Watch an Auroratone, a Psychedelic 1940s Film, Featuring Bing Crosby, That Helped WWII Vets Overcome PTSD & Other Mental Health Conditions

As Lisa Simpson once memorably remarked, “I can see the music.”

Pretty much anyone can these days.

Just switch on your device’s audio visualizer.

That wasn’t the case in the 1940s, when psychologist Cecil A. Stokes used chemistry and polarized light to invent soothing abstract music videos, a sort of cinematic synesthesia experiment such as can be seen above, in his only known surviving Auroratone.

(The name was suggested by Stokes’ acquaintance, geologist, Arctic explorer and Catholic priest, Bernard R. Hubbard, who found the result reminiscent of the Aurora Borealis.)

The trippy visuals may strike you as a bit of an odd fit with Bing Crosby‘s cover of the sentimental crowdpleaser “Oh Promise Me,” but traumatized WWII vets felt differently.

Army psychologists Herbert E. Rubin and Elias Katz’s research showed that Auroratone films had a therapeutic effect on their patients, including deep relaxation and emotional release.

The music surely contributed to this positive outcome. Other Auroratone films featured “Moonlight Sonata,” “Clair de Lune,” and an organ solo of “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.”

Drs. Rubin and Katz reported that patients reliably wept during Auroratones set to “The Lost Chord,” “Ave Maria,” and “Home on the Range” – another Crosby number.

In fact, Crosby, always a champion of technology, contributed recordings for a full third of the fifteen known Auroratones free of charge and footed the bill for overseas shipping so the films could be shown to soldiers on active duty and medical leave.

Technophile Crosby was well positioned to understand Stokes’ patented process and apparatus for producing musical rhythm in coloraka Auroratones – but those of us with a shakier grasp of STEM will appreciate light artist John Sonderegger’s explanation of the process, as quoted in filmmaker and media conservator Walter Forsberg’s history of Auroratones for INCITE Journal of Experimental Media:

[Stokes’] procedure was to cut a tape recorded melody into short segments and splice the resulting pieces into tape loops. The audio signal from the first loop was sent to a radio transmitter. The radio waves from the radio transmitter were confined to a tube and focused up through a glass slide on which he had placed a chemical mixture. The radio waves would interact with the solution and trigger the formation of the crystals. In this way each slide would develop a shape interpretive of the loop of music it had been exposed to. Each loop, in sequence, would be converted to a slide. Eventually a set of slides would be completed that was the natural interpretation of the complete musical melody.

Vets suffering from PTSD were not the only ones to embrace these unlikely experimental films.

Patients diagnosed with other mental disorders, youthful offenders, individuals plagued by chronic migraines, and developmentally delayed elementary schoolers also benefited from Auroratones’ soothing effects.

The general public got a taste of the films in department store screenings hyped as “the nearest thing to the Aurora Borealis ever shown”, where the soporific effect of the color patterns were touted as having been created “by MOTHER NATURE HERSELF.”

Auroratones were also shown in church by canny Christian leaders eager to deploy any bells and whistles that might hold a modern flock’s attention.

The Guggenheim Museum‘s brass was vastly less impressed by the Auroratone Foundation of America’s attempts to enlist their support for this “new technique using non-objective art and musical compositions as a means of stimulating the human emotions in a manner so as to be of value to neuro-psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as to teachers and students of both objective and non-objective art.”

Co-founder Hilla Rebay, an abstract artist herself, wrote a letter in which she advised Stokes to “learn what is decoration, accident, intellectual confusion, pattern, symmetry… in art there is conceived law only –never an accident.”

A plan for projecting Auroratones in maternity wards to “do away with the pains of child-birth” appears to have been a similar non-starter.

While only one Auroratone is known to have survived – and its discovery by Robert Martens, curator of Grandpa’s Picture Party, is a fascinating tale unto itself – you can try cobbling together a 21st-century DIY approximation by plugging any of the below tunes into your preferred music playing software and turning on the visualizer:

  • American Prayer by Ginny Simms
  • Ave Maria, sung by Bing Crosby with organ accompaniment by Edward Dunstedter
  • Going My Way, sung by Bing Crosby with organ accompaniment by Edward Dunstedter
  • Home on the Range, sung by Bing Crosby with organ accompaniment by Edward Dunstedter
  • Moonlight Sonata, played by Miss April Ayres

via Boing Boing / INCITE

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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.

Prisencolinensinainciusol, the Catchy Italian Pop Song That Sounded Like It Had English Lyrics, But Was Actually Gibberish (1972)

Yesterday a friend and I were standing on a New York City sidewalk, waiting for the light, when Stayin’ Alive began issuing at top volume from a nearby car.

Pavlovian conditioning kicked in immediately.  We’d been singing along with the Bee Gees for nearly a minute before realizing that neither of us knew the lyrics. Like, at all.

Italian actor and musician Adriano Celentano’s cult classic, Prisencolinensinainciusol, inspires a similar response.

The difference being that should I ever need to prep for karaoke, Stayin’ Alive’s lyrics are widely available online, whereas Prisencolinensinainciusol’s lyrics are kind of anyone’s guess…nonsense in any language.

Celentano improvised this gibberish in 1972 in an attempt to recreate how American rock and roll lyrics sound like to non-English-speaking Italian fans like himself.

As he told NPR’s All Things Considered through a translator during a 2012 interview:

Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, because I like American slang — which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian — I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate…I sang it with an angry tone because the theme was important. It was an anger born out of resignation. I brought to light the fact that people don’t communicate.

And yet, his 1974 appearance in the above sketch on the Italian variety series Formula Due spurs strangers to make stabs at communication by sharing their best guess transcriptions of Prisencolinensinainciusol’s lyrics in YouTube comments, 51 years after the song’s original release.

A sampling, anchored by the chorus’ iconic and unmistakeable “all right:”


My eyes lie, senseless.
I guess I’m throwing pizza.

And the cold wind sailor,
freezing cold and icy in Tucson



My eyes are way so sensitive
And it gets so cold, it’s freezing

You’re the cold, main, the same one
Please let’s call ’em ‘n’ dance with my shoes off
All right



My eyes smile senseless but it doesn’t go with diesel all right.



I don’t know why but I want a maid to say I want pair of ice blue shoes with eyes…awight.


Prisencolinensinainciusol’s looping, throbbing beat is wildly catchy and imminently danceable, as evidenced by Celentano’s performance on Formula Due and that of the black clad dancers backing him up during an appearance on Milleluci, another mid-70s Italian variety show, below.

The attention generated by these variety show segments – both lip synched – sent Prisencolinensinainciusol up the charts in Italy, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK,  and even the United States.

Its mix of disco, hip hop and funk has proved surprisingly durable, inspiring remixes and covers, including the one that served as philosopher Slavoj Žižek‘s Eurovision Song Contest entry.

Prisencolinensinainciusol has netted a whole new generation of fans by cropping up on Ted Lasso, Fargo, a commercial for spiced rum, and seemingly innumerable TikToks.

We’ll probably never get a firm grasp on the lyrics, despite Italian television host Paolo Bonolis‘ puckish 2005 attempt to goad befuddled native English speaker Will Smith into deciphering them.

No matter.

Celentano’s supremely confident delivery of those indelible nonsense syllables is what counts, according to a YouTube viewer from Slovenia with fond memories of playing in a rock band as a teen in the 1960’s:

This is exactly how we non-English-speakers sung the then hit songs. You learned some beginning parts of lyrics so that the audience recognized the song. They heard it at Radio Luxembourg. From here on it was exactly the same style – outside the chorus of course. Adriano Celentano was always been a legend for us back in Slovenia.

h/t Erik B.

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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.

The Evolution of Bugs Bunny’s Appearance Over His Eight Decade Career

Bugs Bunny is a quick-thinking, fast-talking, wascally force of nature, and a preternaturally gifted physical comedian, too.

But unlike such lasting greats as Charlie Chapin and Buster Keaton, it took him a while to find his iconic look.

His first appearance, as “Happy Rabbit” in the 1938 black and white theatrical short, Porky’s Hare Hunt, might remind you of those yearbook photos of celebrities before they were famous.

In a video essay considering how Bugs Bunny’s look has evolved over his eight-decade career, animation fan Dave Lee of the popular YouTube series Dave Lee Down Under breaks down some early characteristics, from an undefined, small body and oval-shaped head to white fur and a fluffy cotton ball of a tail.

His voice was also a work in progress, more Woody Woodpecker than the hybrid Brooklyn-Bronx patois that would make him, and voice actor Mel Blanc, famous.

The following year, the rabbit who would become Bugs Bunny returned in Prest-o Change-o, a Merry Melodies Technicolor short directed by Chuck Jones.

A few months later character designer (and former Disney animator) Charlie Thorson subjected him to a pretty noticeable makeover for Hare-um Scare-um, another rabbit hunting-themed romp.

The two-toned grey and white coat, oval muzzle, and mischievous buck-toothed grin are much more aligned with the Bugs most of us grew up watching.  

His pear-shaped bod’, long neck, high-rumped stance, and pontoon feet allowed for a much greater range of motion.

A notation on the model sheet alluding to director Ben Hardaway’s nickname – “Bugs” – gives some hint as to how the world’s most popular cartoon character came by his stage name.

For 1940’s Elmer’s Candid Camera, the pink-muzzled Bugs dropped the yellow gloves Thorsen had given him and affected some black ear tips.

Tex Avery, who was in line to direct the pair in the Academy Award-nominated short A Wild Hare, found this look objectionably cute.

He tasked animator Bob Givens with giving the rabbit, now officially known as Bugs Bunny, an edgier appearance.

Animation historian Michael Barrier writes:

In the Givens design, Bugs was no longer defined by Thorson’s tangle of curves. His head was now oval, rather than round. In that respect, Bugs recalled the white rabbit in Porky’s Hare Hunt, but Givens’s design preserved so many of Thorson’s refinements—whiskers, a more naturalistic nose—and introduced so many others—cheek ruffs, less prominent teeth—that there was very little similarity between the new version of Bugs and the Hare Hunt rabbit. 

Barrier also details a number of similarities between the titular rabbit character from Disney’s 1935 Silly Symphonies short, The Tortoise and the Hare, and former Disney employee Givens’ design.  

While Avery boasted to cartoon historian Milt Gray in 1977 that “the construction was almost identical”, adding, “It’s a wonder I wasn’t sued,” Givens insisted in an interview with the Animation Guild’s oral history project that Bugs wasn’t a Max Hare rip off. ( “I was there. I ought to know.”)

Whatever parallels may exist between Givens’ Bugs and Disney’s Hare, YouTuber Lee sees A Wild Hare as the moment when Bugs Bunny’s character coalesced as “more of a lovable prankster than a malicious deviant,” nonchalantly chomping a carrot like Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, and turning a bit of regional Texas teen slang – “What’s up, Doc?”- into one of the most immortal catch phrases in entertainment history.

A star was born, so much so that four directors – Jones, Avery, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett – were enlisted to keep up with the demand for Bugs Bunny vehicles. 

This multi-pronged approach led to some visual inconsistencies, that were eventually checked by the creation of definitive model sheets, drawn by Bob McKimson, who animated the Clampett-directed shorts. 

Historian Barrier takes stock:

Bugs’s cheeks were broader, his chin stronger, his teeth a little more prominent, his eyes larger and slanted a little outward instead of in. The most expressive elements of the rabbit’s face had all been strengthened …but because the triangular shape of Bugs’s head had been subtly accentuated, Bugs was, if anything, futher removed from cuteness than ever before. McKimson’s model sheet must be given some of the credit for the marked improvement in Bugs’s looks in all the directors’ cartoons starting in 1943. Not that everyone drew Bugs to match the model sheet, but the awkwardness and uncertainty of the early forties were gone; it was if everyone had suddenly figured out what Bugs really looked like.

Now one of the most recognizable stars on earth, Bugs remained unmistakably himself while spoofing Charles Dickens, Alfred Hitchcock and Wagner; held his own in live action appearances with such heavy hitters as Doris Day and Michael Jordan; and had a memorable cameo in the 1988 feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit, after producers agreed to a deal that guaranteed him the same amount of screen time as his far squarer rival, Mickey Mouse. 

This millennium got off to a rockier start, owing to an over-reliance on low budget, simplified flash animation, and the truly execrable trend of shows that reimagine classic characters as cloying toddlers. 

In 2011, on the strength of her 2-minute animated short I Like Pandas, an initially reluctant 24-year-old Jessica Borutski was asked to “freshen up” Bugs’ look for The Looney Tunes Show, a series of longer format cartoons which required its cast to perform such 21st-century activities as texting:

I made their heads a bit bigger because I didn’t like [how] in the ’60s, ’70s Bugs Bunny’s head started to get really small and his body really long. He started to look like a weird guy in a bunny suit.

Lee’s Evolution of Bugs Bunny- 80 Years Explained was released in 2019. 

He hasn’t stopped evolving. Gizmodo’s Sabina Graves “sat down with the creative teams shepherding Warner Bros.’ classic Looney Tunes characters into new and reimagined cartoons” at San Diego Comic-Con 2022: 

In a push led by Looney Tunes Cartoons’ Alex Kirwan—who spearheads the franchise’s current slate of shorts on HBO Max—the beloved animation icons will soon expand into even more content. There’s the upcoming Tiny Toons Loooniversity revival, a Halloween special, Cartoonito’s Bugs Bunny Builders for kids, and two feature-length animated movies on the way—and we have a feeling that’s not all, folks!

…to quote Bugs, “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!

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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.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

130+ Photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece Fallingwater

We’ve featured a variety of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright here on Open Culture, from his personal home and studio Taliesin and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, to a gas station and a doghouse. But if any single structure explains his enduring reputation as a genius of American architecture, and perhaps the genius of American architecture, it must be the house called Fallingwater.

Designed in 1935 for Pittsburgh department-store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife Liliane, it sits atop an active waterfall — not below it as Kaufmann had originally requested, to name just one of the disagreements that arose between client and architect throughout the process.

In the event, Wright had his way as far as the positioning of the house on the site, as with much else about the project — and so much the better for its stature in the history of architecture, which has only risen since completion 85 years ago.

Inspired by the Kaufmann’s love of the outdoors, as well as his own appreciation for Japanese architecture, Wright employed techniques to integrate Fallingwater’s spaces with one another, as well as with the surrounding nature. Time magazine wasted no time, as it were, declaring the result Wright’s “most beautiful job”; more recently, it’s received high praise from no less a master Japanese architect than Tadao Ando.

When he visited Fallingwater, Ando experienced first-hand a use of space similar to that which he knew from the built environment of his homeland, and also how the house lets in the sounds of nature. Though such a pilgrimage can greatly expand one’s appreciation of the house, rare is the viewer who fails to be enraptured by pictures alone.

Nearly as astute in the realm of publicity as in that of architecture, Wright would have known that Fallingwater had to photograph well, a quality vividly on display in this archive of 137 high-resolution images at the Library of Congress. From it, you can download color and black-and-white photos of the house’s exterior and interior as well as its plans, which — so the story goes — Wright originally drew up in just two hours after months of inaction. Fallingwater thus stands as not just concrete proof of once-brazen architectural notions, but also vindication for procrastinators everywhere.

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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.

Astronomers Create a Digital Atlas of Over 380,000 Galaxies

In the observable universe, there are estimated to be between 200 billion to two trillion galaxies. By comparison to these super-Saganian numbers, the 383,620 galaxies captured by the Siena Galaxy Atlas may seem like small potatoes. But the SGA actually represents a landmark achievement among digital astronomy catalogs: as Samantha Hill writes in Astronomy, it draws its data from three Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument Legacy Surveys, which together constitute “one of the largest surveys ever conducted.” Coming to 7,637 downloadable pages, it “presents a new possible naming convention for the galaxies, and captures images of the objects in optical and infrared wavelengths. Each of the target’s data set includes a whole slew of other information including its size and morphology.”

Though publicly accessible online, the formidably technical SGA may present the non-astronomer with a somewhat steep learning curve. One way to approach the archive through some of the especially impressive galaxies it captures is to organize the list below its search filters according to size. The images that result are not, of course, photographs of the kind any of us could take by pointing a camera up at the night sky, no matter how pricey the camera. Rather, they’re the results, processed into visual legibility, of enormous amounts of data collected by advanced telescope and satellite.

To get more technical, the SGA is also “the first cosmic atlas to feature the light profiles of galaxies  —  a curve that describes how the brightness of the galaxy changes from its brightest point, usually at the center, to its dimmest, commonly at its edge.”

So writes’s Robert Lea, who also explains more about the SGA’s usefulness to scientific professionals. It “represents peak accuracy, promising to be a gold mine of galactic information for scientists aiming to investigate everything from the births and evolutions of galaxies to the distribution of dark matter and propagation of gravitational waves through space.” Its data could also help astronomers “find the sources of gravitational wave signals detected on Earth, because these faint ripples in the very fabric of space and time wash over our planet after traveling for millions of light years.” Even if you’re undertaking no such searches of your own, a trip through the SGA can still enhance your appreciation of how much humanity has come to learn about these “nearby” galaxies — and how much remains to be learned about all those that lie beyond. Enter the archive here.

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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.

Marie Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioactive a Century Later

Image by The Wellcome Trust

When researching a famous historical figure, access to their work and materials usually proves to be one of the biggest obstacles. But things are much more difficult for those writing about the life of Marie Curie, the scientist who, along her with husband Pierre, discovered polonium and radium and birthed the idea of particle physics. Her notebooks, her clothing, her furniture (not to mention her lab), pretty much everything surviving from her Parisian suburban house, is radioactive, and will be for 1,500 years or more.

If you want to look at her manuscripts, you have to sign a liability waiver at France’s Bibliotheque Nationale, and then you can access the notes sealed in a lead-lined box. The Curies didn’t know about the dangers of radioactive materials, though they did know about radioactivity. Their research attempted to find out which substances were radioactive and why, and so many dangerous elements–thorium, uranium, plutonium–were just sitting there in their home laboratory, glowing at night, which Curie thought beautiful, “like faint, fairy lights,” she wrote in her autobiography. Marie Curie carried these glowing objects around in her pockets. She and her husband wore standard lab clothing, nothing more.

Marie Curie died at age 66 in 1934, from aplastic anemia, attributed to her radioactive research. The house, however, continued to be used up until 1978 by the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Paris Faculty of Science and the Curie Foundation. After that it was kept under surveillance, authorities finally now aware of the dangers inside. When many people in the neighborhood noticed high cancer rates among them, as reported in Le Parisien, they blamed the Curie’s home.

The laboratory and the building were decontaminated in 1991, a year after the Curie estate began allowing access to Curie’s notes and materials, which had been removed from the house. A flood of biographies appeared soon after: Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn in 1995, Pierre Curie by Anna Hurwic in 1998, Curie: Le rêve scientifique by Loïc Barbo in 1999, Marie Curie et son laboratoire by Soraya Boudia in 2001, Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith in 2005, and Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss in 2011.

Still, passing away at 66 is not too shabby when one has changed the world in the name of science. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903), the only woman to win it again (1911), the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and the first woman to be entombed (on her own merits) at the Panthéon in Paris. And she managed many of her breakthroughs after the passing of her husband Pierre in 1906–who slipped and fell in the rain on a busy Paris street and was run over by the wheels of a horse-drawn cart.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Bertrand Russell: The Everyday Benefit of Philosophy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncertainty

On the strength of a few quotations and the popular lecture Why I am Not a Christian, philosopher Bertrand Russell has been characterized as a so-called “positive atheist,” a phrase that implies a high degree of certainty. While it is true that Russell saw “no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology” — he saw them, in fact, as positively harmful — it would be misleading to suggest that he rejected all forms of metaphysics, mysticism, and imaginative, even poetic, speculation.

Russell saw a way to greatness in the search for ultimate truth, by means of both hard science and pure speculation. In an essay entitled “Mysticism and Logic,” for example, Russell contrasts two “great men,” Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose “scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight.”

It’s interesting that Russell chooses Blake for an example. One of his oft-quoted aphorisms cribs a line from another mystical poet, William Butler Yeats, who wrote in “The Second Coming” (1920), “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Russell’s version of this, from his 1933 essay “The Triumph of Stupidity,” is a bit clunkier rhetorically speaking:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

The quote has been significantly altered and streamlined over time, it seems, yet it still serves as a kind of motto for the skeptical philosophy Russell advocated, one he would partially define in the 1960 interview above as a way to “keep us modestly aware of how much that seems like knowledge isn’t knowledge.” On the other hand, philosophy pushes reticent intellectuals to “enlarge” their “imaginative purview of the world into the hypothetical realm,” allowing “speculations about matters where exact knowledge is not possible.”

Where the quotation above seems to pose an insoluble problem—similar to the cognitive bias known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”—it seems in Russell’s estimation a false dilemma. At the 9:15 mark, in answer to a direct question posed by interviewer Woodrow Wyatt about the “practical use of your sort of philosophy to a man who wants to know how to conduct himself,” Russell replies:

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt…. One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

Russell’s discussion of the uses of philosophy puts me in mind of another concept devised by a poet: John Keats’ “negative capability,” or what Maria Popova calls “the art of remaining in doubt…. The willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.” Perhaps Russell would not characterize it this way. He was, as you’ll see above, not much given to poetic examples. And indeed, Russell’s method relies a great deal more on logic and probability theory than Keats’. And yet the principle is strikingly similar.

For Russell, certainty stifles progress, and an inability to take imaginative risks consigns us to inaction. A middle way is required to live “vigorously,” that of philosophy, which requires both the mathematic and the poetic. In “Mysticism and Logic,” Russell sums up his position succinctly: “The greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.”

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!

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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

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Advice for Time Traveling to Medieval Europe: How to Staying Healthy & Safe, and Avoiding Charges of Witchcraft

Generations of foreign tourists in Europe have heard advice about traveling in groups, haggling prices, avoiding pickpockets, and being able to communicate in, if not the local language, then at least the lingua franca. It turns out that very similar guidance applies to time travel in Europe, or at least specifically to the region of England, France, Germany, and northern Italy in the central Middle Ages, roughly between the years 1000 and 1400. In the new video above, history Youtuber Premodernist provides an hour’s worth of advice to the modern preparing to travel back in time to medieval Europe — beginning with the declaration that “you will very likely get sick.”

The gastrointestinal distress posed by the “native biome” of medieval European food and drink is one thing; the threat of robbery or worse by its roving packs of outlaws is quite another. “Crime is rampant” where you’re going, so “carry a dagger” and “learn how to use it.” In societies of the Middle Ages, people could only protect themselves by being “enmeshed in social webs with each other. No one was an individual.” And so, as a traveler, you must — to put it in Dungeons-and-Dragons terms — belong to some legible class. Though you’ll have no choice but to present yourself as having come from a distant land, you can feel free to pick one of two guises that will suit your obvious foreignness: “you’re either a merchant or a pilgrim.”

Unlike modern-day Europe, through which you travel for weeks barely speaking to anyone, the Europe of the Middle Ages offers numerous opportunities for conversation, whether you want them or not. Without any media as we know it today, medievals had to “make their own entertainment by talking to each other,” and if they could talk to a stranger from an exotic land, so much the more entertaining. But having none of our relatively novel ideas that “everybody’s on an equal footing, that everybody’s equal to each other, nobody’s better or worse than anybody else, nobody gets any special treatment,” they’ll guess your social rank and treat you accordingly; you, in turn, would do well to act the part.

Imagining themselves in medieval Europe, many of our contemporaries say things like, “If I go there, they’ll hang me as a witch, or they’ll burn me at the stake as a witch, because I’m wearing modern clothes and because I talk funny.” But that fear (not untainted, perhaps, by a certain self-regard) is unfounded, since medievals “were not scared of people just because they were different. They were scared of people who were different in a way that challenged the social order or threatened social chaos.” Their worldview put religious affiliation above all, without consideration for even the most hotly debated twenty-first-century political or racial battle lines. But then, as we never needed time travel to understand, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Related content:

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People in the Middle Ages Slept Not Once But Twice Each Night: How This Lost Practice Was Rediscovered

How to Make a Medieval Manuscript: An Introduction in 7 Videos

What Sex Was Like in Medieval Times?: Historians Look at How People Got It On in the Dark Ages

Behold a 21st-Century Medieval Castle Being Built with Only Tools & Materials from the Middle Ages

A Concise Breakdown of How Time Travel Works in Popular Movies, Books & TV Shows

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.


Explore the Florentine Codex: A Brilliant 16th Century Manuscript Documenting Aztec Culture Is Now Digitized & Available Online

The Spanish conquista of the Americas happened long enough ago — and left behind a spotty enough body of historical records — that we tend to perceive it as much through simplifications, exaggerations, and distortions as we do through facts. What we now call Mexico underwent “essentially an internal conflict between different indigenous groups who saw the arrival of strangers as an opportunity to resist having to pay tribute to the Aztec Empire,” says Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico history professor Berenice Alcántara Rojas. “When the Spaniards initially attacked the Mexica capital, they were swiftly driven out.”

“Only when aided by various groups of Indigenous allies, as well as by the spread of a terrible smallpox epidemic, did they manage to force the ruler Cuauhtemoc and other Mexica leaders to capitulate,” Rojas continues, drawing upon details provided in the version of the events laid out in the Florentine Codex.

That encyclopedic series of twelve 16th-century illustrated manuscripts lavishly documents the known society and nature of that land at the time — and has now, nearly 450 years later, been acknowledged as “the most reliable source of information about Mexica culture, the Aztec Empire, and the conquest of Mexico.”

“In 1547, Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan friar who committed most of his life to working closely with the Indigenous peoples of Mexico, began collecting information about central Mexican Nahua culture, life, people, history, astronomy, flora, fauna, and the Nahuatl language, among other topics,” says the Getty Research Institute. “Nahua elders, grammarians, scribes, and artists worked with Sahagún to compile a three-volume, 12-book, 2500-page illustrated manuscript, modeling its content on European encyclopedias, especially Pliny the Elder’s Natural History,” all of which has been digitized, translated, and made available at the Getty’s web site.

A thoroughly multicultural project avant la lettre, the Florentine Codex (named for the Medici family library in Florence, where it was sent upon its completion) has only just become accessible to a wide online readership. Though it’s “been digitally available via the World Digital Library since 2012, for most users it remained impenetrable because reading it requires knowledge of sixteenth-century Nahuatl and Spanish, and of pre-Hispanic and early modern European art traditions.” By offering searchable text in modern versions of both those languages as well as English — to say nothing of its browsable sections organized by people, animals, deities, and even by Nahuatl terms like coyote and tortilla — the Digital Florentine Codex re-illuminates an entire civilization.

via Hyperallergic

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The Codex Quetzalecatzin, an Extremely Rare Colored Mesoamerican Manuscript, Now Digitized and Put Online

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Explore the Codex Zouche-Nuttall: A Rare, Accordion-Folded Pre-Columbian Manuscript

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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 History of Disco Visualized on a Circuit Diagram of a Klipschorn Speaker: Features 600 Musicians, DJs, Producers, Clubs & Record Labels

Half a century after it was birthed in New York’s black, Latino and gay underground club scene–and nearly 45 years after the infamous Disco Demolition in Chicago’s Comiskey Park–disco is finally being accorded some respect in the annals of music history.

Even those who remain impervious to disco fever seem willing to acknowledge its cultural significance as evidenced by a recent exchange on the Trouser Press forum:

It was everywhere and could indeed get tiresome. But today I can appreciate how well put-together those records by an artist like the Bee Gees were…

Hearing techno for the first time in the early 90s, and realizing it was just disco in a new, all-electronic package, made me realize how good a lot of it was…

I remember seeing (A Taste of Honey) on The Midnight Special. It was the first time I’d seen a band with female members playing instruments…

Having previously celebrated the history of hip-hop, UK-based design studio Dorothy gives disco its due with a blueprint paying tribute to the many artists who made the form what it was, from foundation layers like Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown to such trailblazing superstars as Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Sylvester, Chic and the Bee Gees.

The Disco Love Blueprint also name checks some of disco’s influential producers, DJs, and labels, along with watershed moments like 1969’s Stonewall Uprising and 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, reportedly film critic Gene Siskel’s favorite movie.

And while the disco explosion eventually saw young straight singles doing the Bump in Indianapolis, Phoenix, and Spokane, Dorothy sticks close to the epicenter by including such legendary New York City clubs as Studio 54, The Gallery, Paradise Garage, The Saint, and The Loft, a private discotheque in DJ David Mancuso’s Lower Manhattan apartment.

In Bill Brewster’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Mancuso’s audio engineer, Alex Rosner, recalled the Loft’s clientele as being “probably about sixty percent black and seventy percent gay:”

There was a mix of sexual orientation, there was a mix of races, mix of economic groups. A real mix, where the common denominator was music.

One can’t mention the music at The Loft without giving props to the innovative and efficient sound system Rosner devised for Mancuso’s 1,850-square-foot space, using a McIntosh amplifier, an AR amplifier, Vega bass bottom speakers, and two Klipschorn Cornwall loudspeakers, whose circuit diagram inspired the Disco Love Blueprint’s layout.

As composer and producer Matt Sommers told The Vinyl Factory, those speakers surrounded dancers with the sort of high volume, undistorted sound they could lose themselves in:

…the Mancuso parties were unique because what he did was take it to a whole other level and created that envelopment experience where you could really get lost and I think that’s what people love about that, because you can just let your troubles go and enjoy it.

Get Dorothy’s Disco Love Blueprint, featuring 600 musicians, DJs, producers, clubs and record labels here.

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The Untold Story of Disco and Its Black, Latino & LGBTQ Roots

– 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.

Open Planet Lets You Download & Use 4,500 Free Videos That Document Nature & Climate Change

Plastic pollution in the Red Sea

A melting glacier in Iceland

Trees scorched by a wildfire in Australia…

As the effects of climate change become increasingly dire, we’ve grown accustomed to such grimly sobering visions.

Some look away.

Others work to heighten awareness of these clear and present environmental dangers.

And some strive to implement innovative solutions before it’s too late:

Solar panels in Costa Rica

Bubble barriers filtering plastic refuse from Amsterdam’s canals…

Sustainable agroforestry in the Amazon.

A classroom full of desks constructed from recycled one-time use plastics in India…

The creators of Open Planet, a soon-to-launch free footage library, hope to support change-making organizations and individuals by supplying video that can be edited together into narratives to “inspire optimism and action in this decisive decade for our planet.”

Caroline Petit, who prioritizes education and awareness in her position as Deputy Director for the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Europe, hails Open Planet for supplying worldwide free access to high-quality, accurate footage:

At this halfway point of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is crucial to provide all possible tools to supercharge the breakthroughs needed to achieve them. Capturing hearts and minds to motivate action is one powerful way to do so.

Enlisting some non-humans players to help achieve that end is a sound idea.

Behold a Nepal Gray Langur mother and baby hanging out in the treetops…

Cheetah cubs playfully sparring with each other in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve…

A group of Pashmina goats peacefully grazing on wild sea buckthorn berries on the high plateaus of Ladakh.

Open Planet’s 4,500 clip strong collection also teems with photogenic birds, insects, and marine life, with more being added all the time.

Studio Silverback, which is collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab on this project, created some of the footage specifically for the platform.

The remainder has been donated by outside filmmakers, broadcasters, and production companies who are credited in their clips’ content details.

In advance of its 2024 global launch, Open Planet has released a mostly uplifting 74-clip spotlight collection drawn from over 2000 pieces of footage filmed in India

A look at the platform’s searchable filter themes reminds us that the picture is not so overwhelmingly rosy, but also makes a strong case that change is possible:






Extreme Weather


Human Health

Land Management

Natural Disasters





Sustainable Future


Explore Open Planet’s footage library and create a free account to download the clips of your choice here. The videos are free to use for educational, environmental and impact storytelling.

via Colossal

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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.

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