Brain Pickings

An Ode to the Brain: TED + Carl Sagan, Autotuned

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Between our deep love for TED, our fascination with music and the brain, and our soft spot for remix culture, it’s hard not to fall for An Ode to the Brain by John Boswell of Symphony of Science fame — an ingenious autotune remix of footage from various TED talks, Discovery Channel programming, Carl Sagan documentaries and other fine purveyors of neuroscience insight.

For our very own remix tribute to TED, do revisit our TEDify side project.

Thanks, Chris

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The Word Project: Obscure Words in Bricolage

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What avian resemblance has to do with the study of soil and the irresistible urge to dance.

We love words and language, especially artful intersections of lingolove and design. Earlier this week, we spotlighted illustrator Veronika Heckova’s lovely Words Without Words project and, thanks to reader Cassandra Marketos, we discovered the utterly wonderful work of artist Polly M. Law. The Word Project is a compendium of 100 odd and obscure words, illustrated in Law’s signature bricolage paper-dolls style.

Strigiform: (adj) resembling an owl; Struthiform (adj) resembling an ostrich

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Dinomania: (n) irresistible urge to dance

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Godwottery: (n) an overly ornate garden

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Pedology: (n) the study of soils

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Lucubrate: (v) to work by artificial light

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Bibliotaph: (n) a person who hides books

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Empyreal: (adj) celestial, elevated

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

At once whimsical and illuminating, The Word Project is a playful and inspired gateway into grown-up vocabulary, approaching the intellectual with the kind of childlike curiosity we so encourage.

Thanks, Cass

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40K Books: 99-Cent Essays by Million-Dollar Authors

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Trying out the Italian cyberpunk job, or how to buy brilliance for under a dollar.

Over the last few months we’ve taken a few trips to the frontier of electronic publishing to see how various digital developers are building out the landscape. One such new settler is 40K Books, so named because its 99-cent essays and novellas take 40 minutes to just over an hour to read. The Milan, Italy-based startup has put out a series of original works in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, both from new writers and established authors and thinkers like Bruce Sterling and Paul Di Filippo. Its non-fiction selections focus on the consequences of and ways in which our “culture is going digital,” while the short fiction skews toward futurist, sci-fi topics. We were sold by 40K’s bold graphic style but stuck around for the imaginative content of the work itself. Here are three favorites from the first run of releases.

FROM WORDS TO BRAIN

MIT graduate student and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne penned the fantastic essay From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?), which uses the children’s classic “Little Red Riding Hood” to investigate the complex neural connections that take place while we read. Like the TEDBooks series, Blackburne’s piece contains big ideas in a compact, engaging, and accessible package.

For most of human history, written language didn’t even exist. Reading as a cultural invention has only been around for a few thousand years, a snap of a finger in evolutionary terms. We have not, and will not, within any of our lifetimes, evolve a genetic program for reading. Yet our brains are so adept at this skill that it become as reflexive as seeing itself.”

SELLING STORIES SUCCESSFULLY

British marketing professor Stephen Brown authored the highly entertaining piece Selling Stories Successfully, at once a manifesto for “self-promotion and shameless authorpreneurship” and an exploration of what makes for good contemporary fiction. We took assiduous notes – or rather annotated our digital text – while reading this guide for writers who want to see their work get onto shelves and screens.

You have to persuade people to buy it, both literally and metaphorically. You’ve woken up to the fact that storytelling and storyselling are two completely different things. As J.G. Ballard once ruefully observed: ‘any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.’”

BLACK SWAN

Master of cyberlit Bruce Sterling spins this enthralling tale about an Italian technology blogger, his unexpected hacker ally, and their discovery – something that threatens to revise history as we know it. We started reading Black Swan and couldn’t put down our Kindle until the last word.

I could explain now, in grueling detail, exactly what memristors are, and how different they are from any standard electronic component. Suffice to understand that, in electronic engineering, memristors did not exist. Not at all. They were technically possible – we’d known that for thirty years, since the 1980s – but nobody had ever manufactured one. A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns.”

After these action- and insight-packed reads, we’re very much looking forward to seeing what stakes 40K Books pitches next.

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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