The course description continues:

Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines made bold proposals about the ultimate constituents of reality, while Heraclitus insisted that there is an underlying order to the changing world. Parmenides of Elea formulated a powerful objection to all these proposals, while later Greek theorists (such as Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus) attempted to answer that objection. In fifth-century Athens, Socrates insisted on the importance of the fundamental ethical question—“How shall I live?”—and his pupil, Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, developed elaborate philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality, knowledge, and human happiness. After the death of Aristotle, in the Hellenistic period, Epicureans and Stoics developed and transformed that earlier tradition.

Part I covers Plato and his predecessors. Part II covers Aristotle and his successors. Both courses are taught by professor Susan Sauvé Meyer.

You can take these courses for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the courses for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

Both courses will be added to our list of Free Philosophy Courses, a subset of our larger collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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