Venice’s Canals Have Run Dry During a Winter Drought, Leaving Gondolas Stuck in the Mud

When Venice was way under water a decade ago, we posted about it here on Open Culture. By that time, the City of Canals was supposed to have been protected by MOSE, a $7 billion flood-control system not actually completed until 2021. But a drought struck the following year, and what afflicts Venice right now isn’t an excess of water but a lack of it. “Weeks of dry winter weather have raised concerns that Italy could face another drought after last summer’s emergency,” reports Reuters, “with the Alps having received less than half of their normal snowfall.”

Venice in particular “faces unusually low tides that are making it impossible for gondolas, water taxis and ambulances to navigate some of its famous canals,” a phenomenon blamed on a combination of factors including “the lack of rain, a high pressure system, a full moon, and sea currents.”

The Guardian video above includes, among other dispiriting scenes, a gondolier struggling to maneuver through one of the canals of Venice not quite reduced to muddy ditches. It also shows the contrast with the flooding Venice endured as recently as 2019, which had tourists and locals alike up to their knees in water.

These conditions are striking, but not unprecedented in Venice’s history of over a millennium and a half. “Although they’ve become significantly less frequent over the past two decades due to rising sea levels, Venice still sees one to ten low tides every year,” writes The Local‘s Giampietro Vianello. “The city has seen 160 low tides with levels equal to or lower than -90cm since 1872, whereas the current tide has ‘only’ reached the -70cm mark so far.” Forecasts do indicate a rainfall to come across northern Italy, but at least until then, modern-day Robert Benchleys will have to alter their message back home: “Streets empty of water. Please advise.”

Related content:

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How Venice Works: 124 Islands, 183 Canals & 438 Bridges

Venice in Beautiful Color Images 125 Years Ago: The Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace & More

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

A Relaxing 3-Hour Tour of Venice’s Canals

Watch Venice’s New $7 Billion Flood Defense System in Action

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.

Michelangelo’s Illustrated Grocery List

Image by Casa Buonarroti, via Wikimedia Commons

I admit to having a hard time keeping grocery lists. Do I write them by hand? If so, do I do it in a dedicated notebook, on a refrigerator pad, or on any old scrap I find around? Do I compose them electronically, using some combination of my computer, my phone, and other, more specialized devices? And do I keep separate lists for separate trips to separate stores? (Certain delicacies, after all, you can only get at Trader Joe’s.)

Living in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Italian High Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer Michelangelo faced a rather less complicated shopping problem: he had only to send assistants off to market to bring back what he needed. Though vanishingly few of this prolific creator’s papers survive today, we do happen to have a few of the grocery lists he sent with them, like that which you see above.

John Updike once wrote that “excellence in the great things is built upon excellence in the small,” and the observation holds up ideally when we think about Michelangelo’s numerous great achievements — PietàDavidThe Last Judgment, St. Peter’s Basilica — in comparison to this humble yet striking rundown of ingredients for a meal, of the same basic kind each of us scrawl out regularly. But when Michelangelo scrawled, he scrawled with both a craftsman’s practical precision and an artist’s evocative flair. “Because the servant he was sending to market was illiterate,” writes the Oregonian‘s Steve Duin in a review of a Seattle Art Museum show, “Michelangelo illustrated the shopping lists — a herring, tortelli, two fennel soups, four anchovies and ‘a small quarter of a rough wine’ — with rushed (and all the more exquisite for it) caricatures in pen and ink.” As we can see, the true Renaissance Man didn’t just pursue a variety of interests, but applied his mastery equally to tasks exceptional and mundane. Which, of course, renders the mundane exceptional.

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Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories: From Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” to “Cinderella”

Few American novelists of the twentieth century looked as professorial as Kurt Vonnegut, at least in a rumpled-fixture-of-the-English-department way. But though he did rack up some teaching experience, not least at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he could hardly have been a conventional lecturer. This is evidenced by the 2004 clip above, in which he explains his ideas about the “shapes” taken by all stories — an idea he first formally presented as his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Though the thesis itself was rejected (a quarter-century later, the university accepted Cat’s Cradle in its stead), its ideas proved powerful enough to entertain Vonnegut’s audiences up until the end of his life.

On his chalkboard, Vonnegut draws a vertical and a horizontal axis: the former charts the protagonist’s fortune, good or ill, and the latter represents time (from B to E: “beginning, entropy”). He then plots the curve of an especially simple and reliable story form, “man in a hole,” which involves someone getting into trouble — downward turns the slope — then getting back out again.

But the protagonist should end up a bit higher on the scale of fortune than he began, because “the reader thinks, ‘Well, by God, I’m a human being too. I must have that much in reserve if I get into trouble.” Then come the stories of other shapes, including such popular favorites as “Cinderella” and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

“This rise and fall,” Vonnegut warns us, “is, in fact, artificial. It pretends that we know more about life than we really do.” When he attempts to describe the shape of Hamlet, he ends up coming across one reason the play is regarded as a work of genius: “we are so seldom told the truth,” but Shakespeare tells us the truth that “we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” Rather, “all we do is echo the feelings of people around us.” As Vonnegut’s readers know, a dimmer view of human nature than his would be hard to come by. But if he didn’t have faith the ability of stories to teach us good from bad, he did have faith in their ability to teach us that we aren’t about to figure it out for ourselves.

Related content:

Kurt Vonnegut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Stories (and Amusingly Graphs the Shapes Those Stories Can Take)

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago

Why the University of Chicago Rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis (and How a Novel Got Him His Degree 27 Years Later)

Why Should We Read Kurt Vonnegut? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Artificial Intelligence Identifies the Six Main Arcs in Storytelling: Welcome to the Brave New World of Literary Criticism

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.

A Retired Math Teacher Helps Students Learn Geometry Through Quilting

Some real talk from retired geometry teacher Wendy Lichtman, above, the author of several math-themed YA novels:

Not many 15-year-olds care that two parallel lines are crossed by a transversal.

“But right here are two parallel lines,” she continues, pointing to a pink and orange quilt. “and these are transversals, and they are at a 90º angle and it feels real. You’ve gotta get it to look right.”

The teenaged participants in the Oakland, California program she founded to demystify geometry through hands-on quiltmaking get it to look right by plotting their designs on graph paper, carefully measuring and cutting shapes from bright calico of their own choosing. (Licthman has committed to buttoning her lip if their favored print is not to her taste.)

Lichtman came up with this creative approach to help a bright student who was in danger of not graduating, having flunked geometry three times.

She details their journey in How to Make a Geometric Quilt, an essay formatted as step-by-step instructions…not for quiltmaking but rather how those in the teaching profession can lead with humility and determination, while maintaining good boundaries.

Some highlights:

6. Sometime after the sewing has begun, and the math notebook is ignored for weeks, begin to worry that your student is not really learning geometry.  She’s learning sewing and she’s learning to fix a broken bobbin, but really, geometry?

7. Remind yourself that this kid needs a quilt as much as she needs geometry.

8. Remember, also, the very, very old woman who taught you hat-making one night long ago.  She had gone to school only through 5th grade because, she said, she was a Black child in the deep south and that’s how it was back then.  Think about how she explained to the hat-making class that to figure out the length of the hat’s brim, you needed to measure from the center to the edge with a string and then do “three of those and a little bit more,” and remember how you sat in awe, because three radii and a little bit more is the definition of pi, and this hat-maker had evidently discovered for herself the formula for circumference.

As the two become better acquainted, the student let her guard down, revealing more about her situation while they swapped stories of their mothers.

But this was no easy A.

In addition to expecting regular, punctual attendance, Lictman stipulated that in order to pass, the student could not give the fruits of her labor away.

(Solid advice for creators of any craft project this ambitious. As Debbie Stoller, author of Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook counsels:

…those who have never knit something have no idea how much time it took. If you give someone a sweater, they may think that you made that in an evening when you were watching a half-hour sitcom. It’s only when people actually attempt to knit that they finally get this realization, this light bulb goes on over their heads, and they realize that, “Wow, this actually takes some skill and some time. I’ve got newfound respect for my grandma.”)

Ultimately, Lichtman concludes that the five credits she awarded her student could not be reduced to something as simple as geometry or quilt-making;

You are giving her credit for something less tangible.  Something like pride.  Five credit hours for feeling she can accomplish something hard that, okay, is slightly related to geometry.

Examples of the current cohort’s work can be seen on Rock Paper Scissors Collective‘s Instagram.

Once completed, these quilts will be donated to Bay Area foster children and pediatric patients at the local Children’s Hospital.

via BoingBoing

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The Solar System Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Creates a Handcrafted Quilt to Use as a Teaching Aid in Her Astronomy Class

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Bisa Butler’s Beautiful Quilted Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Jean-Michel Basquiat & More

Via Boing Boing

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Maya Angelou’s Memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Became One of the Most Banned Books of All Time

Some good news: Maya Angelou’s 1969 memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a recounting of her first 17 years, including a rape at the age of 7 or 8 by her mother’s boyfriend, and her subsequent emotional trauma, no longer leads the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom’s list of banned and challenged books.

The bad news: there will always be titles assigned to high schoolers that vividly depict young people’s actual experience, that parents and community groups will target on similar grounds.

New African listed some of the verbatim objections that have been leveled against I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – that it encouraged “profanity”, was filled with “descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture”, preached “bitterness and hatred against whites”, was “likely to corrupt minors” and contained “inappropriately explicit sexual scenes.”

Angelou, who accused the book’s detractors of not reading more than two words of it, bridled that anyone would “act as if their children are not faced with the same threats.”

Mollie Godfrey’s TED-Ed lesson, animated by Laura White. above, points out how radical Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was for a work of its time:

Her autobiography was one of the first to speak openly about child sexual abuse and especially groundbreaking to do so from the perspective of the abused child. For centuries Black women writers have been limited by stereotypes characterizing them as hypersexual. Afraid of reinforcing these stereotypes, few were willing to write about their sexuality at all but Angelou refused to be constrained. She publicly explored her most personal experience without apology or shame.

Robert P. Doyle, vice-president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, revealed that the ALA was inspired to launch Banned Books Week in 1982, when the American Booksellers Association displayed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and other works in a cage outside the entrance to their annual conference:

The display generated a lot of press attention. And the book community realized that we have not only an opportunity, but a responsibility to engage the American public in a conversation about the First Amendment as it relates to books and literature. A coalition was formed immediately with the authors, publishers, and major distribution centers (bookstores and libraries) in the U.S. to draw attention to the importance of the freedom to read, to publicize threats to that freedom, and to provide information to combat the lack of awareness.

Many of the book’s high profile defenders discovered it at a formative age, including rapper Common, who decided to become a writer after encountering it as a 5th grader, and Oprah Winfrey, who was blown away to learn that another young Black girl had also endured sexual abuse:

I read those words and thought, “Somebody knows who I am.”

No less moving is a comment on Godfrey’s TED-Ed lesson left by a teacher in Texas:

Caged Bird helped saved my life. Thankful for the day my 11th grade English teacher at a conservative Christian school handed it to me and said, “read this, sweet pea”…I still encourage my students at a conservative Christian school in TX to read it.”

“I am glad you got the help you needed,” another viewer responded. “I live in Florida, and that teacher who helped you would be charged with a felony here. I’m dead serious.”

Listen to Maya Angelou discuss I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in this 1970  interview with Studs Terkel. 

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How One Man Keeps Showing Films in a Japanese Cinema That Closed 58 Years Ago: A Moving, Short Documentary

Since at least the nineteen-fifties, when television ownership began spreading rapidly across the developed world, movie theaters have been laboring under one kind of existential threat or another. Yet despite their apparent vulnerability to a variety of disruptive developments — home video, streaming, COVID-19 — many, if not most, of them have found ways to soldier on. In some cases this owes to the dedication of small groups of supporters, or even to the efforts of individuals like Shuji Tamura, who operates the century-old Motomiya Movie Theater in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture single-handedly.

You can see Tamura in action in My Theater, the five-minute documentary short above. “The Japanese director Kazuya Ashizawa’s charming observational portrait captures Tamura as he screens old movies for an audience of students and cinephiles, and gives behind-the-scenes tours of the cinema,” says Aeon. Those tours include an up-close look at the thoroughly analog film projector of whose operation Tamura, 81 years old at the time of filming, has retained all the know-how. Though he officially closed the theater in the nineteen-sixties, it seems he keeps his threading skills sharp by holding screenings for tour groups young and old.

Though lighthearted, a portrait like this could hardly avoid an elegiac undertone. Already suffering from the depopulation that has afflicted many regions of Japan, Fukushima was also badly afflicted by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and their associated nuclear disaster. In 2020, the year after Ashizawa shot My Theater, a typhoon “caused the Abukumagawa river and its tributaries to flood,” as the Asahi Shimbun‘s Shoko Rikimaru writes. “The Motomiya city center was inundated, seven people died, and more than 2,000 houses and buildings were damaged.” Both Tamura’s theater and his home were flooded, and “half of the 400 film cans on shelves on the first floor of his house were drenched in muddy water.”

In response, help came from near and far. “A manufacturer in Kanagawa Prefecture sent 10 boxes of film cans to the theater, while a movie theater in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, delivered a film-editing machine. About 30 people affiliated with the film industry in Tokyo showed up at the theater to help clean and dry the film. The effort led to the restoration of about 100 films.” Alas, Tamura’s planned re-opening event happened to coincide with the spread of the coronavirus across Japan, resulting in its indefinite postponement. But now that Japan has re-opened for international tourism, perhaps the  Motomiya Movie Theater can become a destination for not just domestic visitors but foreign ones as well. Having been charmed by My Theater, who wouldn’t want to make the trip?

via Aeon

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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 Art of Making Movie Trailers: A Longtime Movie Trailer Editor Breaks Down Classic Previews for Dr. Strangelove, Carrie, and Others

No art form is as subject to trend and fashion as the Hollywood film — except, perhaps, the Hollywood trailer. If you came of age as a moviegoer in the nineteen-nineties, as I did, you’ll remember hearing hundreds of gravelly-voiced promises of transportation to “a world where the sun burns cold, and the wind blows colder”; to “a world where great risks can bring extraordinary rewards”; to “a world where dreamers and believers are miraculously transformed into heavenly creatures.” Practically all of these  lines were delivered by voice-over artist Don LaFontaine; when he died in 2008, the “in a world…” trailer went with him.

LaFontaine gets his due in the Vox video at the top of the post, which examines the art of the movie trailer through the eyes of editor Bill Neil. Neil’s own résumé includes the trailers for modern entries in various horror franchises, like remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror, as well as the 2018 Halloween.

This placed him well to cut one together for Nope by Jordan Peele, an auteur keen on putting old tropes of genre film to new ends. The project gave Neil a chance to exercise his own retro-repurposing instinct, and here he lays out a few of the sources — Carpenter’s The Fog, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind — to which he paid homage while filling the trailer with intrigue.

With Nope, as with most every film, Neil made its trailer without seeing the finished product. Rather, he had to work with raw footage as it was being shot, which results in visible differences between the images in the trailer and those in the actual movie. (In some cases, scenes excerpted in a trailer end up cut out entirely.) Such restrictions have a way of inspiring editors to come up with new techniques, some of which become highly influential: in the video, Neil highlights the features of classic trailers for pictures like Dr. Strangelove, Carrie, and Alien, identifying the most enduring elements of their legacy in his craft.

When those movies came out in the nineteen-sixties, seventies, and early eighties, most trailers were seen in one place: the movie theater. (And in those days, as Neil notes, trailers were made not by specialized production houses, but employees in the studio or even the filmmakers themselves.) Then came the home-video era, which challenged editors with defeating the viewer’s instinct to hit fast-forward. Today, trailers reflect the dominance of what Neil calls the “bumper,” a flash of maximum excitement in the first few seconds that suggests “it’s gonna get crazy by the end” — on the theory that, because you’re probably watching on Youtube, you won’t hesitate to click that skip button otherwise.

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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.

Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree: The Animated Film Narrated by Shel Silverstein Himself (1973)

Back in 1964, Shel Silverstein wrote The Giving Tree, a widely loved children’s book now translated into more than 30 languages. It’s a story about the human condition, about giving and receiving, using and getting used, neediness and greediness, although many finer points of the story are open to interpretation. Today, we’re rewinding the videotape to 1973, when Silverstein’s little book was turned into a 10-minute animated film. Silverstein narrates the story himself and also plays the harmonica…. which brings us to his musical talents. Don’t miss Silverstein, also a well-known songwriter, appearing on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970, and the two singing “A Boy Named Sue.” Silverstein wrote the song, and Cash made it famous. Thanks to Mark, co-editor of the philosophy blog/podcast The Partially Examined Life for sending these along.

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