Brain Pickings

Shapes for Sounds: A Visual History of the Alphabet

By:

What the anatomy of your tongue has to do with ship flags and the evolution of human communication.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the intersection of sight and sound and have a well-documented alphabet book fetish. So I absolutely love Shapes for sounds by Timothy Donaldson, exploring one of the most fundamental creations of human communication, the alphabet, through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.”

While the tome is full of beautiful, lavish illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets — it’s no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.

The alphabet is one of the greatest inventions; it has enabled the preservation and clear understanding of people’s thoughts, and it is simple to learn. It still has great significance; while the advent of type — printed alphabets — has curtailed any real development of the shapes of letters, the alphabet has been more greatly utilised in the last 500 years than ever before. Typography is the engine of graphic design, and writing is the fuel. But more than that, the alphabet has been the enabler of mass communication technologies from Morse code to the internet.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Though the Latin alphabet is the focal point, Donaldson explores an incredible range of related history, from ancient calligraphic traditions to semaphore, to bar codes and binary code, exposing the magnificent cross-pollination of disciplines — design, typography, anatomy, phonetics, sociology, linguistics, psychology and more — that gave birth to one of our civilization’s oldest and most powerful technologies.

I would love to have the experience of having envelopes drop through my door with no address, just a picture of me and my house on the front. I would like to buy a newspaper full of nothing but pictures and graphic devices, and to find my way home using road signs that are just arrows and drawings, but I think these events a re a long way off. To cross national borders still requires a textual document; a passport is not just a picture of your face. The obligator tax-return, a document that, if ignore, will make you a criminal, contains no images. The highway code features many image-based signs, yet must be explained with words. The interent is 95% text.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Shapes for sounds comes as yet another gem from the fine folks at Mark Batty, my favorite indie publisher, who brought us such excellence as Notations 21, Cultural Connectives, Drawing Autism and more.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

5 Fantastic Daily Email Newsletters for a Better Life

By:

What world peace has to do with dog soap and why everything you knew about baby carrots is wrong.

For all its wonders and curiosities, the web can be an overwhelming place. And, for some of us, so can the inbox. But the fact remains that email is still the most manageable way of consuming information, so the past few years have seen a boon of smart, thoughtfully curated email newsletters that serve the web’s best on a silver platter. (You’re getting the free Brain Pickings weekly newsletter, right? Good.) Here are five fantastic, free daily email newsletters to inject a potent blend of utility, optimism, and curiosity into your information and inspiration diet.

VERY SHORT LIST

Very Short List is easily the granddaddy of the modern curated newsletter, offering one must-see gem a day: a website, a book, a film, a sweet animation, a photoessay — you get the idea, but you can mine the archives for a taste of the goodness. VSL launched shortly after Brain Pickings, with a very similar editorial-curatorial vision, so I have an added layer of affectionate kindred-spirit sentimentality towards it.

The only downside: VSL never give credit for their finds, the kind of failure in attribution of discovery that I’ve been very vocal about and some go as far as saying is killing kittens.

TBD

TBD, named after the idea that our collective future is yet to be decided, goes beyond mere sit-back inspiration to offer one world-changing idea per issue paired with one action you can take about it, right now, to improve the future. From spotlighting smart social enterprises to featuring beautifully designed products with a social good component, TBD may not be daily per se, but when it does come — I’m yet to figure out the pace of their cycle — it’s very much worth it.

You can sample the archives via their Facebook feed.

MILKSHAKE

Milkshake calls itself “a daily edition of good finds that give back” — a discovery engine for causes, people, and companies that have positive impact on the world. (If it sounds a bit like TBD, it should be noted TBD came first by a long stretch.) From handmade dog shampoo bars to cooperative foods produced by Israelis and Arabs, the daily picks are as wonderfully varied as they are uniformly worthwhile.

NETTED

From the good people who bring us the Webbys comes Netted — a daily serving of the best sites, apps and online services that “make life better.” From productivity apps to gadget hacks to eclectic digital delights, the finds blend utility, playfulness and sheer can’t-wait-to-tell-friends-aboutness.

Poke through the archives here.

NOW I KNOW

Every day, Dan Lewis follows his own curiosity is some esoteric direction, from the great baby carrot sham to how Tetris therapy works, and shares his findings with the world in Now I Know — a wonderful daily treat of knowledge you probably don’t need but will feel exceedingly cool having. Bonus points: Dan has the marvelous day job of heading new media communications for Sesame Street, which sort of explains his penchant for all things quirky-cool.

The treasure trove of archives can be found here.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Everything is a Remix, Part 3: The Elements of Creativity

By:

What Gutenberg has to do with Thomas Edison and the secret sauce of Apple.

Kirby Ferguson’s excellent Everything is a Remix project is, as I’ve previously written, one of the most important efforts to illuminate the mechanisms, paradoxes and central principles of creative culture in modern history — an ambitious four-part documentary on the history and cultural significance of sampling and collaborative creation, reflecting my own deep held belief that creativity is combinatorial. Today, Kirby releases the highly anticipated third installment in the series, titled The Elements of Creativity.

Enjoy — this is a cultural treasure:

The most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together, creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

From derivative work in art to incremental innovation in technology, Kirby tells the lesser-known stories of history’s greatest innovators to illustrate the point that creativity builds on what came before rather than crystallizing from thin air under the touch of a mythical muse.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb — his first patent was “Improvement in Electric Lamps,” but he did conduct trials with 6,000 materials for the filament until he created the first commercially viable bulb. Apple didn’t invent the first desktop computer — it copied Xerox (oh, the irony…), but was the first to combine the computer with the household appliance, sparking the personal computing revolution.

What started it all was the graphical interface merged with the idea of the computer as household appliance. The Mac is a demonstration of the explosive potential of combinations.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

Creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that’s… copying.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

The fourth and final episode, coming this fall, will tackle the most complex question of all: How our legal, ethical and artistic burdens are hindering our collective ability to embrace technology as a true enabler of creativity. You can support the project here — I happily did.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.