Lou Reed Creates a List of the 10 Best Records of All Time

If you want to write, most every writer will tell you, you’ve got to read, read, read, and read. “Read more than you write,” advises Teju Cole. Even great filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Akira Kurasawa cite copious reading as a prerequisite for their primarily visual medium. But what about music? What advice might we hope to receive about the art of writing memorable, culturally significant songs? Listen, listen, listen, and listen, perhaps.

One of the greatest of rock and roll greats, Lou Reed, had overt literary ambitions, formed during his years as an English major at Syracuse University, where he studied under poet Delmore Schwartz. “Hubert Selby, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Delmore Schwartz,” he once told Spin, “To be able to achieve what they did, in such little space, using such simple words. I thought if you could do what those writers did and put it to drums and guitar, you’d have the greatest thing on earth.”




Thematically, Reed accomplished this, bringing the same violence, tenderness, and streetwise decadence to his work as his literary heroes did to theirs. But formally, he drew on another battery of influences: classic soul, doo wop, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz, and early rock and roll. Cribbing from all these genres during his long career, Reed displayed a seemingly effortless mastery of archetypal American pop music.

Unlike Leonard Cohen—another literary songwriter drawn to life’s darker themes—Reed did not leave college and start publishing poetry. In 1964, he moved to New York to begin work as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, soaking up the music around him through his pores, transmuting it into his own warped take on early hits like his dance craze, “The Ostrich,” which included the line “put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it.”

As weird as Reed was even then, he wrote immensely catchy tunes and eventually inspired several thousand punk, post-punk, alternative, and indie songwriters with the novel idea that one could make dangerous, shocking music with simple, catchy—even bubblegum—melodies. Perhaps no one had as great an effect on post-60s rock, but Reed’s own influences drew solidly from the fifties and before, as partially evidenced in his own hand, in a scrawled list of “best albums of all time,” which he submitted for a 1999 magazine interview.

1. Change of the Century—Ornette Coleman
2. Tilt—Scott Walker / Belle—Al Green / Anything by Jimmy Scott
3. Blood on the Tracks—Bob Dylan
4. Little Richard’s Specialty Series
5. Hank Williams’ Singles
6. Harry Smith Anthology
7. Does Your House Have Lions—Roland Kirk
8. “Stay with Me Baby”—Lorraine Ellison
9. “Mother“—John Lennon
10.”Oh Superman“—Laurie Anderson & United States

The list, transcribed above, includes the three-volume Specialty Sessions at number 4, a comprehensive omnibus of Little Richard hits. Below it is Hank Williams’ 3-disc singles collection, and further down, at twice the size, Harry Smith’s enormous Anthology of American Folk Music. By far, the bulk of Reed’s suggestions saw release before he ever put pen to paper and came up with “The Ostrich.” We’re just peeking into the sixties with Ornette Colemans’ Change of the Century, at number one.

But you’ll also note that, tied at number two with Al Green’s Belle and “Anything by Jimmy Scott” (making his list of ten come out to 13), we have Scott Walker’s bizarre, experimental 1995 masterpiece Tilt (hear “Farmer in the City” further up), a return from oblivion for the reclusive sixties crooner and an album, writes Allmusic, “on a plateau somewhere between Nico’s Marble Index and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.” Ever modest (he once claimed, “my bullshit is worth more than other people’s diamonds”), Reed was acutely aware of his own pivotal place in 20th century music, though he does refrain from listing one of his own records. He ends instead with the pulsing, trance-like single “Oh Superman,” by his romantic and musical partner, Laurie Anderson.

Who knows how seriously Reed took this assignment, given how much he could be “circumspect about the materials and methods of his art” in his often confrontational public statements. That same year, VH1 polled several journalists and “esteemed musicians,” writes the music channel, on their choice of the 100 greatest songs of rock and roll. “Naturally we approached Reed, who sent his choices back via fax. In true iconoclast form, instead of listing out his 100 favorite songs, he picked just eight.” Only two of the artists from his top ten appear here: Lorraine Ellison and Al Green. See his hand-written ballot above, and the eight songs listed below.

1. “Stay With Me” by Lorraine Ellison
2.“Outcast” by Eddie and Ernie
3. “Lovin’ You Too Long” by Otis Redding
4. “River Deep Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner
5. + 6. “Georgia Boy” and “Belle” by Al Green
7. “That’s Alright Mama” by Elvis Presley
8. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” by Ann Peebles

via @LouReed

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

Meet Yasuke, Japan’s First Black Samurai Warrior

“His name was Yasuke. His height was 6 shaku 2 sun” — roughly six feet, two inches — “he was black, and his skin was like charcoal.” Those words come from the 16th-century samurai Matsudaira Ietada, and they describe one of his colleagues. Though we don’t know much detail about his life itself, we do know that there once lived a black samurai called Yasuke, a version of the name he had in Africa, probably the then Portuguese Mozambique. Brought to Japan in 1579 by an Italian Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano on a mission-inspection tour, Yasuke’s appearance in the capital drew so much attention that thrilled onlookers clambered over one another to get so much as a glimpse at this strange visitor with his unfathomable stature and skin tone.

“His celebrity status soon piqued the curiosity of Oda Nobunaga, a medieval Japanese warlord who was striving to unify Japan and bring peace to a country racked by civil war,” writes Ozy’s Leslie Nguyen-Okwu. “Nobunaga praised Yasuke’s strength and stature, describing ‘his might as that of 10 men,’ and brought him on as his feudal bodyguard.”




As many foreigners in Japan still discover today, the foreigner’s outsider status there also has its benefits: “Nobunaga grew fond of Yasuke and treated him like family as he earned his worth on the battlefield and on patrol at Azuchi Castle. In less than a year, Yasuke went from being a lowly page to joining the upper echelons of Japan’s warrior class, the samurai. Before long, Yasuke was speaking Japanese fluently and riding alongside Nobunaga in battle.”

The legend of Yasuke ends soon after, in 1582, with Nobunaga’s fall at the hands of one of his own generals. That resulted in the first and only black samurai’s exile, probably to a Jesuit mission in Kyoto, but Yasuke has lived on in the imaginations of the last few generations of Japanese readers, all of whom grew up with the award-winning children’s book Kuro-suke (kuro meaning “black” in Japanese) by Kurusu Yoshio. This illustrated version of Yasuke’s life story, though told with humor, ends, according to a site about the book, on a bittersweet note: the defeated “Nobunaga kills himself, and Kuro-suke is saved and sent to Namban temple. When he sleeps that night, he dreams of his parents in Africa. Kuro-suke cries silently.”

What the story of Yasuke lacks in thorough historical documentation (though you can see a fair few pieces briefly cited on the site of this documentary project) it more than makes up in fascination, and somehow Hollywood, nearly fifteen years after Tom Cruise’s high-profile turn as a white samurai, has only just awoken to its potential. In March,  Hollywood Reporter announced that the film studio Lionsgate “has tapped Highlander creator Gregory Widen to script Black Samurai,” a “period action drama” based on the Yasuke legend. Widen’s considerable experience in the outsider-with-sword genre makes him an understandable choice, but one has to wonder — shouldn’t Quentin Tarantino’s phone be ringing off the hook right about now?

via Ozy

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Take a Trip Through the History of Modern Art with the Oscar-Winning Animation Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase

The artistic morphing is already underway before the very first frame of filmmaker Joan Gratz’ 1992 Oscar-winning animation, Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase.

Most viewers will recognize the title as a mashup of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous work and Marcel Duchamp’s modernist classic Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.

What follows is a constantly morphing, chronological trip through the history of modern art, beginning with Impressionism and passing through Cubism and Surrealism en route to Pop art and hyper-realism.




The seamless transitions were created by painstakingly manipulating small pieces of oil-based modeling clay on a solid easel-mounted surface, a technique Gratz developed as an architecture student at the University of Oregon.

Van Gogh’s self-portrait reconfigures itself into Gaugin’sAndy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe becomes Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman with Flowered Hat—a far trickier transition than had Gratz started with Picasso’s 1941 Dora Maar au Chat, the original inspiration for Lichtenstein’s 1963 work.

As Gratz told Olivier Cotte, author of Secrets of Oscar-Winning Animation:

The transitions were the most interesting aspect of the work. A great deal of what they show consists of providing information about the style of the paintings…. The relationship between the images depends on the era, the artistic movement and the interconnection between the artists.

Thus the work is not just about capturing the 55 selected images, but also their texture, from the Expressionists’ thick impasto to the post-painterly slickness of 60s pop artists.

The paintings were chosen over nearly eight years of research and planning, but not the minutiae of the transitions, as Gratz preferred to improvise in front of the camera. Just as in more narrative claymations, each painstaking adjustment required her to stop and shoot a frame, a process that ended up taking two-and-a-half years, fit in around Gratz’s schedule for such paying gigs as Return to Oz and the feature-length claymation, The Adventures of Mark Twain.

Given the spontaneous nature of the transformations from one painting to the next, the exact length of the finished film was impossible to predict. When it was at last complete, composer Jamie Haggerty  and sound designer Chel White were brought in to provide further historical and cultural context, via music, environmental sounds, and conspicuous use of a digeridoo.

See more of Gratz’s clay painting technique in the music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt,” and ads for Coca-Cola and Microsoft.

Read Olivier Cotta’s analysis of Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase, including a longer interview with Joan Gratz here.

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase will be added to our list of Animations, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She’ll be appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul Young’s Faust 3.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Sgt. Pepper’s Album Cover Gets Reworked to Remember Icons Lost in 2016

We’re just days away from the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, as we mentioned last week, the BBC has kicked off the celebrations with a series of videos that introduce you to the 60+ figures who appeared in the cardboard collage that graced the album’s iconic cover. Bob Dylan, Edgar Allan Poe, William S. Burroughs, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, HG Wells, Shirley Temple–they all get a video introduction, among others.

Historic as it is, the Pepper cover recently became a good vehicle for remembering the bewildering number of musicians, artists and celebrities who left this mortal coil in 2016. Above you can see an illustration created by Twitter user @christhebarker in the waning days of last year. If you look closely, you can see some thought went into the design. Muhammad Ali, for example, now stands where boxer Sonny Liston did in the original. Find them all in a larger format here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you’d like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

via Consequence of Sound

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Twin Peaks Essentials to Get You Ready for the Debut of Season 3: A 55-Minute Refresher, Maps, Commercials & Behind-the-Scenes Footage & More

Have you prepared yourself to return, this Sunday, to Twin Peaks, that small Washington town, so well known for its coffee and cherry pie, once rocked by the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer? Fans of the eponymous television series, which first made surreal prime-time television history on ABC in 1990, have binge-watched and re-binge-watched its original two seasons in advance of the new Twin Peaks‘ May 21st debut on Showtime. Even fans who disliked the second season, in which series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost gave in to network pressure to resolve the story of Palmer’s murder, have re-watched it, and with great excitement.

But can simply watching those first thirty episodes (and maybe the follow-up feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, once booed at Cannes, the very same festival which will screen the first two parts of the new Twin Peaks on the 25th) suffice?




To get yourself as deep into the show’s reality as possible, we recommend dipping into the Twin Peaks material we’ve posted over the years here at Open Culture, beginning with the four-hour video essay on the series’ making and mythology we featured just this past January. You can orient yourself by keeping an eye on Lynch’s hand-drawn map of the the town of Twin Peaks, which he used to pitch the show to ABC in the first place, and which appears just above.

But Twin Peaks has its foundation as much in music as in geography. Just above, you can hear composer Angelo Badalamenti, a frequent collaborator with Lynch, tell the story of how he and the director composed the show’s famous “Love Theme,” which not only made an impact on the televisual zeitgeist but set the tone for the everything to follow.  “It’s the mood of the whole piece,” Lynch once said of the composition, “It is Twin Peaks.” Badalamenti has scored the new series as well, joining the long list of returnees to the project that includes not just Lynch and Frost, but Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and many others from the original cast as well, including the late Miguel Ferrer and Warren Frost.

“There’s so much more to Twin Peaks than a riveting murder mystery,” says Alan Thicke, another performer no longer with us, hosting the 1990 behind-the-scenes preview of the show’s second season just above. “There’s a whole look and a feel and a texture,” an experience “180 degrees away from anything else on television.” As dramatically as televisual possibilities have expanded over the past 27 years, it seems safe to say that the continuation of Twin Peaks, which comes after such expansions of its fictional universe as Frost’s Secret History of Twin Peaks, will maintain a similar creative distance from the rest of what’s on the air. “The one thing I feel I can say with total confidence,” to paraphrase David Foster Wallace writing about Lost Highway twenty years ago, is that the new Twin Peaks will be… Lynchian.

Above, you can watch a mini-season of Twin Peaks, which also doubles as a series of Japanese coffee commercials. They, too, come courtesy of David Lynch. And below, watch “Previously, on Twin Peaks…”, an abbreviated, 55-minute refresher on what happened during the first two seasons of the show. (It comes to us via WelcometoTwinPeaks.) Also you can read a recap of every episode over at The New York Times.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

36 eBooks on Computer Programming from O’Reilly Media: Free to Download and Read

This past week, we featured a free course on the programming language Python, presented by MIT. A handy resource, to be sure.

And then it struck us that you might want to complement that course with some of the 36 free ebooks on computer programming from O’Reilly Media–of which 7 are dedicated to Python itself. Other books focus on Java, C++, Swift, Software Architecture, and more. See the list of programming books here.

If you’re looking for yet more free ebooks from O’Reilly Media, see the post in our archive: Download 243 Free eBooks on Design, Data, Software, Web Development & Business from O’Reilly Media.\

For more computer science resources, see our collections:

Free Online Computer Science Courses

Free Textbooks: Computer Science

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you’d like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell Sings Haunting Acoustic Covers of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Michael Jackson “Billie Jean” & Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”

I entered high school to the huge sounds of Soundgarden’s second album, Louder than Love, playing at home, in friends’ cars, on MTV’s 120 Minutes late at night…. The band’s debut, and two previous EPs released on Seattle’s Sub Pop records, had not attracted much notice outside of a fairly small scene. But Louder than Love—especially “Hands All Over”—was as hooky and alarming as breakthrough singles by other emerging bands on the other side of the country, while losing none of the propulsive grit, groove, and raw, metal/hardcore power of their earlier work. Thousands of new listeners started paying attention.

But there’s another reason the songs on Louder than Love resonated so strongly (and scored them a major label deal). The album announced singer Chris Cornell as a vocalist to be reckoned with—a singer with incredible power, melodic instinct, and a four-octave range.




On songs like “Hands All Over” and “Loud Love,” he broke away from a fairly narrow Ozzy Osbourne/Robert Plant style he’d cultivated and introduced a sound that took both influences in a direction neither had gone before, one full of anguish, urgency, and even menace.

Millions more got to know Cornell’s voice after Superunknown’s “Black Hole Sun,” but even then no one would have predicted the direction he would go in after leaving Soundgarden. He injected soul and sensitivity into songs like Audioslave’s “Original Fire” and “Be Yourself”—love ‘em or don’t—qualities we can hear in abundance in his covers of sensitive and soulful songs like Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” In his unplugged version of Jackson’s pop masterpiece the song acquires the heaviness and grievous beauty of a murder ballad. And I mean that entirely as a compliment. He brings “Nothing Compares 2 U” into “soulful new life,” as Slate writes, which is saying quite a lot, given that Sinead O’Connor’s version is more or less perfect.

Cornell took his own life at age 52 on Wednesday night after playing with a reunited Soundgarden in Detroit, and after struggling with depression for many years. It’s true he was never lauded as a songwriter of a Prince/Michael Jackson caliber. His lyrics were often tossed-off free associations rather than carefully crafted narratives. One’s appreciation for them is a matter of taste. But like the artists he covers here, both of whom also died tragically in their 50s, his music reflected a deep concern for the state of the world. This comes through clearly in songs like “Hands All Over,” “Hunger Strike,” and in some pointed comments he made during his final performance.

Rolling Stone has a few more acoustic Cornell covers of Metallica, the Beatles, Elvis Costello, and more, and they’re all great. He did a profoundly affecting, gospel-like take on Whitney Houston’s belter, “I Will Always Love You.” But for a true, and truly heartbreaking, example of how he could imbue a song with his “unforgettable vulnerability,” watch him play Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” at New York’s Beacon Theater in 2015 above, in an absolutely riveting duet with his daughter, Toni. Cornell will be dearly missed by everyone who knew him, and by the millions of people who were deeply moved by his voice.

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

An Animated Alan Watts Waxes Philosophical About Time in The Fine Art of Goofing Off, the 1970s “Sesame Street for Grown-Ups”

Time is a measure of energy, a measure of motion. And we have agreed internationally on the speed of the clock. And I want you to think about clocks and watches for a moment. We are of course slaves to them. And you will notice that your watch is a circle, and that it is calibrated, and that each minute, or second, is marked by a hairline which is made as narrow as possible, as yet to be consistent with being visible. 

Alan Watts

However true, that’s a particularly stress-inducing observation from one who was known for his Zen teachings…

The pressure is ameliorated somewhat by Bob McClay’s trippy time-based animation, above, narrated by Watts. Putting Mickey Mouse on the face of Big Ben must’ve gone over well with the countercultural youth who eagerly embraced Watts’ Eastern philosophy. And the tangible evidence of real live magic markers will prove a tonic to those who came of age before animation’s digital revolution.




The short originally aired as part of the early 70’s series, The Fine Art of Goofing Off, described by one of its creators, the humorist and sound artist, Henry Jacobs, as “Sesame Street for grown-ups.”

Time preoccupied both men.

One of Jacobs’ fake commercials on The Fine Art of Goofing Off involved a pitchman exhorting viewers to stop wasting time at idle pastimes: Log a few extra golden hours at the old grindstone.

A koan-like skit featured a gramophone through which a disembodied voice endlessly asks a stuffed dog, “Can you hear me?” (Jacobs named that as a personal favorite.)

Watts was less punchline-oriented than his friend and eventual in-law, who maintained an archival collection of Watts’ lectures until his own death:

And when we think of a moment of time, when we think what we mean by the word “now”; we think of the shortest possible instant that is here and gone, because that corresponds with the hairline on the watch. And as a result of this fabulous idea, we are a people who feel that we don’t have any present, because the present is instantly vanishing – it goes so quickly. It is always becoming past. And we have the sensation, therefore, of our lives as something that is constantly flowing away from us. We are constantly losing time. And so we have a sense of urgency. Time is not to be wasted. Time is money. And so, because of the tyranny of this thing, we feel that we have a past, and we know who we are in terms of our past. Nobody can ever tell you who they are, they can only tell you who they were. 

Watch a complete episode of The Fine Art of Goofing Off here. Your time will be well spent.

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

Guillermo del Toro Creates a List of His 20 Favorite Art House/Criterion Films

When it comes to films released by the Criterion Collection, we’d all struggle to narrow our favorites down to only ten, but we probably wouldn’t have quite as hard a time as Guillermo del Toro. The director of MimicHellboy, and Pan’s Labyrinth characteristically takes it to another level, bemoaning the “unfair, arbitrary, and sadistic top ten practice,” crafting instead a series of “thematic/authorial pairings” (and in first place, a trifecta) for his Criterion “top-ten” feature. The list, whether he meant us to take it linearly or not, runs as follows:

  1. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of BloodHigh and Low, and Ran, the Emperor of Cinema’s “most operatic, pessimistic, and visually spectacular films.”
  2. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Fanny and Alexander (theatrical version), which “have the primal pulse of a children’s fable told by an impossibly old and wise narrator, both “ripe with fantastical imagery and a sharp sense of the uncanny.”
  3. Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, both of which “depend on sublime, almost ethereal, imagery to convey a sense of doom and loss: mad, fragile love clinging for dear life in a maelstrom of darkness.”
  4. David Lean’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, two “epics of the spirit [ … ] plagued by grand, utterly magical moments and settings” and laced with passages that “skate the fine line between poetry and horror.”
  5. Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil, the work of a “living treasure” who “understands that ‘bad taste’ is the ultimate declaration of independence from the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” and tells stories in elaborate worlds “made coherent only by his undying faith in the tale he is telling.”
  6. Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and Kuroneko, a “perverse, sweaty double bill” fusing “horrors and desire, death and lust” that, when del Toro first saw them at age ten, “did some serious damage to my psyche.”
  7. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Paths of Glory, which “speak eloquently about the scale of a man against the tide of history, and both raise the bar for every ‘historical’ film to follow.”
  8. Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and Unfaithfully Yours, “masterful films full of mad energy and fireworks, but Sullivan’s Travels also manages to encapsulate one of the most intimate reflections about the role of the filmmaker as entertainer.”
  9. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr and Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, the former “a memento mori, a stern reminder of death as the threshold of spiritual liberation” and the latter “the filmic equivalent of a hellish engraving by Bruegel or a painting by Bosch.”
  10. Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, “the two supreme works of childhood/horror [ … ] lamentations of worlds lost and the innocents trapped in them.”

Having already featured a tour of del Toro’s man cave and a tour of his imagination by way of his sketches here on Open Culture, it makes for a natural follow-up to offer this tour of his distinctive cinematic consciousness. A director since his childhood back in Mexico (then equipped with his dad’s Super 8, his own action figures, and a potato he once cast as a serial killer), he went on to study not filmmaking, strictly speaking, but makeup and special effects design. The resultant mastery of visual richness, especially in service of the grotesque, shows up even in his earliest available works, such as the 1987 short Geometria we posted a few years ago.

Del Toro’s next feature, a fantasy adventure set in Cold War America called The Shape of Water and involving a fish-man locked away in a secret government facility, will no doubt make even more use of all the tastes the director’s favorite Criterion films have instilled in him: for grand spectacle, for freakishness, for the uncanny, for “mad, fragile love,” and for sheer disturbance. May he continue to do “serious damage” to the psyches of his own audiences for decades to come.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Map of Chemistry: New Animation Summarizes the Entire Field of Chemistry in 12 Minutes.

Philosophers, technologists, and futurists spend a good deal of time obsessing about the nature of reality. Recently, no small number of such people have come together to endorse the so-called “simulation argument,” the mind-boggling, sci-fi idea that everything we experience exists as a virtual performance inside a computer system more sophisticated than we could ever imagine. It’s a scenario right out of Philip K. Dick, and one Dick believed possible. It’s also, perhaps, terminally theoretical and impossible to verify.

So… where might the perplexed turn should they want to understand the world around them? Are we doomed to experience reality—as postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard thought—as nothing more than endless simulation? It’s a little old-fashioned, but maybe we could ask a scientist? One like physicist, science writer, educator Dominic Walliman, whose series of short videos offer to the layperson “maps” of physics, math, and, just above, chemistry.




Walliman’s ingenious teaching tools excel in conveying a tremendous amount of complex information in a comprehensive and intelligible way. We not only get an overview of each field’s intellectual history, but we see how the various subdisciplines interact.

One of the oddities of chemistry is that it was once just as much, if not more, concerned with what isn’t. Many of the tools and techniques of modern chemistry were developed by alchemists—magicians, essentially, whom we would see as charlatans even though they included in their number such towering intellects as Isaac Newton. Walliman does not get into this strange story, interesting as it is. Instead, he begins with a prehistory of sorts, pointing out that since humans started using fire, cooking, and working with metal we have been engaging in chemistry.

Then we’re launched right into the basic building blocks—the parts of the atom and the periodic table. If, like me, you passed high school chemistry by writing a song about the elements as a final project, you may be unlikely to remember the various types of chemical bonds and may never have heard of “Van der Waals bonding.” There’s an opportunity to look something up. And there’s nothing wrong with being a primarily auditory or visual learner. Walliman’s instruction does a real service for those who are.

Walliman moves through the basics briskly and into the differences between and uses of organic and inorganic chemistry. As the animation pulls back to reveal the full map, we see it is comprised of two halves: “rules of chemistry” and “areas of chemistry.” We do not get explanations for the extreme end of the latter category. Fields like “computational chemistry” are left unexplored, perhaps because they are too far outside Walliman’s expertise. One refreshing feature of the videos on his “Domain of Science” channel is their intellectual humility.

If you’ve enjoyed the physics and mathematics videos, for example, you should check back in with their Youtube pages, where Walliman has posted lists of corrections. He has a list as well on the chemistry video page. “I endeavour to be as accurate as possible in my videos,” he writes here, “but I am human and definitely don’t know everything, so there are sometimes mistakes. Also, due to the nature of my videos, there are bound to be oversimplifications.” It’s an admission that, from my perspective, should inspire more, not less, confidence in his instruction. Ideally, scientists should be driven by curiosity, not vanity, though that is also an all-too-human trait. (See many more maps, experiments, instructional videos, and talks on Walliman’s website.)

In the “Map of Physics,” you’ll note that we eventually reach a gaping “chasm of ignorance”—a place where no one has any idea what’s going on. Maybe this is where we reach the edges of the simulation. But most scientists, whether physicists, chemists, or mathematicians, would rather reserve judgment and keep building on what they know with some degree of certainty. You can see a full image of the “Map of Chemistry” further up, and purchase a poster version here.

Find Free Chemistry Courses in our collection, 1200 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Related Content:

The Map of Physics: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Physics Fit Together

The Map of Mathematics: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Math Fit Together

Isaac Newton’s Recipe for the Mythical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Is Being Digitized & Put Online (Along with His Other Alchemy Manuscripts)

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


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