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13 JULY, 2011

Highlights from TED Global 2011, The Stuff of Life: Day Two

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How to get eaten by mushrooms, why we’re all African, and what language has to do with genetics.

It is Day Two in our ongoing coverage of TED Global 2011, titled The Stuff of Life. (Previously: highlights from Day One; two sets of must-read books by this year’s speakers; remarkable work TED Fellow Nathalie Miebach.) Gathered here are the most noteworthy highlights of Day Two, in photos and soundbites.

SESSION 4: FUTURE BILLIONS

Historian Niall Ferguson, author of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and presenter of the excellent six-part BBC series of the same name, which is now available online in its entirety, opened with some striking insights on wealth and the global economy. Most of the world’s wealth was made after the year 1800 and is currently owned by people we might call “Westerners” — economic historians call this The Great Divergence, and it reached its zenith in the 1970s. But, Ferguson argued, it’s not geography or national character: it’s ideas and institutions.

There are six killer apps that set the West apart from the rest: competition, the scientific revolution, property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society, and work ethic. These killer apps can be ‘downloaded” — they’re open-source. Any society can adopt these institutions.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Historian Niall Ferguson

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The biggest story of our lifetime is the end of Western predominance.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Political economist Yasheng Huang

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Political economist Yasheng Huang explored the parallel economic growth of China and India, examining why China has grown twice as fast as India in the past 30 years. He pointed out the difference between the statics of a political system and the dynamics of a political system — statically, China is strictly authoritarian, but dynamically, it has shifted from more authoritarian to more democratic. Women, Huang argued, play a significant role in strong societies, with 60-80% of China’s workforce being female.

In a surprise visit, economist Tim Harford — whom everyone should follow on Twitter and who authored the excellent new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure — delivered one of the most striking and captivating talks of the day. (Bonus points for calling Hans Rosling “the Mick Jagger of TED,” which couldn’t be more accurate.)

Undercover economist Tim Harford

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Harford explored the mind-boggling scale of consumer choices we face daily and juxtaposed it with the conditions under which our brains evolved.

If you wanted to count every product and service available in New York, all 10 billion of them, it would take you 317 years. The society in which our brains evolved had about 300 products and services.” ~ Tim Harford

Perhaps most importantly and urgently, Harford argued for repeated trial-and-error as the only way to eradicate our culture’s God complex, insisting — much like Isaac Asimov did some three decades ago — that schools need to start teaching children that there are some problems with no correct answer, encouraging trial-and-error as the vehicle of learning.

Comedian Robin Ince

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The universe is pointless. Brilliant, that means you can come up with your own purpose!” ~ Robin Ince

Street artist JR stopped by for a quick update on his wonderful Inside Out Project, the product of the $100,000 TEDPrize he won last fall.

Street artist JR

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Anti-hunger activist and UN World Food Programme director Josette Sheeran opened with a striking statistic: This morning, 1 out of 7 people on earth didn’t know how to find breakfast. Most of us, she pointed out, don’t have to go too far back in our own lineage to find an experience of hunger, usually a mere two or three generations away.

Anti-hunger leader Josette Sheeran

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Every 10 seconds we lose a child to hunger.” ~ Josette Sheeran

Sheeran focused on the central disconnect of these devastating statistics: We know how to fix this. A child can be saved every 22 seconds if there was breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life. In countries where girls don’t go to schools and meals are offered in schools, there’s a 50/50 enrollment rate for girls and boys, a transformation in attendance that shows food not only helps keep a girl in school, but also enables her to eventually give birth to a healthier child because malnutrition is set generation to generation.

We shouldn’t look at the hungry as victims, but as the solution — as the value chain to fight hunger.” ~ Josette Sheeran

SESSION 5: EMERGING ORDER

Session 5, Emerging Order, was curated by The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley and opened with geneticist Svante Pääbo, who explored our ancestral origins.

Geneticist Svante Pääbo

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

From a genomic perspective, we are all African.” ~ Svante Pääbo

As former Brain Pickings contributor Brian W. Jones keenly pointed out, Pääbo echoes this fantastic print by Milton Glaser produced for the SVA and benefitting the One Campaign for improving conditions in Africa and eradicating poverty.

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel spoke about social learning as a springboard to cumulative cultural evolution, calling it “visual theft” that enables us to learn from the mistakes of others by observing their behavior and stealing their ideas for problem-solving. Language, Pagel argued, evolved to solve the crisis of visual theft as a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of cooperation. Since the love of language is a standby here, his point that language is the most potent and valuable trait that ever evolved resonates deeply.

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Language is the voice of our genes.” ~ Mark Pagel

Sand artist Joe Castillo

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Sand artist Joe Castillo, despite the tragically non-ironic beret, delivered an absolutely mesmerizing live performance of an evolving sand-painted narrative, shape-shifting into faces from different ethnicities and culminating in a global vision for world peace. Here’s some of his prior work, to scratch the itch until his TED talk goes live:

SESSION 6: THE DARK SIDE

Cyberworld investigator Misha Glenny

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

There are two types of companies in the world — those that know they’ve been hacked, and those that don’t.” ~ Misha Glenny

Underworld investigator Misha Glenny delivered a message of urgency: We are at the beginning of a mighty struggle for control of the Internet. He suggested that many hackers either exhibit characteristics consistent with Asperger’s syndrome or developed their hacking skills during their teenage years, before their moral compass had fully developed, but concluded with the slightly ambivalent message — perhaps honed for the highly pro-hacker TED crowd — that we need to embrace hacker culture rather than condemn it.

The Internet embodies a complex dilemma that pits the demands of security with the desire for freedom.” ~ Misha Glenny

Glenny’s forthcoming book, DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You, is already on pre-order and a clear must-read addition to these 7 essential books on the future of the Internet.

Cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen produced a brief history of computer viruses — with many of the early ones bearing a striking visual similarity to some of today’s generative art — and exposed some today’s stealthiest virus techniques, such as “keyloaders” that silently sit on your computer, recording everything you type, including credit card information and personal data.

I see beauty in the future of the Internet, but I’m worried that we might not see that because of online crime. I’ve spent my life defending the net and I believe that if we don’t fight online crime, we run the risk of losing it all. We have to do this globally, and we have to do it now.” ~ Mikko Hypponen

In what was part comic relief, part powerful illustration of his central point, Hypponen whipped out an old-timey overhead projector for a part of his presentation, to better illustrate our options for when we do lose the things we take for granted. He concluded by proposing and “Internetpol” — Interpol for the Internet, a bastion of cyber security and investigator of cyber crime.

Lie detector Pamela Meyer

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Lie detector Pamela Meyer shared some insights from her book, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, including hands-on tips for telling a fake smile from a real one, the body language of a lie from the body language of truthfulness, and more.

Lying is our attempt to bridge the gap between how we wish we could be and what we’re really like.” ~ Pamela Meyer

SESSION 7: BODIES

Movement expert Daniel Wolpert argued that the only reason we have a brain is to produce adaptable and complex movement, since movement — from the contractions that underpin our speech and facial mimicry to the actions that allow us to exert force — is the only way to affect the world around us.

Movement expert Daniel Wolpert

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of the fascinating The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, revealed some fascinating theories and statistics behind why and how we kiss. (Did you know, for instance, that two thirds of people tilt their head to the right when they kiss, and it has no correlation with righthandedness?)

Biologist and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We’re interpreting the world through our mouths more than we realize. Our lips are packed with nerves and signals.” ~ Sheril Kirshenbaum

TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee delivered what was positively one of the wildest yet most thought-provoking talks to date. With her Infinity Burial Project, she is advocating for a movement she calls “decompiculture” — environmentally friendly, gentle ways of disposing of our dead bodies, an antidote to the chemical-laden, highly toxic burial and cremation processes of how we handle the dead today. Lee is training a unique strain of mushroom to decompose and remediate toxins in human tissue in a process that’s equal parts scientific exploration and philosophical quest to come to terms with her own mortality.

TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

By trying to preserve our dead bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further damage the environment.” ~ Jae Rhim Lee

Introducing UP from Jawbone

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The makers of Jawbone revealed an exclusive first look at UP, a jaw-dropping sensor-based wristband that tracks your sleep patterns and eating habits to deliver data that optimizes your everyday life for greater well-being — a promising new personal data tracking tool in the arsenal of the quantified self.

Singer Alice Russell

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Musician extraordinaire Alice Russel closed the evening with her utterly magnificent voice, best described as Adele meets Ella. Her most recent album, Pot of Gold, is an absolute gem.

For highlights from the final two days of TEDGlobal 2011, keep an eye on our friends at the TED Blog, or follow along on Twitter between 8:30AM and 7PM GMT for the live feed.

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30 JUNE, 2011

7 Essential Books on Data Visualization & Computational Art

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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

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

WE FEEL FINE

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

SYNC

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

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

ART FORMS IN NATURE

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

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)

MATERIAL WORLD

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 | www.menzelphoto.com

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 | www.menzelphoto.com

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 | www.menzelphoto.com

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 | www.menzelphoto.com

Reviewed in full, with more images, here.

Recommended by: Jake Barton

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20 JUNE, 2011

Everything is a Remix, Part 3: The Elements of Creativity

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What Gutenberg has to do with Thomas Edison and the secret sauce of Apple.

Kirby Ferguson’s excellent Everything is a Remix project is, as I’ve previously written, one of the most important efforts to illuminate the mechanisms, paradoxes and central principles of creative culture in modern history — an ambitious four-part documentary on the history and cultural significance of sampling and collaborative creation, reflecting my own deep held belief that creativity is combinatorial. Today, Kirby releases the highly anticipated third installment in the series, titled The Elements of Creativity.

Enjoy — this is a cultural treasure:

The most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together, creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

From derivative work in art to incremental innovation in technology, Kirby tells the lesser-known stories of history’s greatest innovators to illustrate the point that creativity builds on what came before rather than crystallizing from thin air under the touch of a mythical muse.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb — his first patent was “Improvement in Electric Lamps,” but he did conduct trials with 6,000 materials for the filament until he created the first commercially viable bulb. Apple didn’t invent the first desktop computer — it copied Xerox (oh, the irony…), but was the first to combine the computer with the household appliance, sparking the personal computing revolution.

What started it all was the graphical interface merged with the idea of the computer as household appliance. The Mac is a demonstration of the explosive potential of combinations.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

Creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that’s… copying.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

The fourth and final episode, coming this fall, will tackle the most complex question of all: How our legal, ethical and artistic burdens are hindering our collective ability to embrace technology as a true enabler of creativity. You can support the project here — I happily did.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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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.