Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

12 MAY, 2011

New Dawn, New Day: Introducing the New Brain Pickings


Today is a big day here, for today is the day that Brain Pickings sheds a skin that never quite fit and is reborn into what it always aimed to be, visually and editorially.

I started Brain Pickings in 2005 as a text-only newsletter going out to eight people. At the time, I was in college full-time and working three jobs to pay my way. But I wanted to take it online, so I took a web design night class, sifted through several hundred hours of tutorials, and taught myself just enough design and code to be able to wrangle WordPress, still somewhat of an early-adopter enigma at the time. Over the next six years, Brain Pickings found its audience — folks like you and me with a cross-disciplinary curiosity for what the world has to offer, creatively and intellectually — but remained visually stunted. The irony of the disconnect between a heavy editorial focus on design and a layout that looked like a sixth-grader designed it, with their feet, never ceased haunting me. But I had made the decision very early on not to sell advertising on the site and instead fund it out-of-pocket, relying almost entirely on the generosity of readers, so I never had a budget for a “real” designer.

(If you ever wondered, all those banners on the site were pro-bono for causes, nonprofits and social enterprises I believe it and wanted to support by giving them share of voice, in lieu of being able to give them money — friends and fine folks like Holstee, Creative Commons, Do The Green Thing, Longreads, HappyRambles, TOMS Shoes and Dead SULs. I’m still brainstorming ways to keep supporting these guys, but it can no longer be at the expense of a clean and fluid reader experience.)

Today, I’m nervously excited and incredibly proud to unveil something years in the waiting: An honest, clean design that better reflects the heart and soul of Brain Pickings. Forgive the string of superlatives, but they come from sincerity: I’m unspeakably grateful to the infinitely talented, patient and generous Josh Boston for the beautiful work — please bake him cupcakes and give him some love on Twitter.

Lest we forget, this what Josh had to start with:

(Yes. Exactly.)

And here’s what he turned it into:

As a child of the mid-noughties, Brain Pickings adopted many of the decade’s conventions-turned-cliches. So today, “we” are also dropping the Royal We, which is to writing style what grungy textures and dot-rays are to design style — a worn and unnecessary adornment. Back in the day, I felt like the first-person plural made the tone more inclusive and Brain Pickings sound like a bigger operation than it was. But the truth is that, for the past six years, it’s been almost entirely me, writing into the wee small hours of the morning, with very occasional help from these good people, to whom I’m also very grateful. From now on, however, all articles will be in the much more human first-person singular, authentic to each writer’s byline. So say I.

Lastly, I owe two big THANK YOU’s for the generous in-kind support by MediaTemple, who swooped in to save the day when our… argh, my… this is going to be a harder transition than I thought, heh… old web host booted Brain Pickings with virtually no warning for “having outgrown [their] capacity,” and the lovely MailChimp, who have kindly taken on the Brain Pickings weekly newsletter.

And so it goes — a new dawn, a new day. I hope you enjoy it and here’s to many more years of cross-disciplinary interestingness.

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.

11 MAY, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fictional Interviews with Luminaries


What near-death experiences have to do with Shakespeare, Jesus and Isaac Asimov.

In 1997, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut pitched an idea to New York public radio station WNYC: He would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences courtesy of real-life physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, allowing the author to access heaven, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late. The producers loved the idea and Vonnegut churned out a number of 90-second segments “interviewing” anyone from Jesus to Hitler to Isaac Asimov. The interviews — funny, poignant, illuminating, timeless, profoundly human — are collected in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a fantastic anthology playing on the title of Vonnegut’s 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, some of the best cultural satire of the past century.

During my most recently controlled near-death experience, I got to interview William Shakespeare. We did not hit it off. He said the dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’ He asked if it had a name, and I said ‘Indianapolis.’” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Thanks to the wonderful Letters of Note — which you should be reading, or else you’re seriously missing out — here’s Vonnegut’s original pitch to WNYC:

Image courtesy of WNYC via Letters of Note

The interviews offer a priceless blend of cultural commentary and existential human preoccupations by way of comedy, from politics to the meaning of life, in what’s perhaps best-described as TED meets SNL.

I asked this heroic pet lover how it felt to have died for a schnauzer named Teddy. Salvador Biagiani was philosophical. He said it sure beat dying for absolutely nothing in the Viet Nam War.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Relentlessly entertaining and (un)surprisingly insightful, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is absolutely fantastic and a rare fiction treat even for those of us with a strong general proclivity for nonfiction.

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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.

11 MAY, 2011

DrawHappy: Ongoing Global Art Project on Happiness


What pie, cats and giant cheese have to do with life’s most elusive aspiration.

Happiness is a frequent subject here, from culling the most essential books on the art and science of happy to exploring various artists’ attempts to capture what lies at the heart of happiness. It’s safe to say the pursuit of happiness isn’t merely a constitutional right, but a human preoccupation as old as the world’s collective memory, yet we still don’t have even a remotely precise understanding of what truly makes us happy. That’s exactly what SVA student Catherine Young explores with DrawHappy — an ongoing global art project inviting people to draw what makes them happy.

The project began in Iceland, consistently listed as one of the happiest places in the world, where Catherine began asking people, both locals and tourists, what made them happy.

I realized that one of the most universal and clearest ways to record their responses was to ask them to draw what made them happy. Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures and nations. I reasoned that if people knew that they were happy, they should be able to identify the source and moreover, visually embody this joy.” ~ Catherine Young

With its incredible cast of characters, from a theology-student-slash–dancer to a conservation-engineer-turned-hostel-housekeeper to a security-guard-slash-2D-animator, and its wide spectrum of happiness-markers ranging from the simple and poetic (“friends, family, love, cats, traveling, sunshine”) to the somewhat worrisome (“control, attention”), the project is an absolute delight of voyeurism and shared humanity.

House on a Hill

Okami Landa, 28 years old, New York, USA and Colombia; security guard, 2D animator, editor

Repeat, repeat, repeat

'I am happy when I feel the routine of everyday stuff. Repeat, repeat, and repeat.'

Sebastian Vidal, 32 years old; interior designer from Argentina but living in Barcelona


Britt, 36 years old, brand strategist; Atlanta, Georgia, now in New York

Me on a sailing cheese

'That's me on a piece of cheese, so I’ll never be hungry.'

Swantje, 26 years old, film student and receptionist; born in Germany, living in Iceland

Long leisurely dinner with family

'Having a long leisurely dinner with my close family in my lovely garden.'

Sif ,45 years old, director; Reykjavik, Iceland


'Cats make me happy. I love them. And having enough money makes me also happy.'

Ingibjörg Birna Steingrimsdottir, 52 years old, works in a museum; Reykjavik, Iceland

Stars, sky, books, dancing, dreaming, family

'The stars and the sky make me happy. Reading books makes me happy. Dancing and dreaming make me happy. My family makes me happy.'

Margrét Lilja Vilmundardóttir, 25 years old, theology student and dancer; Iceland

Colors, diversity, good energies

Zsofia, 26 years old; born in Hungary, living in Iceland studied nature conservation engineering, photography and furniture making; hostel housekeeper

After the 106th submission, Catherine decided to visualize the learning from the project thus far:

We found this Maslowian extrapolation most fascinating:

Submit your own drawing and join this wonderful global exercise in deconstructing life’s most elusive aspiration.

via Swiss Miss

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.