Brain Pickings

Author Archive

31 MAY, 2011

An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches

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What superhuman sprinting has to do with democracy, the power of design and your kitchen sink drain.

If you’ve ever lived in a city, especially a densely populated, neighbors-across-the-street-staring-down-your-dinner-plate kind of city, you’ve likely had your run-in with a neighbor of the least likable yet most inevitable kind: The cockroach. And while for most people, it’s an endless source of variations on the ewww response, for Siberian-born, New-York-based artist Ekaterina Smirnova it’s been the unlikely source of design inspiration. In An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches, she offers an irreverent and beautifully designed blueprint to better understanding your six-legged roommate in a graphic style that’s part Shepard Fairey, part Olly Moss, Lynd Ward, part something entirely its own.

The book began as an experiment, a study in the power of graphic design, as Smirnova was assigned to come up with an idea for a book in her editorial design class at the SVA. The winning idea: To muster the most tedious, even repulsive subject possible, and use design-driven storytelling to make it something interesting to read and study. And, as far as I’m concerned, she’s aced her assignment — the book is as fascinating as it is visually stimulating.

From the remarkable talents of roaches (did you know that an American cockroach can run a distance distance of 50 times his size in a second, which in human scale would translate to running at 186 miles per hour?) to their unusual intelligence (they seem to make democratic group decisions better than most human societies) to their enduring role in science fiction and pop culture, the book offers an extraordinary black-white-and-red look a character we spend our lives actively trying not to look at, delivering an unexpectedly delightful punch of trivia treats, obscure scientific factoids and artful graphic explorations.

In pop culture, cockroaches are often depicted as filthy, disgusting pests. Their shiny, greasy shells make them look like they are creatures born of filth and slime, but in fact they are obsessively clean.”

An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches, yet another treat from my friends at Mark Batty Publisher, is out today and the kind of book you never thought you’d love until you do — which you will.

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31 MAY, 2011

E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

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What the future of personalized medicine has to do with the cross-pollination of design and engineering.

Last year, I had the pleasure of profiling the extraordinary artist Daisy Ginsberg for Wired UK. (We also shared a crazy New York adventure that involved a Russian homeless man with Cheetos in his beard and anterograde amnesia.) I called Ginsberg a “postmodern Michelangelo” — and she very much is one, working at the fascinating intersection of design and research as she explores the bleeding edge of art and science, particularly the field of synthetic biology.

Photo by Leon Csernohlavek

E.chromi is one of Ginsburg’s most notable projects — an ambitious collaboration in which she and designer James King partnered with seven Cambridge University biology undergraduates to develop a designer strain of bacteria capable of detecting and notifying you of the concentration of pollutants in water by secreting colors visible to the naked eye. The team designed standardized sequences of DNA called BioBricks, each containing genes from existing organisms capable of producing color, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.

The project won MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in 2009 and the film about it recently won the best documentary award at Bio:Fiction, the world’s first synthetic biology film festival.

Synthetic biology is promising to change the world, from sustainable fuel to tumor-killing bacteria. But personally I’m skeptical about how we should use it — just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” ~ Daisy Ginsberg

What makes E.chromi most fascinating are its diverse and tremendously valuable real-life applications, from testing groundwater for arsenic to producing natural, chemical-free colorings and dyes for food and textiles to personalized disease monitoring via custom probiotic yogurt.

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31 MAY, 2011

Drawing Nature: Learning to See the World by Learning to Draw It

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From pine needles to zen in 192 pages.

After last week’s look at how field scientists do nature-inspired art, it’s only fitting to take a look at how art does nature. Over the past decade, illustrator Jill Bliss has charmed the world with her colorful, playful and distinctive nature-inspired designs, brimming with vibrant dots, lines and other bold shapes. This season, she’s inviting the rest of us to join her in this wonderful visual language for celebrating nature. In Drawing Nature: A Journal by Jill Bliss, she offers an invaluable guide to drawing natural objects with ease, joy and, yes, artistic merit. Almost scientific in its methodical rigor, the journal features a series of exercises broken down into categories, each starting out with blind contour drawings and building upon them to break your expectations of what a natural object is “supposed” to look like.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned various techniques to successfully teach people who aren’t necessarily drawers how to draw and how to see things better by drawing them.” ~ Jill Bliss

Images courtesy of Buy Olympia

Whimsical, artful and meditative, Drawing Nature is the missing link between your favorite childhood pastimes and that always-wanted-to-learn-but-never-got-around-to-it grown-up creative hobby.

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30 MAY, 2011

Geometry of Circles: Philip Glass + Sesame Street (1979)

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What the greatest composer alive has to do with The Muppets and the foundations of visual thinking.

I absolutely adore the music of Philip Glass, who is often considered the greatest composer alive, and I love all things Sesame Street — who doesn’t? In 1979, the makers of Sesame Street commissioned Philip Glass to compose music for a series of four unnumbered animation pieces titled Geometry of Circles, designed as a primer for visual thinking — something at the core of both Sesame Street itself and Jim Henson’s original vision that predated his creation of The Muppets. The combination, beautiful and eloquent in a multisensory way, feeds into my obsession with synesthesia and various visualizations of music.

Here is the final piece of the series, from episode 2415, the only high-quality version known to exist online:

Geometry of Circles is available on the excellent 2009 DVD, Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days — a collection of nearly five hours of the best Sesame Street segments from all 40 seasons, including over 50 minutes of rare, never-before-seen backstage footage, interviews and vintage episodes not available online. There are really no words to describe what a treat and treasure this is.

via Image Oscillite

UPDATE: The film was apparently designed, animated, and produced by Cathy Aison, at the time an independent filmmaker who proposed a detailed storyboard to CTW producer Edith Zarnow in 1978. Once the script was approved, Sesame Street contracted her to make the film and she reached out to Philip Glass to record the music based on the storyboarded images. Glass licensed her the music for 20 years, a license that expired in 1999. Says Aison, “Although Sesame Street paid for and owned the rights to the film they were only indirectly the true author.” Aison is currently an art director at Random House’s Vintage Books division.

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