Brain Pickings

Human Brain: Extraordinary 48-Dancer Trailer for TEDxAmsterdam

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Human bodies + human brains = human nature.

This seems to be the year of the creative TEDx trailer. Now, from my friends at TEDxAmsterdam comes The Human Brain — a mesmerizing “trailer” for this month’s event, themed Human Nature, featuring 48 dancers from The Dutch National Ballet and an utterly smile-inducing original song titled “Turn the World Around” by Pigeon Horse Sex Tennis with Rutger Hauer, the British School, and children of Amsterdam.

The “trailer” is actually the dress rehearsal for the first “human brain” in a series of three to be performed live at TEDxAmsterdam on November 25th.

This piece of visual poetry — which seems to be the running theme here this week — comes from creative agency We Are Pi and production outfit 328 Stories.

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The Universal Traveler: A Vintage Guide to Creative Problem-Solving

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Navigating the “tourist traps” of creativity, or how to finally reconcile ideation and evaluation.

In a recent comment on Stefan G. Bucher’s fantastic 344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment, which has quickly become the most popular book on Brain Pickings this year, a reader named Terry tipped me off to The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals — a curious metaphorical travel guide to creative problem-solving, originally published in 1971 by researchers Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall, offering what’s essentially a blueprint to design thinking nearly four decades before design thinking was a buzzword.

The tome uses the analogy of travel, “an activity already known to all readers,” and the concept of The Travel Agency to explore various elements of and boosts for creative problem-solving — overcoming the blocks to creativity (something we’ve previously examined), avoiding “tourist traps” in the creative process, taking “side trips” that foster serendipity, mastering the art of idea selection, and learning to take criticism. Also included are a handful of hands-on, actionable tools and diagrams, including a beautifully designed “Traveler’s Map” and a procedure for “self-hypnosis.”

The travel vocabulary reinforces the concept that design is more meaningful when it can be visualized and pursued as a logical and planned journey through a series of stopovers called Design Stages. Although chance and random process are not excluded, their application depends on how appropriate they may be in specific situations.”

From the book’s introduction:

The Universal Traveler is more than a guide to creative problem-solving and clear thinking; it is your passport to success. The process described is universally relevant; based on the premise that any problem, dream, or aspiration, no matter its size or degree of complexity, can benefit from the same logical and orderly ‘systematic’ process employed to solve world-level problems.”

This “systematic process” they refer to is based on Cybernetics, an early study of human control systems, forming the foundation of most social, industrial and economic problem modeling. Koberg and Bagnall take the technical terminology of Cybernetics and translate it into everyday language, applied in simplified techniques. They call the resulting “user-friendly” approach to problem-solving “Soft Systems.”

Once learned and internalized with practice, the Universal Traveler ‘soft systematic’ approach will allow anyone to deal more logically and orderly with all manner of problem situations or goals.”

But my favorite part is easily this typographic inscription from the book’s original back cover:

More than a mere vintage gem, The Universal Traveler both presaged and laid the foundation for much of modern thinking on design and creativity, and is bound to become one of the most important books you ever read — had I come across it earlier, I would have certainly included it in my semi-serious omnibus on (almost) everything you need to know about culture in 10 books.

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The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: Vintage Arsenal of Masonic Pranksters

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What Elks, Moose, and Shriners have to do with a fake guillotine and a goat on wheels.

Freemasonry was born out of medieval craft guilds — working men distinguished by their freedom, not bonded into serfdom, indenture, or slavery. Their ceremonies and regalia were legendary, and their initiations mimicked harsh entries into religious order, initiations which might involve ritual humiliation, pain, or fear. Masons were primarily aristocratic, and if not wealthy, then at least refined. The fraternal lodges of the Elks, the Shriners, the Woodsmen, and the Moose, to name a few, offered a more casual form of brotherhood. Developed with masonic screeds in mind, they populated small towns and suburbs and its provided its members with a reason to get together once or twice a week. What they did each week was up to the members, sometimes they provided food and drink, more often they would debate bylaws and initiation fees (the lodges were originally developed to provide insurance for injured workers). Things could get a little sleepy.

Enter the DeMoulin brothers and their wonderfully strange DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, collected by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits in her new book, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. In 1892, a Woodsman lodge member asked his friend Ed DeMoulin to make him something that would really shake up dull lodge meetings. DeMoulin owned a local factory that manufactured uniforms, flags, patches, hats, seating, upholstery, and regalia of all kinds, and he was also at heart a trickster. When the Woodmen asked him to come up with a set piece that would really impress and scare the newly initiated, he delivered something darkly delightful: The Molten Lead Test, a flaming pot of seemingly boiling metal that turned out to be nothing more than mecurine powder dissolved in water (an element still not without its hazards). The pledge was convinced he was being burnt with hot lead, and the lodge would laugh uproariously at his misfortune.

The Wireless Trick Telephone

As a gag, the trick telephone was potentially quite dangerous. A 32-calibre blank cartridge was designed to go off in the face of anyone who tried to use the phone.

The Fuzzy Wonder

It was a lodge tradition to have a goat present at initiations, and the introduction of a mechanical goat meant that a live goat would be spared the experience. The wheeled goat was also ridden by lodge members in local parades.

The Ferris Wheel Goat

This version of the mechanical goat was supposed to stimulate a thrilling goat ride. The candidate is strapped in and wheeled upside down, all while remaining astride the goat.

The Electric Branding Iron

The magneto was an electric hand cranked battery that created a spark that could actually be quite painful. Similar batteries were actually used a New York state prison as a form of torture.

The catalogs were only published for thirty years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, but in that time the DeMoulins developed hundreds of patents for some of the most popular and bizarre lodge gags. With membership of nearly 35 million at its peak, almost every fraternal lodge in America, from the Elks to the Shriners to the Moose, ordered from the DeMoulin catalog. Members kept their activities a secret, especially when it came to the two rowdiest forms of lodge fun: initiations and side-work, which were pranks carried out for no reason in particular.

The Throne of Honor

After the candidate was blindfolded, led up and stairs and seated, he was expected to confess his 'moral transgressions.' When finished, the chair and the stairs would collapse and the candidate would slide down to the floor.

The Guillotine

Perhaps the most frightening of the lodge gags, the guillotine blade was designed to stop a few inches from the neck. The catalog suggested spattering it with blood and human hair for a greater effect.

The Saw Mill

Similar to the guillotine, the blade of the saw mill also stops just inches from its intended victim. 'This machine looks real and very dangerous but it is also absolutely harmless.'

The motives were the same as any college fraternity hazing: to scare, humiliate, and confuse the pledge. A lodge could order any number of devices to humiliate, including spanking machines, trick telephones, wobbly floors, and something called Throne of Honor, in which a pledge is led up a set of stairs transformed into an embarrassing slide. Lodges also enjoyed scaring the initiated half to death with trick coffins, fake guillotines, and dangerous-looking saw mills, as well as inflicting some real pain by zapping him with all manner of electric devices: the electric cane, the electric tunnel, the electric bench, or the electric shovel. Some of the offerings were just plain weird, including several variations on a wheeled goat, a lodge favorite that would be ridden in parades.

Electric Carpets

'There are no normal carpets in the DeMoulin fraternal world. As soon as the candidate's feet touch it he wishes he were standing on the hottest sands of the desert.'

Human Centipede

This four person costume was also wired with a jump spark battery which was controlled by the rider at the front, making the other three members of the centipede very unhappy.

Hulu Hula Bull Dance

This costume is for several candidates to perform at once and consists of bells for the wrists, waits, and feet, along with an inexplicable grass skirt. 'There are ten bells representing ten notes including F sharp and B Flat, making it possible to play simple airs.'

As good-natured as most of the pranks were, sometimes they went too far, injuring the initiated. The New York Times reported a prank gone wrong at a 1898 Woodmen meeting:

Plaintiff was blindfolded and subjected to several slight electric shocks. He was thrown off balance and fell hands down upon the magneto battery itself, receiving a shock which rendered him unconscious.”

A treasure chest of curiosity and a history lesson in dark humor, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is equal parts bizarre and delightfully bemusing, an essential piece of pop culture’s ritualistic paradigm and a rare glimpse of twentieth-century Americana.

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

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