Brain Pickings

Alter Ego: Portraits of Gamers Next to Their Avatars

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The real humanity of virtual worlds, or what imaginary public personas reveal about private personhood.

In 2003, British photographer Robbie Cooper was shooting the divorced CEO of a company, who shared that he used virtual world games to play with his children, a meeting them every evening in Everquest, where they would play and chat about mundane things like school and their mother. It was a way for him to connect with his kids, to whom he had little access after the divorce. Cooper recalls:

His description of the banal but emotionally important exchange, taking place in the vivid fantasy of the game, got me thinking about the nature of the game itself; it’s a world of surface appearances and symbols. Within that, their interaction had been reduced to text; it was a technological extension of psychological models — the imaginary, and the symbolic structure of language.” ~ Robbie Cooper

(Cue in yesterday’s fascinating peek at iconic writers’ thoughts on symbolism.)

So Cooper spent the next three years traveling the world, from France and Germany to Korea and China, to photograph virtual world players, placing their portraits next to their avatars. The results — poignant, powerful, remarkably eye-opening — are gathered in Alter Ego, a fascinating and, at its core, profoundly human glimpse of our quest for selfhood, identity, and social belonging. Micro-essays by each gamer offer a layered look at how we assemble our personas in a way that transcends the physicality of our bodies, our genetics, and our circumstances.

Equal parts provocative and humbling, Alter Ego offers a timely meditation on the construction of our social and personal identities in an age when the line between the real and the virtual is, increasingly, not nearly as simple as the distinction between atoms and bits.

via Flavorwire

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No Ordinary Genius: BBC Captures Richard Feynman’s Legacy

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Explaining the scientific process with chess, or why childlike wonder is key to getting unstuck in science.

As physicists write another inconclusive chapter in the epic hunt for the “God particle”, it’s time to revisit one of the scientists whose work shaped modern physics. Richard Feynman, known as the “Great Explainer,” is one of my big intellectual heroes and a Brain Pickings frequenter — from his timeless insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity to his wonderful recent graphic novel biography, among the best science books of 2011 and a fine addition to our favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

In 1993, five years after Feynman’s death, BBC set out to capture his spirit and his scientific legacy in a fantastic documentary titled Richard Feynman: No Ordinary Genius, part of their excellent Horizon program, which has also brought us such fascinations as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is. The film was subsequently adapted into the book No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, and the documentary is now available on YouTube in its entirety — enjoy.

When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.” ~ Marvin Minsky, MIT

At around minute 39, Feynman gives a fantastic analogy-turned-explanation that captures what’s essentially the heart of the scientific process:

In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears, on the whole, to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience — that is, we learn about more particles and new things — and so the laws look more complicated again. But if you realize all the time, what’s kind of wonderful is as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”

Tender and intelligent, the film reveals some of Feynman’s defining qualities: his intense cross-disciplinary curiosity and determination (he taught himself to be a skillful artist, studying drawing like he studied science); his thoughtful, caring character (the anecdote Joan, Feynman’s younger sister, recounts at about 9:04 is just about the most poetic expression of nerd-affection I’ve ever encountered); and, perhaps above all, the remarkable blend of humility and genius that made him able to see error and wrongness as an essential piece of intellectual inquiry and truth itself.

HT @matthiasrascher

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Product Design: A PBS Off Book Documentary

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What safe sex has to do with 3-D printing, robotics, and education in the developing world.

From the fine folks at PBS Arts comes another fantastic micro-documentary, part of their Off Book series, which previously explored typography, steampunk, visual culture online, and generative art. On the heels of this morning’s Eames documentary, it takes a look at the world of product design, from its aesthetic and pizzaz to its ethic and values, featuring fuseproject’s Yves Behar, Peter Schmitt of MIT’s Personal Robotics Group, and Dr. Harvey Moscot of Mocost Eyewear. Though limited in both scope and “cast,” the film squeezes an impressive amount in its measly 6 minutes and offers a welcome prompt to think a little more deeply about the myriad products with which we interact daily.

What design does at its best is to accelerate the adoption of new ideas.” ~ Yves Behar

For a more in-depth look at the complex and cross-disciplinary facets of product design, from engineering to art history to cultural anthropology, see BBC’s excellent The Genius of Design and, of course, Gary Hustwit’s Objectified. Then, revisit Dieter Rams’ 10 timeless principles of good design.

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In 2011, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider a modest donation.





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The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Visual Micro-Tales of Our Shared Humanity

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Reclaiming the poetics of short-form in the age of the empty soundbite.

“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories,” as Muriel Rukeyser is often paraphrased. To give this timeless truth modern wings, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, better-known as RegularJOE in the hitRECord universe he created, asked thousands of contributors to submit tiny stories through words and images. The result is The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 — a whimsical collaboration between artists and writers from around the world, featuring 67 of these micro-tales hand-curated by Gordon-Levitt himself from over 8,500 submissions. It’s part Three Line Novels, part Six-Word Memoir, part something entirely its own and entirely lovely, full of poetics and humanity in a culture of vacant soundbites, exuding a kind of richness and latitude that defies its short form.

Sometimes witty, sometimes poignant, and always profoundly human, the gems in The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 are a reminder that we’re all just a few words and images apart from one another, and all we need to do is reach out into the universe of our shared humanity.

Donating = Loving

In 2011, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider a modest donation.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.