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13 JULY, 2015

Wild Ideas: The Creative Problem-Solving Strategies of Different Animals, in Illustrated Dioramas

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From procrastinating pigeons to counting bears to dung beetles that navigate by the stars.

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in his mind-expanding 1950s meditation on what reality really is. Although our species has a long history of using nonhuman animals as metaphors for understanding human reality, we are only just beginning to accord our fellow creatures the dignity of their own reality by growing a new understanding of their complex consciousness.

Nonhuman animals, it turns out, have a great deal to teach us not only about reality but also about our immutable quest to bend reality to our will — that is, about the art of problem-solving.

In Wild Ideas (public library), researcher, educator, and environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Korean-Canadian artist Soyeon Kim — the creative duo behind You Are Stardust, that wonderful picture-book teaching kids about the universe in illustrated dioramas — present an imaginative and illuminating catalog of various animals’ problem-solving strategies, from how dung beetles use stars as a navigation system to the procrastination tactics of pigeons.

Each example in the book comes from Kelsey’s interviews with scientists who study the respective species, brought to life in Kim’s breathtaking 2D/3D dioramas.

In addition to the heartening celebration of our kinship with other beings, there is also a subtler, almost Buddhist undertone to the project: So much of our anguish in the face of obstacles comes from judging them as bad and resisting that particular manifestation of reality, causing ourselves enormous distress in the act of this resistance — and yet here is a powerful reminder that obstacles are neutral events and a natural part of life, which other species face as a matter of course and without negative judgment.

Step outside. Look. If squirrels can learn to cross roads by watching people, what can you learn by watching squirrels?

All around you, creatures seek solutions.

Pigeons procrastinate.

Bees calculate.

Elephants innovate.

Bears keep count.

You turn to friends and family for support, and so do other animals.

Ravens use gestures to offer ideas. Hyenas cooperate to help the hunt.

When they’re seeking direction, dung beetles look to the heavens and steer by the Milky Way.

Complement Wild Ideas with a very different take on how nonhuman animals enrich our human lives — Beastly Verse, a glorious illustrated celebration of famous poems inspired by animals.

Illustrations courtesy of Owlkids Books

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13 JULY, 2015

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Transcendence of the Universe, Adapted in Jazz for Kids Based on “Saint James Infirmary”

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A love letter to the cosmos, in a cut-paper stop-motion musical animation.

“I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral,” Ptolemy marveled, “but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies … I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.” Eighteen centuries later, Neil deGrasse Tyson — Ptolemy’s contemporary counterpart — echoed the ancient astronomer as he reflected on the most astounding fact about the universe: “When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe … the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small, the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”

When Portland-based jazz pianist, singer-songwriter, and children’s music composer Lori Henriques came upon Tyson’s words, she was stirred to set his sentiment to song, using the captivating melody of “Saint James Infirmary,” which she had always wanted to incorporate into children’s music. The result is the infinitely delightful “When I Look Into The Night Sky,” found on Henriques’s science album for children, The World Is a Curious Place to Live (iTunes).

Complement The World Is a Curious Place to Live, which is an absolute treat in its totality, with Henriques’s marvelous jazz adaptation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and her musical homage to Jane Goodall.

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10 JULY, 2015

When Woman Is Boss: Nikola Tesla on Gender Equality and How Technology Will Unleash Women’s True Potential

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The legendary inventor predicts “the acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women” and “their gradual usurpation of leadership.”

Engineer, physicist, and futurist Nikola Tesla (July 10, 1856–January 7, 1943) is among the most radical rule-breakers of science and is regarded by many as the greatest inventor in human history. His groundbreaking work paved the way for wireless communication and imprinted every electrical device we use today. Without Tesla, I wouldn’t be writing these words on this keyboard and you wouldn’t be reading them on this screen. But like all true geniuses, Tesla envisioned not only the practical applications of his inventions but the profound cultural shifts that any successful technology precipitates.

One of the most surprising, most obscure, yet most incisive of Tesla’s predictions peers into the future of society’s changing gender roles and considers how the advent of wireless technology would empower women, liberating us to develop our full intellectual potential repressed by the patriarchy for centuries.

In January of 1926, a reporter named John B. Kennedy interviewed Tesla about these very ideas. The piece was published in Colliers magazine under the title “When Woman Is Boss” and is discussed in Margaret Cheney’s excellent Tesla: Man Out of Time (public library), which remains the most insightful and dimensional perspective on the great inventor’s mind and spirit.

After reflecting on the future uses of wireless technology and practically predicting the iPhone, Tesla points to the empowerment of women as one of the most significant effects of technology on the world of tomorrow:

It is clear to any trained observer, and even to the sociologically untrained, that a new attitude toward sex discrimination has come over the world through the centuries, receiving an abrupt stimulus just before and after the World War.

This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.

It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.

Tesla goes on to predict “the acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women” and “their gradual usurpation of leadership” as the inevitable result of that previously repressed potential, newly uncorked by the interconnectivity and educational empowerment that wireless technology would make possible:

Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men. But the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.

Only a decade later, Hedy Lamarr — herself a brilliant inventor who paved the way for wifi — would prove Tesla right, as would the growing numbers of women who would enter STEM fields and take leadership positions in the generations to come. Exactly twenty years later, Einstein would echo Tesla’s prescient words in his heartening letter of advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist.

Tesla: Man Out of Time is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of history’s greatest creative anarchists — a story, of course, starring Tesla.

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10 JULY, 2015

Art and the Mind’s Eye: How Drawing Trains You to See the World More Clearly and to Live with a Deeper Sense of Presence

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A passionate case for learning “to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness.”

“It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees,” Henry Miller wrote in his forgotten 1968 gem To Paint Is to Love Again. Drawing, indeed, transforms the secret passageway between the eye and the heart into a two-way street — while we are wired to miss the vast majority of what goes on around us, learning to draw rewires us to see the world differently, to love it more intimately by attending to and coming to cherish its previously invisible details. This, perhaps, is why beloved artist Lynda Barry teaches visual storytelling as the infinitely rewarding art of “being present and seeing what’s there.”

More than a century before Miller and a century and a half before Barry, the great Victorian art critic, philosopher, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) examined the psychology of why drawing helps us see the world more richly in a fantastic piece unambiguously titled Essay on the Relative Dignity of the Studies of Painting and Music, and the Advantages to be Derived from Their Pursuit, penned when he was only nineteen. It is included in the first volume of the altogether indispensable The Works of John Ruskin (public library | free ebook).

It’s a beautiful meditation triply timely today, in an age when we — having succumbed to the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography — are likelier to view the world through our camera phones and likelier still to point those at ourselves rather than at nature’s infinite and infinitely overlooked enchantments. To draw today is to reclaim the dignity and private joy of seeing amid a culture obsessed with looking in public.

Self-portrait by John Ruskin, 1861

Ruskin writes:

Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect, but that the trees make the lane shady and cool; and he will see an old woman in a red cloak; — et voilà tout!

But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light, and the motes dance in the green, glittering lines that shoot down upon the thicker masses of clustered foliage that stand out so bright and beautiful from the dark, retiring shadows of the inner tree, where the white light again comes flashing in from behind, like showers of stars; and here and there a bough is seen emerging from the veil of leaves, of a hundred varied colours, where the old and gnarled wood is covered with the brightness, — the jewel brightness of the emerald moss, or the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a garment of beauty from the old withered branch. Then come the cavernous trunks, and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes, each with his diadem of dew: and down like a visiting angel, looks one ray of golden light, and passes over the glittering turf — kiss, — kiss, — kissing every blossom, until the laughing flowers have lighted up the lips of the grass with one bright and beautiful smile, that is seen far, far away among the shadows of the old trees, like a gleam of summer lightening along the darkness of an evening cloud.

Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

Art from Lynda Barry's 'Syllabus,' a field guide to visual storytelling. Click image for more.

Drawing not only grants us a more intimate presence with the world but also extends an irresistible invitation for storytelling — that old woman in the red cloak, Ruskin argues, would be a mere passing stranger for the non-sketcher but the sketcher’s mind will envelop her in “an immense deal of speculation” as he seeks to place her properly in the context of the landscape, invariably playing out various possible stories of who she is and how she ended up there. This impulse for creative speculation, Ruskin asserts, is at the core of how the artist sees the world differently:

From the most insignificant circumstance, — from a bird on a railing, a wooden bridge over a stream, a broken branch, a child in a pinafore, or a waggoner in a frock, does the artist derive amusement, improvement, and speculation. In everything it is the same; where a common eye sees only a white cloud, the artist observes the exquisite gradations of light and shade, the loveliness of the mingled colours — red, purple, grey, golden, and white; the graceful roundings of form, the shadowy softness of the melted outline, the brightness without lustre, the transparency without faintness, and the beautiful mildness of the deep heaven that looks out among the snowy cloud with its soft blue eyes; — in fact, the enjoyment of the sketcher from the contemplation of nature is a thing which to another is almost incomprehensible. If a person who had no taste for drawing were at once to be endowed with both the taste and power, he would feel, on looking out upon nature, almost like a blind man who had just received his sight.

The Works of John Ruskin is a trove of timeless wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular piece with Miller’s wonderful To Paint Is to Love Again and Ruskin on the value of imperfection in creative work. If you’re looking to learn this enormously rewarding way of seeing, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is by far the best initiation.

Thanks, Rob

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