Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons License
Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons License

70 Years Ago Today, Kurt Vonnegut Was in Slaughterhouse-Five

Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons License
Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons License

On this day in 1945 (or arguably yesterday, depending on how you deal with timezones), the German city of Dresden was firebombed by the British, killing tens of thousands of people and effectively burning a major cultural center to the ground. Kurt Vonnegut was there. He was a prisoner of war working in a labor camp. Vonnegut and his compatriots spent their nights locked in an underground slaughterhouse named "Schlachthof Fünf" (I bet you can guess what that translates to), and the mere fact that he was deep underground when the fire came that night saved his life.

In the aftermath of the bombing campaign, Germans put Vonnegut and other POWs to work gathering bodies for burial or burning. Eventually, Vonnegut escaped, ending up in a Le Havre POW repatriation camp, where he wrote to his family explaining a bit of what happened (and indeed that he was alive; previously he had been listed MIA).

Five years later, Vonnegut published his first short story. Then 25 years after his capture, Vonnegut's book Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death was published, and it rapidly became his most famous work. It was required reading for me in school, and when I dug into his other books (especially Breakfast of Champions), I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone; another person had survived through the oddity of life and managed to write a book about it—so I figured I would do that too.

Just shy of 30 years after Slaughterhouse-Five was published, Vonnegut showed up at Florida State University, where I studied Library Science and worked on campus events for minimum wage. He was on a tour with fellow authors and WWII veterans Joseph Heller and William Styron. I helped usher the men to one of their various speaking engagements, and told Vonnegut he wasn't supposed to smoke his cigar inside campus buildings. I'm not entirely sure what he mumbled in response to that, but I think it included the word "pissant." It was an honor.

As we reflect on the events of 70 years ago, to the extent that we can (I wasn't there, and I presume nobody reading this was either), let's watch a little of Vonnegut, Styron, and Heller speaking in Tallahassee. I think this was the early part of the day (a talk I missed at the time, because I was in class...I did catch an evening talk). Vonnegut's at Florida State with Styron and Heller, discussing various topics, but focusing on WWII and Dresden. He starts going around a minute into the video clip below. For me, this is a very memorable line:

I think the message of any strong book—good book–to a reader is, "You are not alone. Other people feel as you do." And there are a lot of lonely people out there who are not nourished by popular entertainment, or the advice of their stupid parents, or whatever. So I hope good books let young people figure things out for themselves, and to know, "Hey, I've got a friend somewhere else."

Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.

Here's a five-minute clip:

Now, the trick here is that this is one of a nineteen-part series of five-minute clips on YouTube that are hard to find, annoying to watch in order, and not assembled in a playlist. If you'd like to watch the whole thing, just head over to this C-SPAN page for the full 90-minute video (unfortunately, it cannot be embedded here, and it takes a minute or so to buffer and get started).

For more on Vonnegut, honestly, just go to your local library and get one of his books. Or click: Kurt Vonnegut's Story Diagrams; 11 of Kurt Vonnegut's Most Memorable Quotes; The Working Dead: The Posthumous Career of Kurt Vonnegut; and Vonnegut's Letter to His Family About His Imprisonment in Slaughterhouse Five.

Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]

How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]


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