Brain Pickings

Author Archive

06 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Everything Sings: Making the Case for a New Cartography

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What Ira Glass has to do with atlas antagonism, or what plotting carved pumpkins reveals about place.

The most intimate infographics of all may be maps, those images that tell of our complicated relationships to place, bounded by time. Or at least, this is just one of the interesting arguments made by the book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, a beautiful exploration of a small North Carolina neighborhood that also provides a platform for much larger ideas, published by Siglio Press in 2010.

We’ve long believed in the transformative power of maps, which was why we immediately fell in love with Everything Sings and its author, Denis Wood. A kind of counter-culture cartographer, Wood has for decades sought ways to call the seeming objectivity of maps into question. In his fascinating introduction to the book, Wood wonders why map-making was an artistic discipline that somehow escaped modernism’s critical overhaul, its conventions barely changing in the centuries since it was first practiced.

Admitting that atlases were narrative — that they were texts — would force the admission that the individual maps were texts too, that maps constituted a semiological system indistinguishable from other semiological systems, like those of paintings or novels or poems.” ~ Denis Wood

His argument for a kind of “poetics of cartography” provides context to the maps that follow, a narrative about how life was in his Boylan Heights neighborhood in the early 1980s.

Everything Sings grew out of an episode of NPR’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass inadvertently came across Wood’s shelved project from a university course he’d previously taught to landscape architecture students. Glass contributes a fantastic foreword that pretty much sums up what makes the collection so special.

These maps are completely unnecessary. The world didn’t ask for them. They aid no navigation or civic-minded purpose. They’re just for pleasure. They laugh at the stupid Google map I consult five times a day on my phone. They laugh at what a square that map is. At its small-mindedness. They know it’s a sad, workaholic salaryman.” ~ Ira Glass

Here are just a few of our favorite images from the atlas, with excerpts from Wood’s accompanying texts:

Wind Chimes

They were all over -- bamboo, glass, shell, metal tubes. Depending on where you stood, the force of the wind, and the time of day, you could hear several chiming, turning the neighborhood into a carillon.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Jack-O'-Lanterns

I rode through the neighborhood on my bicycle--it was 1982--and took pictures of all the jack-o'-lanterns.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Police Calls

All over Boylan Heights, numerous calls to report disturbances reveal a general reluctance to knock on a neighbors' doors and ask them to 'turn it down.' Boylan Heights is small and hardly crime ridden, but this is only a six month's harvest of calls to 911.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Squirrel Highways

Nervous squirrels, afraid of an attack on the ground, use the phone and television cables as highways wherever the tree canopy's broken. Birds rest on the power lines.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Pools of Light

When, in the later 19th century, Americans began systematically to light their streets, it was seen as a wholesome influence to cleanliness, as a deterrent to throwing garbage into the streets under the cover of darkness, and as an inducement to leaving windows open at night for healthier sleep.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Everything Sings may be an antagonist to the traditional practice of cartography, and yet it accomplishes exactly the end that all maps must, if they’re to be of any lasting use: forcing us to see our world, and its many wonders, anew each day.

Images and captions copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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23 AUGUST, 2011

Architects’ Sketchbooks: Behind the World’s Most Magnificent Buildings

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How to limn a skyscraper in a line, or why the Centre Pompidou was inspired by a Chinese bamboo hat.

The sketchbook as surface for envisioning, inventing, and thinking in motion, has been somewhat of an idée fixe on Brain Pickings of late. We’ve looked at the lists of great thinkers, and peeked inside the pages of private notebooks from artists to zoologists around the world.

Today we’re taking a moment to focus on sketchbooks from a discipline that is itself interdisciplinary, brilliantly balancing the demands of both science and art — namely, architecture. The inspiring recent release Architects’ Sketchbooks celebrates the earliest traces of a building’s coming into being, the ideas that pave the way for the precision of engineers’ calculations or CAD renderings. Through the book’s beautiful reproductions of original blots, jots, and scribbles, we can see that even the most awe-inspiring edifices begin as a line — as reassuring an insight into the creative process as any.

Architects’ Sketchbooks assembles work from 85 of the world’s best-known practitioners, including Shigeru Ban, Norman Foster, Terry Pawson, and Rafael Viñoly, as well as names less familiar to those of us outside the practice. Alongside the often functional but occasionally fantastical images from their flat files, the book also contains essays that place the images in context (and the buildings into their eventual environs). Equally fun is seeing all the different media in which architects work today, from comic strips to crayons, and how these choices are literally representative of different worldviews about how we might live.

Here’s a preview of a few of the book’s pages:

Evidence that even the most imposing monuments have their humble beginnings as one person’s notion in a notebook, Architects’ Sketchbooks is a guide to viewing the world’s human wonders in a whole new way.

Kirstin Butler currently lives in Cambridge, MA where she is working on an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs.

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10 AUGUST, 2011

Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge

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Going beyond biology’s limits, or how laboratory advances will change the way we think about the law.

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? With the brand-new anthology Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge, literary agent Max Brockman poses (and provides a spectrum of answers to) the question. From astronomy to virology to computer science, 19 first-rate researchers contributed short pieces to this collection, intended for the curious layperson. Their participation isn’t without risk since, as Brockman notes in his introduction, “if you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

We were particularly excited about Future Science given Brockman’s own pedigree — his father, John Brockman, has spent a lifetime investigating audacious intellectual inquiries as founder of the EDGE Foundation. (In fact, prior to this new volume, the younger Brockman also edited a 2009 book for EDGE’s own imprint as a kind of prequel to Future Science called What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science.)

For a provocative survey of the ever-expanding scientific frontier, you’ll find much to enjoy among the big ideas, probing techniques, and intriguing insights of Future Science.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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