27 Jan. 2023

One can appreciate the art of Frida Kahlo while knowing nothing of the art of her onetime husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. But the experience of certain of her paintings can be greatly enriched by some knowledge of their relationship, the clearest example being The Two Fridas, which Kahlo painted in 1939 after their divorce. The largest of her numerous self-portraits, it presents the artist as a set of doppelgängers set apart by their attire: one wears a European dress, and the other a traditional Mexican one. The resulting tableau could, on one level, reflect her dual heritage; it also, as Kahlo herself put it, shows “the Frida Diego loved, and the one he didn’t.”

The Two Fridas is the subject of the video essay above from Great Art Explained. “The darker-skinned Frida on the right is the indigenous Mexican Frida that was adored by her husband,” explains its host, gallerist James Payne.

“The lighter-skinned Frida on the left is the European Frida that he rejected.” Presenting herself in the former fashion “sent a clear message of cultural identity, nationalism, and feminism” — but it also concealed the “broken body” that resulted from a bus crash in her youth as well as various other physical disorders later in life. This portrait, however, exposes the heart of “Mexican Frida” in order to show that it “remains intact, sustained by the small portrait of Diego” in her hand.

The heart of “European Frida,” however, is rendered as “disconnected from her beloved Diego,” and it “bleeds profusely onto her dress, a Victorian lace dress similar to the one her mother wore.” The two Fridas are connected through their exposed hearts by a single artery, one connected to the portrait of Rivera. Payne points out the particular symbolic power of a bleeding heart, a “fundamental symbol of Catholicism” that “can also be seen as symbolic of Aztec ritual sacrifice,” in the case of a culturally conflicted artist such as Kahlo. In retrospect, The Two Fridas also seems to express the inevitability of Kahlo and Rivera’s remarriage, which would come the following year. They had “one of the most obsessive and tumultuous relationships in art history,” as Payne puts it, but while both lived, they knew they couldn’t do without each other.

Related content:

Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Artist

A Brief Animated Introduction to the Life and Work of Frida Kahlo

The Intimacy of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits: A Video Essay

Home Movies of Frida Kahlo (and a Side Order of Romantic Entanglements)

Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings Collects the Painter’s Entire Body of Work in a 600-Page, Large-Format Book

Discover Frida Kahlo’s Wildly-Illustrated Diary: It Chronicled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

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.

27 Jan. 2023

New Yorkers can be a maddeningly closed-mouth bunch, selfishly guarding our secret haunts lest they be overrun with newcomers and tourists…

But there’s not much we can do to deflect interest from Grand Central Teminal’s whispering gallery, a wildly popular acoustic anomaly in the tiled passageway just outside its famous Oyster Bar.

So we invite you to bring a friend, position yourselves in opposite corners, facing away from each other, and murmur your secrets to the wall.

Your friend will hear you as clearly as if you’d been whispering directly into their ear…and 9 times out of 10, a curious onlooker will approach to ask what exactly is going on.

Initiate them!

Sharing secrets of this order cultivates civic pride, a powerful force that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis harnessed when developers threatened to obscure Grand Central’s beauty with a towering addition designed by Modernist architect Marcel Breuer.

Onassis wrote to Mayor Abraham Beame in 1975, hoping to enlist him in the fight to spare midtown Manhattan’s jewel from an affront that the Landmarks Preservation Commission called an “aesthetic joke:”

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?

The Supreme Court sealed the deal in Grand Central’s favor in Penn Central Transportation Co. vs. New York City, a (pardon the pun) landmark decision that ensured future generations could discover  the Beaux-Arts treats historian Anthony Robins, author of Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark, divulges above.

Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to budget a few extra minutes to hunt for Caducei and Vanderbilt family acorns next time you’re grabbing a Metro-North commuter train.

(Amtrak’s long distance lines operate out of Penn Station…)

Spend some time in Grand Central’s iconic Main Concourse.

Gaze up toward the great arched windows to see if you can catch a tiny human figure behind the glass bricks, passing along one of the high up hidden catwalks connecting office buildings anchoring Grand Central’s corners.

Perhaps you’ll be privy to some intrigue near the famous four-sided clock, a time-honored rendez-vous spot that’s appeared in numerous films, including The Godfather, Men in Black, and North by Northwest.

Admire the upside down and backwards constellations adorning the vaulted ceiling, marveling that it not only took five men – architect Whitney Warren, artist Paul Helleu, muralist J. Monroe Hewlett, painter Charles Basing, and astronomer Harold Jacoby – to get it wrong, their celestial boo-boo has been embraced during subsequent renovations.

If your wallet’s as fat as a Park Avenue swell’s, head to the Campbell Apartment atop the West Staircase. Formerly the private office of Jazz Age financier, John W. Campbell, it’s now a glamorous venue for blowing $20 on a martini.

(Hot tip – that same $20 can fetch you sixteen Long Island Blue Points during Happy Hour at the Oyster Bar.)

As for the East Staircase, nearly 100 years younger than its seeming fraternal twin across the Concourse’s marble expanse, that one leads to an Apple Store.

Browse various options for Grand Central Terminal guided and self-guided tours here.

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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.

26 Jan. 2023

We may have yet to develop the technology of time travel, but recorded music comes pretty close. Those who listen to it have experienced how a song or an album can, in some sense, transport them right back to the time they first heard it. But older records also have the much stranger power to conjure up eras we never experienced. You can musically send yourself as far back as the nineteen-twenties with the above Youtube playlist of digitized 78 RPM records from the George Blood collection.

George Blood is the head of the audio-visual digitization company George Blood Audio, which has been participating in the Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project. “The brainchild of the Archive’s founder, Brewster Kahle, the project is dedicated to the preservation and discovery of 78rpm records,” writes The Vinyl Factory’s Will Pritchard.

The piece quotes Blood himself as saying that his company has been digitizing five to six thousand records per month with the ambitious goal of creating a “reference collection of sound recordings from the period of approximately 1880 to 1960.” He said that five years ago. Today, the Internet Archive’s George Blood collection contains more than 385,000 records free to stream and download.

The 78 having been the most popular recorded-music format in the first few decades of the twentieth century, George Blood L.P. and the Great 78 Project as a whole have had plenty of material to work with. In the large archive built up so far you’ll find plenty of obscurities — the Youtube playlist at the top of the post can get you acquainted with the likes of Eric Whitley and the Green Sisters, Tin Ear Tanner and His Back Room Boys, and Douglas Venable and His Bar X Ranch Hands — but also the work of musicians who remain beloved today. For the 78 was the medium through which many listeners enjoyed the big-band hit of Glenn Miller, or discovered jazz as performed by legends like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. To know their music most intimately, one would perhaps have needed to hear them in the actual nineteen-thirties, but this is surely the next best thing.

Related content:

How the Internet Archive Has Digitized More than 250,000 78 R.P.M. Records: See the Painstaking Process Up-Close

Massive Archive of 78RPM Records Now Digitized & Put Online: Stream 78,000 Early 20th Century Records from Around the World

200,000+ Vintage Records Being Digitized & Put Online by the Boston Public Library

Rare Arabic 78 RPM Records Enter the Public Domain

Download 10,000 of the First Recordings of Music Ever Made, Courtesy of the University of California-Santa Barbara

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.

26 Jan. 2023

Behold the new trailer for Marlowe, a new film directed by Neil Jordan. As the title suggests, the film centers around Philip Marlowe, the gumshoe detective that Raymond Chandler first unveiled in The Big Sleep in 1939. Between then and now, Marlowe has been portrayed in films by Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, and James Garner. Now, Liam Neeson takes his turn. Here’s how the producers pitch the film:

MARLOWE, a gripping noir crime thriller set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, centers around a street-wise, down on his luck detective; Philip Marlowe, played by Liam Neeson, who is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress (Diane Kruger), daughter of a well-known movie star (Jessica Lange). The disappearance unearths a web of lies, and soon Marlowe is involved in a dangerous, deadly investigation where everyone involved has something to hide.

Marlowe arrives in theaters on February 15.

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, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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via BoingBoing

25 Jan. 2023

As we’ve previously noted here on Open Culture, Orson Welles was not given to mincing words about his colleagues. And the older he got, the fewer words he minced, as evidenced by the clip above from a talk he gave at a Paris film school in 1982. During the Q&A, he took a question that quoted Elia Kazan’s remarks on the difficulty of raising money in America for a film about Puerto Ricans. Or rather, he heard part of the question and launched right into his thundering response: “Mademoiselle, you have chosen the wrong metteur en scene, because Elia Kazan is a traitor.”

Welles took a minute to elaborate: “He is a man who sold to McCarthy all his companions at a time when he could continue to work in New York at high salary. And having sold all of his people to McCarthy, he then made a film called On the Waterfront which was a celebration of the informer. And therefore, no question which uses him as an example can be answered by me.” Welles made a habit of publicly demonstrating his principles, both artistic or political. It was the latter that had decades before got his name into the journal Red Channels, one element of the larger American anti-Communist movement personified by Welles’ fellow Wisconsinite, United States Senator Joseph McCarthy.

“When Stalinism was fashionable, movie people became Stalinists,” wrote New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. “They performed propaganda services for the various shifts in Russia’s foreign policy and, as long as the needs of American and Russian policy coincided, this took the form of super-patriotism. When the war was over and the Cold War began, history left them stranded, and McCarthy moved in on them. The shame of McCarthyism was not only ‘the shame of America’ but the shame of a bunch of newly rich people who were eager to advise the world on moral and political matters and who, faced with a test, informed on their friends — and, as Orson Welles put it, not even to save their lives but to save their swimming pools.”

This passage comes from “Raising Kane,” Kael’s well-known essay on Citizen Kane that plays down Welles’ influence on the film and plays up that of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. But whatever ground Welles had to resent Kael, he had more to resent Kazan, who gave testimony as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. That marked the height of the “Hollywood blacklist” that put a temporary hold on, or permanent end to, the careers of suspected Communists or sympathizers in the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, Welles possesses sound enough artistic and political judgment never to let the one interfere with the other, as evidenced by what he said of Kazan after receiving a round of applause from the audience: “I have to add that he is a very good director.”

via Michael Warburton

Related content:

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Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1947)

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.

25 Jan. 2023


Three minutes with the minstrels / Arthur Collins, S. H. Dudley & Ancient City. Edison Record. 1899.

Long before vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and MP3s came along, people first experienced audio recordings through another medium — through cylinders made of tin foil, wax and plastic. In recent years, we’ve featured cylinder recordings from the 19th century that allow you to hear the voices of Leo Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Walt WhitmanOtto von Bismarck and other historic figures. Those recordings were originally recorded and played on a cylinder phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. But those were obviously just a handful of the cylinder recordings produced at the beginning of the recorded sound era.

Thanks to the University of California-Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive, you can now download or stream a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings. “This searchable database,” says UCSB, “features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.” You can also find in the archive a number of “personal recordings,” or “home wax recordings,” made by everyday people at home (as opposed to by record companies).

If you go to this page, the recordings are neatly categorized by genre, instrument, subject/theme and ethnicity/nation of origin. You can listen, for example, to recordings of JazzHawaiian MusicOperas, and Fiddle Tunes. Or hear recordings featuring the MandolinGuitarBagpipes and Banjo. Plus there are thematically-arranged playlists here.

Hosted by University of California-Santa Barbara, the archive is supported by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and other donors.

Above, hear a recording called “Three minutes with the minstrels,” by Arthur Collins, released in 1899. Below that is “Alexander’s ragtime band medley,” featuring the banjo playing of Fred Van Eps, released in 1913.

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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, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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

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24 Jan. 2023

“Here comes a trailer truck out on the open highway, miles from the nearest town,” says the narrator of the short film above. Suddenly, it becomes “important for someone to get in touch with the drivers of this outfit. How can it be done?” Any modern-day viewer would respond to this question in the same way: you just call the guys. But Mobile Telephones dates from the nineteen-forties, well before the eponymous devices were in wide use — about four decades, in fact, before even the massive Motorola DynaTAC 8000X came on the market. The idea of calling someone not at home or the office, let alone a trucker on the road, would have seemed the stuff of science fiction.

Yet the engineers at Bell had made it possible, using a system that transmits conversations “partway by radio, partway by telephone lines.” This necessitated “a number of transmitting and receiving stations connected to telephone lines,” installed “at intervals along the highway so that one will always be in range of the moving vehicle.”

As dramatized in Mobile Telephones, the process of actually ringing up the driver of a vehicle involves calling a classic forties switchboard operator and asking her to make the connection. But otherwise, the process won’t feel entirely unfamiliar to the mobile phone users today — that is, to the majority of the people in the world.

Cellphones have become such an integral part of life in the twenty-first century that few of us really feel the need to understand just how they work. But three quarters of a century ago, the idea of taking or making calls on the go was unfamiliar enough that viewers of a film like this would have wanted the mechanics laid out in some detail. Surely that held especially true for the industrial clients of Bell’s early mobile-telephone system, for whom its reliable functionality would translate into greater profits. Taking the longer view, this technological development marks, as the narrator reminds us over swelling music, “one more step toward telephone service for anyone, any time, anywhere”: a once-futuristic vision that now sounds practically mundane.

Related content:

“When We All Have Pocket Telephones”: A 1920s Comic Accurately Predicts Our Cellphone-Dominated Lives

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In 1953, a Telephone-Company Executive Predicts the Rise of Modern Smartphones and Video Calls

The First Cellphone: Discover Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, a 2-Pound Brick Priced at $3,995 (1984)

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.

24 Jan. 2023

Art forgery is a sturdy trope of film and fiction. We’re all familiar with the spectacle of a rarified expert examining a work, while a wealthy collector anxiously wrings their hands nearby.

As Maggie Cao observes in the Guardian:

Forgeries expose some of the art world’s most psychologically complex figures: the collector and the counterfeiter. What compels the prototypical collector to accumulate objects of beauty is usually a peculiar devotion to the power of singularity. The collector worships art’s power to move us, a power we imagine emanates from unique objects. Meanwhile, what motivates the counterfeiter is an undue confidence in the possibilities of replication. To deceive a viewer with a copy is to affirm that copy’s interchangeability with the original.

But what if art forgery can be used for good?

That’s the hope of Roger Michel, founder of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, who employs technological advances to preserve culturally significant objects and offer accessible tactile experiences to those with vision impairment.

Shortly after ISIS destroyed the Monumental Arch of Palymyra, he harnessed 3D technology to recreate the 1800-year old landmark in two-thirds scale Egyptian marble.

The public was able to get up close and personal with the model in various locations around the world, including New York’s City Hall Park, Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, and London’s Trafalgar Square, where Michel enjoyed watching passersby touching and photographing the replica Arch:

There are guys in Carnaby Street suits mixed with young people in hip-hop clothes and Syrians in traditional dress. It’s the crossroads of humanity, and that was what Palymra was.

Michel is also striving to convince the British Museum that all will not be lost, should it choose to repatriate the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Marbles to Greece, much as the Smithsonian returned 29 Benin bronzes taken during an 1897 British raid to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.

Michel made his case with a robotically carved facsimile of the head of the Horse of Selene, above, which is all the more remarkable when one learns that he was working from photos taken on an iPhone and iPad while visiting the gallery in which it is displayed, after the museum refused his request for an official scan.

The item description on the museum’s collection’s portal notes that the Horse of Selene was purchased from Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who took possession of it while serving as Britain’s ambassador to Ottoman Turkey from 1799-1803.

(The description neglects to mention that rather than allow him to adorn his home with this and other ill-gotten antiquities, a parliamentary committee ordered Lord Elgin to sell his vast collection to the British government for £35,000, which is how they wound up in the museum.)

Originally a part of the Parthenon’s east pediment, the Horse of Selene is such a fan favorite that the museum shop sells an “exquisite” hand-cast resin replica for £1,650, promising that it will make “a show-stopping point of focus in any home.”

Perhaps…though we’re willing to bet it can’t match the verisimilitude of the tiny chips and chisel marks painstakingly captured by the robot carver, which took about about 8 days to create a rough model once it received the scans, followed by some 3 weeks of refining. The robot got an assist at the very end from human artisans, whose handiwork Michel calls “the crucial 3 to 5 percent.”

Giacomo Massari, founder of Robotor, who partnered with Michel on this recreation, vaunts the precision technology makes possible:

You can recognize every scratch. You can see the flaws of the stone and you can see the challenges our colleagues from 2,000 years ago were facing. It’s like going back in time — you can feel the struggles of the artist.

The museum brass appears unmoved by the prospect of swapping replicas, no matter how excellent, for the frieze panels, sculptures, architectural fragments and other treasures of antiquity Elgin shipped home from the Acropolis in the early 1800s, though the New York Times reported last week that secret talks with Greece’s prime minister may indicate the two parties are edging closer to resolution.

This collection has been a cultural hot potato since Lord Byron, touring the Parthenon shortly after Elgin made off with so many its treasures, denounced his avarice in a poem titled The Curse of Minerva:

Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,

I saw successive Tyrannies expire;

‘Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,

Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.

Survey this vacant, violated fane;

Recount the relics torn that yet remain:

‘These’ Cecrops placed, ‘this’ Pericles adorned,

‘That’ Adrian reared when drooping Science mourned.

What more I owe let Gratitude attest—

Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.

That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,

The insulted wall sustains his hated name:

For Elgin’s fame thus grateful Pallas pleads,

Below, his name—above, behold his deeds!

The New York Times quoted a middle-aged London bus driver who voiced the opinion, as did the vast majority of respondents to a British survey, that the Parthenon sculptures should be returned to their land of origin, remarking, “It’s like the Crown Jewels. If someone took those, you’d want them back, wouldn’t you?”

His argument is a hard one to refute in an age when the innovative technical solutions promoted by Michel and the Institute for Digital Archaeology create opportunities that Lord Elgin and museum visitors of yore could never have envisioned.

The public invitation to the November 2022 unveiling of the Selene Horse replica stated that “Britain’s stewardship of the Elgin marbles embodies a psychologically complex story of obsession, possession, and assimilation – so far without resolution”, asking:

Might perfect copies, rendered in sacred Pentelic marble, suggest a possible path forward?

Readers, what say you?

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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.

24 Jan. 2023

A new deal to start a new year: Between now and January 31, 2023, Coursera is offering a $200 discount on its annual subscription plan called “Coursera Plus.” Normally priced at $399, Coursera Plus (now available for $199) gives you access to 90% of Coursera’s courses, Guided Projects, Specializations, and Professional Certificates, all of which are taught by top instructors from leading universities and companies (e.g. Yale, Duke, Google, Facebook, and more). The $199 annual fee–which translates roughly to 55 cents per day–could be a good investment for anyone interested in learning new subjects and skills in 2023, or earning certificates that can be added to your resume. Just as Netflix’s streaming service gives you access to unlimited movies, Coursera Plus gives you access to unlimited courses and certificates. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat deal.

You can try out Coursera Plus for 14 days, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can get your money back. Explore the offer (before January 31, 2023) here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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23 Jan. 2023

We know what Mark Twain looked like, and we think we know what he sounded like. Just above see what he looked like in motion, strolling around Stormfield, his house in Redding, Connecticut—signature white suit draped loosely around his frame, signature cigar puffing white smoke between his fingers. After Twain’s leisurely walk along the house’s façade, we see him with his daughters, Clara and Jean, seated indoors. Below you can see the original murky version, featured on our site way back in 2010. A digital restoration (top) does wonders for the watchability of this priceless silent artifact, so vividly capturing the writer/contrarian/raconteur’s essence that you’ll find yourself reaching to turn the volume up, expecting to hear that familiar curmudgeonly drawl.

Shot by Thomas Edison in 1909, the short film is most likely the only moving image of Twain in existence. We might assume that Edison also recorded Twain’s voice, since we seem to know it so well, from portrayals of the great American humorist in pop cultural touchstones like Star Trek: The Next Generation and parodies by Alec Baldwin and Val Kilmer.

Kilmer’s surprisingly funny in the role, but he doesn’t come near the pitch perfect impersonation Hal Holbrook had given us for the better part of sixty years in his masterful Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook’s vocal mannerisms have become a definitive model for actors playing Twain on stage and screen.

Given the number of Twain vocal impersonations out there, and Edison’s interest in documenting the author, we might be surprised to learn that no original recordings of his voice exist. Twain, we find out in the short film below, experimented with audio recording technology, but abandoned his efforts. It seems that none of the wax cylinders he worked with have survived—perhaps he destroyed them himself.

As narrator Rod Rawlings—himself a Twain impersonator and aficionado—informs us, what we do have is a recording made in 1934 by actor and playwright William Gillette,  an able mimic of Twain, his patron and longtime neighbor. Like Holbrook, Gillette spent a good part of his career traveling from town to town playing Mark Twain. Below, you’ll hear Gillette address a class of students at Harvard, first in his own voice, then in the voice of the author, reading from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Gillette’s performance is likely the closest we’ll ever come to hearing the voice of the real Twain, whose major works appear in our collection of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

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

23 Jan. 2023

Music changes when technology changes. Few musicians have demonstrated as keen an awareness of that fact as Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who together as Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) burst onto the scene making sounds that most listeners of the late nineteen-seventies had never heard before — never heard in a musical context, at least. They’d never seen a band employ a computer programmer, nor bring onstage a device like Roland’s MC-8 Microcomposer, an early musical sequencer designed strictly for studio use. That YMO didn’t hesitate to make these unconventional choices, and many others besides, won them years as the most popular band in their native Japan.

It would be unimaginable for YMO to have emerged in any other place or time. “Japan had long since remade itself as a postwar economic engine, but by the late 1970s it was becoming something else: a global emblem of techno-utopianism and futuristic cool,” writes the New York Times‘ Clay Risen. “Sony released the Walkman in 1979, just as Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake were taking over Paris fashion runways with their playful, visionary designs.”

Japan had become economically, technologically, and culturally formidable on a global scale, and YMO were placed to become its ideal representatives: they had the askew hipness and the cutting-edge sounds, but it was their sense of humor, evident in the playfulness of their music, that took the rest of the world by surprise.

You’ll find no better introduction to YMO’s work than the hour-long YMO concert at the Nippon Budokan at the top of the post. It took place in 1983, not long before Hosono, Takahashi, and Sakamoto packed the band up and returned to their already well-established solo careers. As a unit they’d achieved global stardom, playing foreign venues like Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre in 1979 and, unbelievably, going on Soul Train in 1980. Their early hit “Behind the Mask” even caught the attention of Michael Jackson, who recorded his own version of the song for Thriller but left it unreleased until 2010 — by which time YMO had reunited to perform in Japan, Europe, and America, playing for new generations of listeners who had grown up immersed in their music, directly or indirectly.

Influences on YMO included the work of Brian Wilson and Giorgio Moroder, as well as music from India, China, the Caribbean, the late-fifties-early-sixties “exotica” fad, and even arcade games. But their own influence has spread out farther still, shaping not just various subgenres of electronic music but also certain formative works of hip hop. If you listen to YMO’s albums today — nearly 45 years after their commercial debut, and just a few weeks after the death of co-founder Takahashi — their music still, somehow, sounds thoroughly Japanese. Like Isao Tomita (whose assistant became their computer programmer), YMO understood not just that music changes with technology, but also that it emerges from a specific culture, and in their discography we hear those principles pushed to their thrilling limits.

Related content:

Infinite Escher: A High-Tech Tribute to M.C. Escher, Featuring Sean Lennon, Nam June Paik & Ryuichi Sakamoto (1990)

How Youtube’s Algorithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japanese Song Into an Enormously Popular Hit: Discover Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”

Hear the Greatest Hits of Isao Tomita (RIP), the Father of Japanese Electronic Music

Pink Lady and Jeff: Japan’s Biggest Pop Musicians Star in One of America’s Worst-Reviewed TV Shows (1980)

The Roland TR-808, the Drum Machine That Changed Music Forever, Is Back! And It’s Now Affordable & Compact

Kraftwerk’s First Concert: The Beginning of the Endlessly Influential Band (1970)

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.


20 Jan. 2023

Image by Benjaminec, via Wikimedia Commons

Rome may not have been built in a day, but it was built to last — or at least its concrete was, given that the pieces of the Roman Empire that have stood to our time, in one form or another, tend to have been built with it. That material has proven not just durable but enduringly fascinating, holding a great deal of not just historical interest but technical interest as well. For ancient Roman concrete appears to outlast its much more technically advanced modern descendants, and the complex question of why is one we’ve featured more than once here on Open Culture. Just this year, researchers at MIT, Harvard, and laboratories in Italy and Switzerland have found what seems to be the final piece of the puzzle.

“For many years, researchers have assumed that the key to the ancient concrete’s durability was based on one ingredient: pozzolanic material such as volcanic ash from the area of Pozzuoli, on the Bay of Naples,” writes MIT News‘ David L. Chandler. “Under closer examination, these ancient samples also contain small, distinctive, millimeter-scale bright white mineral features.”

Previously assumed to be nothing but imperfections in the process or the materials, these “lime clasts,” in light of this most recent research, constitute evidence of “hot mixing,” which involves heating to a high temperature ingredients including quicklime (or calcium oxide), a purer and more reactive form of lime.

Undergoing hot mixing, “the lime clasts develop a characteristically brittle nanoparticulate architecture, creating an easily fractured and reactive calcium source” that “could provide a critical self-healing functionality.” In practice, this means that “as soon as tiny cracks start to form within the concrete, they can preferentially travel through the high-surface-area lime clasts. This material can then react with water, creating a calcium-saturated solution, which can recrystallize as calcium carbonate and quickly fill the crack, or react with pozzolanic materials to further strengthen the composite material.” Here we have a convincing explanation of the reactions that, in ancient Roman concrete, “automatically heal the cracks before they spread.”

No such self-healing happens in modern concrete, the production of which has not involved quicklime for a very long time indeed — but perhaps it could once more. During their research process, writes Dezeen’s Rima Sabina Aouf, the team “produced samples of hot-mixed concrete using both ancient and modern formulations, cracked them, and ran water through the cracks. Within two weeks, the cracks had healed and water could no longer flow through, while identical concrete blocks made without quicklime never healed.” Such findings “could help increase the lifespan of modern concrete and therefore mitigate the notorious environmental impact of the material,” and the researchers “are now working to commercialize their more durable concrete formula.” Even in the twenty-first century, the building industry could well benefit by doing as the Romans did.

via MIT News

Related Content:

How Did the Romans Make Concrete That Lasts Longer Than Modern Concrete? The Mystery Finally Solved

How to Make Roman Concrete, One of Human Civilization’s Longest-Lasting Building Materials

How Did Roman Aqueducts Work?: The Most Impressive Achievement of Ancient Rome’s Infrastructure, Explained

How the Ancient Romans Built Their Roads, the Lifelines of Their Vast Empire

The Beauty & Ingenuity of the Pantheon, Ancient Rome’s Best-Preserved Monument: An Introduction

Roman Architecture: A Free Course from Yale

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.

20 Jan. 2023

We recognize that Open Culture readers are a creative bunch.

As proof, we point to your Getty Museum Challenge entries and the fact that one of your number won Yale University Press’s Kafka Caption Contest.

We’ve identified another opportunity to show off your creative streak, compliments of All Of It with Alison Stewart, a daily live culture program on WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.

You have until February 13 to write and record an original song inspired by a work in the public domain, and submit it to The All Of It Public Song Project.

Amateurs are welcome to take a crack at it and any genre is cricket, including rap, spoken word, and instrumentals.

Even if you limit yourself to the works that entered the public domain on January 1 of this year, the possibilities are almost endless.

Should you be inclined toward a faithful cover, we encourage you to consider one of 1927’s deep cuts, like Fats Waller’s “Soothin’ Syrup Stomp” or Jelly Roll Morton’s “Hyena Stomp,” though we understand the attraction of Irving Berlin’s enduringly popular “Puttin’ on the Ritz”.

Apologies to Emily Joy, the accomplished young classical pianist, above – participation is limited to entrants aged 18 or older.

The rest of us are free to invent new lyrics for an existing composition, or a brand new tune for existing lyrics.

You might musicalize a poem or speech, some dialogue from a film, or a page from a book.

A bluegrass spin on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, perhaps?

A death metal re-envisioning of Buttercup Days from A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six?

How about a sissy bounce take on these lines from “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” the first short story in Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes:

“Billy, you will see a large and ugly gentleman outside the front door. Ask him to come up.”

“If he won’t come, sir?”

“No violence, Billy. Don’t be rough with him. If you tell him that Count Sylvius wants him he will certainly come.”

“What are you going to do now?” asked the Count as Billy disappeared.

“My friend Watson was with me just now. I told him that I had a shark and a gudgeon in my net; now I am drawing the net and up they come together.”

The Count had risen from his chair, and his hand was behind his back. Holmes held something half protruding from the pocket of his dressing-gown.

“You won’t die in your bed, Holmes.”

Okay, we’re being silly, but only because we don’t want to put ideas in your head!

You could even concoct something entirely new – perhaps a ballad from the POV of To the Lighthouse’s young James Ramsay, or a ditty apologizing to Virginia Woolf for reading the Cliffs Notes instead of the actual novel when it was assigned in your college Women’s Literature class.

…we’re doing it again, aren’t we?

All right, we’ll leave you to it, with a reminder that anything outside of your public domain source material must be wholly original – no borrowing a catchy tune from Lennon and McCartney, capisci?

Winners will get a chance to discuss their works on WNYC and all qualifying entries will be posted at contest’s end for the public’s listening pleasure.

Contest rules and information on how to submit to The All Of It Public Song Project can be found here.

Good luck! We can’t wait to hear what you come up with.

Related Content

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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.

19 Jan. 2023

If we seek to understand Western civilization, we must look back not just to Rome, but also to Athens. And today, thanks to computer-generated imagery informed by historical research, we can look not just to those cities, but at them — or at least at convincing digital reconstructions, but from angles their actual inhabitants could scarcely have imagined. A few years ago, we featured here on Open Culture the Youtube channel Ancient Athens 3D for its reconstructions of individual structures like the Temples of Ilissos and Hephaestus. Its more recent video above offers a twelve-minute virtual tour of all classical Athens in the fifth century BC, the height of ancient Greek civilization.

In that period, according to the video, Athens “was the center of the arts, theater, philosophy, and democracy.” In the city “great monuments of architecture were built and were largely associated with the Athenian general Pericles.”

It was Pericles who led the city-state during the first two years of the Peloponnesian War, the conflict in which Athens would eventually fall to Sparta in 404 BC — a defeat that had almost, but not quite come to the city at the moment Ancient Athens 3D creator Dimitris Tsalkanis brings it back to life. He includes everything from the Acropolis and the Agora to the Olympieion and the Sacred Gate, all looking as if they’ll stand forever.

Nor does Tsalkanis ignore even better-known classical Greek buildings like the Parthenon, whose detailed reconstruction, inside and out, also appears in its own video just above. Commissioned by Pericles, built on the Acropolis, and dedicated to the goddess Athena, “patroness of the city of Athens,” the building remains “a symbol of ancient Greece, democracy, and Western civilization” nearly two and half millennia after its construction, and more than two centuries after the Earl of Elgin had its mythology-depicting marbles sent off to England. You can still see them at the British Museum (at least for now), and for that matter you can still visit the Parthenon itself in Athens — or at least the ruins thereof, wholly untouched by digital magic.

Related content:

Explore Ancient Athens 3D, a Digital Reconstruction of the Greek City-State at the Height of Its Influence

What Ancient Greece Really Looked Like: See Reconstructions of the Temple of Hadrian, Curetes Street & the Fountain of Trajan

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

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vases Come to Life with 21st Century Animation

What Did Ancient Greek Music Sound Like?: Listen to a Reconstruction That’s ‘100% Accurate’

An 8-Minute Animated Flight Over Ancient Rome

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.

19 Jan. 2023

Image by the USO, via Flickr Commons

In one of my favorite Stephen King interviews, for The Atlantic, he talks at length about the vital importance of a good opening line. “There are all sorts of theories,” he says, “it’s a tricky thing.” “But there’s one thing” he’s sure about: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King’s discussion of opening lines is compelling because of his dual focus as an avid reader and a prodigious writer of fiction—he doesn’t lose sight of either perspective:

We’ve talked so much about the reader, but you can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both.

This is excellent advice. As you orient your reader, so you orient yourself, pointing your work in the direction it needs to go. Now King admits that he doesn’t think much about the opening line as he writes, in a first draft, at least. That perfectly crafted and inviting opening sentence is something that emerges in revision, which can be where the bulk of a writer’s work happens.

Revision in the second draft, “one of them, anyway,” may “necessitate some big changes” says King in his 2000 memoir slash writing guide On Writing. And yet, it is an essential process, and one that “hardly ever fails.” Below, we bring you King’s top twenty rules from On Writing. About half of these relate directly to revision. The other half cover the intangibles—attitude, discipline, work habits. A number of these suggestions reliably pop up in every writer’s guide. But quite a few of them were born of Stephen King’s many decades of trial and error and—writes the Barnes & Noble book blog—“over 350 million copies” sold, “like them or loathe them.”

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”

6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

9. Turn off the TV. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.”

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”

13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”

15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Related Content:

The 69 Pages of Writing Advice Denis Johnson Collected from Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, Stephen King, Hunter Thompson, Werner Herzog & Many Others

7 Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

Stephen King’s Top 10 All-Time Favorite Books

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