Brain Pickings

Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini

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137 years ago today, the great Harry Houdini was born. Hovering between magic and stuntsmanship, history’s greatest escape artist captivated hearts and minds by making humans believe that superhuman feats were possible. He made a living out of mystery and his life ended with even more mystery. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero is one of the best books on modern mythology you’ll ever read — a meticulously researched and rivetingly narrated biography of the great magician, equal parts comprehensive and controversial.

Today, we celebrate his birthday with Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini — a fascinating Discovery documentary that investigates the life and contentious death of the iconic escapologist, drawing a striking parallel between Houdini’s tale and the story of early 20th-century America — the modernity, the sleekness, the optimism that made everything seem possible and humanity feel indestructible. From how he hacked the body’s neurochemistry to tolerate incredible pain levels to why he changed his name and forged his birth certificate to what the popular Hollywood myth about his demise got wrong, the film is an absolute gem of modern myth-making. Enjoy:

He made a career out of mystery, and mystery still surrounds his death.”

For a closer look at Houdini’s life and legacy, we really couldn’t recommend The Secret Life of Houdini more strongly — more than a mere historical biography, it tells a timeless story of self-invention, creative entrepreneurship and relentless perseverance, deeply relevant to everyone from the startup founder to the professional athlete to the everyday aspiration-chaser.

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How Musicians Experience and Communicate Emotion

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The interplay between music and emotion, which we explored on Monday with 7 must-read books on the subject, is undeniable. But if most of us ordinary people are so powerfully affected by music, we can only imagine what that experience must be like for professional musicians. That’s exactly what behavioral neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the excellent This Is Your Brain on Music, explores in It’s All In The Timing — a fascinating series of psychology experiments that measure how musicians experience and communicate emotion.

I think this is an important first step in using real music and bringing it into the laboratory, combining rigorous scientific methods with the more expressive aspects, the more artistic aspects, of music.” ~ Daniel Levitin

via Open Culture

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The Atomic Cafe: Lampooning America’s Nuclear Obsession

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What vintage bomb survival suits have to do with Dr. Stragelove and Richard Nixon.

The recent tragedy in Japan has triggered a tsunami of terror, founded and unfounded, about the potential risks of nuclear reactors. While there are people better equipped than us to explain the precise implications of the situation, we thought we’d put things in perspective by examining the flipside of these dystopian fears: The exuberant optimism about nuclear power in mid-century America.

The Atomic Cafe (1982) offers clever satire of America’s atomic culture through a mashup of old newsreels and archival footage from military training films, government propaganda, presidential speeches and pop songs — remix culture long before it became a buzzword. From congressmen pushing for nuclear attacks on China to mind-boggling inventions like the “bomb survival suit,” the darkly humorous film revolves around the newly built atomic bomb and pokes fun at the false optimism of the 1950s, showing how nuclear warfare made its way into American homes and seeped into the collective conscience from the inside out.

Though the collector’s edition DVD is a winner, the film — which became a cult classic often referred to as the “nuclear Reefer Madness” and compared to Kubrick’s Dr. Stragelove — is also available for free online in its entirety:

The Atomic Cafe is a poignant reminder that all social reactions, whatever their polarity, are always a complex function of the era’s cultural concerns, political propaganda and media mongering, rather than an accurate reflection of the actual risks and opportunities at hand.

Please note that none of this is meant as commentary on or an effort to invalidate the debilitating human tragedy in Japan. In fact, we’re diverting Brain Pickings donations this month to the American Red Cross in support of the relief efforts there. Our thoughts remain with the people of Japan as they piece their lives back together.

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Hans Rosling: How the Washing Machine Sparked the Reading Revolution

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It’s hard not to love statistical stuntman Hans Rosling. Last year, he mesmerized us with a phenomenal augmented reality run through 200 years that changed the world in 4 minutes, as a part of BBC’s excellent The Joy of Stats series. (If you haven’t seen it, do — it’s free online and absolutely fantastic.)

Now, he’s back with another blockbuster TED talk, demonstrating — with his characteristic blend of statistical rigor and delightful wit — that the washing machine was indeed the greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution, enabling everything from economic development through electrical efficiency to intellectual growth by reallocating free time for reading.

An interesting parallel emerges in examining Rosling’s talk in alongside Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: The washing machine is the antithesis of television, freeing up the same kind of “cognitive surplus” — excess human creative and intellectual energy — that, according to Shirky’s central argument, TV absorbed, a parallel that bespeaks the universal duality of innovation and the incredible potential of technology as a force of social change the polarity of which we get to choose.

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