Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

06 DECEMBER, 2011

How Bananas Became a Global Commodity

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What the silent film era has to do with the architecture of atmospheric control.

Over on Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley has a fantastic longform piece tracing the painstaking production that is the life cycle of bananas as they make their way from tropical Ecuador to your fruit bowl. This reminded me of a fascinating vintage documentary from the end of the silent film era I’d come across some time ago. The 11-minute black-and-white film, currently in the public domain courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, was produced in 1935 and zooms in on the banana industry, from virgin jungle being converted into banana plantations to the fifteen-month growth cycle between root planting and banana bunch to the shipment of the fruit into the American markets, and even ends with a stop-motion visual jingle about the health virtues of bananas.

Bananas are more than a delicious fruit — they are one of America’s most important foods…”

Now, contrast that — the manual farming and inspection, the pick-up locomotives, the “specially constructed ships of the Great White Fleet” — with today’s sophisticated banana-ripening facilities and their “evolving architecture of atmospheric control.”.

In other words, in order to be a global commodity rather than a tropical treat, the banana has to be harvested and transported while completely unripe. Bananas are cut while green, hard, and immature, washed in cool water (both to begin removing field heat and to stop them from leaking their natural latex), and then held at 56 degrees — originally in a refrigerated steamship; today, in a refrigerated container — until they reach their country of consumption weeks later.”

And in observing how far we’ve come technologically, it’s bittersweet — like a green banana, perhaps — to observe how much further we’ve gone from the groves.

HT Andrew Sullivan

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30 NOVEMBER, 2011

Oscar Wilde: The Rise & Fall of the 20th Century’s First Pop Celebrity

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‘He had a musician’s sense of a sentence.’

111 years ago today, the world lost the great Oscar Wilde — poet, playwright, action figure. This fascinating 1997 documentary from Omnibus traces Wilde’s life, loves, and legacy, from his intellectual upbringing to his infamous imprisonment at the height of his fame and success for “for gross indecency with other men” — basically, for being gay and out in Victorian England — to his exile and untimely death. The film features cameos from Stephen Fry, who played Wilde in the film of the same title, Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, and prolific British playwright Tom Stoppard, who explore what made Wilde the 20th century’s first true pop celebrity.

He had perfect pitch, perfect touch. He had a musician’s sense of a sentence.”

[Prison] was where Oscar discovered that life does not imitate art, and that the reality of a prison sentence was miles away from the ivory towers of martyrdom he had previously assumed it to be.”

For a proper Oscar Wilde remembrance, you won’t go wrong with The Happy Prince and Other Tales and, of course, The Importance of Being Earnest. (Which, for some almost sacrilegious reason, is going for just $1.50, it seems.)

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24 NOVEMBER, 2011

Steve Jobs and NeXT: Rare PBS Documentary circa 1986

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A startup sentiment sandwich from the master chef, or why “reality distortion” helps sales but hurts design.

In 1985, shortly after being fired from Apple, Steve Jobs founded NeXT, the somewhat short-lived but revolutionary company focused on higher education and business services. It was there that Jobs honed his visionary approach to computing and design, and crystalized his lens of priorities — the very qualities that made him not only a cultural icon but also a personal hero.

This fascinating PBS documentary, titled The Entrepreneurs and filmed in 1986, offers a rare glimpse of Jobs’ original vision with NeXT, from his aspirations for higher education and simulated learning environments to his decision-making process on price point and product features to his approach to company culture and motivational morale.

Whether NeXT can be a viable business is something only time will tell. But Steve Jobs’ passionate commitment to his vision is clear, and his certainty that it can be achieved — and is worth achieving — is a conviction to be observed in all successful entrepreneurs.”

Some of my favorite parts:

  • 1:20 Iconic designer and notorious curmudgeon Paul Rand reveals the NeXT logo. (See also this fantastic old favorite, in which Jobs reminisces about what it was like to work with a man of such genius and such temper.)
  • Rand doesn’t usually work for infant companies, even if they can afford him. But NeXT isn’t an ordinary startup.”

  • 3:50 Jobs talks about how affordable, accessible technology can make a real difference in the learning environment — a vision also articulated by beloved science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in this 1988 Bill Moyers interview
  • 4:35 On planting the seeds of a new corporate culture:
  • More important than building a product, we are in the process of architecting a company that will hopefully be much more incredible, the total will be much more incredible than the sum of its parts, and the cumulative effort of approximately 20,000 decisions that we’re all gonna make over the next two years are gonna define what our company is. And one of the things that made Apple great was that, in the early days, it was built from the heart.”

  • 10:31 Joanna Hoffman, also known as Apple employee #5, confronts Jobs about the double-edged sword of “reality distortion,” on the one hand a powerful motivator and on the other false prophet for design decisions
  • 13:54 A startup sentiment sandwich of sorts — celebrating the initial idea-high of entrepreneurship, getting grounded into and concerned about the realities of day-to-day operations, then bringing back those big-picture entrepreneurial ideals as a guiding light in overcoming the mundane obstacles.
  • I don’t see that startup hustle… If we zoom out of the big picture, it would be a shame to have lost the war because we won a few battles.”

Merely 48 months later, Jobs stood up in front of a riveted audience at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and introduced four fully crystalized, groundbreaking NeXT products, including “some of the neatest apps that have ever been created for any desktop platform,” “the best color that’s ever been,” and “the most important new application area in the 1990s…interpersonal computing.”

For more on the genius of Jobs, don’t miss the excellent I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, which curates 200 of his most timeless and powerful quotes, and of course the celebrated Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs.

HT TUAW

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