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The last rhinos

9 minutes

Do spoilers actually ruin stories?

4 minutes

Dan Tepfer’s player piano is his composing partner

5 minutes

Someone else’s war

29 minutes

Pas de deux

14 minutes

Aeon for Friends

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Can the market save an endangered species? South Africa’s rhino horn conundrum

Rhinoceros horns are worth more than their weight in gold – literally, about $65,000 per kilo. This is due to strong black-market demand in China and South Asia, where beliefs about the horn’s healing and aphrodisiac properties persist. The species is on the brink of extinction, with a global population under 30,000 and shrinking, while poaching increases in response to growing demand. As of late 2015, the extraordinary creature’s fate rests largely in the hands of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the country’s highest judicial authority, which is considering a case brought by two rhino breeders, John Hume and Johan Kruger, to overturn the domestic ban on selling rhino horn. Supporters of a legalised horn trade argue that it would encourage investment in rhinos, spurring an increase in the population and more security to protect the valuable property the animals represent. Moreover, they say, the horns can be removed largely painlessly and grow back at a rate of a kilo a year. Critics counter that leaving the rhino’s fate to market forces is irresponsible, unethical and unlikely to succeed. Legalisation, they believe, would create more unsustainable demand, encourage false ideas about the horn’s medicinal value, and set an untenable precedent for conservation of all species based solely on their economic utility.

Nuanced and evenhanded, The Last Rhinos is a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to protect and live alongside wildlife in the 21st century.

Director: Brian Dawson

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Spoiler alert: does knowing how it ends make fiction more fun?

‘It’s not the journey, it’s the destination’ might seem like trite advice, but when it comes to storytelling, the worn adage actually seems to hold up to scrutiny. Just ask Nicholas Christenfeld, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego: in a 2013 study, he put our cultural obsession with so-called ‘spoilers’ to the test. After sneakily revealing the end of short stories when describing them to test subjects, he found that their enjoyment of the fictional narratives actually increased – a conclusion that perhaps isn’t so surprising if you think about how many times you’ve watched your favourite movie or read your favourite book. However, Christenfeld still found that there was a forceful knee-jerk aversion to the idea of having a story spoiled, so you might still want to restrain yourself before blurting out the latest Game of Thrones twist to friends and insisting it’s for their own good.

Video by Fig. 1

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Meet the jazz pianist who improvises in tandem with a piano that plays itself

‘How can I be free in this particular cage?’

From synthesizers replacing real instruments in the studio to the rise of musical compositions written entirely by AI, it’s not surprising that many professional musicians have been resistant to the ascendent role of technology in the music industry. However, the French-American jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer has developed a creative way of leveraging the rise of musical machines using what he calls ‘improvisational algorithms’.

On his digital player piano, his notes are sent through a computer, which then automatically plays back notes that correspond to commands he’s written. And although the idea of predetermined ‘rules’ might on its surface seem to cut against the spirit of musical improvisation, Tepfer finds that they actually fuel his playing, leading him down paths he wouldn’t otherwise find. This video from NPR’s Jazz Night in America series details how Tepfer mines new musical ideas from his improvisational algorithms, which culminated in his album Natural Machines (2019) and a series of performances with visuals generated from the compositions. Read more about Dan Tepfer at NPR’s website.

Producers: Alex Ariff, Colin Marshall

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What motivated three young Britons to join the deadly fight against ISIS in Syria?

As of 2019, some 20 British nationals have left home to join the fight against ISIS in Syria. Eight have died in the process. What’s leading Britons – mostly young civilians – to abandon the relative comforts of home and fight on the frontlines alongside people with whom they had no prior affiliation? Someone Else’s War tracks the journey of three sets of bereaved parents as they travel to Iraq to meet the Kurdish soldiers who witnessed their children’s last months. A nuanced and frequently heartbreaking psychological portrait, the film finds the parents grasping for the meaning of their children’s choices. As the parents’ own views evolve through the process of digging deeper into the stories of their children’s deaths, the documentary explores not only the need for closure, but also the tendency to seek heroism in those who die fighting. 

Directors: George Cowie, Tom Huntingford, Martin Armstrong

Producer: Superfolk Films

Website: Guardian Documentaries

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Classical ballet transforms into a dance of the surreal in this duet from 1968

In classical ballet, a pas de deux (‘step of two’ in French) is a duet that showcases the skills of masterful dancers. This BAFTA-winning and Academy Award-nominated short from 1968 marries two distinct kinds of virtuosity – the innovative cinematography of the late Scottish-Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren and the movements of the Canadian dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren – to dazzling effect. Accompanied by a shimmering arrangement of Romanian folk music, a woman dances alone until she is joined by a man. Impressions of their bodies splinter off or move alongside them before disappearing or resolving into a single form. McLaren created the aesthetic in an age before digital effects by superimposing the high-contrast footage over itself with a slight time disparity, up to 10 times. The result is something akin to a wonderfully surreal dream – and one that you hardly need to be a ballet lover to find utterly entrancing.

Director: Norman McLaren

Website: National Film Board of Canada

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Can the market save an endangered species? South Africa’s rhino horn conundrum

Rhinoceros horns are worth more than their weight in gold – literally, about $65,000 per kilo. This is due to strong black-market demand in China and South Asia, where beliefs about the horn’s healing and aphrodisiac properties persist. The species is on the brink of extinction, with a global population under 30,000 and shrinking, while poaching increases in response to growing demand. As of late 2015, the extraordinary creature’s fate rests largely in the hands of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the country’s highest judicial authority, which is considering a case brought by two rhino breeders, John Hume and Johan Kruger, to overturn the domestic ban on selling rhino horn. Supporters of a legalised horn trade argue that it would encourage investment in rhinos, spurring an increase in the population and more security to protect the valuable property the animals represent. Moreover, they say, the horns can be removed largely painlessly and grow back at a rate of a kilo a year. Critics counter that leaving the rhino’s fate to market forces is irresponsible, unethical and unlikely to succeed. Legalisation, they believe, would create more unsustainable demand, encourage false ideas about the horn’s medicinal value, and set an untenable precedent for conservation of all species based solely on their economic utility.

Nuanced and evenhanded, The Last Rhinos is a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to protect and live alongside wildlife in the 21st century.

Director: Brian Dawson

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Essay/
Thinkers and theories
Susan Sontag was a monster

She took things too seriously. She was difficult and unyielding. That’s why Susan Sontag’s work matters so much even now

Lauren Elkin

Essay/
History of science
Natural philosophy redux

The great split between science and philosophy must be repaired. Only then can we answer the urgent, fundamental problems

Nicholas Maxwell