Watch Awesome Human Choreography That Reproduces the Murmurations of Starling Flocks

A number of choreographers have taken inspiration from the movement of birds.

Sadek Waff, creator of thrillingly precise “murmurations” such as the one above, is also inspired by street dance — particularly the popping hip hop moves known as Tutting and ToyMan.

The nature lover and founder of the dance troupe Géométrie Variable uses both to excellent effect, channeling a starling flock’s hive mind with human dancers, whose lower halves remain firmly rooted. It’s all about the hands and arms, punctuated with the occasional neck flex.

As he observes on his Instagram profile:

There is magic everywhere, the key is knowing how to look and listen in silence. Like a cloud of birds forming waves in the sky, each individual has their own identity but also has an irreplaceable place in the whole.

To achieve these kaleidoscopic murmurations, Waff’s dancers drill for hours, counting aloud in unison, refining their gestures to the point where the individual is subsumed by the group.

The use of mirrors can heighten the illusion:

The reflection brings a symmetrical dimension, like a calm body of water contemplating the spectacle from another point of view, adding an additional dimension, an extension of the image.

The larger the group, the more dazzling the effect, though a video featuring a smaller than usual group of dancers — 20 in total — is helpful for isolating the components Waff brings to bear in his avian-inspired work.

We’re particularly enthralled by the murmuration Waff created for the 2020 Paralympic Games’ closing ceremony in Tokyo, using both professionals and amateurs in matching black COVID-precaution masks to embody the event’s themes of “harmonious cacophony” and “moving forward.” (Notice that the front row of dancers are wheelchair users.)

See more of Sadek Waff’s murmurations on his YouTube channel and on Instagram.

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

How Well Can You Move in Medieval Armor?: Medievalist Daniel Jaquet Gives It a Try in Real Life

If you’ve ever run a marathon in costume, or for that matter, boarded public transportation with a large musical instrument or a bulky bag of athletic equipment, you know that gear can be a burden best shed.

But what if that gear is your first, nay, best line of defense against a fellow knight fixing to smite you in the name of their liege?

Such gear is non-optional.

Curious about the degree to which 15th-century knights were encumbered by their protective plating, medievalist Daniel Jaquet commissioned a top armor specialist from the Czech Republic to make a suit specific to his own personal measurements. The result is based on a 15th century specimen in Vienna that has been studied by the Wallace Collection’s archaeometallurgist Alan Williams. As Jaquet recalled in Sciences et Avenir:

We had to make compromises in the copying process, of course, because what interested me above all was to be able to do a behavioral study, to see how one moved with this equipment on the back rather than attaching myself to the number of exact rivets…we knew the composition and the hardness of the parts that we could compare to our replica.

The accomplished martial artist tested his mobility in the suit with a variety of highly public, modern activities: reaching for items on the highest supermarket shelves, jogging in the park, scaling a wall at a climbing gym, taking the Metro …

It may look like showboating, but these movements helped him assess how he’d perform in combat, as well as lower stress activities involving sitting down or standing up.

Out of his metal suit, Jaquet has been known to amuse himself by analyzing the verisimilitude of Game of Thrones’ combat scenes. (Conclusion: some liberties were taken, armor-wise, in that gruesome face off between the Mountain and the Viper.)

An invitation to travel to New York City to present at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered an unexpected testing opportunity, compliments of the airline’s baggage restrictions:

For reasons of weight, space and cost, the solution to wear the armor over me was considered the best.

(The TSA officers at Newark were not amused...)

His armored experience sheds light on those of early 15th-century knight Jean le Maingre, aka Boucicaut, whose impressive career was cut short in 1415, when he was captured by the English at the Battle of Agincourt.

Boucicaut kept himself in tip top physical condition with a regular armored fitness regimen. His chivalric biography details gearing up for exercises that include running, chopping wood, vaulting onto a horse, and working his way up a ladder from the underside, without using his feet.

Jaquet duplicates them all in the above video.

(Reminder to those who would try this at home, make sure you’re capable of performing these exercises in lightweight shorts and t-shirt before attempting to do them in armor.)

Like Boucicault’s, Jaquet’s armor is bespoke. Those who’ve struggled to lift their arms in an off-the-rack jacket will appreciate the trade off. It’s worth spending more to ensure sufficient range of movement.

In Boucicault’s day, ready-made pieces of lesser quality could be procured at markets, trading fairs, and shops in populous areas. You could also try your luck after battle, by stripping the captive and the dead of theirs. Size was always an issue. Too small and your movement would be restricted. Too big, and you’d be hauling around unnecessary weight.

Jaquet describes his load as being on par with the weight 21st-century soldiers are required to carry. Body armor is a lifesaver, according to a 2018 study by the Center for a New American Security, but it also reduces mobility, increases fatigue, and reduces mission performance.

Gizmodo’s Jennifer Ouellette finds that medieval knights faced similar challenges:

The legs alone were carrying an extra 15 to 18 pounds, so the muscles had to work that much harder to overcome inertia to set the legs in motion. There is also evidence that the thin slits in the face mask, and tight chest plate, restricted oxygen flow even further.

Read a detailed, scholarly account of Jaquet’s armor experiment in Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History.

For those looking for a lighter read, here is Jaquet’s account of taking a commercial flight in armor (and some best practice tips for those attempting the same.)

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

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Archaeologists Discover 1300-Year-Old Pair of Skis, the Best-Preserved Ancient Skis in Existence

Surfing is generally believed to have originated in Hawaii and will be forever associated with the Polynesian islands. Yet anthropologists have found evidence of something like surfing wherever humans have encountered a beach — on the coasts of West Africa, in the Caribbean, India, Syria, and Japan. Surfing historian Matt Warshaw sums up the problem with locating the origins of this human activity: “Riding waves simply for pleasure most likely developed in one form or another among any coastal people living near warm ocean water.” Could one make a similar point about skiing?

It seems that wherever humans have settled in places covered with snow for much of the year, they’ve improvised all kinds of ways to travel across it. Who did so with the first skis, and when? Ski-like objects dating from 6300-5000 BC have been found in northern Russia. A New York Times article recently described evidence of Stone Age skiers in China. “If skiing, as it seems possible,” Nils Larsen writes at the International Skiing History Association, “dates back 10,000 years or more, identifying a point of origin (or origins) will be difficult at best.” Such discussions tend to get “bogged down in politics and national pride,” Larsen writes. For example, “since the emergence of skiing in greater Europe in the late 1800s” — as a sport and purely recreational activity — “Norway has often been considered the birthplace of skiing. Norway has promoted this view and it is a point of national pride.”

Despite its earliest records of skiing dating millennia later than other regions, Norway has some claim. The word ski is, after all, Norwegian, derived from Old Norse skíð, meaning “cleft wood” or “stick.” And the best-preserved ancient skis ever found have been discovered in a Norwegian ice field. “Even the bindings are mostly intact,” notes Kottke. The first ski, believed to be 1300 years old, turned up in 2014, found by the Glacier Archeology Program (GAP) in the mountains of Innlandet County, Norway. The archaeologists decided to wait, let the ice melt, and see if the other ski would appear. It did, just recently, and in the video above, you can watch the researchers pull it from the ice.

Photo: Andreas Christoffer Nilsson,

“Measuring about 74 inches long and 7 inches wide,” notes Livia Gershon at Smithsonian, “the second ski is slightly larger than its mate. Both feature raised footholds. Leather straps and twisted birch bark bindings found with the skis would have been attached through holes in the footholds. The new ski shows signs of heavy wear and eventual repairs.” The two skis are not identical, “but we should not expect them to be,” says archaeologist Lars Pilø. “The skis are handmade, not mass-produced. They have a long and individual history of wear and repair before an Iron Age skier used them together and they ended up in the ice.”

The new ski answered questions the researchers had about the first discovery, such as how the ancient skis might have maintained forward motion uphill. “A furrow on the underside along the length of the ski, as you find on other prehistoric skis (and on modern cross-country skis), would solve the question,” they write, and the second ski contained such a furrow. While they may never prove that Norway invented skiing, as glacier ice melts and new artifacts appear each year, the team will learn much more about ancient Norwegian skiers and their way of life. See their current discoveries and follow their future progress at the Secrets of the Ice website and on their YouTube channel.

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Medieval Tennis: A Short History and Demonstration

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

Medieval Tennis: A Short History and Demonstration

British You Tuber Nikolas “Lindybiege” Lloyd is a man of many, many interests.

Wing Chun style kung fu…

Children’s television produced in the UK between 1965 and 1975…

Ancient weaponrychainmail, and historically accurate WWII model miniatures

Actress Celia Johnson, star of the 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter

Evolutionary psychology

…and it would appear, tennis.

But not the sort you’ll find played on the grass courts of Wimbledon, or for that matter, the hard courts of the US Open.

Lloyd is one of a select few who gravitate toward the version of the game that was known as the sport of kings.

It was, according to a 1553 guide, created, “to keep our bodies healthy, to make our young men stronger and more robust, chasing idleness, virtue’s mortal enemy, far from them and thus making them of a stronger and more excellent nature.”

Henry VIII was a talented and enthusiastic player in his youth, causing the Venetian Ambassador to rhapsodize, “it was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play; his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture.”

Henry’s second wife, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, was also a fan of the sport, with money riding on the match she was watching when she was summoned to the Privy Council “by order of the King,” the first stop on her very swift journey to the Tower of London.

The sport’s roots reach all the way to the 11th and 12th centuries when monks and villagers in southern France were mad for jeu de paume, a tennis-like game predating the use of racquets, whose popularity eventually spread to the royals and aristocrats of Paris.

The game Lloyd tries his hand at above is now known as Real Tennis, a term invented in the 19th-century to distinguish it from the then-new craze for lawn tennis.

Mention “the sport of kings” these days and most folks will assume you’re referring to fox hunting or horse-racing.

Mind you, real tennis is just as rarified. You won’t find it being played on any old (which is to say new) indoor court. It requires four irregularly sized walls, an asymmetrical layout, and a sloping penthouse roof. Behold the layout of a Real Tennis court by Atethnekos, compliments of  English Wikipedia:

Compared to that, the Tennis Department‘s diagram of the familiar modern set up seems like child’s play:

Other cognitive challenges for those whose version of tennis doesn’t extend back to medieval days:  a slack net; lopsided, tightly strung, small raquets; and a gallery of waist-high screened “hazards,” that are spiritually akin to pinball targets, especially the one with the bell.

The handmade balls may look similar to your average mass-produced Penn or Wilson, but expect that each will be “unique in its particular quirks”:

They are not perfectly spherical and these seams stick out a little bit more here and there, which means that the bounce can be rather unpredictable. Because these are heavier and harder, they don’t swerve when you spin them in the air very much, but when they hit a wall and get a decent grip, the swerve can send them zinging off along the wall to great effect.

Once Lloyd has oriented viewers and himself to the court and equipment, Real Tennis pro Zak Eadle walks him through serving, scoring, and strategy in the form of chases.

Quoth Shakespeare’s Henry V:

His present, and your pains, we thank you for:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace play a set,
Shall strike his father’s crown into the Hazard:
Tell him, he made a match with such a wrangler, 
That all the Courts of France will be disturb’d with chases.

Even non-athletic types could find themselves fascinated by the historical context Lindybeige provides.

If you’re moved to take racquet in hand, there are a handful of Real Tennis courts in the USA, UK, Australia, and France where you might be able to try your luck.

The sport could use you. Estimates indicate that the number of players has dwindled to a mere 10,000. Surely someone is desperate for a partner.

Delve further into the world of Real Tennis on the International Real Tennis Professionals Association’s website.

Check out some of Lindybeige’s other interests on his YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

What It’s Like to Actually Fight in Medieval Armor

Ever wonder what it was like to really fight while wearing a full suit of armor? We’ve featured a few historical reconstructions here on Open Culture, including a demonstration of the various ways combatants would vanquish their foe—including a sword right between the eyes. We’ve also shown you how long it took to create a suit of armor and the clever flexibility built into them. But really, don’t we want to see what it would be like in a full melee? In the above Vice documentary, you can finally sate your bloodlust.

Not that anyone dies in the MMA-like sword-and-chainmail brawls. In these public competitions, the weapons are blunted and contestants fight “not to the death, just until they fall over,” as the narrator somewhat sadly explains. It is just a legit sport as any other fighting challenge, and the injuries are real. There’s no fooling around with these people. They are serious, and a nation’s honor is still at stake.

This mini-doc follows the American team to the International Medieval Combat Federation World Championships in Montemor-o-Velho in Portugal. What looks like a regular Renaissance faire is only the decorations around the main, incredibly violent event. We see battles with longswords, short axes, shields used offensively and defensively, and a lot of pushing and shoving. Contestants go head-to-head, or five against five, or twelve against twelve.

Twenty-six countries take part, and I have to say for all the jingoistic hoo-hah I try to ignore, the American team’s very nicely designed stars and stripes battle gear looked pretty damn cool. The Vice team also discover an interesting cast of characters, like the Texan who wears his cowboy hat when he’s not wearing his combat helmet; the man who describes his fighting style as “nerd rage”; and the couple on their honeymoon who met while brutally beating each other in an earlier competition. (No, the knights here are not all men.).

There are injuries, sprains, broken bones. There’s also the madness of inhaling too much of your own CO2 inside the helmet; and smelling the ozone when a spark of metal-upon-metal flies into the helmet.

Thankfully nobody is fighting to the death or for King/Queen and Country. Just for the fun of adrenalin-based competition and bragging rights.

via BoingBoing

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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 Only Footage of Bruce Lee Fighting for Real (1967)

Two years after the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, people are still arguing about its brief portrayal of Bruce Lee. Whether it accurately represented his personality is one debate, but much more important for martial-arts enthusiasts is whether it accurately represented his fighting skills. This could easily be determined by holding the scene in question up against footage of the real Bruce Lee in action, but almost no such footage exists. While Lee’s performances in films like Enter the Dragon and Game of Death continue to win him fans 48 years after his death, their fights — however physically demanding — are, of course, thoroughly choreographed and rehearsed performances.

Hence the way, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s rough-hewn stuntman Cliff Booth dismisses screen martial artists like Lee as “dancers.” Those are fighting words, and indeed a fight ensues, though one meant to get laughs (and to illuminate the characters’ opposing physical and emotional natures) rather than seriously to recreate a contest between trained martial artist and simple bruiser.

As for how Lee handled himself in actual fights, we have no surviving visual evidence but the clips above, shot during a couple of matches in 1967. The event was the Long Beach International Karate Championships, where three years earlier Lee’s demonstration of such improbable physical feats as two-finger push-ups and one-inch punches got him the attention in the U.S. that led to the role of Kato on The Green Hornet.

In these 1967 bouts, the now-famous Lee uses the techniques of Jeet Kune Do, his own hybrid martial-arts philosophy emphasizing usefulness in real-life combat. “First he fights Ted Wong, one of his top Jeet Kune Do students,” says Twisted Sifter. “They are allegedly wearing protective gear because they weren’t allowed to fight without them as per California state regulations.” Lee is the one wearing the gear with white straps — as if he weren’t identifiable by sheer speed and control alone. Seen today, his fighting style in this footage reminds many of modern-day mixed martial arts, a sport that might not come into existence had Lee never popularized the practical combination of elements drawn from all fighting styles. Whether the man himself was as arrogant as Tarantino made him out to be, he must have suspected that martial-arts would only be catching up with him half a century later.

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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.

Tony Hawk Breaks Down Skateboarding Into 21 Levels of Difficulty: From Easy to Complex

Thirty or so Christmases ago, I received my first skateboard. Alas, it was also my last skateboard: not long after I got the hang of balancing on the thing, it was run over and snapped in half by a mail truck. There went my last chance at Olympic athleticism, though I couldn’t have known it at the time: it debuted as an event at the Summer Olympics just this year, and its competitions are underway even now in Tokyo. This is, in any case, a bit late for me, given the relative… maturity of my years as against those of the average Olympic skateboarder. But then, Tony Hawk is in his fifties, and something tells me he could still show those kids a thing or two.

Hawk, the most famous skateboarder in the world, shows us 21 things in the Wired video above— specifically, 21 skateboarding moves, each one representative of a higher difficulty level than the last. At level one, we have the “flat-ground ollie,” which involves “using one foot to snap the tail of the board downward, and then you have the board sort of aiming up, and then sliding your front foot at the right time in order to bring that board up and level it out in the air.”

To the untrained eye, a well-executed ollie projects the image of skater and board are “jumping” as a whole. But it can only be mastered by those willing to keep their feet on the board, rather than obeying the instinct to put one foot off to the side. “People do that for years,” laments Hawk.

Level ten finds Hawk on the half-pipe doing a “360 aerial.” He describes the action as we watch him perform it: “I’m going up the ramp, I’m turning in the frontside direction a full 360, and I’m coming down backwards” — but not yet flipping the board while in the air, a slightly more advanced move. The final levels enter “the realm of unreality,” covering the NBD (Never Been Done) tricks that skaters nevertheless believe possible. For Level 21 he chooses the “1260 spin” — “three and a half rotations” — which he’s never even seen attempted. Or at least he hadn’t at the time of this video’s shoot in 2019; Mitchie Brusco landed one at the X Games just two days later. Even now, given the seemingly infinite potential variations of and expansions on every trick, skateboarding is unlikely to have hit its physical limits. Just imagine what the kids who successfully dodge their mailman now will be able to pull off when they grow up.

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Fully Flared

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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.

Haruki Murakami’s Daily Routine: Up at 4:00 a.m., 5-6 Hours of Writing, Then a 10K Run

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Haruki Murakami has been famous as a novelist since the 1980s. But for a decade or two now, he’s become increasingly well known around the world as a novelist who runs. The English-speaking world’s awareness of Murakami’s roadwork habit goes back at least as far as 2004, when the Paris Review published an Art of Fiction interview with him. Asked by interviewer John Ray to describe the structure of his typical workday, Murakami replied as follows:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

This stark physical departure from the popular notion of literary work drew attention. Truer to writerly stereotype was the Murakami of the early 1980s, when he turned pro as a novelist after closing the jazz bar he’d owned in Tokyo. “Once I was sitting at a desk writing all day I started putting on the pounds,” he remembers in The New Yorker. “I was also smoking too much — sixty cigarettes a day. My fingers were yellow, and my body reeked of smoke.” Aware that something had to change, Murakami performed an experiment on himself: “I decided to start running every day because I wanted to see what would happen. I think life is a kind of laboratory where you can try anything. And in the end I think it was good for me, because I became tough.”

Adherence to such a lifestyle, as Murakami tells it, has enabled him to write all his novels since, including hits like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. (On some level, it also reflects his protagonists’ tendency to make transformative leaps from one version of reality into another.) Its rigor has surely contributed to the discipline necessary for the rest of his output as well: translation into his native Japanese of works including The Great Gatsby, but also large quantities of first-person writing on his own interests and everyday life. Protective of his reputation in English, Murakami has allowed almost none of the latter to be published in this language.

But in light of the voracious consumption of self-improvement literature in the English-speaking world, and especially in America, translation of his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running must have been an irresistible proposition. “I’ve never recommended running to others,” Murakami writes in The New Yorker piece, which is drawn from the book. “If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference.” For some, Murakami’s example has been enough: take the writer-vlogger Mel Torrefranca, who documented her attempt to follow his example for a week. For her, a week was enough; for Murakami, who’s been running-while-writing for nearly forty years now, there could be no other way.

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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.

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