Brain Pickings

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01 MAY, 2012

Lessons in Conveying Complex Ideas with Simple Graphics from the World’s Best Information Designers

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What Frank Zappa’s life has to do with e-waste, whale songs, and the black market for body parts.

Much has been said about visual storytelling and how to tell stories of data in the information age, and there is no shortage of great books on data visualization. But count on Taschen to tackle a big conceptual challenge with a big, beautifully designed book: Information Graphics by art historian Sandra Rendgen explores the four key aspects of visualizing data — Location, Time, Category, and Hierarchy — through exemplary work from more than 200 projects, alongside essays by information architect and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers, Density Design’s Paolo Ciuccarelli, and Rendgen herself.

'Geek Love,' The New York Times, newspaper article, 2008

Exposed to Dungeons & Dragons Early in Life. Design: Sam Potts. Art Direction: Brian Rea

'Medallandssandur,' a blend of the sound specters form sonar and whale song. From a series of drawings, 2010

Design: Torgeir Husevaag. Article: Adam Rogers

'The Very Many Varieties of Beer,' poster, 2010

Design: Ben Gibson, Patrick Mulligan (Pop Chart Lab)

'Two Mindsets,' Stanford, magazine article, 2007

Data Source: Carol Dweck: 'Mindset: The New Psychology of Success', 2006. Design: Nigel Holmes

'Body Parts,' Esquire, magazine article, 2006

Design: Peter Grundy (Grundini). Art Direction: Alex Breuer

'Frank Zappa Chart,' painting, 2008

Artist: Ward Shelley (represented by Pierogi Gallery)

'The Growing E-Waste Situation,' GOOD, website, 2010

Data Source: CBS News; ABI Research; US EPA; Basel Action Network; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Research: Brian Wolford. Design: Andrew Effendy (Column Five Media). Art Direction: Ross Crooks

'Mission(s) to Mars,' IEEE Spectrum, magazine article, 2009

Data Source: Cornell University; European Space Agency; NASA; RussianSpaceWeb.com. Design: Bryan Christie, Joe Lertola. Art Direction: Mark Montgomery, Michael Solita

Information Graphics features work by a number of Brain Pickings favorites, including Stefanie Posavec, Nicholas Felton, Ward Shelley, Hans Rosling, Nathalie Miebach, David McCandless, Toby Ng, Michael Paukner, Christoph Niemann, Sam Potts, and Jonathan Harris. The cover image is, of course, the unmistakable Web Trend Map by Information Architects.

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30 APRIL, 2012

Orson Welles on Work-Life Balance and the Gift of Ignorance (1960)

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“There is a great gift that ignorance has to bring to anything, you know.”

We’ve already seen how ignorance fuels science, but most any creator would also attest to its centrality to the creative process. Whether we call it “ignorance” or “beginner’s mind,” this radical openness to uncertainty is central to the act of creation. In this excerpt from The Paris Interview, conducted in his Parisian hotel room in 1960, Orson Welles testifies to the gift of ignorance:

I didn’t know what you couldn’t do. I didn’t deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, ‘Why not?’ There is a great gift that ignorance has to bring to anything, you know. That was the gift I brought to [Citizen] Kane… ignorance.

At a different point in the interview, Welles is asked, “Would you say that you live to work or work to live?” His answer embodies the secret of finding purpose and doing what you love, or as Sir Ken Robinson has put it, working from your element:

I think that working is part of life, I don’t know how to distinguish between the two… Work is an expression of life for me.

Now for a related rant, which isn’t actually a rant so much as a Very Important Point: Last week, Coudal posted a link to the first video on Vimeo, which I watched in the morning and kept open in a tab to write about in the evening. By the evening, however, the video had been pulled down from Vimeo for copyright violation. (Luckily, I was able to transcribe the dialogue from the cached player and use it to search for the interview elsewhere; I found it on YouTube, where it remains apparently undetected so far.)

Somewhere, some rights-holder — in this case, Kultur Video — decided it was better for the world that no one see the interview online than that people see it and no one profit from it. This, right here, is the deepest, saddest brokenness of current thinking on intellectual “property” as a wealth of humanity’s greatest intellectual and creative treasures rot in the clenched talons of rights-holders unable to monetize their properties and unwilling to make them available for free. As long as we continue to place commercial profit above cultural profit, especially when it comes to archival materials and cultural preservation, we are doomed to a future bitterly divorced from its past.

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30 APRIL, 2012

Between Page and Screen: A Digital Pop-Up Book about Love

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What an alphabetical romance has to do with the poetics of geometry and the heart of storytelling.

Pop-up books, with their architectural whimsy and transfixing tactility, are on the bleeding front lines of the analog-to-digital shift as we contemplate the tradeoffs of what is lost as we gain the convenience and mutability of digital text. But this needn’t be the case. From poet-developer duo Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse, and Siglio Press, comes Between Page and Screen — a remarkable “digital pop-up book” that tells the love story of the letters P and S through minimalist, wordless black-and-white geometric patterns that spring to life and summon the text when looked at through a webcam. You suddenly see yourself projected on the screen, holding in your hands the paper pages from which the living language of digital text unfolds into the story. And what a story it is — full of wordplay and innuendo, the narrative flows with equal parts humor and poetic sophistication as words morph into one another with your every movement, a visceral metaphor for the longing of the two alphabetical lovers.

At once contrasting and complementing the augmented reality technology is an exquisite original book, letterpress-printed and hand-bound on fine press paper. What emerges is a beautiful meditation on where the heart of a book really resides — in the medium, be that page or screen, or in the reader’s experience and imagination.

It might be tempting to dismiss augmented reality as a gimmick — because anyone who’s been living on this side of the digital divide has seen her share of gimmicky AR — but in Between Page and Screen, it becomes a poetic device, seeking to reignite in us grown-ups that giddy excitement we once felt as we opened our very first childhood pop-up book. On a deeper level, it’s a meditation on duality — page and screen, object and subject, materiality and ephemerality, the stern, black-and-white rigidity of the geometric shapes and the soft fluidity of love.

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30 APRIL, 2012

Luigi Russolo, Futurist: The Art of Noise and How the Occult Fueled Innovation in Music and Art

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What black magic has to do with John Cage and the secret of creativity.

Today marks the 127th birthday of Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), best-known for authoring the 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises (public library) and regarded as the first noise artist. The father of the first systematic poetics of noise, Russolo played a crucial role in the evolution of 20th-century musical aesthetics and influenced such music icons as Edgar Varese, Pierre Schaeffer, and John Cage. He was also one of the first theorists of electronic music and is even considered by some the inventor of the synthesizer. Yet despite enormous interest in his work, Russolo’s life remained largely unexamined — until now.

In Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult, composer and San Francisco Conservatory music history professor Luciano Chessa reconstructs Russolo’s life through ambitious archival research, uncovering and digesting esoteric and obscure texts to reverse-engineer how the artist’s eccentric interests influenced his creative output — something he shared with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini as well as some of history’s greatest scientists, namely an interest in the supernatural and, more specifically, in the occult.

Chessa traces the continuity of Russolo’s spiritual studies by comparing his early writings with those of his mature period to reveal that “Russolo’s interests did not change direction, and that he never really reoriented his aesthetics.” What emerges is a portrait of a man whose massive musical legacy and cultural impact manifested not despite his fringe fascination with theosophical mysticism but precisely because of it.

But perhaps most fascinating in Chessa’s account, and most resonant with recent discussions of how creativity works, is his focus on the combinatorial, cross-disciplinary nature of Russolo’s curiosity and intellectual imagination:

In analyzing Russolo’s writings and works what strikes us above all is the peculiar continuity and coherence of his concepts and how they migrate from painting to music to philosophy. Since the occult is an inquiry that often embraces synesthesia, a critical acceptance of Russolo’s continual interest in the occult reconciles the seeming conflicts among the various activities — and their related expressive sensory fields — that he undertook. Moreover his theosophical explorations reconcile his apparently irreconcilable interests in science/technology and spirituality/occult.

Whether the occult is a viable, or even appropriate, “fourth culture” is a question all its own, but Luigi Russolo, Futurist reveals in it a larger metaphor for the secret of all great invention: the need to dabble in the fringe and the esoteric, to push the boundaries of expectation, and, above all, to cross-pollinate wildly different disciplines and lenses on the world in order to synthesize a singular perspective that is at once entirely original and entirely constructed of its integrated parts, yet far greater than their sum.

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