Brain Pickings

Kurt Vonnegut Interviewed on NPR Inside Second Life

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What it means to be a man without a country, or what Marx has to do with improving life through technology.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my big literary heroes, a keen observer and wry critic of culture and society. His Armageddon in Retrospect is an absolute necessity and his wildly entertaining series of fictional interviews with luminaries, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is an absolute gem, firmly planted on this year’s edition of the annual Brain Pickings summer reading list.

In 2006, NPR interviewed Vonnegut from inside the virtual world Second Life, as a part of their Infinite Mind series. Recorded shortly before Second Life reached its peak and mere months before Vonnegut passed away, the interview is a rare cultural time-capsule in more ways than one, as well as a fitting meta-wink to God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, which is premised on the idea that Vonnegut would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences, allowing him to access the afterlife, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late.

It’s actually possible to get a better life for individuals [through technologies like Second Life] and I have frequently inanimated new technologies, but I love cell phones. I see people so happy and proud, walking around. Gesturing, you know. I’m like Karl Marx, I’m up for anything that makes people happy.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

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Happy Birthday, George Orwell: BBC’s 1954 1984 Adaptation

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From Big Brother to Little Brother, or what Newspeak has to do with the API economy.

Tomorrow marks the 108th birthday of the great George Orwell, best-known for his satirical novella Animal Farm and his dystopian cult-novel Nineteen Eighty-Four — some of the most poignant pieces of political and cultural criticism ever published. In 1954, five years after the book’s original publication, BBC staged a live television adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell. The film has now passed into the public domain and is available for free in its entirety online under a Creative Commons license, as well as in a collector’s edition DVD.

In today’s sociocultural context of increasing concerns about privacy, censorship and surveillance, Orwell’s work is more relevant — and more terrifying — than ever, offering a timely warning of the society we might become if we fail to codify, appropriate and regulate the tools and technologies of digital culture, what Jennifer 8. Lee so aptly calls “Little Brother.”

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The Exultant Ark: The Secret Emotional Lives of Animals

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What dolphins at play have to do the mating rituals of butterflies and our capacity for kindness.

Hundreds of books are published, research studies conducted and lectures given on human psychology and emotion every year, yet the question of animal emotion remains a hotpoint of scientific debate and contention. But why should our inability to measure these phenomena mean that they don’t exist at all? That’s exactly what scientist and animal advocate Jonathan Balcombe explores in The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure — an absolutely remarkable and fascinating journey into the rich, tender and complex emotional lives of animals.

Balcombe examines a new generation of research on animal feelings, especially animal pleasure, illustrated with joyful images of the animal kingdom by some of the world’s leading wildlife photographers. The story unfolds with equal parts affectionate enthusiasm and scientific rigor, extending a gentle invitation to reexamine our relationship with living beings, reaching for more kindness, more empathy and more wholeheartedness in how we think of and treat other animals.

Nobody denies that other humans are sentient, though it’s no more possible to prove another human being is sentient than it is to prove an animal’s sentience. We don’t accept such solipsism. It would be far-fetched. So let’s stop drawing this line between humans and all other animals.” ~ Jonathan Balcombe

Elk

'A young bull elk engages in an act of playful curiosity commonly performed by young children — sticking out a tongue to catch snowflakes.'

Image by Mark Peters via Wired

Barbary Macaque

Says Balcombe: 'Some macaques show an intense fascination with water — its appearance, its movements, and its feel ... The attention of this Barbary macaque was held completely for several minutes as she repeatedly splashed, apparently enchanted with the feel of the water and the consequence of the action.'

Image by Andrew Forsyth via Wired

Norway Rats

Norway rats can emit two telltale chirps, at 22 kHz and at 50 kHz. The higher-pitched chirp is emitted while wrestling, playing and having sex, and they also make the chirps when being tickled, a response akin to human laughter.

Image by Brandy Saxton via Wired

Chimpanzees

For chimps, mutual grooming plays a key role in communication and conflict resolution. These two, named Teresa and Sheila, live in the Chimp Haven sanctuary, a lifelong care facility for chimps abandoned as pets or rescued from medical research.

Image by Amy Fultz/Chimp Haven via Wired

Pleasure is a private experience, well nigh impossible to prove, though of course scientists don’t like the word “prove.” And there are good reasons for being skeptical of making assumptions that are difficult to prove. But what I’m getting at is everyday experience: the capacity to be empathic in viewing other animals’ experiences and comparing them to our own.” ~ Jonathan Balcombe

Common Blue Butterflies

Mating among common blue butterflies involves surprisingly complex displays of courtship. Although it's commonly assumed that these rituals are unaccompanied by feelings, Balcombe gives insects 'the benefit of the doubt,' pointing out that it's easier to be cruel to insects when we assume they aren't sentient than when we suspect they might be.

Image by Arthur Sevestre via Wired

Beluga Whale

Dolphins and beluga whales blow bubble rings and swimming through them, and tend to do this more in captivity, indicating the behavior might be a boredom-buster for them. A parallel theory is that it's a form of play and Balcombe suspects that, whatever the answer, they find the activity stimulating.

Image by Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures via Wired

Swift Fox

Says Balcombe: 'I did not choose this photo because it expresses pleasure. Indeed, how are we to know what this fox is feeling as he bounds across a field? I chose it because it expresses a fundamental value: freedom.'

Image by Thomas D. Mangelsen via Wired

Wired has an exclusive excerpt from the book, as well as an interview with Balcombe.

The Exultant Ark is the follow-up to Balcombe’s equally excellent Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals.

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The Best Book, Magazine & Catalog Covers from around the World

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Reasons to buy yet another Nabokov, or why first impressions still matter the most.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover, or so the saying goes. We beg to differ.” So opens The Best of Cover Design: Books, Magazines, Catalogs, and More, a new title from Rockport Publishers. Assembled by Altitude Associates and its principal Brian Singer (creator of another beloved Brain Pickings gem The 1000 Journals Project), The Best of Cover Design selected the strongest covers from an open submission process that produced more than 2,000 entries.

The images that made the grade represent a cultural range from Australia to the United States, and 21 countries in between. The one hard criterion for inclusion was that the submissions be from practicing professionals rather than students because, as the introduction states:

Designing covers isn’t an easy task. It’s a minefield of requirements, constraints, and subjective opinions, oftentimes resulting in what we like to call the “design-by-committee pit of despair.” Make the logo bigger. The CEO’s daughter doesn’t like orange; change it. The sales team begins art directing. Welcome to the land of mediocrity. We’ve all been there, and it requires ninja-like skills to traverse and emerge in one piece.

Each spread in The Best of Cover Design presents ideas to ponder and images that invite lingering. The compilation features nearly 300 beautiful and bold works from large firms as well as independent designers, including the 2010 TED conference publication and a series of gorgeous covers by Vintage books, which gave its designers the brief of using butterfly boxes for the reissue of 18 Nabokov titles.

Spread from The Best of Cover Design

Covers by Design Ranch (left) and Paper Plane Studio/Jennifer Bostic (right)

Spread from The Best of Cover Design

Covers, from upper left clockwise, by John Gall, Paul Sahre, Yentus & Booher, Stephen Doyle, Michael Bierut, Rodrigo Corral, Carol Devine Carson, Appetite Engineers/Martin Venezky

Spread from The Best of Cover Design

Covers by Mucca Design/Erica Heitman-Ford (left), Base Art (middle), Jens Magnusson (right)

We’re exposed to several thousand messages a day, creating an environment where the sheer mass of information can overwhelm us. After a while, it all looks the same… To be successful, covers not only have to stand out amongst all the clutter, but they also need to make a connection with us. In just a few seconds, they need to communicate what they are, pique our curiosity, or simply make us smile. They need to engage us through inspiration. ~ Brian Singer, Altitude Associates

In addition to being full of pure design delight, The Best of Cover Design will inspire anyone who’s ever had to think about how to communicate a message clearly and, most importantly, convincingly.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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