Brain Pickings

Through the Middle: Bittersweet Short Film about a Barber, Perseverance, and Impermanence


Last year, we featured 7 short films about near-obsolete occupations, which went on to become one of our most enjoyed pickings all year. Today, we add to that collection Through the Middle — a beautiful observational documentary about an aging barber named Mr. S and the slow decline of his business. The film follows his profound reflections as he confronts his retirement, the loss of his patrons, and the ever-changing face of the city.

I enjoy cutting hair 24 hours a day. If I’ve got in my mind halfway through a haircut that I don’t enjoy it, I’ll put the tools down and walk out and leave you, and that would be the end of it then.”

The work of filmmakers Simon James Lane and Tom Sweetland, Through the Middle exudes the quiet grief of change as the foreign future, even when framed as progress, replaces the familiar past — the universal human restlessness towards impermanence.

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Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them


As home improvement shows continue to plague the primetime airwaves, photographer Sharon Beals offers a refreshing perspective shift in the powerful reminder that birds, with their incredible ability to build delicate and sturdy homes from scratch with wildly innovative materials, are the ultimate DIY homebuilding masters. In Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them, Beals takes a rare and intimate glimpse of these remarkably crafty creatures, drawing from the collections of the California Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, and the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology to showcase the most astounding avian architects from around the world.


During the 1800s, the mass killing of barn swallows for decorative hat feathers inspired one of the first organized conservation movements. Today, the barn swallow roams free, building nests from mud and twigs on the walls of barns, sheds, and bridges in North America, Europe, and Asia. This nest comes from Manchuria.

House Wren

House wrens are born into a do-or-die life, leaving the nest as early as two weeks after hatching, followed by their parents who take care of them as they learn to fly. Those who fail to take off are left behind and, without parental care, die.

Caspian Tern

Caspian terns parent on equal terms, taking turns incubating the eggs and feeding the hatchlings in nests that range from simple holes in the beach sand to elaborately constructed homes made of seaweed, pebbles and colorful shells.

Pine Siskin

Masters of camouflage, these cold-loving birds make their nests exceptionally well-hidden, beginning the mating and nesting process in the dead of winter.

House Finch

For house finches, courtship is a pregame aptitude test: The male pretends to regurgitate food, while the female imitates the begging behavior of a hatchling. Females are known for erecting nests in odd locations ranging from old hats to Christmas wreaths.

Stunningly shot and thoughtfully captioned, Nests is a poetic reminder of nature’s spectrum of creativity and scope of practical wisdom.

HT @paulrauber; images courtesy of Sierra Club

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Noma Bar’s Negative Space Illustrations


What hippies have to do with Wall Street, Iraq and the Little Red Riding Hood.

We’ve been longtime fans of Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, whose mastery of negative space — the space between and around the subjects of an image, which can frame another subject in and of itself — never ceases to amaze, adding a new layer of thoughtfulness to the classic figure-ground illusion of perception. As he recently redesigned a handful of Don DeLillo classics for Picador Books, we were reminded of our favorite Noma Bar classic: Negative Space — an anthology of Bar’s most compelling work from various high-profile magazines, commenting on some of today’s most pressing sociopolitical issues with the artist’s signature provocative subtlety.

A sneak peek of the book follows, but we highly recommend you indulge in its entirety — it’s a rare tapas bar of brain food and eye candy.

Beware The Wolves: Artwork for an article on older men who pursue younger women

Fat Cat: Artwork for an article on how CEOs invest their personal wealth

The Big Squeeze: Artwork for an article on the oil politics behind the Iraq war

Artwork for a piece on gun crime and violence

When Doves Cry: Mourning the loss of the hippy dream with white doves and a VW van

Thought-provoking and visually stunning, Negative Space is the kind of blend of aesthetics and ethics we’d like to see more of in the world.

Images courtesy of Creative Review

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Michael Wolff on the Three Muscles of Creativity


Earlier this year, we featured a beautifully filmed, intimately narrated short documentary about Scott Schuman, better known as The Sartorialist, part of Intel’s Visual Life series. This month, the series is back with a fantastic episode about iconic designer Michael Wolff of Wolff Olins fame, whose insights on curiosity and appreciation as a central gateway to creativity resonate deeply with our own mission.

I have three muscles, without which I couldn’t do my work. The first is curiosity. (You can call it inquisitiveness, you can call it questioning.) The second muscle [is] the muscle of appreciation. It’s not questioning so much as it is noticing… how joyful things can be, how colorful things can be, what already exists as an inspiration. The muscle of curiosity and the muscle of appreciation enable the muscle of imagination.

Everybody knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What few people realize it is only through the parts that the whole gets delivered. I see seeing as a muscular exercise, like I see curiosity. It’s a kind of being open, really: If you walk around with a head full of preoccupation, you’re not going to notice anything in your visual life.” ~ Michael Wolff

A brand is really a way of remembering what something is like for future reference — something you value, something you feel attracted to. The job of a brand identity, how you package all of that — the purpose, the vision, what it does, what it brings — how you make that so that people can take it and receive it and value it and treasure it and choose it, that’s the whole process of branding. That’s what it is.” ~ Michael Wolff

The film comes from the fine folks at m ss ng p eces, the same team who took us behind the scenes of a TED talk in January.

There’s a certain packaging of human beings that takes place in order to reveal ourselves authentically, or in order to pretend to be something other than what we are.” ~ Michael Wolff

Wolff’s wisdom on branding and identity is encapsulated in the 1995 classic, The New Guide to Identity: How to Create and Sustain Change Through Managing Identity — a thoughtful blueprint for design-driven adaptation in a world of impermanence and inevitable change.

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