A Short Introduction to Writing in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: Now You Can Write Like a Babylonian!

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.

Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Women Got Dressed in the 14th & 18th Centuries: Watch the Very Painstaking Process Get Cinematically Recreated

We live in an age of convenience, and one getting more convenient all the time. Few comparisons between past and present underscore that quite so much as the morning routine. Hot and cold running water on demand, properly appreciated, can seem miraculous enough, let alone more recent developments like the availability of high-quality coffee on every city block. But consider clothing, the change in whose outward appearance over the past 700 years or so goes along with an equally dramatic change in use. We still wear clothes for all the same basic reasons we did back then, of course, but what it takes to wear them has diminished to comparative effortlessness.

These videos, one on getting dressed in the 14th century and one on getting dressed in the 18th century, offer detailed, narrated, and cinematic looks at what the process once entailed — or at least what the process entailed for English women of a certain class.

The average man in those periods, too, had to deal with much more hassle putting on his clothes in the morning that he does today, but the female case, with its shift, stays, petticoats, pockets, roll, stockings and garters, gown and stomacher, apron, and more besides, required not just a great deal of discipline and concentration on the part of the dresser but assistance from another pair of hands as well.

You can find more such videos on the finer points of women's dressing routines of yore, including further explanations of such elements as pockets and busks, on this playlist. The social, technological, and industrial stories behind why it has all become so much less complicated over the centuries has provided, and will continue to provide, the driving questions for many an academic thesis. But despite the enormous reduction in the labor-intensiveness of putting them on, clothes have not, of course, become a perfectly simple matter for we dressers of the comparatively ultra-casual 21st century. Still, after watching all it took to get dressed those hundreds and hundreds of years ago, many of us — male or female — might arrive at the thought that we could stand to put just a little more effort into the job.

via Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Sitting Is The New Smoking: An Animated Explanation

In recent years, sitting has become the new smoking. "Past studies have found," declares a 2014 article in The New York Times, "the more hours that people spend sitting, the more likely they are to develop diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and potentially to die prematurely — even if they exercise regularly." What's the science behind this alarming claim? The animated TED-ED video (watch above) begins to paint the picture. But it doesn't get into the latest and perhaps most important research. According to science writer Gretchen Reynolds, a recent Swedish study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that when you sit all day, your telomeres (the tiny caps on the ends of DNA strands) get shorter. Which is not a good thing. As telomeres get shorter, the rate at which the body ages and decays speeds up. Conversely, the study found "that the telomeres in [those] who were sitting the least had lengthened. Their cells seemed to be growing physiologically younger."

Several years ago, KQED radio in San Francisco aired a program dedicated to this question, featuring medical and ergonomics experts. To delve deeper into it, listen below.

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

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Muhammad Ali & Sly Stone Get Into a Heated Debate on Racism & Reparations on The Mike Douglas Show (1974)

Ah, the 70s… an American president was impeached for criminal activity; a congressman, Wayne Hays, resigned for sleeping with his secretary, after divorcing his wife to marry a different secretary; another congressman, Bud Shuster—who described Hays as “the meanest man in the house”—called for an investigation of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, after Cox was fired by the soon-to-be impeached president… ‘twas a different time, children, a simpler time….

Well, at any rate, they sure wore funny suits back then, eh? Those lapels…. But just like today, politics mixed freely with sports and entertainment in controversial and televisual ways. Boxers got ratings, singers got ratings, politicians like “meanest man in the house” Wayne Hays got ratings, even before his sex scandal, when he appeared on TV with boxers and singers—appeared, that is, on The Mike Douglas Show in 1974 with Muhammad Ali and Sly Stone. Actor and activist Theodore Bikel was there too, though you might blink and miss him in the fracas just above.

First, Hays offers some banal opinions on the subject of campaign financing, another one of those bygone 70s issues. But when Douglas poses the question to Ali of whether or not he’d ever run for office, things pick up, to say the least. Ali refuses to play the entertainer. He launches flurry after flurry of jabs at white America, and at Hays, who does his best to stay upright under the onslaught. “Ali is unyielding,” writes Dangerous Minds, “intense and brilliant.”

Ali takes on a serious question facing Black nationalists of the 60s and 70s, from the Panthers to the Nation of Islam, whose views Ali embraced at the time, along with, perhaps, some of their ugly anti-Semitism. (The following year he converted to Sunni Islam, and later became a Sufi.) Should Black activists participate in the oppressive systems of the U.S. government? Can anyone do good from inside the halls of imperialist power?

Hays makes an integrationist case, and champions Black leaders like congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Ali is relentlessly combative, calling for reparations. Sly slides in to clarify and pacify, playing mediator and referee. Douglas gets off the applause line, “isn’t it time we all tried to live together.” Ali refuses to gloss over racism and economic inequality. No peace, he says in effect, without justice. Aren’t we glad, forty-four years later, that we’ve ironed all this out? See the full show above for much more heavyweight commentary from Ali and sometimes fuzzy counterpoint from Sly. They go back and forth with Douglas for ten minutes before Hays and Bikel join.

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

Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” Shredded on the Ukulele

Here's James Hill's recipe for playing Jimi Hendrix's 1968 classic, "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" on the uke. Yes, the uke:

1 Mya-Moe baritone ukulele (Low G - G - B - E)
1 guitar amp (Fender Blues Junior or equivalent)
1 bass amp (15 inch)
1 line splitter (Radial ABY box)
1 Diamond J-Drive pedal (made in Halifax, NS!)
4 busted strings
2 broken fingernails
Season to taste and serve hot!

Enjoy...

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Doc Martens Boots Now Come Adorned with Traditional Japanese Art

In wake of a recent prom cheongsam dust up, it remains to be seen whether Doc Martens’ special edition Eastern Art shoes and boots will be regarded as a misstep.

Dr. Martens' Artist Series paid tribute to Western heavy hitters like Hieronymus BoschWilliam Hogarth, JMW Turner, and William Blake.

Those eye-catching kicks may have inspired more than a few fashion-conscious punks to delve into art history, but what will consumers—and more importantly activists on the alert for cultural appropriation—make of the Eastern Art line?

The company website describes the inaugural design as:

a new homage to traditional Japanese art with a fresh, contemporary … spin. Featuring detailed hand-drawn paintings, the art is digitally printed on a textured leather designed to emulate traditional Japanese parchment, while gold-tone eyelets and studding complete the look.

One wonders what led the footwear giant to go with a mishmash “inspired by” approach, when there are so many wonderful Edo period artists who merit a boot of their own?

Katsushika Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (see here) would make for an unforgettable toe cap…

Kitagawa Utamaro could shod heels and ankles with the floating world.

Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s work would easily transfer from screen to shoe.

Thus far, the lone complaints have centered on the pain of breaking in the new boots, a badge of honor among longtime wearers of the company’s best-selling 1460 Pascal style.

Asia Trend reports that Doc Martens has two shops in Japan, with plans to open more.

If you’re inclined to stomp around in a pair of Dr. Martens 1460 Pascal Eastern Art boots or 1461 Oxfords, best place your order soon, as these special editions have a way of selling out quickly.

via MyModernMet

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

How David Bowie Turned His “Adequate” Voice into a Powerful Instrument: Hear Isolated Vocal Tracks from “Life on Mars,” “Starman,” “Modern Love” “Under Pressure” & More

Believe it or not, the odds were against David Bowie becoming an international pop superstar. When it seemed he’d finally arrived, with the release of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972, “we didn’t realize,” says Jarvis Cocker in a 2012 documentary, “that he’d been trying to be successful for 10 years.” Bowie was 24, a ripe old age in pop star years, and already had four albums under his belt as a solo artist, the first a total commercial failure, and the second notable for its one hit, “Space Oddity,” which seemed like it might have been the artist’s big break in 1969, but somehow wasn’t.

He had played in several bands and tried performing under his given name, Davy Jones, which he just happened to share with one of the biggest pop stars of the day. Had he not persisted, changed his name and style, and, crucially, invented his Martian glam persona, he might have remained a one-hit-wonder, his excellent The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory revered as underrated cult favorites among fans in the know.

In addition to the difficulty Bowie had finding his niche, he was not a naturally gifted singer and was a reluctant performer. Drawn early to “movement and music” classes in school, Bowie’s teachers called his idiosyncratic style “vividly artistic,” but only rated his voice as “adequate.” As voice coach Lisa Popeil writes, “though vocally agile as an adult, Bowie was never known for great pitch accuracy.”

Such things matter less these days, what with pitch correction software. In the old days of analog, singers couldn’t lean on digital wizardry to make them sound better than they were. Bowie wasn’t “particularly fond” of his own voice, he revealed in an interview, and unlike most hungry, young would-be stars, he didn’t set out to put himself in the spotlight—not at first.

“I thought that I wrote songs and wrote music and that was sort of what I thought I was best at doing. And because nobody else was ever doing my songs, I felt, you know, I had to go out and do them.”

So the shy, retiring Bowie charged ahead. “With his theatrical bent and fearlessness,” Popeil writes, his “ability to create memorable and emotional vocal stylings was of the highest order.” This, we might say, is almost an understatement. Aspiring singers and musicians can learn much from Bowie’s career, perhaps foremost the lesson that one needn’t be a prodigy or a bubbly extrovert to follow a musical passion. Bowie honed his vocal skills and achieved mastery over his haunting baritone, while also learning to move into a powerful tenor range.

Witness these isolated vocal tracks from throughout this career. At the top, the vocal mix from “Life on Mars” shows, as Classic fM writes, that “while unpolished, his tremulous voice has real quality and range.” Further down, we hear Bowie goofing around a bit in the vocal booth before launching into his first hit, “Space Oddity,” his voice a bit thin in the verse, then hitting its full stride in the chorus. Three years later, on “Starman” from Ziggy Stardust, we hear more confidence and control in the vocal track. Then, ten years after Ziggy, Bowie belts it out on “Modern Love,” above, having already kept pace with arguably the greatest rock singer of all time on “Under Pressure,” further up.

On “Golden Years,” above, Bowie explores his full range, from deepest baritone to falsetto. His voice inevitably waned with age and the sickness of his final years, but he never lost the ability to imbue a song with maximal emotional range, making the ragged vocals on his last album, especially its chilling single “Lazarus,” some of the most gripping in his entire body of work. The video below from The Last Five Years documentary strips away the instrumentation, leaving us with the image of an aged, blinded Bowie in bed, singing “Look up here man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose.” His breathing is audibly labored, giving the recording a poignant immediacy. But the forever-distinctive Bowie vocal style is as deeply moving as ever.

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

The New Studs Terkel Radio Archive Will Let You Hear 5,000+ Recordings Featuring the Great American Broadcaster & Interviewer

Sitting down with a famous (or not) person and asking questions--and recording them-- might seem like the most natural thing in the world these days. We have talk shows, podcasts, radio interviews. We read them in magazines, newspapers, online. But this was not always the case, certainly not before the invention of modern media in the 20th century. And one of the main people to start interviewing folks was Studs Terkel. He called it “guerrilla journalism” because it was direct and live and the journalist was not an intermediary.

"I realized very early on," he said, "that the conventional way of approaching an interview was useless; that taking in a notebook full of questions, for instance, only made people feel interrogated."

And now The Studs Terkel Radio Archive (STRA) is set to go live on the Internet, a huge collection of his interviews. Between 1952 and 1997, at his hometown radio station WFMT in Chicago, he recorded a whopping 5,600 programs. The archive is being unveiled on what would be Terkel's 106th birthday, May 16, 2018. (He passed away at 95 in 2008.)

His list of guests is formidable: Martin Luther King, Simone de Beauvoir, Bob Dylan, Cesar Chavez, Marlon Brando, Toni Morrison, Ted Turner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it’s the list of unknowns, the common folk, that make his work rise above. A good socialist, he gave voice to those who might never have considered speaking up, in books like Working, Race, or Coming of Age. Here was the story of America, from poor to rich, and Terkel had time, and a listening ear, for all of them. He was interested in civil rights, workers' rights, the promise of America and the sins of America.

The STRA has five components: the digital platform (where people can access his interviews), the “Digital Bughouse” where other broadcasters and such can license his works; an educational component to be used in the classroom; the “Bughouse Square” a podcast intended for younger listeners; and a series of upcoming live events in Chicago and around the world.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

How the Sounds You Hear in Movies Are Really Made: Discover the Magic of “Foley Artists”

Have you ever worked as an "extra" on a film or television shoot, one of the anonymous many somewhere in the background while the main characters advance the story up front? If so, you know that to be seen but not heard onscreen requires doing exactly that. Even though a crowded party scene, for instance, really does sound like a crowded party scene in the final product, the shoot happens in something close to silence. Only the stars speak, and indeed make any sound at all; everyone else just mimes their lively conversations. Sound designers add the crowd noise later, after the shoot, just like they add music, footsteps, doors opening and closing, crackling of fires and the whipping of winds, and pretty much every other sound you hear besides speech.

"The Magic of Making Sound," the Great Big Story video above, reveals the work of Foley artists, some of the most little-known craftsmen in the entertainment industry. We usually think of realism as a primarily visual quality, praising something that "looks real" almost as often as we complain about what "looks fake," but much of what makes dramatic action onscreen feel real happens on a completely unseen level.

Foley artists (named for early sound-effects designer Jack Foley) create all the incidental sounds you'd expect to hear in real life, so if and only if they do their work well, nobody in the audience will notice it. (Minimal Foley work, combined with dialogue dubbed in a studio instead of recorded during the shoot, contributes greatly to the "dreamlike" quality of some older films, especially from Europe and Asia.)

The Great Big Story video, along with the short profile of veteran Hollywood Foley artist Gary Hecker just above, show masters of the trade employing a variety of its tools: bags of corn starch for snow, gloves with paperclips taped to the fingertips for dog paws, and for that inevitable (if implausible) schwing of a sword being unsheathed, a kitchen spatula. Just like visuals, sound requires a certain degree of not just imagination but exaggeration to achieve that "larger than life" feeling. Still, the Foley craft has its origins in nothing more grand than the sounds made by hand to accompany radio dramas in the 1920s. The profession may have moved on from the coconut-shell horse hooves of nearly a century ago — these videos show the current industry standard, a jerry-rigged looking device made of plunger cups — but most of its equipment has remained reliably unchanged. How many other kinds of film-and-television technicians can say the same?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Stradivarius Violins Are Worth Millions

In 2011, a Stradivarius violin in pristine condition sold for $15.9 million. And then, in 2014, another Strad went up for auction with a minimum bid of $45 million. That auction failed, but it underscored a trend: The price and prestige of Stradivarius violins keep climbing, driven by the insatiable demand of investors and professional musicians.

But is a Stradivarius really worth that large sum of money? As this primer from Vox suggests, it depends who you ask. In a highly-publicized blind test, professional violinists couldn't tell the difference between multi-million dollar Strads and more modestly-priced modern violins. On the other hand, some elite violinists swear by the Stradivarius, claiming that the subtle superiority of the instrument only becomes apparent over time, when it's played over years, not days or months.

That debate will continue. And as it does, the Stradivarius will only get older--and, yes, more fetishized as an historical object that's considered priceless.

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