Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘activism’

17 JUNE, 2009

Clay Shirky on Social Media, News and the Democratic Process

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The news on news, or what Twitter has to do with democracy.

Today’s continuation of video week is a particularly timely piece of sociocultural commentary — Clay Shirky’s TED@State talk about how cell phones, Twitter and Facebook are changing the world. Timely not only because those of us in the modern democratic world are completely immersed in these technologies, but mostly because we’re beginning to see them as tools of citizen activism and freedom of speech in areas where the democratic process falls short — most recently, the case of the social-media-powered Iranian national strike.

Media, the media landscape that we knew, as familiar as it was, as easy conceptually as it was to deal with the idea that professionals broadcast messages to amateurs, is increasingly slipping away. In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap, in a world of media where the former audience are now increasingly full participants, in that world, media is less and less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. It is more and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups.” ~ Clay Shirky

Although the idea isn’t new to those of us who have been paying attention in the past couple of years, Shirky contextualizes it in a way that points to the ever more rapidly impeding end of top-down news, which is in turn effecting the next big leap in the evolution of politics.

Watch, appreciate the era we live in, and go tweet about it.

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24 APRIL, 2009

Truth, Beauty, Math and Crocheting

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Why your grandmother’s favorite pastime proves mathematicians are a bunch of clueless hacks.

Science writer Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine are on a crusade to correct the longest-running errors of science through art. Their weapon? Crocheting.

They are the founders of the Institute For Figuring — an exploration of the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics. It’s part mathematics, part feminine handicraft, part marine biology and part environmental activism. And it also happens to be a defining pillar of our mathematical understanding of nature.

So why crocheting?

For a very scientific reason, actually: The peculiar structure typical of corals and sponges is a special form of geometry known as hyperbolic geometry, which just so happens to be the bane of mathematicians’ existence — it’s near-impossible to model on a computer, and the most accurate way mathematicians have of modeling it is through crocheting.

And even that took scientists nearly 2 centuries to figure out — until the discovery of hyperbolic geometry in the 19th century, there were only two kids of space conceivable:  Euclidean, or flat space, and spherical. But it wasn’t until 1997 that the crochet modeling method was discovered by  a mathematician at Cornell, disproving the most fundamental axiom of mathematics — Euclid’s Parallel Postulate.

So here in wool, through domestic feminine art, is the proof that the most famous postulate of mathematics is wrong.

In fact, species like sea slugs have existed for millions of years, happily violating the very principle Euclid claimed was impossible to violate — something mathematicians had previously chosen to conveniently overlook. Crocheting these structures offered not only a new model of geometric representation, but also a whole new model of thinking: This sort of non-euclidean geometry is actually the very foundation of the theory of relativity, thus the closest thing we have to an understanding of the shape of the universe.

The project began in 2005, the first year that global warming really became an issue of global concern for both the science community and the enlightened general public. Coral reefs, which are incredibly delicate organisms, are among the species most severely affected by global warming — any rise in sea temperatures causes vast bleaching events, which inevitably kill entire coral colonies.

But perhaps most fascinatingly, the project serves as a brilliant allegory for the evolution of life on earth. Originally a centralized effort by the Wertheim sisters, the IFF began to attract outside contributions from people all over the world. Today, it has evolved into a global collaboration of science-minded craft-masters, who have contributed tens of thousands of hours worth of human labor totaling thousands of coral models — a truly grassroots exploration of our collective understanding of marine biology and mathematics.

Algebraic representations, equations, codes… We live in a society that’s obsessed with presenting information in this way, teaching information in this way. But through this form of modeling, people can be engaged with the most abstract, high-power, theoretical ideas.

Werheim is particularly passionate about the play-based explorations of concepts, stressing the importance of creating “play tanks” in a society dominated by think tanks — great minds who think about the world and write grand symbolic treaties about it, but don’t engage with great ideas on the highest abstract level.

Watch Wertheim’s fantastic TED talk, where she reveals a glorious intersection of beauty and math.

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22 APRIL, 2009

Earth Day The Reel Way

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Just how stupid we really are, or what James Earl Jones and a giant humpback whale have in common.

It’s Earth Day, and instead of engaging in questionable eco initiatives, like watching Philly’s fountains turn green, why not call a few friends over for some essential viewing that will disturb, move, outrage and inspire you in that bitter-sweet way that An Inconvenient Truth did in 2006.

Here’s some help, with our selection of 5 new must-see films that explore our environmental sensibility.

THE COVE

2009 Sundance Audience Award Winner The Cove is a mixture of action, adventure, mystery and, as the tagline goes, “oh, and it’s a documentary”. The movie tells the story of a group of filmmakers, activists and free-divers, led by director Louie Psihoyos, who penetrate a hidden cove in Japan uncovering a terrible secret.

No spoilers here  – you’ll only know the secret after seeing the movie, but let’s just say that given the filmmakers are wanted by the Japanese authorities,  it’s going to be be good.

THE AGE OF STUPID

Director Franny Armstrong takes the scare approach to instill in us some eco sensibility. Half-fiction, half-documentary, The Age of Stupid shows Oscar-nominated Pete Postlethwaite living alone on a devastated Earth in 2055. In this barren habitat, the only type of entertainment available to the poor guy is “old” documentary footage of us trashing the planet in the present day.

Troubled by questions like why we didn’t stop climate change when we had the chance, Pete suggests that the answer might simply be that we were really, really stupid. And he may have a point.

FUEL

Fuel is last year’s Sundance Best Documentary Award Winner, and covers a topic painfully familiar by now — America’s addiction to oil.

Director Josh Tickell drills the history behind the rising domination of the petrochemical industry — which may seem like a regurgitated discussion to some, but we believe these things simply need to be said until there is no longer a need for them to be.

Plus, there’s a cameo by one of our heroes — Sir Richard Branson — as well as other fascinating instigators like Josh Tickell himself and Robert Kennedy Jr.

EARTH

Sure, it may be unoriginally titled. But earth, out in the U.S. today, is a piece of remarkable visual storytelling about three animal families and their amazing journeys across the planet we all call home.

The film comes from directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the acclaimed creative team behind the Emmy-Award-winning Planet Earth. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s narrated by the one and only James Earl Jones.

It’s a story told through incredible action taking place on unimaginable scale at impossible locations. Full of mystery and intimacy and magic as we glimpse inside the worlds of our planet’s most elusive creatures, the film is an epic call for appreciation of the fragile world we inhabit, a moving plea for a new self-conception as actors in an intricate and brilliantly orchestrated system beyond our own existence.

You can catch the filmmakers hosting a special episode over at Current for a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at their phenomenal adventure and creative process.

FOOD, INC.

By now, you know we’re big proponents of sustainable agriculture and permaculture. So it comes as no surprise that we find Robert Kenner‘s FOOD, INC. to be a compelling must-see. A merciless exposé on America’s food industry, it reveals all the hidden workings and often shocking truths of the government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA, lurking behind the consumer’s scope of vision.

The film features social entrepreneurs and sustainability visionaries like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg and Polyface FarmsJoel Salatin, who together paint a grim picture of what we eat and how it ended up on our plates, brimming with an urgency to change what we eat in order to change where we end up.

For 13 more Earth-conscious must-sees, we highly recommend the selections in Yale’s Environmental Film Festival, as well as the two incredible forthcoming films presented at this year’s TED Conference and TEDPrize winner Sylvia Earle’s compelling talk on why blue is the real green.