Brain Pickings

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, Possibly His Last

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From Ben Franklin to Qadafi, or what the Egyptian Revolution has to do with Harry Potter.

Christopher Hitchens — legendary self-described “antitheist”, tea master extraordinaire, one of the most opinionated and controversial journalists of our time and despite that, or precisely because of it, also one of the greatest. Last year, his prolific career — which spanned such iconic titles as Vanity Fair, The Nation and Slate — was derailed by a grim cancer diagnosis. (His Vanity Fair essay on losing his “writer’s voice” as cancer attacked his vocal chords is a must-read.)

This month marks the release of Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens Hitchens’ first anthology since 2004 — and, as the author writes in the book’s introduction, possibly his last:

…About a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last.”

The anthology collects some of Hitchens’ best recent work — including “America the Banana Republic,” “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” “Iran’s Waiting Game,” and “God of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment” — imbued with his signature style of lucid nonfiction written with the passion and narrative enchantment of really, really good fiction. Unapologetically candid, wryly humorous and keenly insightful, the essays examines such cultural icons as Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, Ezra Pound, Abraham Lincoln, George Orwell, and even Harry Potter in the context of contemporary events, weaving history and present together in Hitchens’ web of timelessness and timeliness as he reflects on the most pressing political and social issues of our time.

From the book’s dedication and introduction:

To the memory of Mohemed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu

The three names on the dedication page belonged to a Tunisian street vendor, and Egyptian restaurateur, and a Libyan husband and father. In the spring of 2011, the first of them set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at just one too many humiliations at the hands of petty officialdom. The second also took his own life as Egyptians began to rebel en masse at the stagnation and meaninglessness of Mubarak’s Egypt. The third, it might be said, gave his life as well as took it: loading up his modest car with petrol and explosives and blasting open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi — symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Qadafi regime in Libya.”

Crisp and cunning, Arguably is bound to live on as material for the journalism curricula of the future and a priceless piece of the legacy of one of our era’s sharpest minds.

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Spitting in the Face of Creativity?

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Lessons in plagiarism from Polish magazine Przekrój.

I adore the work of Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, whose clever and thought-provoking negative space illustrations and minimalist portraits of cultural icons you might recall. Last week, reader Michal Korsun alerted me to something that angers and saddens me in equal parts — Przekrój, Poland’s oldest weekly news magazine, plagiarized Bar’s brilliant portrait of Hitler, on the cover no less.

I passed the image on to Bar’s representation and quickly heard back from the artist himself, who confirmed that it was indeed a case of plagiarism — Daniel Horowitz, the illustrator who created the image (and who has since removed it from his portfolio site), neither sought permission for a derivative graphic nor acknowledged the very clear “inspiration” for the cover. Besides the very cut-and-dry fact that it’s illegal to steal, creatively or otherwise, what’s most heartbreaking about this is that it takes a clever visual metaphor Bar spent time and thought on, adds no value or commentary, and instead just subtracts from the creative merit of the original work — to sell a magazine, remember.

In Noma’s own words:

‘Take a sad song and make it better’…. In this case, [Horowitz] didn’t make it better. The balance, detail and tension in the face — all lost. I would be a bit more encouraged if I felt that I learned something new about Hitlers face — unfortunately, I didn’t. It’s an obvious trace of photo and a random barcode.”

While I’m a vocal proponent of remix culture, it’s important to understand the line between remix and rip-off. The law still struggles with this distinction and, in many cases, draws the line in such a way that it discourages remix. But as far as I’m concerned — and some of the thought-leaders in this space tend to agree — it comes down to a rather simple litmus test: If a derivative work changes the original in a creatively meaningful way, or offers cultural commentary or critique on it, then it’s a new original work of its own creative merit; if it merely parrots or mimics the original while adding no context or commentary, then it’s a rip-off.

That a publication of Przekrój’s stature and legacy is unable or unwilling to make that distinction is a disgrace to both journalism and creative culture.

UPDATE 9/5/2011 10:23PM: Daniel Horowitz has gotten in touch with me to give his side of the story. Here’s what he had to say, published here with his permission — be your own judge:

Just got back to [Brooklyn] from my trip to Europe and I am quite interested to read the many remarks including your own on the subject of plagiarism and the resemblance of my illustration to that of Noma Bars. A much more interesting article would be how two artists arrived at the same conceptual solution independently, which is in fact what is the case, altogether much less sensational than ‘Spitting in the Face of Creativity’.

With my reputation at stake and working for many of the same international clients as Bar does, why on earth would I care to jeopardize my position by plagiarizing anyone’s work, especially in a such an open way. You also accused me that I had the illustration up on my site and then took it down. I make visual metaphors daily for a living, hundreds and thousands over the course of a career, and in this case I apparently wasn’t the first to think of replacing Hitler’s mustache with a barcode.

I was more surprised than anyone when Mr. Bar’s illustration was brought to my attention, and the similarity is more a comment on the fact that we think and solve visual problems alike than anything more.

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Sentics: Emotional Healing Through Music and Touch

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A sensory antidote to addiction and depression, or what artificial intelligence has to do with poetry.

In the late 1960s, as advances in neuroscience technology were making the brain knowable in entirely new ways and illuminating it as an input device, Austrian-born scientist and inventor Manfred Clynes became interested in its capacities as an output device. He began experimenting with the basic expressive time forms of the central nervous system, which he called “sentic forms,” and argued they were universal — something he proved by deriving sounds from people’s emotional expressions through touch and gesture, then playing these sounds to people of different cultures, who were able to correctly identify the original emotions the sounds were expressed.

Based on these findings, Clynes developed an application in which subjects used touch to express a sequence of emotions — neutrality, anger, hate, grief, love, sexual desire, joy, and reverence — through finger pressure. The 25-minute sequences, called sentic cycles, were based on a precise mathematical formula and resulted in subjects reporting calmness, energy, an alleviation of depression, and even a loosening of the grip of tobacco and alcohol addictions. Clynes used his research as evidence that that it was possible to counter a negative emotional state by inducing a rather rapid shift into a positive one, particularly showing that music was most powerful mechanism for inducing love, joy, and reverence.

How remarkable it would be if one could experience and express the spectrum of emotions embodied in music originating from oneself—without the crutch of a composer’s intercession, without being driven by the composer; and to do so moreover whenever we wish, not when circumstance may call them forth. This, indeed, has become possible through the development of sentic cycles.” ~ Manfred Clynes

In 1972, Clynes began distilling his theory into a book that took him four years to write. In 1976, he published Sentics: The Touch of the Emotions, in which he outlined his findings of emotional perception and response at the intersection of music, art and mathematics. (Also featured are a number of Clynes’ poems, some of which artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky quoted in his seminal 1986 book, The Society of Mind.) Blending clinical research, theory and philosophy, the book laid the foundations of the sentics field, insights from which have since seeped into everything from psychotherapy to addiction rehabilitation to education.

Changes in respiration and heart rate during a sentic cycle. Respiration accelerates during anger and hate. During grief the respiration has a gasping character with rest periods at the expiratory end of the cycle. Respiration slows during love, and speeds up markedly for sex. (Inspiration is downward in the figure.) During reverence there is a marked slowing down of respiration with resting phases at the inspiratory phases of the cycle (paralleling those

Perhaps the most important application and effect of sentic cycles lies in their ability to influence the urges and driving forces of the personality. The sense of calmness and satisfaction of being, as such, or the sensation of being emotionally drained, which occasionally replaces this, noticeably alters the dynamics of drives. One may observe the replacement of the neurotic anxious drive— the rigid drive toward self-imposed goals—by a creative drive coupled with joy in its exercise. This displacement of a drive whose satisfaction lies in a distant goal (which cannot be achieved in the present) by a creative drive whose exercise provides a continuous flow satisfaction coupled with joy) is a remarkable aspect of sentic cycles. It appears that needs for smoking and perhaps even drugs may be seriously altered through the use of sentic cycles.” ~ Manfred Clynes

A big thanks to reader Jeff Beddow for flagging Sentics in his comment on this recent piece about 7 essential books on music, emotion and the brain.

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