Brain Pickings

A is for Armageddon: An Illustrated Guide to the Apocalypse


What rock-paper-scissors has to do with nuclear energy and the primordial soup.

We don’t have to listen too closely to the media to get their predominant message, loud and clear: The world as we know it is coming to an end. But rather than recoiling into paranoia at the all hopeless prospects out there, why not have some fun with it, all the while doing our best to prevent the apocalypse in an informed and intelligent way? That’s exactly what author and illustrator Richard Horne of 101 Things to Do Before You Die fame does in his latest gem, A Is for Armageddon: An Illustrated Catalogue of Disasters — a potent blend of serious science and serious snark exploring the most pessimistic possibilities for mankind’s impending demise.

From religious warfare to grey goo to deforestation, Horne combines science, superstition and sociology in a beautifully illustrated, delightfully dystopian guide to the apocalypse. Underlying the wickedly entertaining tone, however, is a grounded, non-preachy crusade for awareness that exudes the call of urgency none of us want to hear but all of us must.

Edifying and entertaining, A Is for Armageddon came out just after our selection of the best books of 2010, but would’ve absolutely made our list.

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On Conformity


What seven decades of psychology experiments have to do with LGBT equality and Wikileaks.

Groupthink is one of the most troublesome downfalls of organized society. Today, it manifests itself on a sliding scale of severity, ranging from genocide to bullying to superstition to fashion fads to the “Digg mentality” of news reporting. Still, most of us refuse to believe that our opinions, perception and worldview are being in any way shaped by those of others. And yet they are. Even subcultures, the very essence of which is to stand out, are founded on group conformity — or, as James Thurber famously puts it, “why do you have to be a nonconformist like everyone else?”

Conformity explores the issue at the root of groupthink by distilling over 7 decades of seminal studies into the psychology of group mentality.

What’s perhaps most interesting about conformity is how our own relationship to it changes throughout the course of our lives. We spend our teenage years trying, desperately, to fit in, only to mature into trying, just as desperately, to stand out — a point eloquently echoed by one Etsy employee in his recent contribution to the tremendously important It Gets Better Project.

As much as conformity is the currency of teenage years, an incredible thing happens afterwards and, all of a sudden, individuality is the currency.

For more on the subject, we highly recommend Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology — an anthology of 37 articles that examine the role of conformity in complex societies, a timely read the insights from which help glean a deeper understanding of everything from the recent Wikileaks scandal to Bieber Fever.

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Rare: An Intimate Portrait of Extinction


Did you know that at least 100 species go extinct each day? From National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore comes Rare — a breathtaking yet heartbreaking visual record of some of the world’s most endangered creatures. From flies to wolves, Sartore’s stunning close-up portraits evoke a bittersweet awareness of the magnificent world we live in and the rapid rate at which we are running it into the ground.

Caribbean flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber)

Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta)

Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas)

Tawny frogmouth

Damaraland mole rats (Cryptomys damarensis)

Hawk-headed parrot (Deroptyus accipitrinus)

West Usambara two-horned chameleon, (Kinyongia multituberculata)

With 80 arresting and intimate animal portraits, the book aims to give a voice to the amazing creatures likely to go extinct without people ever knowing they existed and, in the process, to serve as a call to action for preserving the planet’s most precious living resources.

Rare does for animals what Cedric Pollet’s Bark did for the world’s trees, tickling our deepest dormant awe for nature’s remarkable diversity. The book is part of a 3-year project documenting Earth’s biodiverisity and bringing a richer understanding of the Endangered Species Act, a 1973 policy measure attempting to mitigate the environmental consequence of economic growth and development.

via Dump; images courtesy of National Geographic/p>

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How To Pick The Shortest Line


How queueing theory and early 20th-century Dutch mathematics can help cut your wait time.

Do you ever feel like you have a special talent for picking the slowest-moving line at the store or at airport security despite your most calculated efforts to pick the speediest one? Relax, there’s no mystical curse at work. Let Bill Hammack, a.k.a. Engineer Guy, explain why it only seems like you’re destined for slowness and show you how to navigate the mechanisms of line efficiency like a pro, using queueing theory and the work of early 20th-century Danish mathematician Agner Erlang.

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