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11 MAY, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fictional Interviews with Luminaries

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What near-death experiences have to do with Shakespeare, Jesus and Isaac Asimov.

In 1997, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut pitched an idea to New York public radio station WNYC: He would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences courtesy of real-life physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, allowing the author to access heaven, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late. The producers loved the idea and Vonnegut churned out a number of 90-second segments “interviewing” anyone from Jesus to Hitler to Isaac Asimov. The interviews — funny, poignant, illuminating, timeless, profoundly human — are collected in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a fantastic anthology playing on the title of Vonnegut’s 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, some of the best cultural satire of the past century.

During my most recently controlled near-death experience, I got to interview William Shakespeare. We did not hit it off. He said the dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’ He asked if it had a name, and I said ‘Indianapolis.’” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Thanks to the wonderful Letters of Note — which you should be reading, or else you’re seriously missing out — here’s Vonnegut’s original pitch to WNYC:

Image courtesy of WNYC via Letters of Note

The interviews offer a priceless blend of cultural commentary and existential human preoccupations by way of comedy, from politics to the meaning of life, in what’s perhaps best-described as TED meets SNL.

I asked this heroic pet lover how it felt to have died for a schnauzer named Teddy. Salvador Biagiani was philosophical. He said it sure beat dying for absolutely nothing in the Viet Nam War.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Relentlessly entertaining and (un)surprisingly insightful, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is absolutely fantastic and a rare fiction treat even for those of us with a strong general proclivity for nonfiction.

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11 MAY, 2011

Out of Character: The Psychology of Good and Evil

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What Aristotle has to do with Tiger Woods and the story of the world.

The dichotomy of good and evil is as old as the story of the world, and timeless in its relevance to just about everything we do in life, from our political and spiritual views to our taste in music, art and literature to how we think about our simple dietary choices. But while most of us recognize that these concepts of good and bad aren’t always black-and-white categories, we never cease to be surprised when someone or something we’ve perceived as “good” does or becomes something we perceive as “bad,” from an esteemed politician’s transgression to a beloved celebrity’s slip into addiction or scientology or otherwise socially undesirable behavior.

In Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo explore this curious disconnect through the rigorous lens of science. Drawing on their research at the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University, the authors offer a fascinating yet highly readable perspective on the psychology of the hero/villain spectrum of human character, inviting us to reconceive personality, both our own and that of others, with a more balanced moral view that reflects the fluidity of human psychology.

The derivation of the word ‘character’ comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.” ~ David DeSteno

In this excellent talk from Northeastern’s Insights series, DeSteno reveals some of the fascinating research behind the book and the illuminating insights that came from it.

The analogy of color is an interesting way to think about [character]. Most of us think that colors are very discrete things — something’s red, it’s got redness; something’s blue, it’s got blueness. But we are creating these categories. They’re not natural kinds, they’re not given in ways that represent fundamentally distinct things. Ultimately, what determines what colors we see are the frequencies of light waves entering our eyes, so it’s along a continuum. It’s kind of the same with character. Things blend. We assume that if someone is good, that we’ve characterized them as good, that’s a discrete category, they can’t be bad. And when they are, our categories shatter. That’s because we have this illusory, arbitrary idea of what vice and virtue mean” ~ David DeSteno

Ultimately, Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us makes a compelling case for seeing human character as a grayscale continuum, not a black-and-white dichotomy of good and bad, enlisting neuroscience and cognitive psychology to reaffirm the age-old Aristotelian view of virtue and vice as fluid, interlaced existential capacities.

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11 MAY, 2011

DrawHappy: Ongoing Global Art Project on Happiness

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What pie, cats and giant cheese have to do with life’s most elusive aspiration.

Happiness is a frequent subject here, from culling the most essential books on the art and science of happy to exploring various artists’ attempts to capture what lies at the heart of happiness. It’s safe to say the pursuit of happiness isn’t merely a constitutional right, but a human preoccupation as old as the world’s collective memory, yet we still don’t have even a remotely precise understanding of what truly makes us happy. That’s exactly what SVA student Catherine Young explores with DrawHappy — an ongoing global art project inviting people to draw what makes them happy.

The project began in Iceland, consistently listed as one of the happiest places in the world, where Catherine began asking people, both locals and tourists, what made them happy.

I realized that one of the most universal and clearest ways to record their responses was to ask them to draw what made them happy. Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures and nations. I reasoned that if people knew that they were happy, they should be able to identify the source and moreover, visually embody this joy.” ~ Catherine Young

With its incredible cast of characters, from a theology-student-slash–dancer to a conservation-engineer-turned-hostel-housekeeper to a security-guard-slash-2D-animator, and its wide spectrum of happiness-markers ranging from the simple and poetic (“friends, family, love, cats, traveling, sunshine”) to the somewhat worrisome (“control, attention”), the project is an absolute delight of voyeurism and shared humanity.

House on a Hill

Okami Landa, 28 years old, New York, USA and Colombia; security guard, 2D animator, editor

Repeat, repeat, repeat

'I am happy when I feel the routine of everyday stuff. Repeat, repeat, and repeat.'

Sebastian Vidal, 32 years old; interior designer from Argentina but living in Barcelona

Pie

Britt, 36 years old, brand strategist; Atlanta, Georgia, now in New York

Me on a sailing cheese

'That's me on a piece of cheese, so I’ll never be hungry.'

Swantje, 26 years old, film student and receptionist; born in Germany, living in Iceland

Long leisurely dinner with family

'Having a long leisurely dinner with my close family in my lovely garden.'

Sif ,45 years old, director; Reykjavik, Iceland

Cats

'Cats make me happy. I love them. And having enough money makes me also happy.'

Ingibjörg Birna Steingrimsdottir, 52 years old, works in a museum; Reykjavik, Iceland

Stars, sky, books, dancing, dreaming, family

'The stars and the sky make me happy. Reading books makes me happy. Dancing and dreaming make me happy. My family makes me happy.'

Margrét Lilja Vilmundardóttir, 25 years old, theology student and dancer; Iceland

Colors, diversity, good energies

Zsofia, 26 years old; born in Hungary, living in Iceland studied nature conservation engineering, photography and furniture making; hostel housekeeper

After the 106th submission, Catherine decided to visualize the learning from the project thus far:

We found this Maslowian extrapolation most fascinating:

Submit your own drawing and join this wonderful global exercise in deconstructing life’s most elusive aspiration.

via Swiss Miss

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