Brain Pickings

How Bird Wings Work

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Explaining “the masterpiece of nature, the perfectest venture imaginable” with computational fluid dynamics.

To the common eye, it appears that when they fly, birds just flap their wings down and push themselves up by creating flat pressure underneath. But, in fact, something radically different and absolutely fascinating happens — something Destin of Smarter Every Day explains with computational fluid dynamics:

Feathers, indeed, are among evolution’s greatest masterpieces of design. In the recently released Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (public library), conservation biologist Thor Hanson marvels:

Animals with backbones, the vertebrates, come in four basic styles: smooth (amphibians), hairy (mammals), scaly (reptiles, fish), or feathered (birds). While the first three body coverings have their virtues, nothing competes with feathers for sheer diversity of form and function. They can be downy soft or stiff as battens, barbed, fringed, fused, flattened, or simple unadorned quills They range from bristles smaller than a pencil point to the thirty-five-foot breeding plumes of the Ongadori, an ornamental japanese fowl. Feathers can conceal or attract. They can be vibrantly colored without using pigment. They can store water or repel it. They can snap, whistle, hum, vibrate, boom, and whine. They’re a near-perfect airfoil and the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered. … Natural scientists from Aristotle to Ernst Mayr have marveled at the complexity of feather design and utility, analyzing everything from growth patterns to aerodynamics to the genes that code their proteins. Alfred Russel Wallace called feathers ‘the masterpiece of nature…the perfectest venture imaginable,’ and Charles Darwin devoted nearly four chapters to them in Descent of Man, his second great treatise on evolution.

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R. Crumb Illustrates Bukowski

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Two grand masters of irreverence come together.

In the early 1980s, two titans of the artfully cynical and subversive joined forces in an extraordinary collaboration: Legendary cartoonist and album cover artist R. Crumb illustrated two short books by Charles Bukowski, Bring Me Your Love (public library) and There’s No Business (public library). Crumb’s signature underground comix aesthetic and Bukowski’s commentary on contemporary culture and the human condition by way of his familiar tropes — sex, alcohol, the drudgery of work — coalesce into the kind of fit that makes you wonder why it hadn’t happened sooner.

In 1998, a final posthumous collaboration was released under the title The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship (public library) — an illustrated selection from Buk’s previously unpublished diaries, capturing a year in his life shortly before his death in 1994.

Complement with R. Crumb’s illustrated take on Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory spiritual experience and Bukowski’s magnificent letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer.

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Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

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“­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing originally published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian asked some of today’s most celebrated authors to each produce a list of personal writing commandments. After 10 from Zadie Smith and 8 from Neil Gaiman, here comes Margaret Atwood with her denary decree:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Atwood’s latest nonfiction, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (public library) came out last year and is a must-read.

Craving more timeless wisdom on writing? You won’t go wrong with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Image via Random House

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