Brain Pickings

Author Archive

17 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated

By:

“It’s all about rationalization.”

From the fantastic RSA Animate series comes an illustrated distillation of behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, which you might recall. Here, Ariely highlights some of the fascinating psychological mechanisms that steer our moral compass — and often do so in directions different from our self-conception as righteous people — explaining everything from why we cheat on our diets to how the world ended up in a massive financial crisis, and offering lab-tested behavioral insights on what we can do about it all.

If you think about the whole financial crisis, we’ve taken people and we’ve put them in situations which basically are guaranteed to blind or, at least, to distort their vision. And we expect people to overcome that.

We all have a tendency to think of people as good or bad. And, we say, as long as we kick the bad people, everything would be fine. But the reality is that we all have the capacity to be quite bad, under the right circumstances, and I think in banking we’ve created the right circumstances for everybody to misbehave. And, because of that, it’s not such a matter of kicking some people and getting new people in — it’s about changing the incentive structure. Because, unless we change that, we’re not going to get forward.

For a closer look at The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, see these annotated excerpts from a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 SEPTEMBER, 2012

On “Pure Design” and What Beauty Really Means

By:

“Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear.”

The question of what design is and what makes it good and the parallel question about the essence of beauty and its origin have long occupied the minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers alike. In A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm (public library; public domain), originally published in 1907 — the same year French philosopher Henri Bergson shared his insights on intuition vs. the intellect — American painter, art historian, and theorist Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935) sets out to explain “not the artist, but the mode of expression which the artist uses,” proposing a framework for understanding both design and beauty as interrelated phenomena. The classic manual is now regarded as a seminal text of American design theory.

In a section entitled “THE MEANING OF DESIGN,” Ross offers a baseline definition:

By Design I mean Order in human feeling and thought and in the many and varied activities by which that feeling or that thought is expressed. By Order I mean, particularly, three things — Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. These are the principal modes in which Order is revealed in Nature and, through Design, in Works of Art.

He then expresses the relationship between the three in a “logical diagram”:

Ross goes on to define “Pure Design”:

By Pure Design I mean simply Order, that is to say, Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm, in lines and spots of paint, in tones, measures, and shapes. Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear. The purpose in Pure Design is to achieve Order in lines and spots of paint, if possible, the perfection of Order, a supreme instance of it, the Beautiful: this with no other, no further, no higher motive; just for the satisfaction, the pleasure, the delight of it. In the practice of Pure Design we aim at Order and hope for Beauty. Even the motive of giving pleasure to others lies beyond the proper purpose of Pure Design, though it constantly happens that in pleasing ourselves we give others pleasure.

But such ambiguous terms as “beauty” and “pleasure” require their own definition — or at least sharp awareness of the lack thereof. In a section titled “BEAUTY A SUPREME INSTANCE OF ORDER,” Ross offers a thoughtful meditation:

I refrain from any reference to Beauty as a principle of Design. It is not a principle, but an experience. It is an experience which defies analysis and has no explanation. We distinguish it from all other experiences. It gives us pleasure, perhaps the highest pleasure that we have. At the same time it is idle to talk about it, or to write about it. The less said about it the better. ‘It is beautiful,’ you say. Then somebody asks, ‘Why is it beautiful?’ There is no answer to that question. You say it is beautiful because it gives you pleasure: but other things give you pleasure which are not beautiful. Pleasure is, therefore, no criterion of Beauty. What is the pleasure which Beauty gives? It is the pleasure which you have in the sense of Beauty. That is all you can say. You cannot explain either the experience or the kind of pleasure which it gives you.

While I am quite unable to give any definition or explanation of Beauty, I know where to look for it, where I am sure to find it. The Beautiful is revealed, always, so far as I know, in the forms of Order, in the modes of Harmony, of Balance, or of Rhythm. While there are many instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm which are not particularly beautiful, there is, I believe, nothing really beautiful which is not orderly in one or the other, in two, or in all three of these modes. In seeking the Beautiful, therefore, we look for it in instances of Order, in instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. We shall find it in what may be called supreme instances. This is perhaps our nearest approach to a definition of Beauty: that it is a supreme instance of Order, intuitively felt, instinctively appreciated.

A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm is now in the public domain and is available for free in its entirety in multiple formats.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Last Pictures: A Time-Capsule of Humanity in 100 Images Sent into Space for Eternity

By:

“Just as the topology of space is at odds with everyday human experience, the ‘time’ of space is utterly foreign.”

Last week, we celebrated 35 years since the Voyager that gave us Pale Blue Dot launched into space, carrying the ultimate mixtape of humanity’s sounds, itself a record of how Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan fell in eternal love. It was designed to spiral out into the cosmos for billions of years, bound to long outlast the Pyramids of Giza and the cave paintings of Lascaux and, along with more than 800 of its subsequent satellite brethren than circle Earth today, become humanity’s longest-lasting artifacts — until, 4.5 billion years from now, the Sun expands into an all-consuming red giant and devours them all.

Inspired by cave paintings, Sagan’s Golden Record, and nuclear waste warning signs, MIT artist-in-residence Trevor Paglen set out to create a collection of 100 images, commissioned by public art organization Creative Time, to be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc and sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite this month — at once a time-capsule of the present and a message to the future. The Last Pictures (public library), a fine addition to these essential books on time, gathers the 100 images, alongside four years’ worth of fascinating interviews Paglen conducted with scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, and artists exploring the inherent tensions of our civilization as it brushes up against profound questions about existence, impermanence, and deep time.

The Last Pictures artifact

Ultra-archival image disc inside gold plated aluminum shell

Image courtesy Trevor Paglen

Greek and Armenian Orphan Refugees Experience the Sea for the First Time, Marathon, Greece

One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit

Image courtesy Trevor Paglen

Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World’s Fair

One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit

Image courtesy Trevor Paglen

Soyuz Fg Rocket Launch, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit

Image courtesy Trevor Paglen

Earthrise

One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit

Image courtesy Trevor Paglen

Old Operating Theater, St. Thomas Church, Southwark, London

One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit

Image courtesy Trevor Paglen

Paglen writes:

About four billion years from now, the Sun will have burned through most of its hydrogen and will start powering itself with helium. When that happens, our star will swell to become a red giant swallowing the earth (and any lingering geosynchronous satellites).But four billion years is a long time from now. For a bit of perspective, four billion years is about sixteen times further into the future than the advent of the dinosaurs was in the past; it is four times longer than the history of complex multicellular organisms on earth. Four billion years is almost as far in the future as the formation of planet Earth is in the past. When [theorist] Jim Oberg points out that space is ‘unearthly,’ he’s right in more ways than he meant. Just as the topology of space is at odds with everyday human experience, the ‘time’ of space is utterly foreign.

Placing a satellite into geosynchronous orbit means placing it into the deep and alien time of the cosmos itself. What, if anything, does it mean that the spacecraft we build are undoubtedly humankind’s longest-lasting material legacy?

What does it mean that, in the near or far future, there will be no evidence of human civilization on the earth’s surface, but our planet will remain perpetually encircled by a thin ring of long-dead spacecraft? Perhaps it means nothing. Or perhaps the idea of meaning itself breaks down in the vastness of time.

On the other hand, what would happen if one of our own probes found a graveyard of long-dead spacecraft in orbit around one of Saturn’s moons? Surely it would mean something. What if we were to find a spacecraft from a different time — a spacecraft that contained a message or provided a glimpse into the culture that produced it?

Meditative and just the right amount of unsettling in its perspective-shifting appreciation for the enormity of time, The Last Pictures offers a poignant lens on the miraculousness of the present moment and the glorious insignificance of our individual existence.

Thanks, Rachel

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.