Brain Pickings

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13 OCTOBER, 2009

SnagFilms: Democratizing Documentaries


What the Arctic Circle has to do with the Bush administration and the lifecycle of rock ‘n’ roll.

In an ideal world, we’d all be able to tour the world’s independent film festival circuit, pursuing our complete cultural enlightenment in documentaries on anything from the secret life of John Lennon to the history of horse racing. The world, of course, is far from ideal and most of us are geographically, financially, and otherwise strapped. Enter SnagFilms — an ambitious repository of full-length, high-quality documentaries that you can watch however, wherever you like, for free.

By making the films streamable on-demand, 24/7, anywhere in the world, the project rallies for — and, we dare say, greatly succeeds in — expanding the audience for documentary film. A Snag feature lets you take the films with you across your web presence — blogs, Facebook, or any other online dwelling where you can practically open your very own virtual theater.

With a rapidly growing library of 925 films, SnagFilms covers an incredibly wide range of subjects, styles and genres from filmmakers big and small.

Art from the Arctic trails the journey of British artist and filmmaker David Buckland, who organizes three sailing expeditions to the High Arctic as part of a series of collaborations between artists, educators and scientists, designed to create public awareness of global climate change.

Dig! is a raw, unfiltered journey into the underbelly of rock ‘n’ roll, illuminating the little-understood truth of its success and eventual self-destruction. The story is told through 7 years of production and 2000 hours of footage, trailing the conflicted friendship-rivalry relationship between 60’s revivalists Anton A. Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols, all the while offering a profound, subtle commentary on the balance between art and commerce.

In The End of America, the controversial and brilliant Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, reveals chilling evidence that the Bush years may have put American democracy under serious threat. Aided by citizen journalism from the web, home videos and blogs, she unearths a number of deeply unsettling similarities between American policies and dictator-driven regimes, from secret prisons to paramilitary groups to the calculated loopholes of law.

The Photographers, originally released in 1995, goes behind the camera with veteran National Geographic photographers as they go on assignments ranging from armed conflicts to deep-sea dives. The film probes into the quintessential question of what it entails to make a memorable photograph, to brilliantly capture a moment, to create monumental meaning in a single image.

Explore SnagFilms for yourself. And be sure to try the MovieMatcher tool — a glorified smart tag-cloud, really — which makes movie suggestions based on your mood and topics of interest.

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09 OCTOBER, 2009

Color and the Brain: Beau Lotto’s Optical Illusions


What tsunamis have to do with online banking, public transit and better street cred for geeks.

We’re deeply fascinated by both the inner workings of the brain and the essential role of color in design thinking. Which is why we raved about Beau Lotto’s TED talk when we first saw it live at TEDGlobal this summer. Lotto is founder of Lottolab, a hybrid art studio and science lab, and his fantastic talk is now available for all to see — a remarkable journey into how we see, by way of optical illusions, plays on color and light, and some curious neuro-factoids.

Illusions are often used, especially in art — in the works of the more contemporary artists — to demonstrate the fragility of our senses. This is complete rubbish. The senses aren’t fragile — if they were, we wouldn’t be here. Instead, color tells us something completely different: That the brain didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is — we can’t. Instead, the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see it in the past.

Much of this, of course, isn’t new — many of the illusions Lotto demonstrates borrow from the famous Ishihara color test, developed by Japanese researcher Dr. Shinobu Ishihara in 1917.

But what we find most interesting is the notion of translating color into sound as it’s closely related to the work of a dear, dear friend — Israeli animation artist and jazz musician Michal Levy, who actually sees music and hears color — a rare phenomeno known as synesthesia, a neurological crossing of the senses that occurs in only a tiny fraction of the population.

Her brilliant short films, Giant Steps and One, embody many of the principles used in Lotto’s translation of children’s paintings into music. (Needless to say, we hope to see Michal speaking at TED one day.)

For a deeper illumination of the brain’s incredible relationship with color and light, check out Lotto’s fantastic book, Why We See What We Do: An Empirical Theory of Vision — a compelling exploration of the visual history of our species, the historical significance of visual stimuli, and the wide-spanning consequences of how our brain sees.

Meanwhile, we’re anxiously awaiting the emergence of more synesthetic projects across the arts and sciences as multimedia environments evolve and interaction artists continue to experiment with the intersection of technology and the senses.

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08 OCTOBER, 2009

Last Day to Vote for Google’s Project 10^100


What tsunamis have to do with online banking, public transit and better street cred for geeks.

Last fall, Google launched Project 10^100 — a global call for world-changing ideas that help as many people as possible. After over 150,000 submissions from more than 170 countries, 16 inspired finalists emerged and The Big G handed it over to us the people to cull the top 5 who will enter an RFP process and hash it out for the grand funding.

And today, October 8, is the last chance we the people have to cast our votes for ideas that range from fighting for a positive media depiction of scientists, to free online education, to a global genocide monitoring and alert system.

So go ahead, take a look at the contenders and make yourself heard. It may sound like a pageant line, but we are indeed the world — our actions and choices drive its direction, so if Google is willing to put some money into something good, we better make sure it’s the best possible. Vote now.

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07 OCTOBER, 2009

Crowdsourcing 2010: Behind the3six5 Project


An experiment in the collaborative authorship of history and our collective reality.

Today, we’re picking the brains behind the3six5 — a new blog-project that invites a different, often famous, person to write an entry for each of the 365 days in 2010, essentially crowdsourcing a snapshot of the year. So far, the project has enlisted a varied spectrum of personalities — from writers to comedians to TED speakers to, well, us. (Mark your calendars — we’re going on February 9.)

We sit down with co-conspirators Len Kendall and Daniel Honigman for a chat about the inspiration behind the3six5, its challenges and its ultimate goals.


Hey guys, good to have you. Tell us a bit about yourselves, your background and your brand of curiosity.

Len: I’m a Chicago native, a first generation member of my family, and a digital marketing guy. My brand of curiosity stems from my desire to always be learning and discovered. I’m a self proclaimed “Expert at Nothing” which is a personal reminder to never consider myself a master of any discipline.

My career is a direct result of my interest in bridging creativity and business. I’ve spent time at 2 Chicago ad agencies focusing on digital media and currently am helping lead the charge of “Digital PR” at Golin Harris Chicago where I work with over a dozen major brands.

Daniel: I’m a news guy. I fell in love with journalism when I was an undergrad in college, and I moved to Chicago to study it. I started my career as a reporter, and then sort of fell into the digital/social media world when I started to cover it.

I then landed a gig at the Chicago Tribune as its first social media “person,” where I created and ran its Colonel Tribune persona, after which I then moved up to lead social media strategy for all Tribune newspapers and television sites. I started at Weber Shandwick in June 2009, where I work with brands to interact with consumers and best tell their stories digitally.

Whether I’m working with brands, or consulting with news organization or local businesses, my passion is working with others to help them tell their stories. I enjoy pushing the envelope, and I enjoy helping others think outside of the box.


How and when did the idea for the3six5 first come up?

Len: Daniel and I are very entrepreneurial in nature and many of our discussions over cigars will revolve around potential projects we can team up on. This particular idea came up over the course of a few months and we decided to act on this one as it merged our interests of journalism, marketing, and technology (also not to mention a low cost of entry).

Daniel: We were talking one day about doing a similar storystreaming project for the city of Chicago, actually. We would gather folks from all sorts of life in town: athletes, politicians, artists and some regular, hardworking folks from the city and invite them to tell their stories.

We figured that it could be quite difficult to find 365 in Chicago, and we wanted to try to incorporate a more global perspective for the3six5 project, so we opened it up.


We know from psychology that two people may undergo the exact same experience yet walk away with drastically different interpretations of and sentiments about it. Curating the lineup of contributors will thus be critical to the project’s final product. So, in a way, you’re outsourcing the content but shaping the course of it yourselves — how do you feel about that?

Len: Regardless of a person’s digital or offline footprint, we ultimately have no idea what kind of content is going to be produced over the 365 days of 2010.

No one can predict what will be taking place in the world that day and no one can predict what factors will be affecting the lives of our 365 authors in the future. All we can try to do is find people who we believe are creative, quality writers, and have a unique life experience to date.

Daniel: I feel great about that. With any big crowdsourced project (e.g. Drew McLellan and Gavin Heaton’s Age of Conversation projects) there must be a theme. There must be guidance. We want to give our contributors an idea of what they could and should be writing, as far as format, types of content, etc., but we want to give as much flexibility as possible as to the actual content itself. Think of the3six5 is a collaborative diary for the year 2010.


We’re big believers in eclecticism and the cross-pollination of ideas. Are you making an effort to ensure a diverse lineup from a wide spectrum of disciplines, or are you focusing more on social media personalities? What’s your selection process for the authors?

Len: The easiest route here would obviously be to leverage our social media channels to find authors, but Daniel and I knew that the variety of perspectives would suffer. We’re using social media as a starting point for exploration and discovery.

Through both of our usage of Twitter we’ve been able to bridge relationships with people offline and in industries that are polar opposite from our own.

Sure, some of our authors may have a social media presence, but we’re looking for people who are well-versed across different types of subject matter. Having variety is critical to this project, otherwise it will just sound like a diary written by one person which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.

Daniel: Successful social media efforts happen both online and offline, therefore, we didn’t want to limit this project to people we know online. We hope this project brings people together. We hope this project introduces folks to others they never would have met otherwise. That’s what will make the3six5 so much fun.


“Lifestreaming” has evolved from musings on one’s immediate cirumstances in personal blogs to broader reflections on the chancing social, technological and cultural landscape – just look at some of the big-name blogs, from TechCruch to BoingBoing. How do you see the idea of content curation fitting in with lifestreaming?

Daniel: For A Day in the Sun, the Austin American-Statesman’s crowdsourced news project, editors and reporters received content from Austinites first, and then posted it to the web. For an open brandstream — aggregated or published — it’s easy to flood the stream with all sorts of content the brand may not want.

Therefore, for brands and news organizations to take advantage of lifestreaming platforms, the actual content, if crowdsourced, has to be verified and of an agreed upon standard.

This is not to say content in an individual’s lifestream isn’t curated. By reading an article and posting a link or other content, users are curating their own content in real time, whether they know it or not.

The purpose of a lifestream is to publish one’s digital activities for others’ benefit. Not everything you’ll read or do can — or should — be shared for others. Therefore, not ALL content should go in a lifestream.

My take is that for crowdsourced lifestream projects to be successful, editors must establish clear guidelines.


A key criticism of the web is the dilution of authorship — it’s often hard and sometimes even impossible to track down the true origin and author of a piece of information online. Would you say the preservation of authorship is important in writing our own history as a society and civilization?

Len: I have mixed emotions on this topic. On one hand, if we don’t preserve authorship, then there will be less motivation for people to create content.

Let’s be honest, we’re a proud species and if we’re not getting credit for something we created, we aren’t going to want to continue. That being said, from the audience’s perspective, there isn’t much concern about who or where content comes from, we just want it to be of substance.

With the3six5 we’re going to do our best to make it very clear of who the author is each day. By showing readers a different author each day, we’re reminding them that the story is coming from a different perspective. Unlike reading a book, here the audience needs to reset its expectations each day in regards to style and personality.

Daniel: People steal credit for other people’s work — and have done so — for thousands of years. As we move forward, and with more information readily available, it’s going to be incumbent upon us to cite our original source material, as this will only lend more credence to our own original thoughts, when we do have them.


Well, thanks for letting us pick your brains. Any last thoughts left unpicked?

Len: Thank you for taking the time to share our project. I’d like to take this opportunity to point your readers to our listing on Kickstarter. Although the3six5 does not require any money to work, our ultimate plan is to publish 2010 as a hard copy book and as such, we would love to have assistance with the potential publishing process. Donations will go towards buying a future book, and also an additional copy for an author of the3six5.

Details are available here.

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06 OCTOBER, 2009

Indie Music Meets Indie Film: First Days of Spring


What a red Beetle has to do with the future of the music industry.

British pop-folk outfit Noah and the Whale first caught our eye a few months ago when they released a lovely short film serving as the first-ever trailer for the first-ever film/album hybrid, The First Days of Spring, featuring the track Blue Skies — which is a free download on Amazon today.

Today, the album drops as a limited-edition two-disc set, including a bonus DVD of the film. The release was timed to coincide with the London premiere of the film.

The First Days of Spring was recorded in London and New York with producer Emery Dobyns (Patti Smith, Antony & The Johnsons), and the film was shot on location in London and Surrey, with vocalist Charlie Fink in the director’s chair. An ensemble cast, includes model Daisy Lowe, adds a cherry on top of what’s already an all-around piece of creative genius.

And while the band’s sound is undeniably unique, we sense some of those dreamy, drowsy Magnetic Fields vocals and we can’t get away from the thought that this is exactly what Regina Spektor would sound like if she were a man and played the guitar instead of the piano. Our favorite track: Slow Glass.

Noah and the Whale’s unorthodox hybrid format and release model join the ranks of other indie innovators we’ve featured recently — from The Ditty Bops‘ fantastic pop-out album design, to Jill Sobule‘s clever fan-funded record, to the Darwin Song Project, to They Might Be Giantschildren’s album. At a time when the music industry is gasping to stay afloat, such creative innovation with the meta-elements of music — presentation, distribution, funding — may well emerge as the most powerful differentiator and game-changer for artists.

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