Brain Pickings

Author Archive

12 MARCH, 2012

Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck

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On the value of unconscious association, or why the best advice is no advice.

If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve been right on course with David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and various invaluable advice from other great writers. Now comes John Steinbeck — Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel laureate, love guru — with six tips on writing, culled from his altogether excellent interview it the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

If you feel bold enough to discount Steinbeck’s anti-advice advice, you can do so with these 9 essential books on more and writing. Find more such gems in this collection of priceless interviews with literary icons from half a century of The Paris Review archives, then see the collected wisdom of great writers.

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12 MARCH, 2012

Alan Turing’s Reading List: What the Computing Pioneer Borrowed From His School Library

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What Alice in Wonderland has to do with electromagnetic theory, relativity, and Pluto.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” it’s been said. Since creativity is combinatorial, the architecture of mind and character is deeply influenced by the intellectual stimulation we choose to engage with — including the books we read. There is hardly anything more fascinating than the private intellectual diet of genius — like this recently uncovered list of books computing pioneer and early codehacker Alan Turing borrowed from his school library. Though heavy on the sciences, the selection features some wonderful wildcards that bespeak the cross-disciplinary curiosity fundamental to true innovation. A few personal favorites follow.

SIDELIGHTS ON RELATIVITY (1922)

Sidelights on Relativity, published in 1922, is a two-part book based on a series of lectures Albert Einstein gave between 1920 and 1922. It begins with “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” explores the nature of ether and the idea that the universe is not mechanical through the lens of Newton, Maxwell, and Lorentz’s work, and the implicit contraction of “space without ether.” The second part, “Geometry and Experience,” considers the concept of infinity through Euclidean geometry.

The book is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1871)

The follow-up to Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (also on Turing’s reading list), Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There — one of the best classic children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — has a palpable philosophical undercurrent running beneath the seemingly nonsensical dialogue and situations, inviting the reader to extract his or her own conclusive existentialism.

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” ~ The Queen

A study in contrasts and opposites, the book is as much escapism from reality as it is a journey into our most authentic, uninhibited selves.

Also in the public domain, the book was the 12th text to be digitized by Project Gutenberg.

SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD (1925)

Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, originally published in 1925, is one of the seminal texts of modern science, presaging nearly a century of cutting-edge discoveries by examining science in the richer context of culture and the humanities as a force of social progress — a conceptual predecessor to what Jonah Lehrer has termed “the fourth culture”.

Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies. It is its function to harmonise, re-fashion, and justify divergent intuitions as to the nature of things. It has to insist on the scrutiny of the ultimate ideas, and on the retention of the whole of the evidence in shaping our cosmological scheme. Its business is to render explicit, and—so far as may be—efficient, a process which otherwise is unconsciously performed without rational tests.”

The Internet Archive has a free download.

THE UNIVERSE AROUND US (1929)

English astrophysicist Sir James Jeans was an early champion of “popular science.” In The Universe Around Us, he set out to make cosmogony, evolution, and the general structure of the universe “intelligible to readers with no special scientific knowledge” by rewriting and reforming lectures and “wireless talks” he had given to academic audiences.

In the second edition of the book, Jeans added a discussion of “the new planet Pluto,” whose planetary status has since been revoked, as well as the rotation of the Milky Way and “the apparent expansion of the universe.” By the fourth edition in 1943, Jeans had distilled the discovery of atomic nuclei, suggesting it could “not only give a satisfactory account of the radiation of the sun and stars, but can also explain many hitherto puzzling stellar characteristics.” In a way, the changes across the four editions offer a fascinating footprint of some of the most important discoveries in modern science, narrated in near-real-time by a scientist who made it his life’s work to foster a popular understanding of the scientific method.

MATTER AND MOTION (1876)

In 1876, pioneering physicist James Clerk Maxwell, best-known for formulating electromagnetic theory, penned Matter and Motion — the first comprehensive guide to the fundamental principles of elementary physics, pulling the curtain on the logic and rationale of the concepts his work built upon, presented in order of complexity in an effort to build a layered understanding of the timeless laws of physics.

Physical science, which up to the end of the eighteenth century had been fully occupied in forming a conception of natural phenomena as the result of forces acting between one body and another, has now fairly entered on the next stage of progress – that in which the energy of a material system is conceived as determined by the configuration and motion of that system, and in which the ideas of configuration, motion, and force are generalised to the utmost extent warranted by their physical definitions.

To become acquainted with these fundamental ideas, to examine them under all their aspects, and habitually to guide the current of thought along the channels of strict dynamical reasoning, must be the foundation of the training of the student of Physical Science.

The book is available for free in multiple formats, courtesy of The Internet Archive.

Alex Bellos has the full list. Many of the books are now in the public domain and are thus free.

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09 MARCH, 2012

Introducing The Curator’s Code: A Standard for Honoring Attribution of Discovery Across the Web

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UPDATE: Some thoughts on some of the responses, by way of Einstein.

UPDATE 2: This segment from NPR’s On the Media articulates the project well — give it a listen.

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.” ~ Ray Bradbury

You are a mashup of what you let into your life.” ~ Austin Kleon

Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

As both a consumer and curator of information, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the architecture of knowledge. Over the past year, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about a fundamental disconnect in the “information economy”: In an age of information overload, information discovery — the service of bringing to the public’s attention that which is interesting, meaningful, important, and otherwise worthy of our time and thought — is a form of creative and intellectual labor, and one of increasing importance and urgency. A form of authorship, if you will. Yet we don’t have a standardized system for honoring discovery the way we honor other forms of authorship and other modalities of creative and intellectual investment, from literary citations to Creative Commons image rights.

Until today.

I’m thrilled to introduce The Curator’s Code — a movement to honor and standardize attribution of discovery across the web.

One of the most magical things about the Internet is that it’s a whimsical rabbit hole of discovery — we start somewhere familiar and click our way to a wonderland of curiosity and fascination we never knew existed. What makes this contagion of semi-serendipity possible is an intricate ecosystem of “link love” — a via-chain of attribution that allows us to discover new wonderlands through those we already know and trust.

The Curator’s Code is an effort to keep this whimsical rabbit hole open by honoring discovery through an actionable code of ethics — first, understanding why attribution matters, and then, implementing it across the web in a codified common standard, doing for attribution of discovery what Creative Commons has done for image attribution. It’s a suggested system for honoring the creative and intellectual labor of information discovery by making attribution consistent and codified, celebrating authors and creators, and also respecting those who discover and amplify their work. It’s an effort to make the rabbit hole open, fair, and ever-alluring. This not about policing the Internet from a place of top-down authority, it’s about encouraging respect and kindness among the community.

Together with my design and thought partner on the project, the infinitely brilliant and hard-working Kelli Anderson, and with invaluable input from my wonderful studiomate Tina of Swiss Miss fame, we’ve devised a simple system that any publisher and curator of information can use across the social web and on any publishing platform.

The system is based on two basic types of attribution, each shorthanded by a special unicode character, much like ™ for “trademark” and for © “copyright.” And while the symbols are a cleaner way to do it, you may still choose to credit the “old-fashioned” way, using “via” and “HT” — the message here is not about how to credit but simply to credit.

stands for “via” and signifies a direct link of discovery, to be used when you simply repost a piece of content you found elsewhere, with little or no modification or addition. This type of attribution looks something like this:

stands for the common “HT” or “hat tip,” signifying an indirect link of discovery, to be used for content you significantly modify or expand upon compared to your source, for story leads, or for indirect inspiration encountered elsewhere that led you to create your own original content. For example:

In both cases, just like the words “via” and “HT,” the respective unicode character would be followed by the actual hotlink to your source. For example:

Brain Pickings

One reason we’re using unicode characters is that we we wanted the symbols themselves to be a kind of messenger for the ethos of the code — the character is hotlinked to the Curator’s Code site, which allows the ethos of attribution to spread as curious readers click the symbol to find out what it stands for.

This is where it gets interesting. With generous help from my studiomates Cameron and Jonnie, we’re offering a bookmarklet that lets you easily copy-paste the unicode characters for use in any text field, from a tweet to your blog CMS. Just drag the bookmarklet to your bookmarks bar and click it every time you want to attribute discovery, then click your preferred type of attribution and watch the unicode magically appear wherever your cursor is in a text field. Add the actual hotlink to your source after it like you normally would.

See it in action:

If you’re a publisher, you can also grab the Curator’s Code badge pack to display your support, and sign the public pledge to join the ranks of supporting sites.

As for the design, Kelli — as much a designer as a visual philosopher — came up with this beautifully meta concept, where we display famous quotes related to attribution in a parallax rabbit hole of sites on which they actually occur, layered in the order of source attribution. Hovering over the hole makes the parallax shift before your eyes, as if the Internet is burning a hole of discovery through your very screen. In Kelli’s words:

Maria spoke about attribution less as an obligation and more as an enabler of deep, surprising (and perhaps infinite) voyages through information. Through linking, the Internet connects disparate sources in a way that no other medium has before — effectively creating these meta-narratives of discovery. Maria called them ‘rabbit holes.’ With that one phrase, I knew that the site should demonstrate pathways of attribution by (literally) poking a hole in the Internet to glimpse the pathways of attribution beyond.”

Here’s to a new dawn of keeping the Internet’s whimsical rabbit hole of information open by honoring discovery like the creative and intellectual labor that it is.

Questions? See the FAQ section.

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