Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Harris’

02 NOVEMBER, 2011

Balloons for Bhutan: Jonathan Harris Documents Happiness


A portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom.

Since 1972, Bhutan has been attracting international attention as the only country in the world that quantifies its nation’s well-being not by Gross National Product, the narrow and soulless measure of our economic monoculture, but by Gross National Happiness. In 2007, artist Jonathan Harris ( ) traveled to Bhutan to explore the Gross National Happiness paradigm. Balloons for Bhutan documents his effort to capture “a portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom” in his signature style of multimedia storytelling.

Harris asked 117 people of various ages, occupations, education levels, and social status five questions related to happiness: What makes them happy; what is their happiest memory; what is their favorite joke; what is their happiness level on a scale of 1 to 10; if they could make one wish, what would that be. He then gave each person the number of balloons corresponding to their stated happiness, and wrote each person’s wish on the balloon of their favorite color. On the final night of his journey, he strung up the inflated balloons at Duchala, a sacred mountain pass at 10,000 feet, bobbing amidst Buddhist prayer flags.

Here’s an excerpt from Harris’s 2007 EG / TED talk, where he talks about the project:

Explore the project in its full audiovisual glory for the complete effect. Then, grab some of these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness to better understand this complex, universal aspiration.

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30 JUNE, 2011

7 Essential Books on Data Visualization & Computational Art


What 12 million human emotions have to do with civilian air traffic and the order of the universe.

I’ve spent the past week being consistently blown away at the EyeO Festival of data visualization and computational arts, organized by my friend Jer Thorp, New York Times data artist in residence, and Dave Schroeder of Flashbelt fame. While showcasing their mind-blowing, eye-blasting work, the festival’s all-star speakers have been recommending their favorite books on the subject matter, so I’ve compiled the top recommendations for your illuminating pleasure. Enjoy.


Processing, the open-source programming language and integrated development environment invented by Casey Reas and Ben Fry in 2001, is easily the most fundamental framework underpinning the majority of today’s advanced data visualization projects. Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, which Casey Reas called “the first substantial handbook on art in computer science,” is an elegant introduction to the Processing language, bridging the gap between programming and visual art. It’s an invaluable self-learning tool for the novice coder and a standby reference guide for the Processing practitioner.

Recommended by: Casey Reas


Since 2005, (a longtime Brain Pickings favorite) have been algorithmically scrobbling the social web to capture occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling” harvesting human sentiment around them by recording the full context in which the phrase occurs. The result was a database of millions of human feelings, logged in the We Feel Fine project and growing by about 20,000 per day. Because the blogosphere is lined with metadata, it was possible to extract rich information about the posts and their authors, from age and gender to geolocation and local weather conditions, adding a new layer of meaning to the feelings. The project’s API, with nearly 7 years’ worth of data, is the most comprehensive record of human emotion ever documented.

In 2009, Sep and Jonathan published highlights from the project in We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion — a remarkable visual exploration of the 12 million human emotions collected since the project’s dawn. Infographic magic and data visualization wizardry make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.

Reviewed in full here.

Recommended by: Jer Thorp


In Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life, Cornell mathematician Steven H. Strogatz explores the intersection of math, physics, quantum science and biology to unravel the mystery of how spontaneous order occurs at every level of existence, from the cell nucleus to the cosmos. The same principles that Christiaan Huygens observed in 1665 as two pendulum clocks to swung in unison and pedestrians experienced in near-hoor at the 2000 opening of the Millennium footbridge in London are the same principles that fascinate and drive many of today’s data visualization artists as they seek to discover and make visible the patterns and orders underpinning our world.

Recommended by: Jer Thorp


Information Visualization, Second Edition: Perception for Design explores the art and science of why we see objects the way we do through an exercise in visual literacy that makes the science of visualization accessible and illuminating to a non-specialist reader, without dumbing any of it down. From the cognitive science of perception to a review of empirical research on interface design, the book covers a remarkable spectrum of theory and practice fueling data visualization as a design discipline and a visual language.

Recommended by: Moritz Stefaner


Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), originally featured in his omnibus on biology-inspired art, is a remarkable book of lithographic and autotype prints by German artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel, originally published in sets of ten between 1899 and 1904 and as a complete volume in 1904. It features of 100 prints of various organisms, many first described by Haeckel himself. (You may recall Proteus, the fascinating short documentary about Haeckel’s work and legacy, featured here earlier this year.) The shapes, color theory and aesthetic of Haeckel’s work are the inspiration behind much of today’s generative art.

The copyright on the book has now expired and all the images are in the public domain, available for free on Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended by: Wes Grubbs


Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts examines what makes successful visualization through insights, perspectives and project case studies by 24 experts — artists, designers, design writers, scientists, statisticians, programmers and more. Above all, it explores the intricacies of visual storytelling through projects that tackle everything from civilian air traffic to the social graphs of Amazon book purchases, blending the practical with the poetic.

Contributors include Nick Bilton, Jessica Hagy, Aaron Koblin, Moritz Stefaner, Jer Thorp, Fernanda Viegas, Martin Wattenberg, and Michael Young.

Recommended by: Aaron Koblin (Previously: I II III IV V)


The work of photojournalist Peter Menzel (of Hungry Planet and What I Eat fame) broadens the definition of “data visualization” though the lens of the humanities, offering compelling visual anthropology captures the striking span of humanity’s socioeconomic and cultural spectrum. His Material World: A Global Family Portrait is an engrossing visual portrait of the world’s possessions across 30 countries, captured by 16 of the world’s leading photographers. In each country, Menzel found a statistically average family and photographed them outside their home, with all of their belongings. The result is an incredible cross-cultural quilt of possessions, from the utilitarian to the sentimental, revealing the faceted and varied ways in which we use “stuff” to make sense of the world and our place in it.

China: The Wu Family

The nine members of this extended family live in a 3-bedroom, 600-sq-foot dwelling in rural Yunnan Province. They have no telephone and get news through two radios and the family's most prized possession, a television. In the future, they hope to get one with a 30-inch screen as well as a VCR, a refrigerator, and drugs to combat diseases in the carp they raise in their ponds. Not included in the photo are their 100 mandarin trees, vegetable patch, and three pigs.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS |

United States: The Skeen Family

Rick and Pattie Skeen's 1,600-sq-foot house lies on a cul-de-sac in Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Rick, 36, now splices cables for a phone company. Pattie, 34, teaches at a Christian academy. Photographers hoisted the family up in a cherry picker to fit in all their possessions, but still had to leave out a refrigerator-freezer, camcorder, woodworking tools, computer, glass butterfly collection, trampoline, fishing equipment, and the rifles Rick uses for deer hunting, among other things. Despite their possessions, nothing is as important to the Skeens as their Bible -- an interesting contrast between spiritual and material values.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS |

Japan: The Ukita Family

43-year-old Sayo Ukita had children relatively late in life, like many Japanese women. Her youngest daughter is now in kindergarten, not yet burdened by the pressures of exams and Saturday 'cram school' that face her nine-year-old sister. Sayo is supremely well-organized, which helps her manage the busy schedules of her children and maintain order in their 1,421-sq-foot Tokyo home stuffed with clothes, appliances, and an abundance of toys for both her daughters and dog. Despite having all the conveniences of modern life, the family's most cherished possessions are a ring and heirloom pottery. Their wish for the future: a larger house with more storage space.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS |

Mali: The Natomo Family

It's common for men in this West African country to have two wives, as 39-year-old Soumana Natomo does, which increases their progeny and in turn their chance to be supported in old age. Soumana now has eight children, and his wives, Pama Kondo (28) and Fatouma Niangani Toure (26), will likely have more. How many of these children will survive, though, is uncertain: Mali's infant mortality rate ranks among the ten highest in the world. Possessions not included in this photo: Another mortar and pestle for pounding grain, two wooden mattress platforms, 30 mango trees, and old radio batteries that the children use as toys.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS |

Reviewed in full, with more images, here.

Recommended by: Jake Barton

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15 APRIL, 2011

Jonathan Harris: The Storytelling of Life


We love artist Jonathan Harris, who previously delighted us with the We Feel Fine project, World Building in a Crazy World, I Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt. When he turned 30, he decided to start taking one photo every day and posting it to his site before going to sleep — a seemingly simple, private project that soon turned into a fascinating exploration followed by thousands of people around the world. Our friends from m ss ng p eces — you remember them, right? — are back with another lovely documentary, capturing the project and the vivid, earnest curiosity with which Harris approaches the world.

I wanted to find a way to be more in the moment, to be more in every day; to understand time more and to understand my life more, to have more memories — all of these things. Basically, to live more richly, as a human life, not just as a work life.” ~ Jonathan Harris

No matter what you do in your life, what you create, what career you have, whether you have a family or kids, or make a lot of money… your greatest creation is always going to be your life’s story. Because it’s like this container that holds all of those other things. That was something I was really interested in with this project, thinking about life itself as a creation, as a story that you’re writing.” ~ Jonathan Harris

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30 DECEMBER, 2009

Brain Pickings Redux: Best of 2009


A year’s worth of ideas, inspiration and innovation from culture’s collective brain.

It’s been a colorful and fascinating year here at Brain Pickings. (And if we’ve managed to put some color and fascination into yours, consider supporting us with a small sum of green.) Here’s a look back at some of the things that tickled our — and your — brains the most.

Getting objectified turned out to be a very good thing. The story of stuff burst some serious bubbles in our consumerist fairy tale. Fans saved an iconic photography magazine from a sad demise. Seven of the world’s best 3D animators had fun with one big bunny.

We saw some inspired innovation in orchestras, bike culture, libraries, sustainable agriculture, and bookshelf design. The Smithsonian gave us a century of illustrated letters.

We live-blogged TED and TEDGlobal, with lots of photos, then launched a TED tribute project of our own.

We found some phenomenally creative reinterpretations of vinyl, cardboard, and paper, and the toilet paper roll.

We uncovered the art of the cover and learned some priceless design lessons from the past. We saw three creative meditations on the art of identity. The New York Times fueled our data visualization fetish with the Times Open effort. We saw what the world eats and how it would look if it were a village of 100 people. We went on a hunt for the origins of happiness.

The Little Red Riding Hood met Röyksopp, David Lynch met Moby, and jazz history met 3D shadow art in some of the year’s most brilliant animation.

We found some great, great, great, great, great illustrators and wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful photographers.

We proved you aren’t nearly as unique as you think and found an infinite photograph. Five environmental films challenged our relationship with Earth. We took a ride on a photographic time machine. Chris Jordan exposed the chilling reality of overfishing and pollution in yet another remarkable series of photographic visualizations.

We read some fascinating books about the power of attention, iconic illustrator Charley Harper, the granddaddy of the graphic novel, design as a tool for social change, some wonderfully strange maps, mixtapes from exes, a magical jazz loft, and the art from the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Jack Kerouac’s iconic status was reaffirmed in some brilliant literary visualizations and a cinematic journey starring some of his biggest contemporaries.

Darwin turned 200 and some fine indie musicians got together in his farmhouse to put together a (r)evolutionary record. A vintage praxinoscope from 1877 produced a brilliant lo-fi animation and an interactive music video redefined the relationship between the auditory and the visual.

Revolutionary platforms empowered creators by matching them with grants and offering crowdsourced microfunding for projects. Copyright law took one in the tenders from remix culture. The Internet got mapped.

A grassroots philanthropy project set out to send more girls in India, South East Asia and Nepal to school. A Taiwanese soap commercial proved advertising doesn’t have to be that much different from art. Director duo Terri Timely made some serious waves with Synesthesia. We undertook an original, first-hand investigation of the typography of the San Francisco MoMA. A documentary about street art dissected the cultural anthropology of urban creativity. Designers took on disability and we got up, close and personal with the human face.

We looked at the cross-pollination of disciplines with some fantastic biology-inspired art. Isabella Rosellinni delivered an equally quirky third helping of green porno.

Brain Pickings darling Jonathan Harris co-founded an observatory for the study of contemporary culture, shared some keen modern philosophy about digital culture, and published a visual almanac of human emotion.

Choreography and digital motion intersected in synchronous objects and CG studio Zeitgeist stunned us with some peripetics. Cardon Webb created a new visual language for neighborhood flyers. The BBC had an unusual opener for their poetry season. We interviewed Dutch designer Twan Verdonck. The GRAIL Lab at UWash built Rome in a day by crowdsourcing 3D renderings of some of the world’s oldest cities and a Swedish geek duo served up fresh music from some of the world’s most interesting ones.

MIT students one-upped QR codes. A Canadian documentary refused to water down the water crisis, while Brazilians offered an unorthodox solution to it. The famous Myers-Briggs personality test got visualized as a subway map. We geeked out with some notes and neurons, examining why music resonates with us so powerfully. 51 teams of designers, directors and animators got together to create 17 wonderful short films. Beck took the legendary Velvet Underground & Nico album and reinvented it with some friends.

We discovered fascinating visualizations of poetry, Madrid’s air, foot traffic in a 1950’s house, the hundred monkey effect, and the hypertextual narrative of Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Four Pixar animators released a racy side project. Advertising creatives made lemonade out of the industry’s recession-era layoffs. A new biomimicry portal set out to save the planet by encouraging designers and engineers to emulate nature.

Indie rock got itself a coloring book, dabbled in children’s science education, redefined the recording package as a design vehicle, and made the first-ever album/film hybrid.

We looked at how Helvetica man was born and traced the evolution of symbol signs. Goolery offered a comprehensive database of cool projects using the Google API. We looked at the 6 most compelling efforts in humanoid robotics. A brilliant documentary painted a portrait of our greatest living composer.

Our friends at Green Thing made some sweet glove love, Johnny Carrera resurrected Victorian engravings in a brilliant visual dictionary of curiosities. Minivegas made a visualizer that renders digital sculptures in real-time in response to sound and gestures. A boy harnessed the wind. Winnie the Pooh returned after 81 years. Beau Lotto made us dizzy with some neat optical illusions. Hitotoki unleashed urban storytelling.

The map became art. The UK got itself a museum of everything. We drooled over vintage jazz album covers. An infographic portrait of the East vs. West culture clash became a big hit. Thirty conversations on design gave us some food for creative thought. Public pianos reclaimed urban space.

The Visual Miscellaneum became a bible of information design. A remix of Carl Sagan + Sigur Rós hit the spot for hipster-geeks everywhere. A grassroots movement used music, fashion, photography, design, dance, art and journalism as tools for social justice. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon was the greatest movie never made.

We went on a shopping spree for nothing. Digital platforms revamped the art of learning. We looked at some superbly creative innovations on the alphabet book classic. We counted down the top 10 conferences that spark interdisciplinary creative cross-pollination. The story of cap & trade shed some light on the latest energy hoax. Gender identity and color had a surprising historical relationship.

A brilliant browser plugin promised to nix annoying online ads while generating revenues for social causes, all at no cost to you. The Mobile Mobile reinvented the Christmas tree. A Broken Social Scene musician explored the implicit melodic qualities of human speech while collecting common wisdom on happiness, a New York Magazine writer set out to test all the theories about what makes us happy, and several hundred people put their happiest moments in jars.

We sent you a beautiful wish for 2010 via Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski.

In 2009, we spent more than 240 hours a month bringing you Brain Pickings. That’s over 2,880 hours for the year, over which we could’ve seen 29 feature-length films, listened to 72 music albums or taken 960 bathroom visits. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right.

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