Brain Pickings

Visions of the Future: Isaac Asimov’s Unrealized Pilot


What vintage computers have to do with unrealized TV series and the future of humanity.

We love iconic science fiction author and futurist Isaac Asimov, whose keen insights on creativity in education were a favorite last month. Two years before his death, Asimov recorded a pilot for a TV series synthesizing his visionary ideas about where humanity is going. When he passed away in 1992, the pilot for the series was adapted into a tribute documentary titled Visions of the Future, now available on YouTube in four parts, totaling 40 minutes of rare footage and biographical background on the great thinker.

The series was intended to cover new breakthroughs in science and technology, preparing people for the coming future — essentially, the antithesis to the Future Shock series narrated by Orson Welles.

Most fascinating of all are Asimov’s thoughts on computers, which may seem like common sense today but in fact presage the modern applications of computing, from mobile technology to consumer electronics to artificial intelligence, by two decades.

Perhaps the most revolutionary development of recent years has been that of the computer. Because for the first time we’ve discovered a machine that can substitute, at least in part, the human brain. Before that, it was just a matter of saving human muscles, of using machinery to spare what human muscles couldn’t do very well.” ~ Isaac Asimov

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The Last Lions: NatGeo Photographers Tell an Urgent Story


Last month, National Geographic photographers Beveryly and Dereck Joubert took the TED stage to share some moving lessons from big cats and pull the curtain on the making of The Last Lions — their beautiful and urgent documentary about the dangerous fate of the lions in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, told through the story of one lion family. Though the film is only screening in theaters across New York, LA and DC, the remarkable book of the same name is now out and an absolute, albeit unsettling, treat.


'Will this lonely little survivor of this grand adventure be allowed to grow up, grow into a mane, and live to dominate a territory? That, as we say in the film, will depend on us.' | Image credit: Beverly Joubert


'With two cubs left, Ma di Tau holds them close. She is a good mother in an impossible situation struggling to hunt alone with two cubs to feed.' | Image credit: Beverly Joubert


'Against a constant backdrop of buffalo, the lions of Duba are highlights on a dark canvas.' | Image credit: Beverly Joubert


'Ironically, the young males of the Skimmer pride may be the best hope for the future of the Tsaro pride, even though they are enemies right now.' | Image credit: Beverly Joubert


'A new male on the island seemed familiar and very calm. Then we found his spot pattern in an old photograph, a grown male cub from the Skimmer pride. He is the future of the Tsaro legacy now.' | Image credit: Beverly Joubert

Bittersweet and poignant, The Last Lions is a stride-stopping story of urgency and hope, reminding us of our duty to honor and protect these powerful yet surprisingly fragile beings of poetic pride and mythic magnificence.

Images via Flavorwire

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Inside the Mind of Kanye West: Typographic Phrenology


Just when we think the world couldn’t possibly need another bit of Kanye “Overexposure” West, the fine folks at Column Five manage to prove us wrong with one of their signature infographic gems: A typographic phrenology of Kanye’s mind.

Though, not to be neuro-nitpickers, we have to point out that the little “Grow up, Kanye” voice is least likely to come from the cerebellum, the “little brain” responsible for our reptilian, primitive, most selfish impulses — the part that keeps us immature and self-centered. But then again, if phrenology itself is a pseudoscience, what do we expect of typo-phrenology?

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Visualizing Loudness: The Dark Side of Music Digitization


From Bieber to boredom, or what 30 years of compression have to do with auditory freedom.

Last month, we explored 3 fascinating, synesthetic ways of visualizing music. Today, we’re applying the same cross-sensory lens on a more basic component of sound: Loudness.

The rise of digital music over the past decade has sparked a phenomenon known as the loudness wars — a detrimental sonic arms race to digitally master recordings with higher real and perceived levels of loudness, resulting in sound quality inferior to that of analog recordings like vinyl and cassettes. (You can see and hear the difference in action here.) To better understand these issues of sound compression, perceived loudness and recording quality, we’re looking — literally — at three visual approaches to subject that illuminate it in a visceral, intuitive way.


Created for a 2009 NPR episode on the subject, this stunning infographic poster by designer Christopher Clark visualizes the history of loudness through the changes in frequency peaks, dynamic range and RMS levels — the actual auditory components of perceived loudness — in different music genres between 1979 and 2009.


From reader Ian Shepherd, whom you may recall as our volunteer photographer for Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition, comes this fascinating infographic raising awareness about Dynamic Range Day — an effort to debunk the myth that loudness helps sell records, taking place on March 25h.

Using data from the Unofficial Dynamic Range Database, Shepherd pits dynamic range — the distance between the highest, sharpest highs and lowest, softest lows, which gives sound richness — against loudness, alongside sales rankings where available.

The results are somewhat unexpected — Justin Bieber’s My World 2.0, for instance, is far louder with much less of a dynamic range than Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the #1 highest-selling record on the chart. Coldplay (#48), typically perceived as “mellow” band in terms of sonic style, is actually far louder than iconic hard rock band AC/DC (#2) in technical terms.


Also from Ian, TT Dynamic Range Meter by the Pleasurable Music Foundation is a wonderful free tool for Mac and PC rendering real-time dynamic range visualizations that help not only mixing engineers, but also casual music lovers make informed decisions about sound compression. You can try it out as a free plugin here.


For a deeper dive into the subject, this excellent talk by Earl Vickers from the 129th Audio Engineering Society Convention, framing the underlying problem of the loudness wars as a problem of game theory, is very much worth the watch. (Again, thanks Ian.)

If we look at some extreme examples, we see that hypercompression reduces contrast between verse and chorus, it takes the crescendo out of the bolero, removes the surprise from the ‘Surprise Symphony,’ and turns ‘Stairway to Heaven’ into a sidewalk.” ~ Earl Vickers

Even if people don’t consciously notice the problem, the music may become mentally or physically tiring. Listeners may lose interest without knowing why.” ~ Earl Vickers

If you’re like us and live most of your life with music, this should both worry and mobilize you. Thankfully, sound advisor and researcher Julian Treasure has your back with this great short TED talk on 8 steps to sound health.

And for an even closer look at the issue in its rich historical context, we highly recommend Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music.

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