On the poetics of probability, or what the architecture of the social web has to do with landing in Hawaii.
In his fantastic recent talk from TEDxVancouver, my friend Jer Thorp — data artist in residence at The New York Times and Brain Pickingsregular — takes us on a sweeping tour of his work and ethos, living at the intersection of science, art, and design.
[We need] an inclusion in this dialogue from artists, from poets, from writers — from people who can bring a human element into this discussion. Because I believe that this world of data is going to be transformative to us.”
Among the projects Jer shows are All The Names, Project Cascade, a New York Times initiative that visualizes the underlying structures of conversation and activity on the social web, a harrowing algorithmic installation displaying the names of those who perished in the 9/11 attacks not based on alphabetical order but based on data about who they were and where they were with when they died, GoodMorning!, a beautiful visualization of 11,000 “good morning” tweets sent over a 24-hour period, NYTimes: 365/360, which captures the top organizations and personalities for every year between 1985 and 2001 and the connections between them in a single graphic for each year, and Open Paths, which allows you to liberate your iPhone location data from Apple’s grip to own, use, or donate to meaningful research.
Underpinning Jer’s examples is a powerful common thread of humanizing data and making it a living piece of our personal histories and cultural poetics.
Inspired? Jer has made much of his source code freely available, along with excellent tutorials, and hosts regular workshops on how to wring magic from data.
This week, I’m at TED, where I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore around this year’s theme, Full Spectrum. Here are my picks, along with the original text that appears on the little cards in the bookstore, and my blurb about the selection:
I believe creativity is combinatorial — it’s our ability to take existing pieces of knowledge, information, insight, and ideas that we’ve gathered over the course of our lives, and recombine them into new ideas. Curation – the purposeful filtration of information – is what fills our mental pool of resources with the most meaningful building blocks of creativity possible. In a way, it’s a sensemaking mechanism for the world, allowing us to see not only why different pieces matter but also how they relate to one another and might fit together. Gathered here are 10 curated books on the loose theme of sensemaking, from a visual history of the timeline to a biography of information to a handmade exploration of Indian mythology.
Flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes, science writer James Gleick delivers an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern ‘creatures of the information,’ to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges. Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency. But what makes the book most compelling to us is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.
Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread by beloved French illustrator Blexbolex features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness, and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.
This lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain. From literature to art history to technology, it offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.
This delightful and light-hearted pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists illustrated in designer Stefan G. Bucher’s unmistakable style will help you figure out life’s big answers. Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved cross-disciplinary creators, including TEDsters Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, and Jakob Trollbäck.
Every year for more than a decade, intellectual conductor and Edge.org editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world. In 2011, with the help of psycholinguist Steven Pinker and legendary behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, he asked: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors, and TEDsters, are gathered in this formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence, and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between. But what makes the book — and Brockman’s general approach – most exceptional is that it’s an invitation to cross-pollinate disciplines and intellectual comfort zones as we strive to better understand ourselves and the complex world we inhabit.
For the past 16 years, independent Indian publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. Screen-printed by local artisans with traditional Indian dyes, Waterlife explores the marine wonderland through Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.
*Waterlife isn’t out until April, but we were able to arrange for a “world premiere” at TED — thanks, Jenn.
Peek inside Tara Books’ other remarkable handmade books here, here, and here.
Inspired by John Cage’s iconic 1968 Notations and originally released for its 50th anniversary, this ambitious tome reveals how 165 composers and musicians around the world are experiencing, communicating and reconceiving music visually by reinventing notation. From acclaimed musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Halim El-Dabh, Joan La Barbara, and Yuji Takahashi to emerging global talent, this magnificent tome examines how both the technology and the expectations of this unique synesthetic language have changed over the past half-century.
This beautiful and meditative compendium of maps and musings on maps explores, in the broadest possible terms, the human condition though 50 full-color and 50 black-and-white cartographic illustrations, ranging from a humorous diplomatic atlas of Europe and Asia to a canine view of the world to hand-drawn maps of shelters along the Appalachian Trail. A selection of diverse essays contextualize the maps within the larger conceptual narrative exploring humanity’s compulsion to map and chart its place in the universe.
This lavish volume offers a remarkable and unprecedented visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity with a selection of rare paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, manuals and digital art culled from London’s formidable Wellcome Collection. These magnificent ephemera span cultures and eras as diverse as Ancient Persia and Renaissance Europe to paint a powerful, visceral portrait of our civilization’s evolving ideas about health, illness, and the body.
This beautiful tome explores one of the most important technologies ever invented – the alphabet – through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.” Though full of stunning illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets —this is no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.
Anatomy of introversion, inside the brain’s optimism bias, and a blueprint for doomsday from PC Guy.
TED time is once again upon us, with this year’s conference, themed Full Spectrum, a mere week away. In preparation, and true to the Brain Pickings pre-TED tradition, here are seven exceptional books by some of this year’s TED speakers, spanning everything from psychology to children’s books to satire — a full spectrum, indeed. (Catch up on reading lists from years past: TEDGlobal 2010, TED 2011 Part 1 and Part 2, TEDGlobal 2011 Part 1 and Part 2.)
THE HAPPINESS HYPOTHESIS
The question of what makes us happy is likely as old as human cognition itself and has occupied the minds of philosophers, prophets, and scientists for millennia. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, one of seven essential books on happiness, psychology professor Jonathan Haidt unearths ten great theories of happiness discovered by the thinkers of the past, from Plato to Jesus to the Buddha, to reveal a surprising abundance of common tangents. (For example, from Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” From Buddha: “Our life is the creation of our mind.”)
Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all.”
Haidt takes this ambitious analysis of philosophical thought over the centuries and examines it through the prism of modern psychology research to extract a remarkably compelling blueprint for optimizing the human condition for happiness.
Do you feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner party invitation in favor of a good book and a cup of tea? Or, worse yet, do you reluctantly accept the invitation even though you’d much rather curl up with the book? You are not alone. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain dissects the anatomy of this socially-induced guilt and delves deep into one of psychology’s most enduring tenets — that the single most important defining aspect of personality is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum — to break through the “long and storied tradition” of neatly mapping this binary division onto others, like submission and leadership, loneliness and happiness, settling and success.
Cain exposes the much more complicated interplay between these character traits and society’s metrics for fulfillment, exploring how “closeted introverts” — a self-reported one third to one half of people, including cultural icons and legendary entrepreneurs like Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Craig Newmark — are expending enormous energy on trying to pass as extroverts in a culture that rewards extroversion and conflates it with boldness, happiness, sociability, and success.
Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women living in a man’s world, discounted because it goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality trait, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
In this no-frills talk from Leaders@Google, Cain gives a sneak peek of the book, which she spent the past seven years researching and writing:
At its heart, Quiet is not only about how and why we internalize society’s extroversion bias very early on, but also about how to reconnect with the valuable qualities implicit to introversion and rethink our hard-wired strengths in a culture that categorizes them as weaknesses.
I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament. But when she died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two, the flood of obituaries recalled her as soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. They said she was ‘timid and shy’ but had ‘the courage of a lion.’ They were full of phrases like ‘radical humility’ and ‘quiet fortitude.’ What does it mean to be quiet and have fortitude? these descriptions asked implicitly. How could you be shy and courageous?”
Since time immemorial, mankind has grappled with the question of what it means to be human. Different cultures have given different answers throughout history and across geography — answers composed of each culture’s myth and folklore, intellectual and spiritual tradition, artistic lens, and social context. In The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis sets out to answer this grandest of questions through the wisdom of the world’s indigenous cultures. From the descendants of a true Lost Civilization in the Amazon to a Nepalese Buddhist who spent 45 years in solitude to the last nomads of Borneo’s rainforest, Davis weaves a rich tapestry of human knowledge and imagination, a kind of Noah’s Ark of cultural diversity to preserve as we frame the future of the human legacy.
One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live among people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, recognize its taste in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, Jaguar shaman still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath of the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”
OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW
Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messer takes you on a journey into the white wilderness, where foxes and owls and bullfrogs play amidst the winter wonderland.
For years, scientists all over the world had been receiving mysterious packages containing a lavish book full of seemingly impossible puzzles. Using the only clue in common — a postage stamp from Gothenburg, Sweden — journalist and documentary filmmakerJon Ronson resolved to find the enigmatic sender, who turned out to be a bona fide psychopath. But what, exactly, is a psychopath? That’s what Ronson set out to investigate. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, a potent blend of investigative journalism and captivating storytelling with a point of view, traces his quest to understand the fabric of psychopathy, from becoming a kind of qualified psychopath-spotter by learning the 20-point “psychopath checklist” to examining why psychopaths make excellent leaders in business and politics to brushing up against society’s worrisome propensity for pathologizing behavior.
In this teaser, Ronson offers a handful of behavioral cues to look for in a psychopath, while admonishing against the slippery slope of seeing “symptoms” in nearly everyone — a reminder that sanity is a continuum, not a binary divide.
THAT IS ALL
For the past seven years, John Hodgman — actor, humorist, McSweeney’s contributor, “PC Guy” — has been showering the world with his singular brand of keen social observation disguised as offbeat satire in a series title Complete World Knowledge. In 2005, he released The Areas of My Expertise, a collection of absurdist historical anecdotes best described as nonfactual rather than fictional, followed by More Information Than You Require in 2008. That Is All is the third and final part of the series, humorously exploring the impending end of the world.
“Explaining humor,” Mark Twain famously said, “is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” So let’s let Hodgman do the talking:
The reason pessimism is easily escapable, as Martin Seligman posits, might just be that its opposite is our natural pre-wired inclination. At least that’s the argument British neuroscientist Tali Sharot makes in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain — a fascinating yet accessible exploration of how and why our brains construct a positive outlook on life even in the direst of circumstances, and one of 7 essential books on optimism.
Sharot has been studying “flashbulb memories” — recollections with sharp-edged, picture-like qualities, usually about unexpected arousing or traumatic events — since the 9/11 attacks, investigating why the brain tends to “Photoshop” these images, adding contrast, enhancing resolution, inserting and deleting details. This phenomenon led her to probe deeper into the neural system responsible for recollecting these episodes from our past — a system that, contrary to previous belief, hadn’t evolved just for memory but to also imagine the future. These shared neural networks gleaned insight into how the brain generates hope, why we’re able to move forward after trauma, and what makes the brains of optimists different from those of pessimists.
The optimism bias protects us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds, and it may defend us from viewing our options in life as somewhat limited. As a result, stress and anxiety are reduced, physical and mental health are improved, and the motivation to act and be productive is enhanced. In order to progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — not just any old realities, but better ones, and we need to believe them to be possible.”
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