Brain Pickings

How Bananas Became a Global Commodity

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What the silent film era has to do with the architecture of atmospheric control.

Over on Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley has a fantastic longform piece tracing the painstaking production that is the life cycle of bananas as they make their way from tropical Ecuador to your fruit bowl. This reminded me of a fascinating vintage documentary from the end of the silent film era I’d come across some time ago. The 11-minute black-and-white film, currently in the public domain courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, was produced in 1935 and zooms in on the banana industry, from virgin jungle being converted into banana plantations to the fifteen-month growth cycle between root planting and banana bunch to the shipment of the fruit into the American markets, and even ends with a stop-motion visual jingle about the health virtues of bananas.

Bananas are more than a delicious fruit — they are one of America’s most important foods…”

Now, contrast that — the manual farming and inspection, the pick-up locomotives, the “specially constructed ships of the Great White Fleet” — with today’s sophisticated banana-ripening facilities and their “evolving architecture of atmospheric control.”.

In other words, in order to be a global commodity rather than a tropical treat, the banana has to be harvested and transported while completely unripe. Bananas are cut while green, hard, and immature, washed in cool water (both to begin removing field heat and to stop them from leaking their natural latex), and then held at 56 degrees — originally in a refrigerated steamship; today, in a refrigerated container — until they reach their country of consumption weeks later.”

And in observing how far we’ve come technologically, it’s bittersweet — like a green banana, perhaps — to observe how much further we’ve gone from the groves.

HT Andrew Sullivan

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Evolution: The Natural History of Animal Skeletons, Stripped Down

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What a flamingo, a capybara, and a guinea pig have to do with the beginnings of recorded time.

When Gunther von Hagens put together his traveling display of half-stripped bodies playing sports, chess, fencing, riding a similarly half-stripped horse, and generally acting like their human counterparts, audiences were horrified and fascinated. Bodyworlds was gross anatomy on parade, and to some it might have felt more like body snatching than an education in muscle mass and movement. But Von Hagens, for all his showmanship, emphasized that these bodies, preserved hopefully forever, were for learning. The entertainment was incidental.

The image that opens the Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu’s stunning book Evolution takes Von Hagens horse and rider and strips it completely, bone against black in a beautiful high-resolution photograph. The result is somehow even more animated, more eternal, and the quote paired with it, from the eighteenth-century naturalist Comte de Buffon, reveals the project at hand:

Take the skeleton of a man. Tilt the pelvis, shorten the femurs, legs, and arms, elongate the feet and hands, fuse the phalanges, elongate the jaws while shortening the frontal bone, and finally elongate the spine, and the skeleton will cease to represent the remains of a man and will be the skeleton of a horse…”

Human being (Homo sapiens) riding a horse (Equus caballus)

For hundreds of years, natural history museums have offered body worlds of their very own, skeletons stripped down for study, sometimes posed in their natural habitats looking about as natural as a pork chop in the jungle.

Evolution, published originally as a large-scale coffee table book in 2007, now in a physically smaller but expanded edition, provides a stark contrast of black and white and bone. Patrick Gries’ photographs against black backgrounds transform animal skeletons into tender and lively creatures, as animated in death as they were in life, while Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, a professor of natural science, provides a concise summary of each animal’s place in the evolutionary ladder.

Greater flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber, Africa, America, Eurasia

These skeletons are so far beyond death that we can see in them almost a new kind of creature, where the bones are animated without muscle, and skulls manage to look at us without eyes. Gries poses the skeletons provocatively: a leopard pounces mid-air onto its prey, a piranha is about to snap, a black swan preens its missing feathers, a wood pigeon flies off the page.

Cheetah, Acynonyx jubatus, Sub-Saharan Africa

The book is organized according to the principles of, you guessed it, evolution, but de Panafieu prefers to tell the smaller stories of the parts rather than the whole: of predator and prey, of teeth and digits, of specific changes in fish, of brains and their carrying-cases, skulls.

Hermann’s tortoise, Tesudo hermanni, France

Mostly taken from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the animals represented here are from all over the globe, land and sea, big and small: the flamingo, the guinea pig, the okapi, the capybara, the house mouse, the little owl, stunningly-ribbed snakes, sea sponges, the nurse shark, seahorses, the pilot whale, the common carp. the sacred ibis, Humbolt’s wooly monkey, and of course, the human.

Ring-tailed lemur, Eulemur mongoz, Madagascar

A rare book that is both a complete work of art and a complete work of science, Evolution dismantles the natural history museum into its parts, revealing a stripped-down animal kingdom and the commonalities at its core.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Greatest Type Designers

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A voyeuristic look at the underbelly of the art-science of typography.

From prolific design writer Steven Heller (previously) and collaborator Lita Talarico comes a fine new addition to both the 10 finest books on typography and our favorite peeks inside the notebooks of great creators: Typography Sketchbooks is like a visual window into the minds of the world’s most exciting type designers and, in turn, into the intricate art-science of typography itself — a medium both creative and practical that has to walk the tightrope between centuries-old tradition and bleeding-edge innovation with equal parts grace and agility in an era of changing reading habits and design expectations.

An understanding of content and context is essential, but, typographically speaking — that is, in terms of the letterforms — beauty, however defined, is key. The beauty of precision; the beauty of expression; the beauty of how one letter conjoins with others on either side of it and above and below; the beauty of how it looks on the page or screen.” ~ Steven Heller

The hefty tome, weighing in at over 3 pounds and 350 pages, features work by more than 100 designers — including icons like Paul Shaw, Matthew Carter, and Erik Spiekermann, and Brain Pickings favorites Doyald Young, Maira Kalman, and Milton Glaser — each profiled in a micro-essay alongside the work. (Though I have to say I was surprised to find Marian Bantjes, whose I Wonder remains one of my 10 all-time favorite books about typography, absent from the book.)

Heller and Talarico’s exquisite selection reveals two key archetypes of type designer: the designer as artist, using letterforms as a medium of self-expression and creative experimentation, and the designer as scientist, applying precision and technical acumen to create stunning yet utilitarian type commodities.

There are two kinds of type maker (though many more kinds of type user, which is another story). One is the precisionist or functional designer who creates typefaces for quotidian public consumption. The other is the gadfly or expressionist designer who makes — or, rather, illustrates — letters in any shape or form: legible or illegible, it doesn’t matter, as long as it emotes.” ~ Steven Heller

Typography Sketchbooks is a follow-up to Heller and Talarico’s 2010 Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers, one of the five finest glimpses of creators’ private notebooks.

In 2011, bringing you 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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