Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘web’

06 MAY, 2010

Google Chrome Speed Tests


What a keytar, an electrocuted boat and an Idaho potato have to do with how fast you surf.

For their latest release of Chrome, which purports to be the fastest browser around, the good folks at Google and BBH decided to test just how fast “fast” was. So they pitted Chrome’s 2700 frames per second against the speeds of more familiar things, things people would expect to be fast — a bullet, a potato, sound waves, lighting.

To test that, the team constructed a series of what closely resembles Rube Goldberg machines, each setting off a series of simultaneous reactions triggering both Chrome and the object it’s being benchmarked against. The results — and the effort that went into them — are beyond impressive.

The potato gun test took 51 takes to get the equipment and the rendering working precisely right — 51 new potatoes, reloads and clean graters. There was a moment when the whole team went quiet as the Tesla Coil was removed from the box for the first time; no one was quite sure exactly what we’d bitten off with that one, and — even with ear defenders — the sound of the Coil as it made it’s first 4.2m volt arcs was extraordinary. For a few seconds no one said a word, then we got to work and set up the experiment. ” ~ Ben Malbon, BBH

What makes the effort interesting, beyond the pure stunt value, is that it demonstrates two increasingly important things: In “measuring” something from computer science through physics, mechanical engineering and photography, the effort epitomizes the fertile cross-pollination of displines; it also illustrates the need for creating a new language for the data age and translating these parameters of digital culture into terms more relevant to and thus comprehensible by humans — something we’ve also seen in the flourishing field of data visualization, which translates alienating, incomprehensible algorithms and numbers into visual representations that humanize the information and make it more digestible.

As recent Chrome converts, we can attest to the browser’s speediness and commend the creative team for contextualizing it so brilliantly. But we must point out that when it comes to your web-browsing experience, browser speed is still a negligible factor compared to actual internet speed — and, we’re sorry to say, using Chrome’s speed-potato on Verizon “high speed internet” is like pouring mashed potatoes through a cocktail straw.

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14 APRIL, 2010

The 2020 Project: Visions of the Connected Future


What Scandinavian luminaries have to do with LEGO and the future of humanity.

There’s no question we live in an age where the cultural landscape is moving more rapidly than many of us can process towards something few of us can foresee. But an unlikely contender is aiming to construct a sober and visionary portrait of our collective future: Telecom giant Ericsson has launched the 2020 Project — a peek inside the minds of twenty of today’s sharpest thinkers for a glimpse of tomorrow.

Ericsson is asking these twenty visionaries to paint a picture of what the world will look like in 2010 in a series of video interviews that explore how connectivity and mobility are changing the world.

Though contributions so far come strictly from the (mostly Scandinavian) academia circuit — professors, authors, researchers — they are intelligenty curated in a way that offers randge and breadth of perspectives, covering everything from access to knowledge to female empowerment to sustainability to human rights.

Still, we hope to see some more diverse luminaries from less academic disciplines and the fringes of culture. It would be particularly fascinating to hear how artists, not ordinarily associated with technology, are being affected by the digital revoluion and how they see the future of communication.

The projet is part BigThink, part Sputnik Observatory, part new breed of realistic optimism for the future.

We can be the generation to end extreme poverty on the planet. No other generation before us could make that claim. No other generation before us had that power in our hands. What a thrill that we can be the ones to do it.” ~ Jeffrey Sachs

Our favorite, which we already raved about on Twitter last week: Blockbuster TED talk machine Hans Rosling, who explains the future of humanity in LEGO and a charming Swedish accent.

The weakest point today is the lack of global governance. Nation states are still very strong. We talk about globalization, but the fact is that nations are very strong. But we do not have a very strong united nation. We do not have a mechanism for governance. West America and Eastern Europe have to accept the world of equal nations. They have to accept that they have no given advantage over the rest of the world. And that’s good for them.” ~ Hans Rosling

Keep an eye on the 2020 Project as more interviews are being continuously revealed this month.

via Open Culture

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04 MARCH, 2010

Blog-Turned-Book Success Stories: Part Two


Charting happiness, why you should tip your waiter, and how to tug at heartstrings right.

Last week, we spotlighted five of our ten favorite blog-turned-book success stories. Today, we’re back with the sequel.


It’s no secret we have an infoviz fetish, fueling our longtime love affair with the wonderful Indexed blog — Jessica Hagy’s absolutely charming graph-and-chart-driven visual exploration of, well, everything. With brevity and brilliance, Indexed has captured everything from the secret formula of James Cameron’s biggest hits to the challenges of proposing to a virgin.

So we have no words to describe just how much we’re loving Indexed, the book — a wonderfully curated selection from what’s already a treasure trove of gems.


Since 2004, one veteran New York waiter has been dishing out delightfully cynical musings about the inner workings of the restaurant world in Waiter Rant — a hilariously candid and unfiltered account of life in the restaurant service industry.

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter captures the best, juiciest, most amusing of these stories, from chef scandals to patrons from hell, and promises a solid chuckle.

Thanks for the reminder, @femmmefatal


He’s been worshiped and reviled, but what do we really know about the man who “invented the friggin iPhone”? Thanks to The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, a lot. Yeah, yeah, he may be fake, but we bet he’s a ton more fun than the real one.

The ensuing book, Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs — A Parody, is an absolute treat of humor, snark, and random rants against anyone from shareholders to Ray Kurzweil.


Some time ago, we interviewed Mary Tomer, who in 2008 launched — a blog chronicling Michelle Obama’s style.

That public fascination with the first lady’s fashion sense struck such a cultural chord that less than a year later, Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy hit the press. And it’s a must-read for anyone striving to understand the relationship between fashion, public persona, and popular taste.


We have a strong aversion to cheesy heartstring-tuggers — cliche photos, contrived greeting cards, regurgitated quotes — of which the interwebs are full. But 1001 rules for my unborn son is positively the loveliest, most moving piece of universal-relevance-disguised-as-fatherly-advice. It combines precious nuggets of insight with just the right dose of quirk and randomness, producing powerful wisdom that doesn’t take itself too seriously — a priceless combination.

The book, Rules for My Unborn Son, is every bit as delightful.


More recently, we were ecstatic to find out one of the smartest, most indulgent blogs out there, The Footnotes of Mad Men, got a book deal. The glossy tome, titled Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, is out on July 20th, but is available for pre-order now.

We can’t wait.

Missed the first five? Catch up right here.

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22 FEBRUARY, 2010

Blog-Turned-Book Success Stories: Part One


Maps of Utopia, posh Brooklynites, and what Whole Foods has to do with high school mixtapes.

The web may have its share of questionable content and lowest-common-denominator taste, but it has also democratized the content industry in a powerful way — with its low barrier of entry, anyone with a smart idea and excellent content can draw an audience and become the go-to authority in a niche or a publishing superstar of eclectic interestingness. And just like every waitress in LA dreams of being discovered by Hollywood, most superstar bloggers dream of getting the coveted and tangible acclaim that is a book deal.

We love nothing more than to see well-written, meticulously curated and brilliantly conceived content get the credit it deserves. And we’ve gathered proof that it is indeed possible. Here are five of our ten favorite blogs-turned-books.


It’s no secret we’re big package design geeks — because, let’s face it, framing is everything; ideas are only as powerful as their presentation, and what are packages but presentation vehicles for the products that come in them?

For years, The Dieline has been our favorite go-to for packaging goodness. This month, they’re finally releasing the much-anticipated anthology of said goodness — Box Bottle Bag: The World’s Best Package Designs from

The book features 224 pages of richly visual, meticulously curated package design gems, including the site’s biggest hits as well as a handful of never-before-seen projects from legendary designers.


We’ve featured Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves before, and we even included it in our curated gift guide for books, so we won’t overelaborate.

Suffice it to say this lovely mixtape revivalist project takes the cheesiest parts of nostalgia and turns them into a wonderful celebration of youthful creative romanticism.


It’s been nearly two years since Christian Lander’s brilliant, relentlessly funny-cause-it’s-true Stuff White People Like first drew critical acclaim from hipster pundits alike. The blog was so brilliant, in fact, that it got a book deal a mere three months after its launch, a pace of success that’s practically unheard of.

Wittily written and often surprisingly insightful beneath its surface humor, Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions is as much a cultural portrait of a certain Obama-loving, New-Yorker-reading, Whole-Foods-shopping, Scandinavian-furniture-admiring socioeconomic subset as it is a diagnostic tool for your own chronic white-clicheness.


We love the geeky art-science world of cartography. So when our favorite maps blog,
Strange Maps, got a book deal, we covered it promptly.

Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities features 138 of the most fascinating, absorbing and remarkable maps from the blog’s 3-year history of culling the world’s forgotten, little-known and niche cartographic treasures. And it too made our book guide last year.

From the world as depicted in Orwell’s 1984, to a color map of Thomas More’s Utopia, to the 16th-century portrayal of California as an island where people live like the Amazons, the book is brim-full of priceless anecdotes from our collective conception of the world over the centuries.


In 2005, Scott Schuman set out to photograph stylish people on the street, then began uploading these photos to a no-frills blog.

Little did Schuman, a.k.a. The Sartorialist, know that over the next few years, his blog would gain such enormous cultural traction that it would elevate him to the most influential observer of street style. TIME Magazine even named him one of the Top 100 Design Influencers.

Last year, the blog put its money where its mouth is, releasing the sleek, stylish and all-around gorgeous The Sartorialist: (Bespoke Edition). (Sure, you could settle for the paperback, but that would be like watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on TV — you still get it, but half its glamor and beauty are lost.)

From Milan to Miami, Beijing to Brooklyn, the book is a global portrait of exquisite taste, an addictive and indulgent intersection of voyeurism and aesthetic appreciation.

UPDATE: Here’s Part 2, with 5 more

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03 FEBRUARY, 2010

Wayfinding in Wittgenstein’s World: 88 Constellations


A non-linear tour of philosophy, or what Carmen Miranda has to do with the Vienna Circle.

How do you represent one of history’s famous philosophers, a man who wrote abstruse texts about the nature of representation itself? If you’re Canadian artist David Clark, you create the ambitious online art piece 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand).

Clark wrote, produced, and directed the Flash-based site 88 Constellations, a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative-as-game and an ingenious treatment of some of the 20th century’s greatest cultural touchstones, from the highs to the lows. Navigating its universe is like playing a Choose Your Own Adventure with one of history’s greatest philosophers as the protagonist. The best part is that you can play without any prior knowledge of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which makes the work a bravura feat and great fun all at once.

You start out with the introductory animation, which invites you to “join the dots together; make pictures in the sky. Connect the muddle of our thinking to these drawings in the sky. This story is about a man named Wittgenstein. He was a philosopher. His life was a series of moments, and our story is a series of constellations.” From there, you’re presented with a celestial map and an intricately interlocking set of ideas and images that unfold from the central point, Orion, the constellation chosen to symbolize the philosopher himself.

“Who is Ludwig Wittgenstein?” asks the narrator in a voiceover.

There were so many… He was a boy who didn’t talk until he was four years old. he was an engineer who designed propellors. He was a schoolteacher in rural Austria. He was an architect who designed an elaborate modernist house for his wealthy sister. He was one of the richest men in Europe after his father died but he gave all his money away and lived off of his wages. He was a whistler and a lover of music. He was an aesthete. He was a homosexual; he was an exile…”

All that and we haven’t even gotten to the philosophy yet.

Like its subject, 88 Constellations is in fact many things: an interactive online film, a biography of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a selective history of Europe over a period spanning both World Wars. Whatever you call it, it’s a satisfyingly rich, fully realized experience that could be used as a case study in maximizing the web’s narrative capacity.

From Orion, you can branch out in any order to other stellar clusters on topics ranging from Godard to the Twin Towers. Each constellation launches a short animated film, from which point you can connect to other stars along the same vector. This is how, on one particular journey, we learned such arcana as the fact that Psycho was the first film ever to show a toilet flushing, and that the widow of the film’s lead actor, Anthony Perkins, perished on American Airlines flight 11 when it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Such a seemingly random connection is typical of 88 Constellations, a quality that makes it a very clever conspiracy theorist’s dream; because the cumulative effect of these pieces is the feeling of a system that’s not so random after all. Perhaps, we found ourselves at one point thinking, there was some heuristic as rigorous as Wittgenstein’s philosophical logic that could illuminate all of the connections — if only we could figure it out. Clark skillfully plays to this sensation of mastery just beyond our reach.

For example, on the significance of the number 88: the number of constellations in the night sky; the number of keys on a piano; a component of the year 1889, in which Wittgenstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler were born within days of each other; the age at which Chaplin died; and an integer no longer found on the back of German athletic jerseys (the eighth letter of the alphabet is H, and so the number 88 could be taken to symbolize “HH,” or “Heil Hitler”).

Sometimes the revelations provide pure entertainment. On constellation number 55, Leo, the narrator tells us the following:

[A] lion appears on the screen and roars. if lions could talk then we wouldn’t understand them,’ Wittgenstein wrote. ‘Language is about sharing a view of the world. A lion and a man could never share their world view.’ Leo, the mascot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got this name from Samuel Leo Goldwyn, one of the founders of the studio. Goldwyn, a Polish emigre, was famous for his propensity to mangle the English language in paradoxical ways, something that became known as Goldwynisms. ‘A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.’

The piece, which was started in 2004 and finished in 2008, brings the ideas and life of a commanding intellectual figure from another era into our own digital one, while retaining all of his complexity. You can learn more about 88 Constellations on the project’s blog, including the meaning of its ambiguous southpaw-referencing subtitle.

Take a trip down the rabbit hole that is 88 Constellations — and find out why the rabbit itself was an important part of the philosopher’s seminal treatise, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Thanks, @melissa_djohnst

Kirstin Butler has a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter. For more of her thoughts, check out her videoblog.

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