Over the past five years, Ray Dalio, one of America’s most successful investors, has published a series of books, each meant to impart wisdom to a younger generation. The first book, Principles: Life and Work, shared the unconventional principles that have guided his life and career. It became a bestseller, selling well over one million copies. Next came Big Debt Crises, a study of financial crises and how nations navigate them. Finally, he has just published his latest bestseller, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. A history of the rise and fall of empires over the last 500 years, the book uses the past to contemplate the future, particularly the fate of the United States and China. As was the case with Principles, Dalio has produced an animated video that explains key ideas in the book. Released in early March, the video has already been viewed 8.6 million times. Watch it above, and consider pairing it with his other animated video, How the Economic Machine Works.
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I once had to tell a ten-year-old that the Harry Potter book series was not a historical literary classic but a recent publishing phenomenon that occurred in my lifetime. She was amazed, but she wasn’t silly for thinking that the books might date from a faraway past. They do, after all, make frequent reference to figures from centuries when alchemy flourished in Europe, and magicians like Paracelsus and Nicholas Flamel (both of whom appear in Potter books and spin-offs) plied their solitary craft, such as it was. Should we call it magic, early science, occult religion, outsider art, or some admixture of the above?
We can call it “black magic,” but the term was not, as the Christians thought, a reference to the devil, but to the soil of the Nile. “Derived from the Arabic root ‘kimia,’” writes the Public Domain Review, “from the Coptic ‘khem’ (referring to the fertile black soil of the Nile delta), the word ‘alchemy’ alludes to the dark mystery of the primordial or First Matter (the Khem).”
Finding this first substance constitutes “the alchemist’s central goal – along with the discovery of the Stone of Knowledge (The Philosopher’s Stone) and the key to Eternal Youth.”
In the description above, we can see the roots of Rowling’s fictions and the origins of many a world-shaping modern myth. Alchemists study and change matter to produce certain effects – just as early scientists did – and it may surprise us to learn just how fervently some well-known early scientists, most especially Isaac Newton, pursued the alchemical course. But the essence of alchemy was imagination, and the artists who depicted alchemical rituals, magical creatures, mystical symbols, etc. had no shortage of it, as we see in the images here, drawn from Wellcome Images and the Manley Palmer Hall collection at the Internet Archive.
The images are strange, surreal, cryptic, and seem to reference no known reality. They are the inspiration for centuries of occult art and esoteric literature. But each one also had practical intent — to illustrate mysterious, often secretive processes for discovering the foundations of the universe, and profiting from them. If these techniques look nothing like our modern methods for doing the same, that’s for good reason, but it doesn’t mean that alchemy has nothing to do with science. It is, rather, science’s weird distant ancestor. See more alchemical images at the Public Domain Review.
It’s the rare Englishman who will readily defer to a Frenchman — except, of course, in the field of castle-building. This was true after the Norman Conquest of 1066, which introduced French castles to Britain, and it remains so today, especially under the demands of period accuracy. In order to learn first-hand just what materials and technical skills went into those mightiest structures of the Middle Ages, the BBC Two series Secrets of the Castle had to go all the way to Burgundy. There Château de Guédelon has been under construction for the past 25 years, with its builders adhering as closely as possible to the way they would have done the job back in the thirteenth century, the “golden age of castle-building.”
The work of “experimental archaeology” that is Guédelon demands mastery of nearly millennia-old building methods, the simple ingeniousness of some of which remains impressive today. So, in our increasingly disembodied age, does their sheer physicality of it all: apart from the horses carting stone in from the quarry (itself a strong determinant in the siting of a castle), everything was accomplished with sheer human muscle.
Much of that manpower was leveraged with machines, often elaborate and sometimes amusing: take, for example, the pair of human-sized hamster wheels in which Gill and Pinfold run in order to operate a crane. Such a hard day’s work can only be fueled by a hearty meal, and so Goodman learns how to cook a simple vegetable stew. Same with how to clean and indeed craft the cooking pots needed to do so. For a castle wasn’t just a fortified symbol of a kingdom’s strength, but a place where all manner of life went on, as well as a stone embodiment of human knowledge in the Middle Ages. Secrets of the Castle originally aired in 2014, and since then a great deal more period-accurate work has gone into Guédelon. Scheduled for completion next year, the castle will presumably — as long as the skills of its builders prove equal to those of their forebears — still be standing in the 29th century.
When Americans think of ghost towns, we think tumbleweeds and crumbling Old West saloons. These abandoned settlements are mere babies compared to Italy’s ancient necropolises. We know, of course, the famous dead cities and towns of antiquity – Pompeii, the ruins of Rome, etcetera. Such famous sites are only the most obvious haunted ruins on any itinerary through the venerable boot-shaped country. Can they be considered ghost towns? The first fell prey to a natural disaster that encased its residents in ash before they had the time to leave; the second thrives as the eighth-most populous city in Europe. It may be full of ghosts, but it’s hard to catch them in the throngs, traffic, and noise.
That said, there are no shortage of towns that fit the bill. Italy contains “more than 6,000 abandoned villages,” the video above explains, and “according to conservative estimates, another 15,000 have lost more than 95 percent of their residents.” That’s an awful lot of abandonment. In the video tour above, we get to explore the “Capital of all Ghost Towns,” Craco, a towering village on the high cliffs of a region known as Basilicata in Southern Italy, nestled in the instep of the boot. Founded in the 8th century AD by Greek settlers, the village survived Black Plague, “bands of marauding thieves,” writes Atlas Obscura, and the usual political instability and internecine conflict of Italian towns, duchies, city states, etc. before the country’s 19th century unification. In the end, “a landslide finally forced residents from Craco in 1991.”
The very location that kept the town safe for centuries from those who would sack it also exposed it to the elements. “Once a monastic center, a feudal town and center of education with a university, castle, church, and plazas,” Ancient Origins writes, Craco has now become a destination for adventurers and a set for several films, “including Saving Grace, James Bond’s Quantum of Solace and the hanging of Judas scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.” Charming, no? While such towns are hardly found in the usual history text or guidebook, ancient Italian ghost towns and abandoned castles have inspired actual ghost stories for hundreds of years and are the very origin of the gothic as a literary genre, via Horace Walpole’s haunted castle novel, The Castle of Otranto.
Walpole might just as well have written about the castle of Craco, which you can explore above with Marco, Till, Tobi, and Sam, hosts and producers of Abandoned Italy, a web series devoted to exactly that. In several seasons online, they travel to other ghostly towns, villages, and islands, asking questions like, “what if humans go extinct?” Answering that one is a bit like pondering the tree-falling-in-the-forest question. If no one’s there to see it…. ?
All of us alive today perceive recent history as a series of decades. There exists, as far as we know, no quality of reality dictating that everything must recognizably change every ten years. But throughout the 21st century, it seems to have been thus: even if we weren’t alive at the time, we can tell at a glance the cultural artifacts of the nineteen-thirties from the nineteen-forties, for example, or those of the nineteen-eighties from the nineteen-nineties. Each decade has its own distinct fashions, which arose from its distinct worldview; that worldview arose from a vision of the future; and that vision of the future arose from changes in technology.
Back in the nineteen-tens, says history Youtuber Hochelaga in the video above, “the invention of the first airplane opened massive potential in transportation, and sparked the imagination of the public.” The development of aviation encouraged predictions that one day “the world would go airborne; people would take to the skies in their very own personal airships and gliders.” Popular artists dreamed of a kind of “steampunk genre: a future vision and aesthetic, but stuck in victorian technologies like steam power and industrial machinery, as well as goggles and top hats.” By the twenties, this optimistic vision would be displaced by darker but more stylish ones, such as the Art-Deco dystopia of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
It was the nineteen-fifties, specifically the triumphant and abundant American nineteen-fifties, that introduced the idea that “the future will be one of convenience and luxury.” As the Space Race progressed, this notional world of picture-phones and flying cars evolved into the one of interstellar freeways, robot maids, and Googie architecture exemplified by The Jetsons. But as far as personal technology was concerned, the real world had seen nothing yet. The rapid popularization of the personal computer in the eighties brought with it a vast expansion of ideas of what computers could do. According to the Terminator films, we were supposed to have an artificially intelligent defense network that attained self-awareness by 1997 — though our having blown past the deadline is probably for the best.
Here in the twenty-first century — an impossibly distant future in most of the decades discussed here — very few elements of these futures have been fully realized. For that matter, few of the technologies we actually do use in our everyday lives were accurately predicted in the twentieth century. (Imagine how social media would have looked on a color postcard from 1915.) “Each present moment imagines a future with themselves clearly in it, taking advantage of the newest technology of the day to its furthest limits,” says Hochelaga. In other words, each of these decades regards the future as an extreme version of itself. In this view, how many of us today think of the future as dull, grim, and even nonexistent tells us nothing about what will actually happen in decades ahead. It does, however, tell us a great deal about the twenty-twenties.
Fifty years after its theatrical release, The Godfather remains a subject of lively cinephile conversation. What, as any of us might ask after a fresh semi-centennial viewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia masterpiece, is this movie about? We need only ask Coppola himself, who has our answer in one word: succession. In the recent GQ interview above, he also explains the themes of other major works with similar succinctness: Apocalypse Now is about morality; The Conversation is about privacy. Such clean and simple encapsulations belie the nature of the film production process, and especially that of Coppola’s nineteen-seventies pictures, with their large scale, seriousness of purpose, and proneness to severe difficulty.
“What we consider real art is a movie that does not have a safety net,” Coppola says, and that applies without a doubt to movies like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Much as Orson Welles once said of his own experience making Citizen Kane, the young Coppola went into The Godfather ignorant of more or less everything involved in its content but life in an Italian-American family. But he had, in theater school, learned the techniques of “outwitting the faculty,” and dealing with the higher-ups at Hollywood studios turned out to require that same skill set. He thus found a way to include every element ruled insistently out by the executives, from New York locations and a period setting to performers like the then-unknown Al Pacino and then-washed-up Marlon Brando.
Brando didn’t take part in The Godfather Part II, but he did show up at the end of Apocalypse Now for a vividly memorable turn as the power-mad Colonel Kurtz. As Coppola remembers it, “when Brando arrived, he looked at me — he’s so smart — and he said, ‘You painted yourself in a corner, didn’t you?” The actor meant that the surreal qualities of the film had reached such an intensity that no conventional form of resolution could possibly suffice. This was the result of the fact that, as Coppola puts it, “one of the things that make a movie is the movie: it contributes to making itself.” In other words, as Coppola and his collaborators shot each scene (a process that famously resulted in over one million feet of footage), the very film taking shape before them suggested its own direction — in the case of Apocalypse Now, toward the ever darker and stranger.
Always candid about his professional struggles, Coppola has also been generous with technical and artistic explanations of just how his pictures have come together. Godfather fans will delight in his director’s-commentary tracks on the first and second parts of that trilogy; as for The Godfather Part III, Coppola released a new edit (in the manner of ApocalypseNow‘s Redux and Final Cut) called The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone in 2020. He discusses that project in the GQ interview, and also his work-in-progress Megalopolis. Having described The Godfather as essentially a Shakespearean tale, he’s now reaching further back in time: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you made a Roman epic but didn’t set it in ancient Rome — set it in modern New York?” He also lets us in on Megalopolis‘ surprising key word: not megalomania, nor ambition, nor power, but sincerity.
Since its launch last month, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent observers around the world scrambling for context. It is a fact, for example, that Russia and Ukraine were once “together” in the communist mega-state that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But it is also a fact that such Soviet togetherness hardly ensured warm feelings between the two lands. An especially relevant chapter of their history is known in Ukraine as the Holodomor, or “death by starvation.” Spanning the years 1932 and 1933, this period of famine resulted in three to six million lives lost — and that according to the lower accepted estimates.
“It was genocide,” says the narrator of the Vox “Missing Chapter’ video above, “carried out by a dictator who wanted to keep Ukraine under his control, and would do everything in his power to cover it up for decades. That dictator was, of course, Joseph Stalin, who accompanied brutal methods of rule with tight control of information. “In 1917, after the fall of the Russian Empire, Ukraine briefly gained freedom,” the video explains. “But by 1922, it was forcibly integrated into the newly formed Soviet Union.” A rural and highly fertile land, Ukraine was known as “the breadbasket of the Soviet Union” — hence Stalin’s desire to nip any potential revolution there in the bud.
First came a “widespread, violent purge of Ukrainian intellectuals along with priests and religious structures.” At the same time as they advanced this attempted dismantling of Ukrainian culture, Soviet higher-ups were also implementing Stalin’s five-year plan of industrialization, consolidation, and collectivization, including that of all agriculture. This was the time of the kulak, or “wealthy peasant,” the label invented to disgrace anyone resistant to this process. Any kulaks known to Stalin faced a terrible fate indeed, including exile, imprisonment, and even execution; those farmers who remained then fell victim to the dictator’s engineered famine.
Under the pretext of enforcing deliberately unrealistic grain-production quotas, Stalin’s enforcers seized farms across Ukraine in order to sell their products to the West. Before long, “Soviet police began seizing not just grain, but anything edible.” Farmers were stopped from leaving their homeland, where Stalin intended them to starve, “but even in this unimaginable suffering, Ukrainians fought for their lives and each other.” This video incorporates interviews with a grandson and granddaughter of two such Ukrainians who left behind personal records of the Holodomor. A story of endurance and survival under the very worst circumstances, and ultimately a return to national independence, it goes some way to explaining how and why Ukraine continues to put up such a valiant fight against the forces that have descended upon it.
What should you do if you come across a manticore? Would you even know how to identify it? An unlikely occurrence, you say? Perhaps. But if you lived in Europe in the Middle Ages – and you were the type to believe such tales – you might expect to see one someday. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a field guide? You’d want it on paper (or parchment): no one’s carrying smartphones in misty 13th century York or over the rocky highlands of 15th century Lombardy. You could consult a reigning expert of the time, such as Sir John Mandeville, who either saw such things as blemmyae (headless humans with faces in their chests) near Ethiopia, or made them up. But this didn’t matter much. Truth and fiction didn’t have such rigid boundaries. Yet books were rare, and anyway, few people could read. If only there were YouTube….
“Medieval zoology is bizarre,” says the narrator of the video above — a brief “Field Guide to Bizarre Medieval Monsters” — “because half the creatures don’t even exist, and those that do look very, very strange.” Your average medieval European couldn’t visit zoos full of exotic animals (rare exceptions like the Tower of London Menagerie notwithstanding), nor could they travel the world and see what creatures thrived in other climes.
They were forced to rely on the garbled accounts, or outright lies, of sailors, merchants, and other travelers, and the odd illustrations found in illuminated manuscripts. These blended travelogue, native folk elements, the weird imaginings of alchemy and demonology, and the myths and legends of medieval romance to create “a world where mythology and biology blend together.”
Dragons, unicorns, dog-headed saints…. You’ll find these and many more in the video field guide at the top and others online from the Cleveland Museum of Art and Medievalists.net, which describes our friend the manticore as a creature “having the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion.”
Many ancient and medieval monsters were hybrids of different animals, such as the Tarasque, which our field guide narrator explains lies “somewhere between a dragon and a tortoise.”
To find out its origins, you’ll have to keep watching. To read the original sources of this bizarre medieval zoology, see the British Library’s Medieval Monster’s collection, which includes aviaries, bestiaries, miscellanies, books of hours, and psalters, like the big page above from the Luttrell Psalter, a striking example of monstrous illustration. While we may never expect to see any of these creatures in the flesh, we can see more of them on the page (or screen) than anyone who lived in medieval Europe.
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