Brain Pickings

Life of Pi: Croatian Illustrator Takes on a Modern Classic

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What perseverance in the face of rejection has to do with tigers and the quest for belonging.

It’s a familiar story — author faces series of rejection letters but perseveres to eventually reach wide critical acclaim. That’s exactly what happened to Yann Martel, whose fantasy adventure novel Life of Pi was rejected by at least five UK publishers before being published by a Canadian one in 2001 and awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year for its UK edition. It tells the story of an Indian boy, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, stranded for 227 days after a shipwreck on a boat he shares with a Bengali tiger named Pi. It’s a story of faith, adventure, survival and belonging.

But what makes the book most noteworthy is that, in 2005, a worldwide competition set out to find an artist to illustrate a new, special edition of the book, settling on the wonderful Croatian illustrator and painter Tomislav Torjanac. Torjanac used his distinctive blend of oil paints and digital illustration to produce 40 stunning illustrations with a conceptual twist — the scenes he portrayed were viewed from Pi’s subjective perspective.

My vision of the illustrated edition of Life of Pi is based on paintings from a first person’s perspective — Pi’s perspective. The interpretation of what Pi sees is intermeshed with what he feels and it is shown through the use of colours, perspective, symbols, hand gestures, etc… Hence some of the scenes may look realistic and may correspond to ‘reality,’ while others may contain elements of sylization or even abstract elements (for example: the scene of blindness out of the sea).” ~ Tomislav Torjanac

Here is a fascinating glimpse of Torjanac’s creative process:

Island Study

Lifeboat Study

'I quite deliberately dressed wild animals in tame costumes of my imagination.'

'Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts...'

'And what a thump it was.'

'I threw the mako towards the stern.'

Breathtakingly beautiful, exhilarating and poetic, the artwork in Life of Pi is an absolute feast for the eyes and heart.

Some images via The Guardian

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Paleo-Pundit: 1963 Educational Film about Lasers

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What microwave oscillators have to do with ray guns and the fundamentals of creativity.

Archival footage can be an endless source of paleofuture edutainment. We’ve previously enjoyed vintage educational documentaries on everything from the art of bookbinding to the dawn of computer music. Today, we turn to a 1963 educational film from Bell Laboratories. Titled Principles of the Optical Maser, it introduces the “optical maser” — the device that came to be known as “laser,” or Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, the first functioning Bell prototype of which made its debut in 1960. (A laser, in most basic terms, is merely a maser that works with photons in the light spectrum.)

More than anything, delightfully dorky as the footage may be, it’s also an illuminating glimpse of incremental innovation at work — a reminder that even the most advanced technologies of our time built upon the work of those who came before, as Steven Johnson keenly argues in his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From

via Laughing Squid

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How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us

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How auditory cheesecake was made with mother nature’s milk, or why our brains were not designed for reading.

Speech and writing are our two most fundamental forms of communication yet, while we’re extraordinarily good at them, they remain an ever-mystifying frontier of intellectual inquiry. We’ve previously looked at how sounds evolved into shapes, 5 essential books on language, and 7 must-reads on music and the brain. Now, from evolutionary neuroscientist Mark Changizi, comes compelling new evidence to unite these three domains of fascination. In Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, Changizi explores the evolution of language and music as they came to separate us from our primate ancestors.

Our brain’s tight fit to writing and speech is not because we evolved by natural selection to read or comprehend speech, but, rather, because the structure of writing and speech culturally evolved to fit our brain…by looking and sounding like nature, just what our brains can brilliantly process. I call this nature-harnessing — that’s the secret sauce.” ~ Mark Changizi

Changizi builds on his previous research for the excellent Vision Revolution and psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s work in The Language Instinct to examine how it’s possible that we appear to be designed to read, yet we have no actual reading “instinct.”

The answer is that, rather than our brains being designed for reading, reading is designed for our brains. Writing is a technology that has been optimized over time by the forces of cultural selection to be good for our visual system. We have no reading instinct. Instead, writing has a brain instinct (i.e., is designed for the brain), something neuroscientist Stanislav Dehaene calls ‘neuronal recycling.’” ~ Mark Changizi

Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.

Artwork by Kerry Hyndman for Wired UK

But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”

Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive. Perhaps most interesting of all is what this might suggest about our evolving communication diets as we contemplate the future of information and the Internet and ponder what the web is doing to our brains — are these media, nascent in evolutionary terms, evolving as simulacra of nature as well, or are they taxing our brains with unnatural and counterintuitive mechanisms that make for impossible cognitive loads?

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