Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

15 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Edward Gorey’s Never-Before-Seen Letters and Illustrated Envelopes

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What a housefly has to do with Tim Burton and everything that makes snail mail great.

It’s no secret I’m an enormous fan of Edward Gorey’s, mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Between September 1968 and October 1969, Gorey set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer and, over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

Today, Neumeyer is opening the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

From the intellectual banter to the magnificent illustrations, Floating Worlds, which comes from the lovely Pomegranate, is as much a powerful personal memoir of an unusual friendship as it is a priceless cultural treasure containing the spirit and legacy of one of the twentieth-century’s most unique, influential and prolific creators.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

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15 SEPTEMBER, 2011

George Price and the Quest for the Origins of Altruism

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From Darwin to Skinner, or what vampire bats have to do with amoebas and random acts of kindness.

Where does true altruism come from? Does it really exist? These are the questions that occupied the brilliant and troubled mind of population geneticist and author George Price, who developed what’s still regarded as the most accurate mathematical, biological and evolutionary model for altruism before taking his own life at the age of 52. In The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, Oren Harman tells the fascinating story of Price’s life and his tireless quest, intersecting it with the seminal work of iconic psychiatrist B. F. Skinner, renowned Darwinist Bill Hamilton, and father of population genetics J. B. S. Haldene.

[I]f the search for the natural origins of goodness has woven a historical tapestry of unusual complexity and color, of strikingly original science and dramatic personalities and events, one important thread has so far been missing. It is the thread of the unique life and tragic death of the forgotten American genius George Price, atheist-chemist and drifter turned religious evolutionary — mathematician and derelict, the man who rests in an unmarked grave in Saint Pancras Cemetery to this very day.”

In his quest to understand altruism, Price inevitably dissected such complex and timeless concepts as self-sacrifice and kindness, and eventually became so vexed by the selfish reasoning for kindness embedded in his own mathematical theory of altruism that he set out to prove the theory wrong by committing a seemingly endless number of random acts of kindness to complete strangers. He spent the latter part of his life helping alcoholics and the homeless, often inviting them to live in his home and, though he had most of his belongings stolen, he went undeterred until he was forced to move out of his house due to a construction issue. Unable to help the homeless any longer, he went into a deep depression. On January 6, 1975, Price committed suicide using a pair of nail scissors to cut his own carotid artery.

But Harman’s story is less about the tragedy of Price’s demise than it is about the scientific rigor of his work and the complex, profound ideas at the heart of his curiosity.

Why do amoebas build stalks from their own bodies, sacrificing themselves in the process, so that some may climb up and be carried away from dearth to plenty on the legs of an innocent insect or the wings of a felicitous wind? Why do vampire bats share blood, mouth to mouth, at the end of a night of prey with members of the colony who were less successful in the hunt? Why do sentry gazelles jump up and down when a lion is spotted, putting themselves precariously between the hunt and the hungry hunter? And what do all of these have to do with morality in humans: Is there, in fact, a natural origin to our own acts of kindness?”

For a taste of this extraordinary story, see Harman’s recent RSA talk:

Biology is not destiny — it’s capacity. Clearly, the evolutionary process has given us the capacity for empathy and for altruism, and it’s also given us the capacity for violence and for xenophobia and for aggression. But the question of whether and under what circumstances we exercise this kindness is no longer a biological question… This is fundamentally a human social and political, in the broad sense, problem.”

A fascinating blend of tragedy and optimism, The Price of Altruism is the kind of perspective-shifter that stays with you for a while — perhaps for the entire duration of your minuscule stretch in the journey of evolution.

Image via Flickr Commons

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14 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Cyclepedia: An Homage to the Beauty of the Bicycle

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A brief visual history of innovation in bicycle design.

It’s no secret I’m a longtime lover of the two-wheel life. Now, a new book brings two of my great passions — bikes and design — together with such poise and passion that it’s hard not to swoon. Cyclepedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design is part heartfelt homage to the beauty of the bicycle, part museum of notable bike innovations, channeled by Vienna-based designer, bike aficionado and collector Michael Embacher through 100 remarkable bicycles that range from peculiar niche velocipedes to cutting-edge racing models to high-end design masterpieces.

Delicious technical details and historical bits enrich each images, and a foreword by renowned designer and avid cyclist Paul Smith bridges the geekery of veloculture with the bike’s place in pop culture.

Bianchi C-4 Project model

The C-4 frames of this sleek, futuristic bike made their debut in cycling competitions in 1987.

Image courtesy of Michael Embacher via the BBC

Inconnu (Unknown)

Nicknamed the Inconnu (Unknown) and produced by a designer who remains anonymous, this folding bike takes around one hour to fold and, once folded, the trailer it forms needs to be tolled since it's flatter and broader than the bike itself.

Image courtesy of Michael Embacher via the BBC

Vialle Velastic

Dating back to 1925, the Vialle Velastic aimed to make cycling as comfortable as possible and was advertised with a promise to make cycling feel like sitting in an armchair.

Image courtesy of Michael Embacher via the BBC

Bike Friday

Designed for the world tourist, this bike comes in a case for transporting it on aeroplanes that doubles as a trailer while cycling. The designers, Alan and Hanz Scholz, were inspired by the idea of people cycling away from the airport after landing.

Image courtesy of Michael Embacher via the BBC

Bob Jackson Tricycle

This unusual tricycle was made in the UK in 1995, customized and hand-crafted to the rider's requirements.

Image courtesy of Michael Embacher via the BBC

Solling Pedersen

More than 100 years old yet still in production today, this unorthodox design comes from Danish blacksmith Mikael Pedersen, who set out to create a frame that could fit a rider of any height. As the rider added his or her weight, the bike gained stability thanks to a flexible saddle suspended on a cord.

Image courtesy of Michael Embacher via the BBC

Tur Meccanica Bi Bici

A curious compact Italian tandem from 1980.

Image courtesy of Michael Embacher via the BBC

Equal parts illuminating and aesthetically transfixing, Cyclepedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design is bound to tickle your curiosity, quench your design eye, and make your hands itch for the handlebars.

HT @kboelte / Sierra Club; images via BBC

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