WATCH: How Looney Tunes' Chuck Jones evolved as an artist

Every Frame a Painting looks at how Chuck Jones evolved into the master of comedic cartooning. The conclusions: Read the rest

Smart critical essays on the women of Terry Pratchett

This long-running series of essays by Australian fantasy author Tansy Rayner Roberts combine real affection for Pratchett's marvellous Discworld books with sharp critical insights on the portrayal of women in fantasy; historically, one of the more problematic genres for the portrayal of women. Read the rest

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Visual gags in comedies: US vs UK

Tony Zhou created this fantastic, 7-minute critique of the visual style of comedy in US films, as compared with UK films (especially the films of Edgar "Shaun of the Dead" Wright). Zhou makes a compelling case for the superiority of British sight-gags and visual comedy -- and the fundamental laziness of US directors in their use of visuals to get a laugh.

For further reading, Zhou recommends David Bordwell's Funny Framings as well as the hilarious Ryan Gosling Won't Eat His Cereal video.

(via Kottke) Read the rest

Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great

Jo Walton is one of my favorite novelists; books like Among Others (which justly swept the field's awards in 2011) and the Farthing/Ha'penny/Half a Crown novels show incredible insight into people, a deft hand at explaining the struggle to do good in bad situations, and the ability to spin out moving, heart-rending conundra that make you ache for all concerned. (Not only that, but she's got a book due in May that is radioactively good, a book that kept me up all night weeping and laughing by turns, and that has sunk a barb in my heart ever since).

But she's also a spectacular literary critic. Her regular column on, through which she re-reads her favorite books and explains what makes them work, is required reading for anyone seeking to understand how books do their magic trick. And now those columns have been collected into a single volume, called What Makes This Book So Great. Read the rest

Mark Dery on Bobby Darin

Over at Thought Catalog, Mark Dery ponders the darker side of Darin's "Beautiful Things." Touchpoints in the riff include Cupid and Psyche, Roland Barthes’s concept of the “punctum,” and Yeats. From Dery's essay:
Isn’t there something unsettling, a sly wink of Dean Martin existentialism, in Bobby Darin’s finger-poppin’ Vegas-hipster version of “Beautiful Things” (from the 1967 movie musical Doctor Dolittle)? A hint of nonchalant menace to that walking bassline as it slinks down a minor scale in the song’s opening bars? Subliminal whispers of memento mori amid the brassy blare of Roger Kellaway’s orchestral setting, which nails that sweet spot between suave and schmaltzy? Intimations of mortality between the lines of Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics about “beautiful days of sun-kissed showers” and “beautiful nights of moon-kissed hours,” right there in Darin’s breezy delivery of the lines, “Our lives tick by like pendulum swings/ Delicate things, butterfly wings?”

"Why The Nightingale Sings: On Bobby Darin’s 'Beautiful Things'" Read the rest

Critical history of the war on sympathetic magic

"Very Superstitious," Colin Dickey's essay for Lapham's Quarterly, presents a critical take on The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer's 1890 classic text on superstition. Dickey frames contempt for sympathetic magic and its practitioners in the context of the decline of the British empire, and connects it with earlier critiques stretching all the way back to Plato. The essay ends with a section on witchhunting and the persecution of both midwives and promoters of the germ theory of disease, who were accused of practicing their own form of sympathetic magic.

The conviction that witches were behind dangerous storms and other unexpected perils highlights a curious reversal that had taken place with regard to sympathetic magic. If it had once been used as a ward against uncertainties, against the caprices of nature and sudden death, now many saw it primarily as a cause of these dangers. (The Malleus Maleficarum warns that witches “can also, before the eyes of their parents, and when no one is in sight, throw into the water children walking by the waterside; they make horses go mad under their riders.”) These primal anxieties, of course, hadn’t gone away, and James, afraid of drowning at sea, certainly hadn’t yet learned the Christian art of dying well.

Such subtleties were no doubt lost as the crush and waste of humanity that was the European witch panic took on a logic and inertia of its own. After all, it was good business. Agnes Sampson’s torture and execution, like most witch trials, wasn’t cheap, employing judges, scribes, bailiffs, jailers, and executioners—each of whom had a financial stake in further trials.

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Great moments in pedantry: Scientists point out flaws in the science of Prometheus

I've not yet seen Prometheus, but as a genre, I honestly enjoy articles that are all about applying a (perhaps overly) critical lens to the way science is portrayed in science fiction. I think there's a lot to learn from this sort of story—both about how science really works, and how to write more believable stories. In this piece on Forbes, an archaeologist, a geologist, an animal biologist, and two physicists critique the methodology and professional practice of the fiction scientists aboard the Prometheus. (Via Miriam Goldstein) Read the rest
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Howard Rheingold's Net Smart: living mindfully in cyberculture

Howard Rheingold sez, "Technology criticism is important and I believe we all should critically examine the costs and consequences of our use of any technology. With regard to our use of social media, dangers of distraction, click-trance, social isolation, toxic credulity are real. But criticism, while necessary, isn't sufficient -- knowing that something is broken or costly isn't the same as knowing what to do about it. So I've written a book (Net Smart: How to Thrive Online) about what individuals need to know to use social media mindfully. Specifically, I provide evidence, advice, and suggested practices for mastering today's digital literacies of attention, participation, collaboration, crap-detection, and network know-how. The Table of Contents and introductory chapter are downloadable as free PDFs. Here are the opening paragraphs:"

Net Smart: How to Thrive Online The future of digital culture -- yours, mine, and ours -- depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives. How you employ a search engine, stream video from your phonecam, or update your Facebook status matters to you and to everyone because the ways people use new media in the first years of an emerging communication regime can influence the way those media end up being used and misused for decades to come. Instead of confining my attention to whether or not Google is making us stupid, Facebook is commoditizing our privacy, or Twitter is chopping our attention into microslices (all good questions), I've been asking myself and others how to use social media intelligently, humanely, and above all, mindfully.

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Thought-provoking essay on cause and correlation in modern science

Science is the best method we have for understanding the world. That doesn't mean that everything scientists ever think they've figured out is correct. And it doesn't mean that we're doing science in the best way possible right now.

For a great illustration of this, I recommend reading Jonah Lehrer's new piece in WIRED, about the problems we run into as we learn more about individual parts of complex systems and then assume that we understand the big picture of how those parts work together. A lot of scientific research, particularly in medicine, operates off assumptions like this and it can lead to big mistakes. Case in point: Back pain. In this excerpt, Lehrer explains how MRI technology that allowed doctors to get a better look at the spines of people with back pain led them to make inaccurate conclusions about what was causing the back pain.

The lower back is an exquisitely complicated area of the body, full of small bones, ligaments, spinal discs, and minor muscles. Then there’s the spinal cord itself, a thick cable of nerves that can be easily disturbed. There are so many moving parts in the back that doctors had difficulty figuring out what, exactly, was causing a person’s pain. As a result, patients were typically sent home with a prescription for bed rest.

This treatment plan, though simple, was still extremely effective. Even when nothing was done to the lower back, about 90 percent of people with back pain got better within six weeks.

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