Brain Pickings

Arthur Conan Doyle, Psychic: Rare Footage from 1930

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What the world’s most analytical detective has to do with exploring the fringes of spiritual life.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be best-known as the creator of the iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, but in this rare newsreel from 1930, recorded mere weeks before the author passed away, he talks about something unexpected: After telling the story of how Sherlock came to life, Conan Doyle delves into his profound fixation on spiritualism and the psychic world. It’s particularly fascinating to see a man whose literary thought hinged on analytical insight and objectivity explore the nebulous, shape-shifting corners of the human mind.

People ask me, will I write any more Sherlock Holmes stories and I certainly don’t think it’s at all probable. But as I grow older, the psychic subject always grows in intensity and one becomes more earnest upon it, and I should think that my few remaining years will be probably devoted much more in that direction than in the direction of literature. My principal thoughts are that i should extend, if I can, that knowledge, which I have on psychic matters, and spread it as far as I can to those who have been less fortunate.

I don’t for one moment suppose that I’m taking it upon my self to say that I’m the inventor of spiritualism, or that I’m even the principal exponent of it. There are many great mediums, many great psychical researchers, investigators of all sorts — all that I can do is be a gramophone on the subject, to go about, to meet people face to face, to try to make them understand that this thing is not the foolish thing, which is so often represented, but that it really is a great philosophy and, as I think, the basis for all religious improvement in the future of the human race.” ~ Arthur Conan Doyle

via @matthiasrascher

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10 Beautiful Typographic Covers of Non-Typography Books

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What 12 million human emotions have to do with iconic industrial design and the science of memes.

Last week, I came across this lovely post on beautifully designed typographic covers of books that aren’t about typography, and it made me realize that the covers of some of my own most beloved books are also minimalist and typographic. So, here are 10 of my favorites.

COGNITIVE SURPLUS

Clay Shirky‘s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age landed atop my list of the best books in business, life and mind for 2010 and one of 7 must-read books on the future of the Internet. It takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential to build on humanity’s treasure trove of knowledge and bring about social change.

TREE OF CODES

I was instantly taken with Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes, the most ambitious book project of 2010 — so ambitious, in fact, that nearly all bookbinders Foer approached deemed it unmakable — and a proud topper of my selection of the best art, design and photography books of 2010. It’s a visionary piece of literary remix, “analog interactive storytelling” created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, and rearranging the text to form an entirely different story.

LISTEN TO THIS

You may recall Listen to This by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross as one of these 7 must-read books on music, emotion and the brain. Though some say it doesn’t measure up to Ross’s remarkable The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (also a typographic-cover gem), it remains an outstanding effort to explain and understand the world through its musical proclivities, from European opera to Chinese classical music to Bjork.

THE SHALLOWS

If you’ve been reading closely enough, you’re probably raising your eyebrow at how I can be framing Nicholas Carr‘s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And you’d be right to. But while I wildly disagree with most of Carr’s quasi-scientific arguments, I do agree with his contention that implicit to every technology is an “intellectual ethic,” which shapes how we discover, acquire, and debate information, so I maintain that his is one of the 7 most important books on the future of the Internet. Besides, it does have a magnificent cover, and that’s what we’re looking at today.

KEYWORDS

Originally published in 1976 by legendary Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society — one of these 5 must-read books for language lovers — offers a fascinating and timeless lens on language from a cultural rather than etymological standpoint, examining the history of over 100 familiar yet misunderstood or ambiguous words, from ‘art’ to ‘nature’ to ‘welfare’ to ‘originality.’

The book begins with an essay on ‘culture’ itself, dissecting the historical development and social appropriation of this ubiquitous and far-reaching semantic construct. It paints a living portrait of the constant transformation of culture as reflected in natural language. So seminal was Williams’ work that in 2005, Blackwell attempted an ambitious update to his text in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, though the cover design falls completely flat.

AND THEN THERE’S THIS

In 2009, senior Harper’s editor Bill Wasik did what no other book had intelligently done before: He formalized a great deal of research and thinking about the age of memes and viral information in And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. Both the paperback…

…and hardcover are typograhic treats of the finest kind, though my vote is with the hardcover for the clever meta wink:

AS LITTLE DESIGN AS POSSIBLE

As Little Design As Possible: The Work of Dieter Rams is a fantastic new book about the greatest industrial designer of all time by British design historian Sophie Lovell, which I just reviewed in full last week. Its cover, clean, minimalist and to-the-point, pays proper homage to its subject and its title, illustrating in visceral terms that, indeed, “Good design is as little design as possible.”

HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE

Sure, I’ve reviewed it before, I’ve included it in these 10 essential primers on culture, and still I keep coming back to How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by New York Times columnist Stanley Fish — an inspired look at the beauty of language through its fundamental building block, the sentence. It doesn’t hurt that it sports an elegant typographic cover, either.

SYMBOL

Negative space? Check. Typographic minimalism? Check. Black-white-red combo? Check. It hardly gets more designerly than the cover of Symbol by Steve Bateman and Angus Hyland — a visual morphology of 1300 classic and modern symbols, organized based on their visual characteristics and framed with contextual information on who the symbol was designed for, who designed it and when, and what it stands for.

WE FEEL FINE

We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion by visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris, based on the ongoing online experiment of the same name, visually explores 12 million human emotions recorded since 2005 through brilliantly curated words and images that 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, with many images, here.

See more book cover candy on the relentlessly fascinating Book Cover Archive.

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Dripped: French Animated Homage to Jackson Pollock

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Channeling the maddening hunger for art, or what 2010 Paris has to do with 1950s New York.

Abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, his distinctive art, his volatile personality and and his unusual creative process the subject of much curiosity and debate. Dripped is a wonderful and beautifully animated French short film by director Léo Verrier, paying homage to the great artist. Set in 1950s New York, the film follows Pollock’s ecstatic, passionate quest for truth, beauty and art as he finds the creative voice that catapulted him to the top of the art world — a mid-week treat of the finest kind. Enjoy:

via MeFi

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Brian X. Chen on How the iPhone Changed Everything

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Business advice from Steve Jobs, or why everything you knew about multitasking might be wrong.

Last month, we took a look at how Shakespeare changed everything. It turns out, the great bard may have some stiff competition in the face of another cultural agent: the iPhone. At least that’s the premise of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, a fascinating new addition to this list of essential books on the future of the internet by Wired contributor Brian X. Chen that explores how the “Jesus phone” transcended its status as a mere gadget to become a powerful force of cultural change.

Today, I sit down with Brian to chat about the secret to Apple’s success, open experiences amidst closed platforms, and what we can do to be smart information omnivores.

q1

What was it about the iPhone that transformed it from a personal technology to a conduit of cultural change?

There are two pieces to the iPhone zeitgeist: the product itself and the App Store business platform. Somehow, Steve Jobs negotiated with AT&T to carry the iPhone without even allowing the carrier to touch or see the device; the handset’s hardware and software were designed entirely by Apple. This was a significant turning point in the wireless industry, because previously carriers told the manufacturers what features to put in their handsets.

The second piece is just as significant: the App Store, which opened in 2008. The App Store allowed any programmer put up an app for sale in the App Store. And for the customer, the App Store was an extremely simple way to purchase apps with the tap of a button. The store opened the floodgates for hundreds of thousands of “apps” — 400,000 to date.

Now the iPhone isn’t just a smartphone, but also a medical device, a musical instrument, an education tool and thousands of other apps. A single app has potential to compete with an entire industry and impact our culture.

q2

How has Apple managed to find and retain success in a vertical, closed business model in the age of sharing, open-source and collaborative consumption?

It’s interesting that Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world today thanks largely to its vertically integrated business model, whereas in the past it was a niche player in the PC industry with the same approach. One broad reason is that times have changed, and now that computers have become a mainstream staple, the iPhone entered the picture to offer something fresh, new and more convenient for customers than ever before.

The fundamental reason the iPhone is so convenient is because its design and app ecosystem are tightly controlled by one company, Apple.

Furthermore, despite being closed and exclusive to Apple hardware, the iPhone, and now the iPad, are succeeding thanks to the gigantic army of developers providing apps. Many of these apps do enable people to share and collaborate (e.g., we still have Twitter apps, a Dropbox app, Facebook, etc.) Even though this is a “closed” platform, we still get more from the iPhone experience than we do other platforms, because there are more programmers contributing to the App Store compared to competing stores.

q3

A lot has been said about how social technology is changing the way we think. Where do you stand on this, as it pertains to the iPhone?

Many journalists have already concluded that the “multitasking” we do in this always-on lifestyle is bad for the brain. However, little research backs these claims. One study on “media multitasking” by Stanford found that people who juggled around a lot of media (e-mail, videos, music) were poor at concentrating compared to those who didn’t consume much media. But a study by University of Utah found that a small number of people are incredibly good at multitasking, which challenges the theory that multitasking is bad for the brain. I urge people to be cautious about drawing hasty conclusions.

I’d say rather than live in fear of smartphones, we can be more productive by asking ourselves what we can do NOW with this technology to make ourselves more powerful individuals.

What apps can I download to be better at my job, or help improve my health, or contribute to a community? In my book I tell stories about people using always-on technology in incredible ways, like a blind man who is able to use apps to “see” and take pictures, and scientists using smartphones to diagnose malaria in Africa. This is the future at our fingertips.

Ed. note: Always On is out today this month and a must-read for smartphone-slingers and cultural scholars alike.

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Green Porno: Isabella Rossellini Celebrates Animal Biology

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How dolphins do it, or what the first rule of advertising has to do with expanding the market for biology.

This Saturday, the great Isabella Rossellini — actor, filmmaker, author, philanthropist and one of the very few people in the world I’d qualify as a “role model” — is turning 59. I’ve been a longtime fan of her Green Porno series for Sundance Channel and her birthday is lovely invitation to revisit Green Porno: A Book and Short Films by Isabella Rossellini — a fascinating, humorous, kooky and illuminating book-and-DVD based on the project, in which Rossellini, clad in various bodysuits, offers a wildly entertaining and scientifically accurate reenactment the sex lives of animals as biologically far from us as possible — bugs, slugs, marine life and other peculiar creatures.

Each film is about two minutes long and an absolute gem of edutainment. From anchovy orgies to the squid’s ten-arm embrace to the makeup-sex routine of whales, the endearingly odd short films and accompanying visuals reveal a lively and wonderful world in the depths of the ocean.

I always wanted to make films about animals – there’s not an enormous audience. But there’s an enormous audience for sex.” ~ Isabella Rossellini

Revisiting Green Porno is particularly timely after last week’s World Oceans Day and the release of the 2011 State of the Oceans report, which revealed the devastating impact of human activity — an impact in large part due to mankind’s inability to see marine life as anything more than a source of food and commerce. Rossellini’s films

What’s perhaps most fantastic about the series is the deep thought with which Rossellini approaches it, looking beyond the immediate message of science literacy to think about the broader issues of where culture and human communication are going, and how the web lends itself to new models of storytelling.

The Internet is the future. And it was fun to make these videos. Just as my father, who remembered the times of silent cinema, I feel like I am assisting to a revolution” ~ Isabella Rossellini

Charming, funny and surprisingly articluate, Green Porno is the kind of cross-pollinator between pop culture and serious science that opens new doors for the understanding of our world and, in the process, fosters a deep appreciation for the precious and intricate ecosystems we’ve done such a disgraceful job of protecting and preserving. Because underpinning Rossellini’s goofiness is nothing less than an impassioned invitation to treat our fellow creatures with a little bit more understanding, empathy and respect.

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