Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

23 JANUARY, 2014

The Life-Cycle of a Single Water Drop, in a Pop-Up Book Animated in Stop-Motion


Nature’s rhythms in masterful paper engineering.

Given my soft spot for pop-up books, I was instantly taken with this collaboration between paper engineer extraordinaire Helen Friel (who brought us those amazing 3D paper sculptures of Euclid’s elements), photographer Chris Turner, and animator Jess Deacon, visualizing the life-cycle of a single drop of water as a pop-up book animated in stop-motion, nearly a year in the making:

To fully appreciate the incredible craftsmanship that went into the project, here is a timelapse of the making-of:

Complement with a different kind of 3D papercraft labor-of-love, celebrating favorite books.

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22 JANUARY, 2014

Lord Byron’s Epic Poem “Don Juan,” Annotated by Isaac Asimov and Illustrated by Milton Glaser


Three of history’s greatest geniuses converge around some of the finest satire ever written.

Despite having fathered Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, Lord Byron (January 22, 1788–April 19, 1824) is best remembered for his poetry, countless collections of which have been published in the centuries since he put ink to paper. But arguably the best such volume is a rare vintage gem published by Doubleday — which also commissioned Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne and Edward Gorey’s paperback covers for literary classics — in 1972. The lavish thousand-page tome Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan (public library) presents Byron’s Don Juan — one of the great epic poems in the English language, launching an audacious and timeless attack on greed, complacency, and hypocrisy — with annotations by beloved writer Isaac Asimov, a man of strong opinions and a large heart, and breathlessly gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations by none other than Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and celebrated as the greatest graphic designer of our time.

What makes the pairing especially poetic is that, besides their match of cultural stature, Asimov and Glaser have in common a certain sensibility, a shared faith in the human spirit — Asimov with his religion of humanism and Glaser with his belief in the kindness of the universe.

To be sure, Asimov takes no prisoners with his annotations — or, rather, plays along with Byron — beginning with the opening verse, which reads:


I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were passed away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!

Beneath it, Asimov winks:

This isolated stanza has nothing to do with the poem, but it epitomizes Byron’s utter lack of reverence for anything—even himself—and therefore sets the tone of what follows, even if it is divorced from the content.

After Byron’s third stanza, which begins with “You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know” and ends “… because you soar too high, Bob, / And fall, for lack of moisture quite a dry, Bob!,” Asimov, who wears the many hats of historian, etymologist, lexicographer, literary critic, and cultural commentator, adds an entertaining and educational clarifier:

“A dry Bob” seems to have been then-current slang for intercourse without ejaculation (“lack of moisture”). The use of the phrase shocked and (of course) titillated the public and was a particularly effective way of indicating that Southey went through the motions of writing poetry without producing anything poetic.

Though most of Asimov’s annotations offer biographical and historical context, they are by no means dry or bland. He imbues his commentary with his characteristic snark: After another Byron verse that reads “And recollect a poet nothing loses / in giving to his brethren their full meed / of merits, and complaint of present days / Is not the certain path to future praise,” Asimov snidely remarks:

It is obvious that Byron emphatically does not follow his own advice, but then few people do.

Indeed, Asimov seems entranced by Byron’s contradictions. In another note, he writes:

There was a great deal of cousin-marriage in Byron’s family. But that was not all. Perhaps the most scandalous item in the Byronic array of scandal was the fact that Byron seems to have made his half-sister, Augusta, his mistress, and to have had a daughter by her. He was fascinated by his own action in this respect and dealt with incest over and over in his writing.

Asimov’s own witty and spirited irreverence comes through once again in a comment on Byron’s usage of “wh—” and “G—d” in the fourth canto, wherein Asimov adds to literary history’s finest meditations on censorship:

Like “damn,” “whore” could not be spelled out, though what sense of purity is served by a missing “o” is known only to the Devil and to censors.


“God,” like “whore,” sometimes requires a missing “o” to be acceptable to the censor. Surely only a censor’s mind could find such neatly equal embarrassment in these two words.

Asimov weaves his own reservations about religion into the annotations, remarking in one about Byron’s line “‘But heaven,’ as Cassio says, ‘is above all—’” in canto nine:

The phrase “heaven is above all” is a kind of last resort of puzzled mankind. If problems are insoluble, leave them then to God, to whom nothing (by definition) is insoluble. THus, in Shakespeare’s Othello, when Cassio is tempted into drinking by the villainous Iago, the former quickly finds himself befuddled by alcohol and must find refuge in “Well; God’s above all…”

Above all, however, Asimov seems to peer straight into Byron’s soul, discerning his motives and intentions with equal parts clarity and compassion. In the twelfth canto, where Byron writes “I thought, at setting off, about two dozen / Cantos would do; but at Apollo’s pleading, / If that my Pegasus should not be founder’d, / I think to canter gently through a hundred,” Asimov remarks:

Byron may well have intended to keep writing Don Juan all his life as a perfect vehicle for satirizing the age. But, alas, he was approaching the end.

In his final footnote, Asimov revisits the subject of Don Juan’s intended fate:

Byron always maintained he had no plan for Don Juan, but simply improvised as he went along, taking all the world as his target. And, indeed, as we go from canto to canto, the plot grows thinner, the digressions longer, the satire deeper, so that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that no matter how long he had lived and how long written, Byron would never have finished Don Juan nor progressed enormously with the plot, even though the number of cantos had reached the century mark. At one time he said he would send Juan to every nation in turn, satirizing each in its own fashion, and have him end an extreme radical like Cloots in the Reign of Terror, or else to end by sending him either to Hell or to an unhappy marriage, whichever was worse.

And yet — I wonder if Byron might not have relented. Might he not have had Don Juan visit Hell, but have had him saved from damnation by the intercession of the shade of Haidée, surely to be found in Heaven? Might he not, then, in the end, have married Leila, the little girl he had saved at Izmail, and settled down to the blameless life of husband, father, and country squire?

Though Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan is, sadly, long out of print, I was fortunate enough to find a surviving copy of this out-of-print treasure at Heather O’Donnell’s wonderful Honey & Wax, which is a gift to bibliophiles everywhere and a heartening game-changer for the world of rare books. Copies can also be found elsewhere online as well as at some better-stocked public libraries, and are well worth the splurge or the trip.

Complement this treat with other rare artistic editions of literary classics, including Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, William Blake’s paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975.

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09 JANUARY, 2014

Reinventing the Wheel: A Design History of the Circle as a Visual Metaphor for Information


How nature’s perfect shape came to contain the imperfections of the human condition.

“Everything rolls, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being,” Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Indeed, it seems that for as far back as we’re able to peer into human history, the wheel has been one of our most central visual metaphors for being. From our early maps of the cosmos to our depictions of time, the circular form appears again and again in the diagrams that changed our world. But what, exactly, makes this simple round shape so powerful and so timelessly alluring?

In Reinventing the Wheel (public library), writer, design critic, and Design Observer co-founder Jessica Helfand considers the rich history of rotational diagrams — the wheel as a visual metaphor and an interactive tool for representing and understanding information, predating print by thousands of years.

Shohen Boys' Club Geography Wheel (1940s)

Story of Our Presidents: Inside (1932)

Great Outdoor Signal & Code Dial (1940s)

Reflecting on the remarkable diversity of rotational diagrams and organizing information — spiral, circular, centripetal — and the wide range of subjects these charts have been applied to — “from bird watching to bridge building to birth control” — Helfand traces the history of this visual trope:

The origin of the rotational chart itself lay in the incunabula, specifically in the early astronomical texts in which paper wheels — or volvelles — were designed as instructional tools. Their function (the idea that the movement of the heavenly bodies required a student to physically turn a wheel to comprehend their meaning) reinforced my earlier suspicion that modern wheel charts had a rich aesthetic, pedagogical, and indeed, interactive legacy. I soon came to see the degree to which contemporary investigations of rotational form not only relate to this history but have grown over time to embrace disciplines including, but not limited to, architecture, music, film, sculpture, and time-based media.

Rossig Educational Chart Wheel: Pennsylvania (1931)

Spelling Educator (1940s)

A full understanding of the wheel necessarily has to begin at the beginning: its shape, the humble yet perfect circle. Helfand offers a brief and beautiful history of humanity’s favorite shape:

The circle has no beginning and no ending. It is unbiased, solid and unwavering in its geometric simplicity, denoting unity and eternity, totality and infinity. It represents the image of the cosmos, the cycles of the seasons, the life of man and the orbits of planets around the sun. In astronomy it indicates a full moon; in meteorology, a clear sky; in alchemy it is the symbol for chemical change; in cartography it represents a village, town, or community. Over time and across multiple cultures, the circle has come to represent an ideal of unsurpassable perfection: it eludes mathematical exactness, thereby reminding us that nothing is exact, even in mathematics. In this manner, it is the essence of all that is natural, primordial, and inescapably human.

Canadian Wheel of Knowledge (1932)

Nick Manoloff's Modern Accompaniment Guide (1935)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the rich symbolism of the circle permeates countless chapters of cultural history — ancient Babylon, where legend has it both the 360-degree circle and the 60-minute hour originated; Buddhist mandalas, a sort of pictorial aid for meditation; the Christian scriptures, in which St. Augustine describes the essence of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and it circumference nowhere; and, among countless others, the circular geometry of Byzantine rotundas, paying homage to the heavens. Helfand treks further:

The circle is present in hieroglyphs and ideograms dating as far back as 3000 BC. Its shape has formed the basis for numerous astronomical instruments, including the armillary sphere (used in the seventeenth century to teach the concepts of coordinate systems of spherical astronomy) and the astrolabe (an ancient astronomical “computer” for solving problems relating to time and the position of the sun and stars in the sky); the orrery (an eighteen-century mechanical model of the solar system in which the planets rotate about the sun at correct scale speeds); and the observatory (circular, dome-like structures typically positioned at high altitudes for maximum star and sky visibility.) In the South of England, the circle has informed the design not only of the rock arrangements at Stonehenge, but also of the enigmatic circular corn crops which have mysteriously appeared in the nearby region of Wiltshire each summer. . . .

Phonetic Word Wheel (1948)

Circular forms also populated some of the earliest modern computing devices, from the circular tables of Charles Babbage’s seminal steam-powered Analytical Engine of 1833, celebrated as the first computer, to the various wheels and cogs in Vannevar Bush’s “memex.” This rich history of the circle, Helfand argues, exposes its astoundingly essence:

From a formal perspective, it is a geometric vessel at once adaptable, flexible, and pure, simple and streamlined, culturally and categorically neutral. From a symbolic perspective, it is a mutable icon whose symbolic role can be vividly traced through numerous disciplines, including cosmology and cryptography; astronomy and astrology; mathematics, meteorology and medicine. However, from a mechanical perspective, the circle’s capacity to be dialed, rotated, counter-rotated, notched, spun, stacked, sliced, sub-divided, and die-cut reveals a simple yet remarkably sophisticated engineering principle: here, the circle is miraculously transformed from an ordinary piece of static geometry into a dynamic and quite extraordinary interactive tool, one that is able to rationalize large amounts of complex information with remarkable practicality, precision, and purpose.

Puzzle Pets Letter Wheel (1973)

In the remainder of Reinventing the Wheel, Helfand goes on to explore the history and applications of the circle across many of these disciplines, illustrating each with bountiful visual examples ranging from an antique tax calculator to a Fortunescope to a Soviet weapons whiz wheel. Complement it with Geometry of Circles, the wonderful Philip Glass Sesame Street special from the late 1970s.

Thanks, Steve

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