Brain Pickings

5 (More) Must-Read Books by TED 2011 Speakers


What information curators have to do with the revenge of technology and synesthetic autism.

We spent the past week in sleep deprivation and intellectual overstimulation so you wouldn’t have to, reporting from TED 2011: The Rediscovery of Wonder and bringing back the most noteworthy highlights, soundbites and exclusive photos. Last week, we warmed up with 5 must-read books by some of this year’s speakers, and today we’re back with five more.


The pleasure of being right is one of the most universal human addictions and most of us spend an extraordinary amount of effort on avoiding or concealing wrongness. But error, it turns out, isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s not only what makes us human but also what enhances our capacity for empathy, optimism, courage and conviction. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz approaches the subject of wrongness with equal parts wit and rigor, eloquently blending philosophical inquiry with social psychology and neuroscience to examine how the mind works.

However disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” ~ Kathryn Schulz

From Shakespeare to Freud, Schulz examines some of history’s greatest thinkers’ perspectives on being wrong and emerges with a compelling counterpoint to our collective cultural aversion to wrongness, arguing instead that error is a precious gift that fuels everything from art to humor to scientific discovery and, perhaps most importantly, a transformative force of personal growth that we should embrace, not mask or stifle.


As information continues to proliferate, how we sift and filter it is of increasing importance in making sense of the world and framing what matters in it. And while human information curators (cough cough…) are working hard to separate the signal from the noise, the reality is that much of our information diet is being force-fed to us by algorithms that track and profile us, custom-serving us an information menu very different from our neighbor’s. In The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser offers an eye-opening investigation of how this ultra-personalization is controlling and limiting the information we’re exposed to.

We’ve moved to an age where the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see. […] We need the new information gatekeepers to encode a sense of civic responsibility into algorithms.” ~ Eli Pariser

This is an increasingly urgent question: Is the responsibility of those who serve information to give us more of what we already like and believe, or to open our eyes to new perspectives? And if it’s all algorithmically driven, is there even a place for such responsibility? From the role of content curators as moral mitigators of algorithmic efficiency to the underbelly of Google’s powerful personalization engines, which look at 57 data points before they serve us custom-cut search query results, The Filter Bubble is a timely and critical read for the informed information consumer.


Nearly 15 years old, science historian Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences remains an essential exploration of what the author calls the “revenge effects” of technology — the unintended negative consequences of technological innovation. From oil spills to computer-induced carpal tunnel syndrome to the mass extermination of birds, Tenner draws on a wide range of everyday examples to deliver a thought-provoking study of Murphy’s Law as a grounding cautionary tale, even more important today in the midst of our blind techno-lust.


Astro-historian David Christian is considered the founding father of the Big History movement — the notion that in order to fully understand human history, we must integrate it with all disciplines and contextualize it in the larger history of time itself. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is Christian’s ambitious effort to synthesize the universe’s 13 billion years in a single volume, spanning nearly 600 pages and featuring 45 stunning black-and-white illustrations and 9 beautiful maps.

We can share what we learn with such precision that it can outlast the individual and remain in our collective memory. That’s why we have a history. I call this ability ‘collective learning.’ It’s what makes us different.” ~ David Christian

Though certainly non-exhaustive — after all, how could one possibly compress the entire spectrum of existence into a single tome, however formidable its size? — the book is an excellent primer for macro-history and a necessary foundation for deeper understanding of our place in the universe.


Daniel Tammet is a high-functioning autistic savant with Asperger’s syndrome, capable of extraordinary feats of computation and memory, from learning Icelandic in a single week to breaking the European record by reciting the number pi up to the 22,514th digit. The 32-year-old Brit also has synesthesia, the rare neurological crossing of the senses that enables one to “see” music, “hear” color, or experience letters and numbers with motion and texture, which makes him one of only about 50 people living in the world today with both synesthesia and autism.

Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant offers a rare and fascinating look at this superhuman brain and how it goes through the human world.

Our personal perceptions are at the heart of how we acquire knowledge.” ~ Daniel Tammet

From the challenges of sustaining a long-term romantic relationship to the realization of being gay to the entrepreneurship of turning his unusual life into a living by building an online language-learning system, the book is a powerful perspective-shift as Tammet transcends the pathology of his condition to deliver eloquent and highly engaging storytelling that leaves you with equal parts awe and empathy.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Inside Out Project: Street Artist JR’s $100K TED Prize


What the global importance of women has to do with favela murals and graffiti in Kibera.

Last fall, in a bold and unexpected move, TED granted the $100,000 TEDPrize to shadowy Parisian street artist JR. Known for his large-scale graffiti murals tackling social justice and human rights issues like freedom and identity, the semi-anonymous 27-year-old artist made his most revealing public appearance to date on the TED stage this week, showing some of his truly incredible work and sharing his vision for how the prize will empower his art.

The launch of JR’s Inside Out Project, an ambitious global collaborative art initiative, is a truly inspired experiment in civic engagement through art — a different iteration of something we looked at earlier this week.

If JR’s project tickled your soul like it did ours, here’s how to get involved.

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.

Worldchanging: An Updated Vision for a Better World


Since 2003, Alex Steffen’s nonprofit online magazine Worldchanging has been a beacon of sustainability, social innovation and thought-leadership in bettering our planet’s future. In 2006, this essential toolkit for conscious modern living was packaged in Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century — a densely informative 600-page synthesis of the iconic site, dubbed The Whole Earth Catalog for the iPod generation. At the time, sustainability was just a budding meme, which over the past five years evolved into an essential part, and some would argue a bare minimum, for our cultural ethos. This week, Worldchanging is back with Worldchanging, Revised and Updated Edition: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century — a timely compendium of the smartest strategies and most exciting new tools for building a better future.

One of the book’s most valuable aspects for us, given our deep fascination with and passion for urbanism, is its insightful angle on cities as living organisms capable of catalyzing social change.

The first Worldchanging book looked at the most creative and high-impact solutions available for solving the planet’s most pressing problems. WC2.0 takes the same solutions approach, but raises the bar, asking how we can participate as individuals in creating systemic change.” ~ Alex Steffen

From food justice to carbon-neutral homes to alternative transportation, the Worldchanging, Revised and Updated features 160 noteworthy ideas and vital solutions that maybe, just maybe, offer real, tangible hope for a world we’ve cornered into near-hopeless vulnerability.

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.

The Blackwater Gospel: Haunting Danish Animated Short Film


It looks like you could put the “Made in America” stamp right on this film. Fire and brimstone preaching, down home American music, a dusty Western setting — these layers of traditional America get captured so well in The Backwater Gospel. And yet the film comes straight out of Denmark.

These nine minutes of grimly wonderful animation come to you courtesy of eight undergraduate students attending The Animation Workshop, located in Viborg, Denmark — an institution known for training fine animators throughout Europe.

Co-creator Bo Mathorne offers artistic insight into the fascinating making of the film, well worth the eight minutes:

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

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.