Napoleon’s Kindle: Discover the Miniaturized Traveling Library That the Emperor Took on Military Campaigns

Every piece of tech­nol­o­gy has a prece­dent. Most have sev­er­al dif­fer­ent types of prece­dents. You’ve prob­a­bly used (and may well own) an eBook read­er, for instance, but what would have afford­ed you a selec­tion of read­ing mate­r­i­al two or three cen­turies ago? If you were a Jacobean Eng­lish­man of means, you might have used the kind of trav­el­ing library we fea­tured in 2017, a hand­some portable case cus­tom-made for your books. (If you’re Tom Stop­pard in the 21st cen­tu­ry, you still do.) If you were Napoleon, who seemed to love books as much as he loved mil­i­tary pow­er — he did­n’t just amass a vast col­lec­tion of them, but kept a per­son­al librar­i­an to over­see it — you’d take it a big step fur­ther.

“Many of Napoleon’s biog­ra­phers have inci­den­tal­ly men­tioned that he […] used to car­ry about a cer­tain num­ber of favorite books wher­ev­er he went, whether trav­el­ing or camp­ing,” says an 1885 Sacra­men­to Dai­ly Union arti­cle post­ed by Austin Kleon, “but it is not gen­er­al­ly known that he made sev­er­al plans for the con­struc­tion of portable libraries which were to form part of his bag­gage.” The piece’s main source, a Lou­vre librar­i­an who grew up as the son of one of Napoleon’s librar­i­ans, recalls from his father’s sto­ries that “for a long time Napoleon used to car­ry about the books he required in sev­er­al box­es hold­ing about six­ty vol­umes each,” each box first made of mahogany and lat­er of more sol­id leather-cov­ered oak. “The inside was lined with green leather or vel­vet, and the books were bound in moroc­co,” an even soft­er leather most often used for book­bind­ing.

To use this ear­ly trav­el­ing library, Napoleon had his atten­dants con­sult “a cat­a­logue for each case, with a cor­re­spond­ing num­ber upon every vol­ume, so that there was nev­er a moment’s delay in pick­ing out any book that was want­ed.” This worked well enough for a while, but even­tu­al­ly “Napoleon found that many books which he want­ed to con­sult were not includ­ed in the col­lec­tion,” for obvi­ous rea­sons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librar­i­an these orders:

The Emper­or wish­es you to form a trav­el­ing library of one thou­sand vol­umes in small 12mo and print­ed in hand­some type. It is his Majesty’s inten­tion to have these works print­ed for his spe­cial use, and in order to econ­o­mize space there is to be no mar­gin to them. They should con­tain from five hun­dred to six hun­dred pages, and be bound in cov­ers as flex­i­ble as pos­si­ble and with spring backs. There should be forty works on reli­gion, forty dra­mat­ic works, forty vol­umes of epic and six­ty of oth­er poet­ry, one hun­dred nov­els and six­ty vol­umes of his­to­ry, the remain­der being his­tor­i­cal mem­oirs of every peri­od.

In sum: not only did Napoleon pos­sess a trav­el­ing library, but when that trav­el­ing library proved too cum­ber­some for his many and var­ied lit­er­ary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cas­es but even more portable books made for him. (You can see how they looked packed away in the image tweet­ed by Cork Coun­ty Library above.) This pre­fig­ured in a high­ly ana­log man­ner the dig­i­tal-age con­cept of recre­at­ing books in anoth­er for­mat specif­i­cal­ly for com­pact­ness and con­ve­nience — the kind of com­pact­ness and con­ve­nience now increas­ing­ly avail­able to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon nev­er could have imag­ined, let alone demand­ed. It may be good to be the Emper­or, but in many ways, it’s bet­ter to be a read­er in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Note: This post was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 2017. Giv­en that Napoleon is back in the news, with the new Rid­ley Scott film, we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Jacobean Trav­el­ing Library: The 17th Cen­tu­ry Pre­cur­sor to the Kin­dle

Napoleon’s Eng­lish Lessons: How the Mil­i­tary Leader Stud­ied Eng­lish to Escape the Bore­dom of Life in Exile

Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waist­coat?: The Ori­gins of This Dis­tinc­tive Pose Explained

Napoleon’s Dis­as­trous Inva­sion of Rus­sia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visu­al­iza­tion: It’s Been Called “the Best Sta­tis­ti­cal Graph­ic Ever Drawn”

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renais­sance Inven­tion Cre­at­ed to Make Books Portable & Help Schol­ars Study (1588)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include 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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The Surprisingly Long History of Auto-Tune, the Vocal-Processing Technology Music Critics Love to Hate

In the fall of 1998, pop music changed for­ev­er — or at least it seems that way today, a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry lat­er. The epochal event in ques­tion was the release of Cher’s come­back hit “Believe,” of whose jagged­ly frac­tured vocal glis­san­do no lis­ten­er had heard the likes of before. “The glow-and-flut­ter of Cher’s voice at key points in the song announced its own tech­no­log­i­cal arti­fice,” writes crit­ic Simon Reynolds at Pitch­fork, “a blend of posthu­man per­fec­tion and angel­ic tran­scen­dence ide­al for the vague reli­gios­i­ty of the cho­rus.” As for how that effect had been achieved, only the tech-savvi­est stu­dio pro­fes­sion­als would have sus­pect­ed a cre­ative mis­use of Auto-Tune, a pop­u­lar dig­i­tal audio pro­cess­ing tool brought to mar­ket the year before.

As its name sug­gests, Auto-Tune was designed to keep a musi­cal per­for­mance in tune auto­mat­i­cal­ly. This capa­bil­i­ty owes to the efforts of one Andy Hilde­brand, a clas­si­cal flute vir­tu­oso turned oil-extrac­tion engi­neer turned music-tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur. Employ­ing the same math­e­mat­i­cal acu­men he’d used to assist the likes of Exxon in deter­min­ing the loca­tion of prime drilling sites from processed sonar data, he fig­ured out a vast sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the cal­cu­la­tions the­o­ret­i­cal­ly required for an algo­rithm to put a real vocal record­ing into a par­tic­u­lar key.

Rapid­ly adopt­ed through­out the music indus­try, Hilde­brand’s inven­tion soon became a gener­ic trade­mark, like Kleenex, Jell‑O, or Google. Even if a stu­dio was­n’t using Auto-Tune, it was almost cer­tain­ly auto-tun­ing, and with such sub­tle­ty that lis­ten­ers nev­er noticed.

The pro­duc­ers of “Believe,” for their part, turned the sub­tle­ty (or, tech­ni­cal­ly, the “smooth­ness”) down to zero. In an attempt to keep that dis­cov­ery a secret, they claimed at first to have used a vocoder, a syn­the­siz­er that con­verts the human voice into manip­u­la­ble ana­log or dig­i­tal sig­nals. Some would also have sus­pect­ed the even more ven­er­a­ble talk­box, which had been made well-known in the sev­en­ties and eight­ies by Earth, Wind & Fire, Ste­vie Won­der, and Roger Trout­man of Zapp. Though the “Cher effect,” as it was known for a time, could plau­si­bly be regard­ed as an aes­thet­ic descen­dant of those devices, it had an entire­ly dif­fer­ent tech­no­log­i­cal basis. A few years after that basis became wide­ly under­stood, con­spic­u­ous Auto-Tune became ubiq­ui­tous, not just in dance music but also in hip-hop, whose artists (not least Rap­pa Ternt San­ga T‑Pain) used Auto-Tune to steer their genre straight into the cur­rents of main­stream pop, if not always to high crit­i­cal acclaim.

Used as intend­ed, Auto-Tune con­sti­tut­ed a god­send for music pro­duc­ers work­ing with any singer less freak­ish­ly skilled than, say, Fred­die Mer­cury. Pro­duc­er-Youtu­ber Rick Beato admits as much in the video just above, though giv­en his clas­sic rock- and jazz-ori­ent­ed tastes, it does­n’t come as a sur­prise also to hear him lament the tech­nol­o­gy’s overuse. But for those will­ing to take it to ever-fur­ther extremes, Auto-Tune has giv­en rise to pre­vi­ous­ly unimag­ined sub­gen­res, bring­ing (as empha­sized in a recent Arte doc­u­men­tary) the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of melody into the lin­guis­ti­cal­ly frag­ment­ed are­na of glob­al hip-hop. As a means of gen­er­at­ing “dig­i­tal soul, for dig­i­tal beings, lead­ing dig­i­tal lives,” in Reynolds’ words, Auto-Tune does reflect our time, for bet­ter or for worse. Its detrac­tors can at least take some con­so­la­tion in the fact that recent releas­es have come with some­thing called a “human­ize knob.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Evo­lu­tion of Music: 40,000 Years of Music His­to­ry Cov­ered in 8 Min­utes

How the Yama­ha DX7 Dig­i­tal Syn­the­siz­er Defined the Sound of 1980s Music

What Makes This Song Great?: Pro­duc­er Rick Beato Breaks Down the Great­ness of Clas­sic Rock Songs in His New Video Series

The Dis­tor­tion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Cre­at­ed “a McDonald’s Gen­er­a­tion of Music Con­sumers”

How Com­put­ers Ruined Rock Music

Bri­an Eno on the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

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.

Generative AI for Everyone: A Free Course from AI Pioneer Andrew Ng

Andrew Ng–an AI pio­neer and Stan­ford com­put­er sci­ence professor–has released a new course called Gen­er­a­tive AI for Every­one. Designed for a non-tech­ni­cal audi­ence, the course will “guide you through how gen­er­a­tive AI works and what it can (and can’t) do. It includes hands-on exer­cis­es where you’ll learn to use gen­er­a­tive AI to help in day-to-day work.”  The course also explains “how to think through the life­cy­cle of a gen­er­a­tive AI project, from con­cep­tion to launch, includ­ing how to build effec­tive prompts,” and it dis­cuss­es “the poten­tial oppor­tu­ni­ties and risks that gen­er­a­tive AI tech­nolo­gies present to indi­vid­u­als, busi­ness­es, and soci­ety.” Giv­en the com­ing preva­lence of AI, it’s worth spend­ing six hours with this course (the esti­mat­ed time need­ed to com­plete it). You can audit Gen­er­a­tive AI for Every­one for free, and watch all of the lec­tures at no cost. If you would like to take the course and earn a cer­tifi­cate, it will cost $49.

Gen­er­a­tive AI for Every­one will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Google Launch­es a Free Course on Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Sign Up for Its New “Machine Learn­ing Crash Course”

Com­put­er Sci­en­tist Andrew Ng Presents a New Series of Machine Learn­ing Courses–an Updat­ed Ver­sion of the Pop­u­lar Course Tak­en by 5 Mil­lion Stu­dents

Stephen Fry Reads Nick Cave’s Stir­ring Let­ter About Chat­G­PT and Human Cre­ativ­i­ty: “We Are Fight­ing for the Very Soul of the World”

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The New York Public Library Presents an Archive of 860,000 Historical Images: Download Medieval Manuscripts, Japanese Prints, William Blake Illustrations & More

Back when we last fea­tured the New York Pub­lic Library’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions in 2016, they con­tained about 160,000 high-res­o­lu­tion images from var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. This seemed like a fair­ly vast archive at the time, but in the years since, that num­ber has grown to more than 860,000. If it was dif­fi­cult to know where to begin explor­ing it sev­en years ago — when it already con­tained such dig­i­tized trea­sures as the Depres­sion-era Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion pho­tographs tak­en by Dorothea Lange, Walk­er Evans, and Gor­don Parks, Walt Whit­man’s hand­writ­ten pref­ace to Spec­i­men Days, Thomas Jefferson’s list of books for a pri­vate library, and six­teenth-cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tions for The Tale of Gen­ji — it can hard­ly be eas­i­er now.

Or rather, it can hard­ly be eas­i­er unless you start with the NYPL dig­i­tal col­lec­tions’ pub­lic domain picks, a sec­tion of the site that, as of this writ­ing, orga­nizes thou­sands and thou­sands of its hold­ings into thir­teen brows­able and intrigu­ing cat­e­gories.

These include the FSA pho­tos, but also book illus­tra­tions by William Blake, edi­tions of The Negro Trav­el­er’s Green Book (as pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), the music and lyrics for Amer­i­can pop­u­lar songs, the papers of Walt Whit­man, and the more than 42,000 stereo­scop­ic prints of the Robert N. Den­nis col­lec­tion, which cap­ture an ear­ly form of 3D views of a fast-devel­op­ing (and, often, now-unrec­og­niz­able) Amer­i­can con­ti­nent.

Enthu­si­asts of New York City itself will no doubt make straight for sec­tions like “chang­ing New York,” “pho­tographs of Ellis Island, 1902–1913,” and “album de la con­struc­tion de la Stat­ue de la Lib­erté.” Soon after after its ded­i­ca­tion in 1886, the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty came to sym­bol­ize not just a city, and not just a coun­try, but the very con­cept of Amer­i­can civ­i­liza­tion and the grand cul­tur­al exchange it had already begun to con­duct with the rest of the world. 137 years lat­er, you can spend a lit­tle time in the NYPL’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions and turn up every­thing from illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts from medieval and Renais­sance Europe to Japan­ese wood­block prints to col­or draw­ings of Indi­an life in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies — and you don’t have to be any­where near New York to do so. Enter the NYPL dig­i­tal col­lec­tions here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Food­ie Alert: New York Pub­lic Library Presents an Archive of 17,000 Restau­rant Menus (1851–2008)

100,000+ Won­der­ful Pieces of The­ater Ephemera Dig­i­tized by The New York Pub­lic Library

The “Weird Objects” in the New York Pub­lic Library’s Col­lec­tions: Vir­ginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dick­ens’ Let­ter Open­er, Walt Whitman’s Hair & More

John Cage Unbound: A New Dig­i­tal Archive Pre­sent­ed by The New York Pub­lic Library

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

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.

Behold Ancient Egyptian, Greek & Roman Sculptures in Their Original Color

There was a time when we imag­ined that most ancient sculp­ture nev­er had any col­or except for that of the stone from which it was hewed. Doubt fell upon that notion as long ago as the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, when archae­o­log­i­cal dig­ging in Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum brought up stat­ues whose col­or had been pre­served, but only in recent years has it come to be pre­sent­ed as an explod­ed myth. Though some of the cov­er­age of the false “white­ness” of ancient Egypt­ian, Greek, and Roman sculp­ture has divid­ed along drea­ri­ly pre­dictable twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al bat­tle lines, this moment has also pre­sent­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to stage fas­ci­nat­ing, even ground­break­ing exhi­bi­tions.

Take Chro­ma: Ancient Sculp­ture in Col­or, which ran from the sum­mer of last year to the spring of this year at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. You can still see some of its dis­plays in the Smarthis­to­ry video at the top of the post, in which art his­to­ri­ans Eliz­a­beth Macaulay and Beth Har­ris dis­cuss the “world of Tech­ni­col­or” that was antiq­ui­ty, the Renais­sance ori­gins of the “idea that ancient sculp­ture was not paint­ed,” and the mod­ern attempts to recon­struct the sculp­tur­al col­or schemes almost total­ly lost to time.

Archi­tect Vinzenz Brinkmann goes deep­er into these sub­jects in the video from the Met itself just above, pay­ing spe­cial atten­tion to the muse­um’s bust of Caligu­la — not the finest emper­or Rome ever had, to put it mild­ly, but one whose face has become a promis­ing can­vas for the restora­tion of col­or.

You can see much more of Chro­ma in the Art Trip tour video just above. Its won­ders include not just gen­uine pieces of ancient sculp­ture, but strik­ing­ly col­or­ful recon­struc­tions of a finial in the form of a sphinx, a Pom­pei­ian stat­ue of the god­dess Artemis, a bat­tle-depict­ing side of the Alexan­der Sar­coph­a­gus, and “a mar­ble archer in the cos­tume of a horse­man of the peo­ples to the north and east of Greece,” to name just a few. You may pre­fer these his­tor­i­cal­ly edu­cat­ed col­oriza­tions to the aus­tere mono­chrome fig­ures you grew up see­ing in text­books, or you may appre­ci­ate after all the kind of ele­gance that only cen­turies of ruin can bestow. Either way, your rela­tion­ship to the ancient world will nev­er be quite the same.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Restores the Orig­i­nal Col­ors to Ancient Stat­ues

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Roman Stat­ues Weren’t White; They Were Once Paint­ed in Vivid, Bright Col­ors

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

The Mak­ing of a Mar­ble Sculp­ture: See Every Stage of the Process, from the Quar­ry to the Stu­dio

Why Most Ancient Civ­i­liza­tions Had No Word for the Col­or Blue

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.

Behold LEGO Reenactments of Famous Psychology Experiments, as Imagined by Artificial Intelligence

Cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Tomer Ull­man, head of Harvard’s Com­pu­ta­tion, Cog­ni­tion, and Devel­op­ment lab, may have inad­ver­tent­ly blun­dered into an untapped vein of LEGO Icon inspi­ra­tion when his inter­est in AI led him to stage recre­ations of famous psych exper­i­ments.

If you think Vin­cent Van Gogh’s Star­ry Night LEGO play­set is a chal­lenge, imag­ine putting togeth­er the AI-gen­er­at­ed play­set inspired by Yale psy­chol­o­gist Stan­ley Milgram’s 1961 obe­di­ence stud­ies, above.

Par­tic­i­pants in these stud­ies were assigned to play one of two parts — teacher or learn­er. Part­ner pairs were seat­ed in sep­a­rate rooms, acces­si­ble to each oth­er by micro­phones. The teacher read the learn­er a list of matched words they’d expect­ed to remem­ber short­ly there­after. If the learn­er flubbed up, the teacher was to admin­is­ter an elec­tric shock via a series of labelled switch­es, upping it by 15-volts for each suc­ces­sive error. The micro­phones ensured that the teacher was privy to the learner’s increas­ing­ly dis­tressed reac­tions — screams, des­per­ate protes­ta­tion, and — at the high­est volt­age — radio silence.

Should a teacher hes­i­tate, they’d be remind­ed that the para­me­ters of the exper­i­ment, for which they were earn­ing $4.50, required them to con­tin­ue. They also received reas­sur­ance that the painful shocks caused no per­ma­nent tis­sue dam­age.

Here’s the thing:

The teach­ers were inno­cent as to the experiment’s true nature. They thought the study’s focus was punishment’s effect on learn­ing abil­i­ty, but in fact, Mil­gram was study­ing the lim­its of obe­di­ence to author­i­ty.

The learn­ers were all in on the ruse. They received no shocks. Their respons­es were all feigned.

If our eyes don’t deceive us, the Mil­gram exper­i­ment that the AI imag­ines is even more extreme than the orig­i­nal. It appears all par­tic­i­pants, includ­ing those wait­ing for their turn, are in the same room.

As some­one com­ment­ed on Bluesky, the new social media plat­form on which Ull­man shared his hypo­thet­i­cal play­sets, “the sub­tle details the AI has got wrong here are the stuff of night­mares.”

AI’s take on the Stan­ford prison exper­i­ment seems more benign than the con­tro­ver­sial 1971 exper­i­ment that recruit­ed 24 stu­dent par­tic­i­pants for a filmed study of prison life to be staged in Stan­ford University’s psy­chol­o­gy depart­men­t’s base­ment, ran­dom­ly divid­ing them into pris­on­ers and guards.

AI’s faith­ful recre­ation of the LEGO fig­urines’ phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions can’t real­ly cap­ture the faux guards’ bru­tal­i­ty — mak­ing their pris­on­ers clean out toi­lets with their bare hands, strip­ping them naked, and depriv­ing them of food and beds. Their pow­er abus­es were so wan­ton, and the pris­on­ers’ dis­tress so extreme, that the planned dura­tion of two weeks was scrapped six days in.

It’s worth not­ing that all the stu­dent par­tic­i­pants came to the study with clean bills of phys­i­cal and men­tal health, and no his­to­ries of crim­i­nal arrest.

Far less upset­ting are the cog­ni­tive sci­ence exper­i­ment play­sets depict­ing the delayed grat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Stan­ford Marsh­mal­low Test and the selec­tive atten­tion of the Invis­i­ble Goril­la Test (both right above).

Ull­man also steered AI toward LEGO trib­utes to B.F. Skinner’s oper­ant con­di­tion­ing cham­ber and Mar­tin Seligman’s learned help­less­ness research (below).

No word on whether he has plans to con­tin­ue exper­i­ment­ing with AI-engi­neered LEGO play­set pro­pos­als fea­tur­ing his­toric exper­i­ments of psy­chol­o­gy and cog­ni­tive sci­ence.

Fol­low on Bluesky if you’re curi­ous. You’ll need to reg­is­ter for a free account and apply for an invite code, if you haven’t already… wait, are we set­ting our­selves up to be unwit­ting par­tic­i­pants in anoth­er psych exper­i­ment?


Via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Psy­chol­o­gy Exper­i­ment That Shocked the World: Milgram’s Obe­di­ence Study (1961)

The Lit­tle Albert Exper­i­ment: The Per­verse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of San­ta Claus & Bun­nies

– 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.

Discover the Mikiphone, the World’s First Portable Record Player: “Fits a Jacket Pocket; Goes into a Lady’s Handbag” (1924)

The iPod shuf­fle recent­ly enjoyed a bit of a come­back on Tik­Tok.

Can the Mikiphone be far behind?

The inven­tion of sib­lings Mik­lós and Éti­enne Vadász, the world’s first pock­et record play­er caused a stir when it was intro­duced a cen­tu­ry ago, nab­bing first prize at an inter­na­tion­al music exhi­bi­tion and find­ing favor with mod­ernist archi­tect Le Cor­busier, who hailed it for embody­ing the “essence of the esprit nou­veau.”

Unlike more recent portable audio inno­va­tions, some assem­bly was required.

It’s fair to assume that the Stan­ford Archive of Record­ed Sound staffer deft­ly unpack­ing antique Mikiphone com­po­nents from its cun­ning Sony Dis­c­man-sized case, above, has more prac­tice putting the thing togeth­er than a ner­vous young fel­la eager to woo his gal al fres­co with his just pur­chased, cut­ting edge 1924 tech­nol­o­gy.

A peri­od adver­tise­ment extols the Mikiphone’s porta­bil­i­ty …

Fits in a jack­et pock­et

Goes in a lady’s hand­bag

Will hang on a cycle frame

Goes in a car door pock­et

Ide­al for pic­nics, car jaunts, riv­er trips

…but fails to men­tion that in order to enjoy it, you’d also have to schlep along a fair amount of 78 RPM records, whose 10-inch diam­e­ters aren’t near­ly so pock­et and purse-com­pat­i­ble.

Mai­son Pail­lard pro­duced approx­i­mate­ly 180,000 of these hand-cranked won­ders over the course of three years. When sales dropped in 1927, the remain­ing stock was sold off at a dis­count or giv­en away to con­test win­ners.

These days, an authen­tic Mik­phone can fetch $500 and upward at auc­tion. (Beware of Miki­phonies!)

Relat­ed Con­tent

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renais­sance Inven­tion Cre­at­ed to Make Books Portable & Help Schol­ars Study Sev­er­al Books at Once (1588)

Behold the Jacobean Trav­el­ing Library: The 17th Cen­tu­ry Fore­run­ner to the Kin­dle

The Walk­man Turns 40: See Every Gen­er­a­tion of Sony’s Icon­ic Per­son­al Stereo in One Minute

– 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.



Stephen Fry Reads Nick Cave’s Stirring Letter About ChatGPT and Human Creativity: “We Are Fighting for the Very Soul of the World”

Observers have expressed a vari­ety of reac­tions to the orga­ni­za­tion­al dra­ma unfold­ing even now at Ope­nAI, the non-prof­it behind the enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar Chat­G­PT. Some have already writ­ten spec­u­la­tive laments in case of Ope­nAI’s total dis­so­lu­tion, mourn­ing the great strides in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence that would thus be for­sak­en. It’s safe to say that Nick Cave will not do the same: hav­ing used his newslet­ter The Red Hand Files to cast doubt on AI’s abil­i­ty to write a great song — and to con­demn a set of Chat­G­PT-gen­er­at­ed lyrics in his own style — he more recent­ly told a fan exact­ly “what’s wrong with mak­ing things faster and eas­i­er” through AI.

“Chat­G­PT rejects any notions of cre­ative strug­gle, that our endeav­ors ani­mate and nur­ture our lives giv­ing them depth and mean­ing,” Cave writes. “It rejects that there is a col­lec­tive, essen­tial and uncon­scious human spir­it under­pin­ning our exis­tence, con­nect­ing us all through our mutu­al striv­ing.”

In “fast-track­ing the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the human spir­it by mech­a­niz­ing the imag­i­na­tion,” it works toward elim­i­nat­ing “the process of cre­ation and its atten­dant chal­lenges, view­ing it as noth­ing more than a time-wast­ing incon­ve­nience that stands in the way of the com­mod­i­ty itself.” But the cre­ative impulse “must be defend­ed at all costs, and just as we would fight any exis­ten­tial evil,” we should fight the forces set against it “tooth and nail, for we are fight­ing for the very soul of the world.”

These are strong words, and they sound even stronger when read aloud in the Let­ters Live video above by Stephen Fry. One may sense a cer­tain irony here, giv­en Fry’s well-known technophil­ia, but he and Cave have made com­mon cause before, whether call­ing for gov­ern­ment sup­port of the arts or turn­ing up for the coro­na­tion of King Charles III. “Fry refers to Cave’s Mur­der Bal­lads album in his book The Ode Less Trav­elled,” adds one Youtube com­menter, “while Fry is rumored to be the per­son with ‘an enor­mous and ency­clo­pe­dic brain’ in Cave’s song ‘We Call Upon the Author.’ ” Chat­G­PT could well be described as ency­clo­pe­dic, but in no ordi­nary sense does it have a brain — the very thing of which authors are now called upon to make the fullest pos­si­ble use.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nick Cave Answers the Hot­ly Debat­ed Ques­tion: Will Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

A New Course Teach­es You How to Tap the Pow­ers of Chat­G­PT and Put It to Work for You

Chat­G­PT Writes a Song in the Style of Nick Cave–and Nick Cave Calls it “a Grotesque Mock­ery of What It Is to Be Human”

Noam Chom­sky on Chat­G­PT: It’s “Basi­cal­ly High-Tech Pla­gia­rism” and “a Way of Avoid­ing Learn­ing”

Demys­ti­fy­ing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand,” and How It Was Inspired by Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Mar­garet Atwood, Stephen Fry & Oth­ers Read Let­ters of Hope, Love & Sup­port Dur­ing COVID-19

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 Deep, Track-by-Track Analysis of The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s Musical Journey Through the Stresses & Anxieties of Modern Existence

Pink Floy­d’s The Dark Side of the Moon turned 50 ear­li­er this year, which per­haps makes it seem easy to dis­miss as an arti­fact of a bygone era. It belongs to a peri­od in pop­u­lar music his­to­ry when musi­cians and bands were approach­ing their albums with ever-greater aes­thet­ic and intel­lec­tu­al ambi­tions — what I’ve come to call the medi­um’s “hero­ic age” — whose prod­ucts can strike twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry lis­ten­ers as exces­sive, pre­ten­tious, and even unhinged. But in spite of the ambi­ence of dorm-room THC haze that has long hung around it, The Dark Side of the Moon remains rel­e­vant today, deal­ing as it does with such eter­nal themes as youth, choice, mor­tal­i­ty, and mad­ness — to say noth­ing of time and mon­ey.

That’s how Poly­phon­ic cre­ator Noah Lefevre frames it in the video above, an hour-long track-by-track analy­sis of the Floy­d’s best-known album. It’s actu­al­ly a com­pi­la­tion of all eight episodes of a series orig­i­nal­ly released in 2020, which, much like The Dark Side of the Moon Itself, ben­e­fits from being expe­ri­enced not in parts but as a whole.

Lefevre describes the album as “about the stress­es and strug­gles that make human exis­tence what it is. It’s about all the noise that con­stant­ly sur­rounds us, and about try­ing to cut through that noise to find truth, beau­ty, and mean­ing.” He also quotes Pink Floyd front­man Roger Waters ascrib­ing to it the state­ment that “all the good things life can offer are there for us to grasp, but that the influ­ence of some dark force in our natures pre­vents us from seiz­ing them.”

The Dark Side of the Moon has endured not just by deal­ing with those themes, but also by doing so with a cin­e­mat­ic son­ic rich­ness. That owes much to the work of Alan Par­sons, who engi­neered the record­ing, but most of the album’s long con­cep­tion hap­pened out­side the stu­dio. “It start­ed out with a few weeks in a rehearsal space dur­ing which Pink Floyd wrote a rough out­line for the piece,” says Lefevre. “Then the band took that on tour, even though it was far from com­ple­tion. They per­formed six­teen dates in the UK, play­ing the album in full each night”; all the while, they “worked through the album, fine-tun­ing it and devel­op­ing it.” This explains why the result — which, like all of Pink Floy­d’s albums, you can hear free on Youtube — sounds painstak­ing­ly pro­duced yet organ­ic. Give The Dark Side of the Moon anoth­er lis­ten today, and you’ll under­stand why it’s per­sist­ed like the con­di­tion of mod­ern life itself.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Pink Floyd’s Entire Stu­dio Discog­ra­phy is Now on YouTube: Stream the Stu­dio & Live Albums

Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 50: Hear It Get Psy­cho­an­a­lyzed by Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Lev­itin

Down­load Pink Floyd’s 1975 Com­ic Book Pro­gram for The Dark Side of the Moon Tour

A Live Stu­dio Cov­er of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Played from Start to Fin­ish

“The Dark Side of the Moon” and Oth­er Pink Floyd Songs Glo­ri­ous­ly Per­formed by Irish & Ger­man Orches­tras

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.

Watch Prince Bust Some Eye-Popping Moves in Rehearsal Footage from 1984

Dance was as much a baked-in part of Prince’s allure, as his sug­ges­tive lyrics and mas­tery of mul­ti­ple instru­ments.

The pub­lic got its first taste of his affin­i­ty for the form at a John Hay ele­men­tary school tal­ent show to which he con­tributed a tap rou­tine, and again at a James Brown con­cert at the Min­neapo­lis Armory, when the 10-year-old  briefly hopped onstage to mash pota­to, an inci­dent he recalled in a 1985 inter­view with MTV.

He received for­mal train­ing at the Min­neso­ta Dance The­atre, as a teenaged par­tic­i­pant in the city’s Urban Arts Pro­gram, and rehearsed obses­sive­ly.

Chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Cat Glover, a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor, told Mpls. St. Paul Mag­a­zine:

He would push him­self to the lim­it all the time. He made it look easy, but every­thing that looked easy was three months’ rehearsal. It was nev­er easy.

The above rehearsal footage from the sum­mer of 1984 doesn’t show the sweat, but the chore­og­ra­phy is obvi­ous­ly demand­ing. Prince leaps, squats, pirou­ettes, throws him­self into James Brown splits, and exe­cutes a flur­ry of pre­ci­sion dance moves —  in wicked high heeled boots.

“He ruined his hips on those damn high heels he used to wear” accord­ing to Min­neapo­lis-area chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, John Com­mand, who worked with Prince and the cast of Pur­ple Rain, for near­ly a year before shoot­ing began:

We would do Broad­way stuff, Bob Fos­se, Jer­ry Rob­bins who did West Side Sto­ry. A lot of that is very dif­fi­cult stuff and he loved it.

Glover recalled how Prince would vis­it dance clubs to check par­ty­go­ers’ response to his music:

For one of his songs to get record­ed it had to come with every­thing. If your feet aren’t tap­ping, if your feet aren’t bop­ping, it’s not good enough. If you can’t dance with music then it’s no good.

In 1989, when he opened his Glam Slam night­club, he insist­ed on a res­i­dent dance troupe, and made them a pri­or­i­ty. Its chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, Kat Car­roll remem­bered how dancers were held to the same exact­ing stan­dards Prince set for him­self:

We worked very hard, and he treat­ed us very well and he paid us very well. But he also expect­ed us to be on top of things, just like his musi­cians. We worked long hours, many times dur­ing the week.

Prince kept up with the pro­fes­sion­al dance world, offer­ing to write a piece for Chicago’s Jof­frey Bal­let, and waiv­ing his roy­al­ties when they per­formed to it, a move that lift­ed the com­pa­ny from finan­cial dis­as­ter in the 90s and increased their audi­ence base.

He recruit­ed bal­le­ri­na Misty Copeland to tour with him begin­ning in 2009, six years before she made his­to­ry as the first Black prin­ci­pal dancer in the Amer­i­can Bal­let The­ater, anoth­er com­pa­ny to which he donat­ed gen­er­ous­ly.

He was a fan of avant-garde chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Moses Pendle­ton, founder of MOMIX and co-founder of Pilobo­lus Dance The­ater, but also the dance stylings of Paul “Pee-wee Her­man” Reubens.

As Copeland rem­i­nisced to GQ  short­ly after Prince’s death:

There was one Pee-wee Her­man movie that he was obsessed with. It was sil­ly, like him, and fun­ny, and quirky—watching Pee-wee Her­man dance he just thought was the fun­ni­est thing.


For those won­der­ing about the sound­track to the rehearsal footage at the top of the page, it’s Prince’s orig­i­nal stu­dio ver­sion of “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U” record­ed in that same room, that same sum­mer. Six years lat­er, Sinead O’Connor’s cov­er became a glob­al hit.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Hear a 19-Year-Old Prince Crush­ing It on Every Instru­ment in an Ear­ly Jam Ses­sion (1977)

Prince’s First Tele­vi­sion Inter­view (1985)

Watch Prince Play Jazz Piano & Coach His Band Through George Gershwin’s “Sum­mer­time” in a Can­did, Behind-the-Scenes Moment (1990)

Read Prince’s First Inter­view, Print­ed in His High School News­pa­per (1976)

- 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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The Illustrated Version of “Alice’s Restaurant”: Watch Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving Counterculture Classic

Alice’s Restau­rant. It’s now a Thanks­giv­ing clas­sic, and some­thing of a tra­di­tion around here. Record­ed in 1967, the 18+ minute coun­ter­cul­ture song recounts Arlo Guthrie’s real encounter with the law, start­ing on Thanks­giv­ing Day 1965. As the long song unfolds, we hear all about how a hip­pie-bat­ing police offi­cer, by the name of William “Obie” Oban­hein, arrest­ed Arlo for lit­ter­ing. (Cul­tur­al foot­note: Obie pre­vi­ous­ly posed for sev­er­al Nor­man Rock­well paint­ings, includ­ing the well-known paint­ing, “The Run­away,” that graced a 1958 cov­er of The Sat­ur­day Evening Post.) In fair­ly short order, Arlo pleads guilty to a mis­de­meanor charge, pays a $25 fine, and cleans up the thrash. But the sto­ry isn’t over. Not by a long shot. Lat­er, when Arlo (son of Woody Guthrie) gets called up for the draft, the pet­ty crime iron­i­cal­ly becomes a basis for dis­qual­i­fy­ing him from mil­i­tary ser­vice in the Viet­nam War. Guthrie recounts this with some bit­ter­ness as the song builds into a satir­i­cal protest against the war: “I’m sit­tin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army, burn women, kids, hous­es and vil­lages after bein’ a lit­ter­bug.” And then we’re back to the cheery cho­rus again: “You can get any­thing you want, at Alice’s Restau­rant.”

We have fea­tured Guthrie’s clas­sic dur­ing past years. But, for this Thanks­giv­ing, we give you the illus­trat­ed ver­sion. Hap­py Thanks­giv­ing to every­one who plans to cel­e­brate the hol­i­day today.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry Behind “Alice’s Restau­rant,” Arlo Guthrie’s Song That’s Now a Thanks­giv­ing Tra­di­tion

What Amer­i­cans Ate for Thanks­giv­ing 200 Years Ago: Watch Re-Cre­ations of Recipes from the 1820s

Read 900+ Thanks­giv­ing Books Free at the Inter­net Archive

William S. Bur­roughs Reads His Sar­cas­tic “Thanks­giv­ing Prayer” in a 1988 Film By Gus Van Sant

Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Hand­writ­ten Turkey-and-Stuff­ing Recipe

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 13 Tips for What to Do with Your Left­over Thanks­giv­ing Turkey

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