Brain Pickings

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18 MARCH, 2011

Scott Belsky on How to Avoid Idea Plateaus

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“Ideas are cheap and abundant,” proclaimed legendary management consultant and self-described social ecologist Peter Drucker, “what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

Hand raise: Who here has had a big idea, the kind that keeps you up at night excitedly plotting its release into the world, only to have it plateau and lose steam before coming to fruition? We thought so. And how do we handle that? We come up with a new idea, a shot of creative dopamine to the brain, only to have it suffer the same fate. In his excellent talk from last year’s 99% Conference — one of our favorite cross-disciplinary event seriesScott Belsky breaks down how this trap works and how to avoid falling into it.

The project plateau is littered with the carcases of dead ideas that have never happened. What do we do? We just generate a new idea. We do it again and again and again. What we continue to do is we escape this project plateau with a new idea, and instantaneously we return to this high of excitement, this willingness to execute. And this is why there are more half-written novels in the world than there are novels.” ~ Scott Belsky

If you haven’t yet read Scott’s book, Making Ideas Happen, we strongly encourage you to do so. Barely a year old, it’s already one of the most important books on creative entrepreneurship ever published. Drawing on years of research and hundreds of interviews, Besky goes after the holy grail of ideation with a club and a smile. From what people who bring ideas to life have in common to understanding the chemistry of collaboration to how to avoid short-circuiting your reward systems, it’s the kind of guide that will make you just the right amount of uncomfortable and, in the process, better and smarter about your work, your productivity and your creative endeavors.

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18 MARCH, 2011

7 Einstein Classics, Digitized for the First Time

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What the theory of relativity has to do with world government and the ethics of nuclear proliferation.

On Monday, we celebrated Einstein’s birthday with Albert Einstein: How I See The World, the fantastic 2006 PBS documentary now free to watch online. His birthday also marked the digitization of seven excellent authorized texts from the Albert Einstein Archives, available for the first time in a common electronic format through a collaboration between the Philosophical Library and digital publisher Open Road.

The World As I See It is a fascinating anthology of Einstein’s observations about life, religion, nationalism, and various other personal topics that engaged his mind in the aftermath of WWI. With characteristic blend of wit and idealism, the great genius tackles some of humanity’s most timeless dualities like good vs. evil, science vs. religion, activism vs. pacifism and more. The collection paints a portrait of Einstein as he makes sense of his own mind and a rapidly changing world through letters, speeches, articles, and essays written before 1935, including many rare documents.

Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty.” ~ Albert Einstein, Forum and Century

Essays In Science gathers Einstein’s articles and speeches dissecting the scientific method in his own theoretical discoveries and contextualizing, with palpable admiration and respect, the work of his scientific contemporaries and historical influences, including Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Niels Bohr.

What place does the theoretical physicist’s picture of the world occupy among all these possible pictures? It demands the highest possible standard of rigorous precision in the description of relations, such as only the use of mathematical language can give.” ~ Albert Einstein, Principles of Research

Essays In Humanism captures Einstein’s philosophical reflections on the pace of progress, including prescient topics like Zionism and the global economy, in a collection of essays written between 1931 and 1950 amidst the aftermath of The Great Depression and the turbulent early days of the Cold War. Particularly timely, in light of the recent devastation in Japan, are his thoughts on the double-edged sword of nuclear proliferation.

What is the situation? The development of technology and of the implements of war has brought about something akin to a shrinking of our planet. Economic interlinking has made the destinies of nations interdependent to a degree far greater than in previous years.” ~ Albert Einstein, Towards a World Government

Letters to Solovine: 1906-1955 gathers Einstein’s correspondence with Maurice Solovine, his longtime friend and translator, discussing topics across science, politics, philosophy, and religion with remarkable candor and intimacy. Frank, funny and invariably insightful, the letters — which appear in both German and English — offer a rare glimpse of the intersection between Einstein’s private self and his public persona.

Men are even more susceptible to suggestion than horses, and each period is dominated by a mood, with the result that most men fail to see the tyrant who rules over them.” ~ Albert Einstein, Princeton, April 10, 1938

Letters on Wave Mechanics: Correspondence with H. A. Lorentz, Max Planck, and Erwin Schrodinger may be the most technical of the bunch, but it’s no less absorbing a read as we trace the communication between three of the era’s greatest scientific minds. Perhaps most fascinatingly, it’s a thought-provoking perspective shift in the pace of discovery and the time-scale of scientific — and all, really — communication: Just as The Republic of Letters taught us, an email exchange between today’s leading scientists may be near-instantaneous, but the written intellectual debates of yore took weeks and often months for a single idea to be transmitted and responded to, which greatly altered the course of scientific inquiry and debate.

I am as convinced as ever that the wave representation of matter is an incomplete representation of the state of affairs, no matter how practically useful it has proved itself to be.” ~ Albert Einstein to Erwin Schrödinger

The Theory of Relativity: and Other Essays features Einstein’s seven most most important essays on physics, in which the great thinker takes the reader by the hand and guides her through the layered scientific theory that served as the foundation for his discoveries. Compelling yet digestible, the book offers an essential primer on theoretical physics, the laws of science and of ethics, and the fundamental language of scientific inquiry.

The ‘principle of relativity’ in its widest sense is contained in the statement: The totality of physical phenomena is of such a character that it gives no basis for the introduction of the concept of ‘absolute motion;’ or shorter but less precise: There is no absolute motion.” ~ Albert Einstein The Theory of Relativity

Out of My Later Years: The Scientist, Philosopher, and Man Portrayed Through His Own Words is a collection of essays on the topics and disciplines that tickled Einstein’s fancy. From world government to freedom in research to open education, the book, divided into subject matter sections like “Public Affairs” and”Convictions and Beliefs,” is equal parts timely and timeless.

Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.” ~ Albert Einstein, “The Law of Science and the Laws of Ethics”

Thanks, Janet

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18 MARCH, 2011

Words Without Words: A Visual Dictionary

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If we could re-learn our SAT words, this is how we would do it.

We love, love, love words and language, especially whenever lingo-love and beautiful design meet. So we’re all over Words Without Words by Slovakian-born, Stanford-educated, Los-Angeles-based designer Veronika Heckova — a lovely visual dictionary of words with abstract, complex or underused meanings.

The project is part Radiolab homage to words, part Johnny Carrera’s visual dictionary of curiosities, and altogether wonderful.

Thanks, Yuriy.

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17 MARCH, 2011

PICKED: Waste Land

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The world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho, lies in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where an eclectic group of local “catadores” — self-assigned pickers of recyclable materials — live, work and play. Jarred by the disconnect between these pickers’ bold creative spirit and the desolate conditions of their lives, acclaimed artist Vik Muniz decided to help. So he set out to change their lives through the very material of their livelihoods, creating powerful portraits of the garbage pickers that hover between dignity and desperation, selling them as high art, and giving all the money back to the community.

 

Waste Land is British filmmaker Lucy Walker‘s fantastic documentary about this beautiful social experiment, following Vik from his homebase in Brooklyn to his native Brazil for nearly three years as he collaborates with the pickers on these portraits and eventually helps them form a political association that empowers their existence. The film swept Sundance last year, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Thanks, Carr!), and is out on DVD this week.

The moment when one thing transforms into another is the most beautiful moment. That moment is really magical.” ~ Vik Muniz

It’s not just that Waste Land is a beautiful piece of cinematic storytelling. It’s also the kind of film that will make you look a bit more closely at your own life in a heartfelt, non-pedantic way, and maybe, just maybe, make you want to live a richer, fuller life.

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