Brain Pickings

The Communist Threat: A Trip Through America’s Ideological Wayback Machine

By:

From Walt Disney to Stalin, or how 1952 America interpreted the Soviet regime.

During World War II, some of the West’s greatest filmmakers — including Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock — put their Hollywood films on hiatus and started producing propaganda films on behalf of the U.S. government. Even Walt Disney did his part. Eventually, when the war drew to a close, these iconic filmmakers went back to making commercial films. But propaganda films kept right on going. The Cold War was getting underway, and because the danger was more potential than actual, the U.S. government felt an extra need to paint a picture for its citizens.

Just what was the existential threat coming out of the Soviet Union? A series of films made it clear. Some , like Communism (1952), offered a brief overview of the historical and ideological foundations of Communism and its point men — Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the rest. Others, like the famous Duck and Cover educational video, gave young Americans and their parents every reason to fear the atomic bomb. And others still talked about the superiority of capitalism and the American way of life.

The fact that the Soviet regime (which produced its own Cold War propaganda) was repressive, no one doubts. But whether the regime truly posed an existential threat to the U.S. has remained somewhat open to debate. Just watch Noam Chomsky speaking on the matter in 1985.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project + Gorgeous Vintage Seed Catalog Cover Artwork

By:

What 30 double-decker buses have to do with biodiversity and our dinner parties of the future.

All human life — all life — depends on plants. The genetic information for future plants is held in their seeds, so the biodiversity of our planet, as well as the sustenance of our species and others’, depends entirely on the seeds that survive from generation to generation. Since 2000, the Millennium Seed Bank Project by the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens has been working with hundreds of partners in 50 countries to provide an “insurance policy” against the extinction of plants in the wild by storing seeds for future use. In 2007, it banked its billionth seed. By 2010, they had collected seeds from 24,000 different species of plants, representing 10% of the world’s dryland wild plants. By 2020, the project will have collected 25%. The underground seed vault, if filled wall-to-wall, could hold 100,000,000,000 rice grains or 30 tightly packed double-decker buses.

The Last Great Plant Hunt: The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project offers an unprecedented look at one of the most important and ambitious international conservation efforts of our time. From how seeds are collected and cared for to what role they play in conservation research, the book blends equal parts practicality and perspective to reinstill in you a profound appreciation for our planet’s remarkable biosphere.

If you still doubt the vital significance of plants, this short but compelling 2009 TED talk by Kew’s Jonathan Drori will convince you otherwise:

For an even more breathtaking, visceral reminder of the magnificence of plants — one unaffiliated with the Millennium Seed Bank Project but in a way a manifesto for it — get lost in this stunning vintage cover artwork from the Smithsonian’s collection Seed Nursery Catalogs.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Culturomics: What We Can Learn from 5 Million Books

By:

How to put your “beft” foot forward, or what the algorithm of censorship has to do with 1950.

We’ve already established that we could learn a remarkable amount about language from these 5 essential books, but imagine what we could learn from 5 million books. In this excellent talk from TEDxBoston, Harvard scientists Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden reveal fascinating insights from their computational tool that inspired Google Labs’ addictive NGram Viewer, which pulls from a database of 500 billion words and ideas culled from 5 million books across many centuries, 12% of the books that have ever been published.

They call their approach Culturomics — “the application of massive scale data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.” From advising you on the best career choices for early success to figuring out when an artist is being censored to proving that we’re forgetting the past exponentially more quickly than ever before, the data speaks volumes when queried with intelligence and curiosity.

[The database pulls from] a collection of 5 million books. 500 billion words. A string of characters a thousand times longer than the human genome. A text which, when written out, would stretch from here to the moon and back ten times over. A veritable shard of our cultural genome.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.