Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

18 JANUARY, 2012

A. A. Milne on Happiness and How Winnie-the-Pooh Was Born


On rainy days and the simplicity of happiness.

Though Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is best-known for authoring the Winnie-the-Pooh book series, among the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, A. A. Milne was also a prolific poet. In 1924, two years before the first Winnie-the-Pooh book, he penned When We Were Very Young — a collection of poetry for young children, illustrated by E. H. Shepard. In the 38th poem of the book, titled “Teddy Bear”, the famed Winnie-the-Pooh character makes his first appearance. Originally named “Mr. Edward Bear” by Christopher Robin Milne, Milne’s own son, Winnie-the-Pooh is depicted wearing a shirt that was later colored red for a recording produced by Stephen Slesinger, an image that eventually shaped the familiar Disney character.

The third poem in the book is a short gem titled “Happiness” — a wonderful meditation on how little it takes to find happiness. (And, clearly, a giant missed opportunity for Apple.)

John had
Great Big
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
John had a
Great Big
And that
(Said John)

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17 JANUARY, 2012

The Greatest Grid: How Manhattan’s Famous Street Map Came to Be


What Edgar Allan Poe, the Dead Rabbits, and Charles Dickens have to do with New York’s defining feature.

For the first two hundred years of Manhattan history, the Collect Pond, a lovely, spring-fed reservoir that bubbled up on the border of what is now Chinatown and the Financial District, was the main water source for most city dwellers. The streets grew up organically around it, private roads bounded by a vacant, rocky, wasteland to the north, from what is now 23rd to 90th streets. These were the city-owned Common Lands, and after the revolution they were something the debt-ridden city needed to parcel out and sell fast.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Collect Pond had turned into a quite literal cesspool, and the the city paved it over to accommodate a booming population. Five streets came together over the newly-filled pond, which still seeped though the cobblestones, and at the heart of this intersection grew a infamous slum, ruled by gangs like the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842, the scene shocked him:

Poverty, wretchedness, and vice….all that is loathsome…narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth.”

(That same year, he rather excitedly wrote of returning to Broadway in his diary, noting in a matter-of-factly manner the curbside intermingling of pigs, hogs, and well-dressed ladies.)

Where streets converged, so did humanity, proof positive that right angles could mean the difference between utopia and bedlam.

A 'South East View of the City of New York in North America,' ca. 1763, by Thomas Howdell. The tallest spire is Trinity Church. (Museum of the City of New York)

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, based on the current exhibition of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York, tells the story of the city’s right angles. The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, the map and surveying scheme that set the blocks at 200 by 800 feet all the way up the length of the island, was an audacious gamble on growth. From 1790 to 1810, the population of New York had tripled, and the commissioners predicted that by 1860, New York would have almost the same population as Paris, then home to half a million people. (They were wrong, of course — New York would top nearly 800,000 by then.)

The Commissioner's Plan of 1811, by John Randel, Jr. (Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives)

The grid was far from simple to achieve. “Mannahatta” translates to “island of hills,” and the rocky wasteland to the north had to be surveyed to perfection, and private roads, farms, and pastures wrestled into order by a ruthless eminent domain. This meant plenty of opportunity for graft, personified by William “Boss” Tweed, who would pocket city officials and buy up lots just as they opened city streets.

A map from 1835 of property belonging to Clement Clarke Moore in Chelsea. These newly subdivided lots eventually came to be worth fortunes. (Museum of the City of New York)

View of Second Avenue looking up from 42nd Street, 1861, by Egbert L. Viele.

There were problems with the plan: a lack of public parks and open space, constant congestion, overbuilt lots, no vistas or urban openings for important civic buildings. The only open space the Commissioners allowed was a parade ground in the vicinity of present-day Madison Square. But the grid system allowed for these cut-throughs to happen later, in the form of Broadway, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Columbia University, and the thousand smaller parks and plazas easily carved out of the 1811 plan.

Aerial View of Madison Square, 1894, by J.S. Johnston. (Museum of the City of New York)

The grid was easier to implement on the flat East side than on the hilly West. By 1860, streetcars could only travel up 8th avenue to 84th street before the terrain became impassable. Huge outcroppings of rocks, the kind that are found in the Ramble in Central Park, blocked the way for most development. Small mountains had to be blasted apart or cut through, and the hundred foot changes in elevation around Morningside Heights and Inwood has created a strange and magical neighborhood of apartments perched on peaks and valleys, still for the most part obeying the grid.

Rocks at 81st Street and 9th Avenue, December 1886, by Robert L. Bracklow, (Museum of the City of New York)

In the 1840s, at the still rural intersection of 84th and Broadway, Edgar Allan Poe rented a room at the Brennan Farm House, the likely location where he wrote “The Raven.” The farm was on a rise from the dirt Broadway road, and from his window Poe could witness nature give way to the city:

These magnificent placers are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences, but ‘town-lots.'”

The Greatest Grid, a fine addition to our favorite books about maps, is a catalog of development and destruction, the end of nature and the beginning of urban living. When the grid eventually overtook the Brennan farmhouse, it too was destroyed. All was not lost for Poe, however. In the 1980s, the city council wanted to mark the writing place of the now famous author—they named the street after him.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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17 JANUARY, 2012

Babel No More: Inside the Secrets of Superhuman Language-Learners


What a Chilean YouTube disaster and a busy Manhattan restaurant have to do with the limits of the human brain.

Nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a legend in his day, was said to speak 72 languages. Hungarian hyperpolyglot Lomb Kató, who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, insisted that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” Legendary MIT linguist Ken Hale, who passed away in 2001, had an arsenal of 50 languages and was rumored to have once learned the notoriously difficult Finnish while on a flight to Helsinki. Just like extraordinary feats of memory, extraordinary feats of language serve as a natural experiment probing the limits of the human brain — Mezzofanti maintained that “god” had given him this particular power, but did these linguistic superlearners really possess some significant structural advantage over the rest of us in how their brains were wired? That’s precisely what journalist and self-described “metaphor designer” Michael Erard explores in Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners — the first serious investigation into the phenomenon of seemingly superhuman multilingual dexterity and those who have, or claim to have, mastered it, and a fine addition to our favorite books about language.

To understand the cognitive machinery of such feats, Erard set out to find modern-day Mezzofantis, from an eccentric Berkeley-based language learning guru and hyperpolyglot — hyperglottery, Erard notes, begins at 11 languages — to the Lebanese-born, Brazil-based one-time Guinness record holder for 58 languages, who proceeded to embarrass himself on Chilean national television by not understanding a simple question by a native speaker. In the process, Erard scrutinizes the very nature of language, its cultural role, and where it resides in the brain, weaving a fascinating story about our most fundamental storytelling currency.

To grasp the power of language learning as a social facilitator, one need only stroll into a busy Manhattan restaurant, where mapping the native origin of the staff and patrons might produce a near-complete world atlas. Erard marvels:

It’s amazing that the world runs so well, given that people use languages that they didn’t grow up using, haven’t studied in schools, and in which they’ve never been tested or certified. Yet it does.”

(For some related fascination, see David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which delves into what translation reveals about the human condition.)

And in an age where geography and nationality have been shuffled the forces of globalization, ubiquitous connectivity, cheap travel, and the Internet, understanding how language lubricates our social interactions is crucial to making sense of our place in a global world. Erard observes:

Ideas, information, goods, and people are flowing more easily through space, and this is creating a sensibility about language learning that’s rooted more in the trajectories of an individual’s life than in one’s citizenship or nationality. It’s embedded in economic demands, not the standards of schools or governments. That means that our brains also have to flow, to remain plastic and open to new skills and information. One of these skills is learning new ways to communicate.”

(The Daily Beast has an excerpt to give you a taste of Erard’s signature blend of absorbing storytelling and rigorous research.)

Captivating and illuminating, Babel No More is as much an absorbing piece of investigative voyeurism into superhuman feats as it is an intelligent invitation to visit the outer limits of our own cerebral potential.

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