Brain Pickings

Inside the Mind of Kanye West: Typographic Phrenology

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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

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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.

CHRISTOPHER CLARK

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.

IAN SHEPHERD

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.

DYNAMIC RANGE METER

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.

BONUS

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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7 Must-Read Books on the Future of Information and the Internet

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From retrofuturist media prophecies to the cognitive consequences of mobile-everything.

We’re deeply fascinated by the evolution of media and the sociocognitive adaptations that go along with it, but perhaps even more so by the intellectual debates surrounding this ever-swelling topic of increasing urgency and controversy. The past year has been particularly prolific in varied takes on our shared digital future, contextualizing our current concerns in fascinating media history and exploring the potential consequences of our modern media diets. Collected here are 7 of our favorite books investigating the subject from dramatically different yet equally important angles.

I LIVE IN THE FUTURE & HERE’S HOW IT WORKS

From our good friend and New York Times writer Nick Bilton comes I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted — a provocative look at how new media models are shaping the future of cross-platform storytelling. From the next chapter in journalism to the porn industry’s legacy of technological innovation to the sociocultural power of video games, Bilton examines the future from the lens of the past to deliver an intelligent, layered and — perhaps most importantly — optimistic blueprint for the where our digital universe is going.

THE SHALLOWS

Though we don’t agree with many of Nicholas Carr‘s arguments in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — redundant and reductionist, his view is the contemporary equivalent of Futureshock, the techno-paranoid vintage series narrated by Orson Welles — we recognize the book as an important read, if only as a way to understand and contextualize these all-too-common fears that many seem to share with Carr.

My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” ~ Nicholas Carr

HAMLET’S BLACKBERRY

Even if Carr is right and the Internet is taking a toll on our brains, it doesn’t have to. In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers offers a toolkit of refreshing remedies for our chronically multitasking, digitally distracted selves, collected from historical figures that lived long before the digital age. From Thoreau’s “Internet Sabbaths” to productivity apps from Shakespeare, Powers blends the advantages of constant connectivity with the caution we need to exercise as we engage with the world in these new ways, extending an invitation to subvert our media routines in a way that prioritizes happiness over blind efficiency.

TOO MUCH TO KNOW

In Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, Harvard historian Ann Blair explores the history of contemporary media concerns like the impact of the internet on publishing, information overload and remix culture, tracing their roots to uncannily similar practices and concepts from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts, facilitated by the use of paper, accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic contexts. ~ Ann Blair

YOU KNOW NOTHING OF MY WORK!

No biography of iconic media futurist Marshall McLuhan could possibly be about the future of the internet per se — he lived, after all, a good half-century before the web as we know it existed. But Douglas Coupland’s excellent new almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, which we reviewed last week, is full of insights on the evolution of media that presage many of our modern concerns. From information overload to the rise of what McLuhan calls “electronic inter-dependence,” the book offers a fascinating lens not only on the technological revolution of the past century, but also on the complex shifts in social cognition that it continues to beget.

One must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or I.B.M., but rather by studying arcane 16th-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.” ~ Douglas Coupland

IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK

Last month, we looked at the annual questions by iconic sci-tech futurism journal EDGE, which has been asking contemporary luminaries to answer one big question every year since 1998, then publishing the responses in a book the following year to serve up a fascinating and illuminating timecapsule of the intelligencia’s collective conscience. This year’s edition, Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future, offers a fantastic compendium of responses by iconic contemporary thinkers like Chris Anderson, Esther Dyson, Howard Gardner, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno and 167 more.

You can also read the answers online, but whatever your chosen medium, we highly recommend you take a look.

COGNITIVE SURPLUS

Clay Shirky may just be the Marshall McLuhan of our day, only with saner vocabulary and less of a penchant for LSD. (At least as far as we know.) His Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one of our top books in business, life and mind for 2010, takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential to build on humanity’s treasure trove of knowledge and bring about social change.

For a taste of this absolutely essential book, don’t miss Shirky’s excellent TED talk:

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Life Looks for Life: A(nother) NASA Tribute

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Last month, we featured The Frontier Is Everywhere — one space fan’s breathtaking NASA tribute, remixing Carl Sagan’s iconic words with spellbinding images of the cosmos and our quest for its secrets. This month, he’s back with the second installment in the series: Life Looks for Life. Watch, breathe with the awe, and keep an eye on the project’s Facebook page for the next episode.

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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