Brain Pickings

Green Porno: Isabella Rossellini Celebrates Animal Biology


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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Obsessive Consumption: Life in a Material World, Illustrated


How a visual record of consumerism is paving the way for mindful consumption.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Kate Bingaman-Burt‘s Obsessive Consumption project — a wonderfully illustrated visual record of personal consumption running since February 5, 2006. So I was delighted when last year Princeton Architectural Press (of The Map as Art fame) added the project to this running list of blog-turned-book success stories and published Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today? — a charming illustrated chronicle of Bingham-Burt’s adventures in a material world, spanning 200 pages and three years’ worth of selected ink drawings from the project.

The project is particularly interesting examined in parallel and contrast to Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, which also uses black-and-white line illustration but explores the flipside of personal consumption by exposing the dark underbelly of the seemingly innocuous products we buy.

Images courtesy of Kate Bingham-Burt

And while Obsessive Consumption may at first seem in stark contrast with my advocacy of collaborative consumption and having more by owning less, its underlying message is one of introspection and insight, of paying closer attention to how we make sense of the world and our place in it through “stuff” and, in the process, becoming more mindful consumers.

You can snag an original drawing by Kate over on Etsy.

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The Vowels: A Ken Burns Parody


What the secret quasi-history of vowels has to do with the Founding Fathers’ prankstership.

Ken Burns. Prolific documentarian. Potent distiller of history and culture. As fascinating as his films may be, however, they tend to take themselves a bit too seriously. At least that’s what Sam Cherington, Andrew Flanagan, Daniel Inkeles, William Morey and Benjamin Smith wink at with the excellent The Vowels: A Film by Ken Burns — a short film that isn’t, of course, by Ken Burns but is instead a wildly entertaining parody.

And to add to the comedic value of this find, spotted on Meta Filter, here’s a gem from the discussion thread on the post, a real why-we-love-MeFi treat:

I once rode in an elevator with Ken Burns. He got off after four floors. Good thing, too, otherwise we would have all turned sepia.” ~ jonmc

And the fitting response:

And your elevator panel choices were Up, Down, Pan Left, Pan Right…” ~ hal9k

Ah, MeFi.

For some of the real Ken Burns stuff, you won’t go wrong with The Civil War or, my personal favorite, Jazz. And for some real stuff for language-lovers, look no further than these 5 essential books.

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Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect


Unspoken speeches, the root of Beethoven’s misanthropy, and why we need a secretary of the future.

Last month, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional interviews with luminaries were the most-shared piece on Brain Pickings. Revisiting the book reminded me of two things: One, the world lost one of its greatest observers of and commentators on culture the day Vonnegut died; two, how fantastic the 2009 anthology Armageddon in Retrospect is — the first posthumous collection of 12 never-before-published stories by Vonnegut, including fiction, nonfiction and, perhaps most notably, his last speech, which he wrote in 2007 and was meant to deliver in April of that year, but passed away shortly prior, so his son Mark delivered it in his stead. (Segue to reminder about last week’s selection of 5 timeless graduation speeches.)

If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Mark Vonnegut also penned the beautiful introduction to the book, in which he offers a priceless slice-of-life perspective on his father’s writing process, worries, and joys.

He taught how stories were told and taught readers how to read. His writings will continue to do that for a long time. He was and is subversive, but not the way people thought he was. He was the least wild-and-crazy guy I ever knew. No drugs. No fast cars.” ~ Mark Vonnegut

Amidst the stories of war, peace, and the human predilection for violence hides a a rare selection of Vonnegut’s artwork that articulates the iconic author’s frustrations with humanity in a simple and even more poignant way.

As usual, Vonnegut’s contemplative dismay at the state of mankind permeates the narrative:

Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

But, also as usual, it’s underpinned by an honest hope for humanity’s future, for our capacity to change and better ourselves, which makes Armageddon in Retrospect — and his work in general — as sticky and powerful as it is.

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