Brain Pickings

The Englishman who Posted Himself

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In 1898, British prankster W. Reginald Bray decided to test the limits of the Royal Mail. He began a series of experiments, mailing everything from turnips to rabbit skulls to Russian cigarettes — and, on three occasions, himself — up until his death in 1939.

This fall, author John Tingey is telling Bray’s fascinating story in The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects — a detailed chronicle of the bizarre and ingenious ways in which the otherwise ordinary Brit hacked the information system of his time.

Perhaps even more curiously, over the course of his long correspondence-pranking career, Bray also amassed the world’s largest collection of autographs, including ones from Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier and Maurice Chevalier.

The book, absorbing and visually captivating, also features a photograph of Bray being delivered to his own doorstep in 1900, when he became the first person to send a human being through the mail. (Though he did previously pilot-test it with an Irish terrier, who made it through the postal system in one piece, albeit a barking and disgruntled one.)

via VSL; photos HT Acejet 170

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings — the blog, the newsletter and the Twitter feed — over which we could’ve seen 53 feature-length films, listened to 135 music albums or taken 1,872 trips to the bathroom. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right.





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The Secret of Happiness: A TED Remix

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I recently had the pleasure of meeting the wonderful Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project fame, who inspired me to excavate an old pet project of mine featured here a few years ago: An exploratory story of what happiness is, told in TED soundbites and kinetic typography — a true labor of love that took three weeks to compose, audio-edit and animate. Enjoy!

Speakers, in order of appearance:

For a complementary read, see these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness.

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Historical Milestones As Famous Pop Songs

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What Lady Gaga has to do with the guillotine, or how ABBA took down Henry VIII’s wives.

We’re big proponents of remix culture and today we have something from its most bizarre yet brilliant fringes: Behold historyteachers, a “History for Music Lovers” project adapting famous historical events and figures to famous songs.

From the French Revolution via Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to The Canterbury Tales via “California Dreamin'” to Pompeii via Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang”, the pairings are done with a bit of a thematic insider’s wink that only adds to the kooky genius of the concept.

Despite the decidedly absurd proposition, the videos actually feature surprisingly excellent vocals, lyrical adaptation and production value, not to mention impressively accurate impressions of the original performers, out-Gagaing Gaga and nailing Debbie Harry’s famous mic-dance-hop to the T.

The brainchild of a Hawaiian history teacher duo, mysteriously titled Mrs. B and Mr. H, the project is a piece of pure remix genius. Catch all 47 videos on the historyteachers YouTube channel and marvel at the wonderful intersection of geekery, creativity and quirk.

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right and helps pay the bills.





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Locals Only: The Early Days of Skateboarding

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In the summer of 1975, Southern California experienced a drought so severe it evaporated nearly all suburban swimming pools. Restless to escape the heat and fill the long summer days, kids quickly turned these dry pools into playgrounds that became the essential springboard for the skateboarding scene. It was one such hot, dry afternoon that a young photographer by the name of Hugh Holland drove up Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Los Angeles to find himself mesmerized by the dynamic grace and explosive athleticism of these young skateboarders. So he decided to document them, unaware he was recording the dawn of an era that would shape countless facets of pop culture in eras to come.

For the next four years, Holland captured the rail-riding teens, in all their golden-skinned, sweatband-wearing 70s glory, on recycled 35mm film. His camera, still a novelty in that day, gave him enough of a cool factor to grant him unequaled access to this self-contained, near-cultish subculture, resulting in images that were candid and raw with a kind of authentic excitement about the time impossible to replicate in a studio.

More than 30 years later, these magnificent photographs are revealed to the world in Locals Only: California Skateboarding 1975-1978 — a remarkable anthology of 120 large-format full-color images, complete with that vintage fisheye grittiness we’ve come to adore, alongside an exclusive Q&A with Holland, who reveals fascinating insights about the dawn of skateboarding culture.

It spread like wildfire all over Southern California. I know it happened in other parts of the world too, but California felt like the center of it all.” ~ Hugh Holland

Stacy Peralta, Coldwater Canyon, June 1977

'Reach Out' | Trey Hall, May 1977

'Bull' | Redondo Beach, July 1975

'On the Rocks at Arthur's Pool' | Nelson Valentine, Arthur's Pool, Santa Monica, October 1976

Morgan Englund, Santa Monica hills, October 1976

'Todd's Guitar' | Todd Foote, February 1977

'Sidewalk Surver' | Huntington Beach, 1975

'Left Turn Only' (August 1975) and 'Arthur Attitude' (Arhur Lake, Kanter Canyon Elementary, 1976)

Locals Only is a gritty gem from an era long gone in time but forever engrained in pop culture, a rare record of photographic history and cultural anthropology rolled up into one visually gripping volume.

via NPR

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings — the blog, the newsletter and the Twitter feed — over which we could’ve seen 53 feature-length films, listened to 135 music albums or taken 1,872 trips to the bathroom. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.