Brain Pickings

Woodworking for Mere Mortals: 5 DIY Wooden Gadgets


What Zimbabwean pianos have to do with vintage maze games and tortillas.

In today’s multitasking, digitally driven creative landscape, there’s something to be said for the joy of unitasking and hands-on, tactile work the output of which is something charmingly analog and tangible. Enter Woodworking for Mere Mortals, our new favorite creative craftsmanship fix — a portal for woodworking projects, video tutorials, tips and resources for de-appifying your leisure and impressing friends with remarkably memorable gifts. Several dozen woodworking videos teach you how to make anything from salad tongs to musical instruments, complete with downloadable templates and narrated with delightful quirk by Northern California woodmaker Steve Ramsey. Here are 5 of our favorites.


Who needs a vuvuzela when you can have a ratchet rattle? Show the other team who’s boss at the next sporting event you attend or institute an office-wide intercom alternative with this really, really, really loud DIY noisemaker.


Sure, you could just download the latest music-making iPad app. Or, you could make yourself a Zimbambwean mbira dza vadzimu thumb piano. (And then actually learn to play it as wonderfully as this guy does.)


The dear old toothpick may be on the verge of slipping into cultural obscurity, but we find it an ingenious incarnation of design minimalism — one you’d appreciate even more with a clown toothpick holder …especially if you happen to have contracted our recently developed cinnamon toothpick addiction.


Down with stereotypes — now you can be a foodie and a lumberjack, thanks to this DIY tortilla press. This particular project is a wonderful manifestation of the fruitful convergence of new media and traditional craft — after Steve posted the original video, he got feedback from viewers pointing out a functionality problem that resulted in really, really fat tortillas. Consequently, he’s been toying with the idea of a prototype for removable inserts that allow for multi-thickness tortillas.


For another wonderful anitdote to the appification of leisure, make yourself — or a device-dependent friend — a retro marble maze. Download the PDF template here. (For a slightly more modern DIY gaming diversion, the connect 4 project is also worth a look.)

For more on the art and craft of woodworking, we highly recommend Old Ways of Working Wood: The Techniques and Tools of a Time Honored Craft — the definitive blueprint to wood types, tools and techniques, adorned with more than 200 beautiful illustrations.

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Proteus: Ernst Haeckel at the Intersection of Art & Science


More than a year ago, we featured Art Forms in Nature — a fascinating 1904 book by German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel, full of beautifully illustrated artistic interpretations of the biological forms Haeckel studied. His work had a profound influence on art movements, scientific thought and entire ideologies, from Art Nouveau and Surrealism to Thomas Edison to Freud and Lenin. Proteus is a remarkable documentary about Haeckel’s work and others he influenced, a breathtaking intersection of science and art 20 years in the making.

Every age has its own image of the world, and every image reflects the vision of its time and of its maker.”

Ernst Haeckel: Intersection of art and science

Among other marvels, the film features stunning images of the mineral exoskeletons of ancient one-celled marine organisms known as radiolarian — Haeckel single-handedly named, classified and illustrated nearly 4,000 of the 5,000 existing species, finding in their dazzling variety the key to the creative power of nature.

The radiolarian are like an alphabet of possibilities, as if the ancient sea were dreaming in its depths all the future permutations of organic and invented forms, from backbones to bridges and from the Earth to the stars.”

Proteus is at once a feat of science and an astonishing pinnacle of art, revealing with rigor and whimsy the magnificent meeting point of human curiosity and nature’s magic.

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The Frontier Is Everywhere: A NASA Tribute


Nearly two years ago, we noted that NASA could learn a thing or two about inspiring the public and rousing excitement around its monumentally important work. Now, one NASA fan has taken it upon himself to bridge the frustrating gap between NASA’s deeply inspirational work and the toothless official communication about it, remixing breathtaking footage of our planet and the cosmos with an audio excerpt from Carl Sagan’s iconic Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.” ~ Carl Sagan

For more of Sagan’s glorious vision for the future of mankind in the universe, don’t miss this fantastic 9-minute animated adaptation of Pale Blue Dot.

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Future Shock: Alvin Toffler’s Vintage Techno-Paranoia, Narrated by Orson Welles


What the dawn of computing has to do with Herbie Hancock and humanoid robotics.

In 1970, sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler, the Ray Kurzweil of his day, wrote a book entitled Future Shock, which proposed a certain distressing psychological state , induced by change so rapid the human mind can’t digest it, and introduced the notion of “information overload” for the first time. In 1972, the book, already a bestseller, was adapted into a little-known documentary of the same name, narrated by Orson Welles. Exploring the shift from industrial society to what Toffler calls “super-industrial society,” the film tackles notions of consumerism and information overload — think BBC’s The Century of the Self meets Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.

The film is now available on YouTube in five parts, offering a fascinating glimpse of a conflicted society on the brink of a new information era, the very cultural landscape we now inhabit.

What do we buy, where do we go, what shoud we think? The make, the model, the price… Buy now! Keep up with the latest! Don’t fall behind! The pre-cooked, pre-packaged, plastic-wrapped instant society. We’re faced with so many choices, so many decisions. We have to make them so quickly. None of us can escape the pressures. That’s what Future Shock is all about.”

A chemistry professor recently stated that he couldn’t pass today’s examinations because at least two thirds of the questions require knowledge that didn’t exist when he graduated from Oxford in the early 30s.”

So wide-spanning was the influence of Toffler’s work that it inspired an entire Curtis Mayfield album, the title track of which was even famously covered by Herbie Hancock.

The rate of change reflecting the fact that where we live means less and less as we breed a new race of nomads. Few suspect how massive, wide-spread and uprooting these migrations are.”

As the pace of technology accelerates, as the pieces are laid into place, the pattern seems clear: We might create an artificial man. As work proceeds on the brain, it may one day be possible to combine all the elements into a life-like duplication of flesh and blood. The momentum is established, but the direction is up to us. Is there danger in the path we are taking? What happens to the definition of man, who is he? What is he?”

Considering present scientific knowledge, we may soon be able to create carbon copies of human beings. Imagine the implications — to duplicate a human being, genetically, down to the last detail.”

Our children. Will we save them from future shock, or are they destined to suffer the same illness that rocks today’s society? The directions we choose have consequences not merely for us. The choices we make will determine the nature of their world. There is still time.”

The film, darkly dystopian and oozing techno-paranoia, is a valuable reminder that — as our friend Nick Bilton keenly points out — societies have always feared new technology but ultimately adapted to it. Or, better yet, adapted it to their needs. Future Shock is an excellent companion to contemporary books tackling the same issue, such as Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, putting our modern fears in perspective and grounding our present techno-paranoia in its proper historical context.

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