Brain Pickings

Moby-Duck: A Quest for the Story Behind Bathtime


How a student assignment led to an around-the-world adventure, or what Eric Carle has to do with environmentalism.

Ever really stopped to wonder where rubber duckies come from? Neither had we, until reading an utterly engrossing and unusual account of the ubiquitous yellow bath icons. Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, out this week, is a paragon of longform non-fiction journalism. (And, at 27 words, the book’s subtitle sells its contents but only hints at the absorbing exploits contained within its pages.)

Hohn was a New York City-based English teacher and self-proclaimed “would-be archaeologist of the ordinary” when, one semester, a student’s assignment presented him with an impossible-to-resist tale: In 1992, several cargo ship containers were lost at sea, snapping free during a violent storm during their charted course from China to the U.S. The resulting spill sent a haul of floating ducks, beavers, frogs, and turtles cascading into the Arctic, with the survivors washing up on Maine shores as much as a decade later. Hohn’s spark of interest would lead him to follow an obsessive oceanographer to Alaska, Hawaii, and eventually back to its origin in Guangdong province to satisfy his initial curiosity.

[Q]uestions, I’ve learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you’re way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep.

Hohn has a dramatist’s feel for pacing that left us breathless despite knowing, from the outset, how the story ends — or so we thought. Seamlessly interweaving reflections on his impending fatherhood with lessons about global supply chain economics, Moby-Duck pulls off an increasingly difficult feat: getting us to care about the impact of our consumption on our planet. We were thoroughly entertained by Hohn’s portrayals of the eccentric cast of characters surrounding the wayward bath toys, and hypnotized by his great storytelling gifts.

I pictured the ducks afloat like yellow pixels on the vast, gray acreage of the waves, or skiing down the glassy slopes of fifty-foot swells, or coasting through the Arctic on floes of ice. I imagined standing on a beach somewhere in Newfoundland or Maine–places I had never visited or given much thought. I imagined looking out and seeing a thousand tiny nodding yellow faces, white triangles glinting in their cartoon eyes, insipid smiles molded into the orange rubber of their clownish bills.

We hope that Moby-Duck makes a splash — pun fully intended — in proportion to its sweeping exploration of contemporary life’s complexities.

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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Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything


Out-geniusing Einstein, or what the Pope and quantum mechanics have in common.

In 1988, iconic theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking — the living paradox of a superhuman brain trapped in a body that doesn’t work, held in the merciless grip of Lou Gehrig’s disease — published the landmark A Brief History of Time as he set out to “know the mind of God” by developing a simple, elegant set of laws that would explain how our universe works and where it came from. And unlike other grand existential questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, whether God exists and what time is, his was the grandest quest of all: To build a complete theory everything. To do that, he had to do the seemingly impossible: Unify the two great theories of physics — the theory of the very big, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the theory of the very small, quantum mechanics.

Twenty years later, Discovery captured Hawking’s grand quest to find the fundamental reasons for our existence and his life’s work in Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything. The ambitious documentary follows Hawking who, at the age of 66, still puts in a tireless full week’s worth of teaching and research, and contextualizes his landmark work over the past two decades through rare and revealing interviews with renowned scientists who collaborated with Hawking, as well as with Hawking himself.

At a conference on cosmology in The Vatican, the pope told the delegates that it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God. I was glad he didn’t realize I had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began — I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo.” ~ Stephen Hawking

Though the DVD is most excellent, the film is also available on YouTube in 10 parts, gathered for your cognitive pleasure in this playlist:

My life’s work has been to unify the theories of the very large and the very small. Only then can we answer the more challenging questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from?” ~ Stephen Hawking

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Let’s Dance: A Stop-Motion Homage to Modern Love


What the evolution of cinema has to do with sexuality and storytellers’ moral responsibility.

We’re continuously fascinated by the trial and tribulations of modern romance. Last month, we swooned over You Deserve a Medal, designer Stefan G. Bucher’s lovely homage to the feats of modern love. Today, we’re thrilled to reveal, in a Brain Pickings exclusive — a beautiful short film about that very subject by director John Thompson and producer Sharon Lee, blending 2D cutouts with 3D live-action in a wonderfully playful visual narrative to use dance as a metaphor for, erm, the ultimate act of intimacy.

We sat down with John to chat about the inspiration behind the film, the visual language of romance, and storytellers’ responsibility about framing the cultural expectations for love.


How did the dance metaphor come about?

That was the brainchild of writer/producer Sharon Lee. When she called me about the project, she had the basics figured out: A creative short film about a relationship dealing with modern challenges, and dance would be the metaphor for love and sex. Dance has a long history in literature and film for symbolizing human ecstasy, both the sacred and physical.

From Shakespeare to the modern YouTube dance videos, human rhythmic movement connects us in a primal way.

I absolutely loved that concept and instantly jumped on board.


Filmmakers have been infatuated with the visual language of romance since the dawn of cinema. How are today’s cinematic techniques, styles and vehicles different from what came before in painting intimacy?

For me, the thing that is so exciting about cinema is the way it has continued to evolve. Technology, trends, experimentation and style are always changing, affecting one another, ultimately having a great impact on the story of the film.

After exploring various approaches to our film, we decided to shoot stop-motion hand-held with actors in a simplified world made of grey paper. Since we were telling people a story they already knew, it was important to tell it in a new way stylistically. The tone of the piece kept a nice balance between humor and sincerity, which was something Sharon and I always wanted.


Do you think storytellers have a certain responsibility in terms of conveying the normative expectations of romance and, if so, what does modern romance mean to you as a storyteller and creator?

Personally, I think an artist’s only responsibility is to follow his or her voice. I don’t think you go anywhere really meaningful unless you go deeply personal and highly instinctual, and that can’t be any truer than when dealing with relationships.

‘Modern romance’ sounds like an oxymoron. To me, the guts of love are timeless, and it is the world changing around it.

As a filmmaker, I wanted to break into those timeless basics by stripping down the world in our film to the bare essentials, but it was also a balancing act to accurately represent current challenges in relationships to give the piece an entry point for the audience.

But at the end of the day, the guide for me was my personal experiences; the love and the heartache.

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Viliam: Slovakian Short Film about Happiness & Delusion


We love doodling, paper-cutout art and stop-motion, and have a soft spot for Eastern Europe. Naturally, we’re all over Viliam — an absolutely wonderful stop-motion, paper-cutout short film by Slovakian animator Veronika Obertová.

The film tells the story of a boy who develops an obsession with doodling. After losing his parents to a tragic accident, Viliam escapes from reality by drawing his own animated world.

Part Flatland, part Lars and the Real Girl, Viliam poses, poetically, one of life’s greatest questions: Are we empowered architects of our own happiness or misguided slaves to our own delusion? And, more importantly, does it really matter which it is?

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