Brain Pickings

Uncovered Gem: Leo Tolstoy’s Grandson Meets the Dalai Lama

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What tea has to do with critical moments in political history and iconic Russian literature.

In 1942, at the peak of WWII, Japan threw the Allies a formidable curveball — it blocked off the Burma Road, the essential artery supplying China with munitions from India to fight the occupying Japanese forces. Desperate for an alternative, the Allies diverted planes to the Himalayas, but the dangerous terrain and inclement weather caused too many pilots to crash into the mountains. A new land route between China and India had to be found, and two OSS men took it upon themselves to find it: Captain Brooke Dolan, an American explorer, and Major Ilia Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s grandson. To do so, they’d have to cross Tibet and seek the permission of a 7-year-old boy: The Dalai Lama.

Undeterred, the pair proceeded with their mission and came carrying a letter from President Roosevelt. At 9:20 in the morning of December 20, 1942, they were granted audience with His Holiness, establishing for the first time in history direct contact between a U.S. Presidnet and the Dalai Lama and thus bridging two cultures that had never met. Five months later, the two crossed the Tibetan platau and arrived in Northern China, completing the journey of over a thousand miles.

Dolan filmed the entire expedition and rare reels are now held in the motion picture library of The National Archive, who have kindly digitized and uploaded the footage for the world to see — just one instance of the importance of the digital humanities and the open web.

Tibetans are inherently sociable and on the slightest provocation pause their labors to visit over a cup of tea. Native drivers congregate at the ferry crossing. Tea is the chief drink of the country, made of barley, salt and butter. It gives them resistance to hunger and cold. They drink anywhere from 30 to 50 cups a day.”

The film offers a glimpse of a fascinating culture whose unique geopolitical position remains, as it was in 1942, a point of much political tension that has festered into grave human rights violations over the past half-century. For a well-rounded approach to one of modern history’s most critical justice issues, we highly recommend this pairing: The ambitious and scholarly Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope by former Reagan strategist Roberts and political journalist Elizabeth Roberts, and the tenderly meditative The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama.

via The National Archives via MetaFilter

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PICKED: Iceland Beyond Sigur Rós

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We love Sigur Rós. But there’s more to Iceland’s music landscape than Jonsi. That’s precisely what Iceland: Beyond Sigur Rós explores. The half-hour documentary, produced by Icelandic nonprofit film collective Serious Feather, celebrates Iceland’s dynamic and diverse independent music scene.

Filmed with beautiful HD cinematography, the documentary features interviews with cultural pundits and music critics like Grapevine Magazine‘s Haukur Magnússon, pop-classical composer and producer Ólafur Arnalds, and Pétur Úlfur Einarsson and Hafsteinn Michael Guomundsson, co-founders of online music distributor Gogoyoko.

Interspersed between the insightful interviews are vibrant performances by Icelandic indie favorites like Hafdis Huld, Berndsen, Mugison, Ólafur Arnalds, Lára Rúnars, Bloodgroup, For A Minor Reflection, Seabear, Sykur and Severed Crotch.

So go ahead and take a look. Because, let’s face it, as phenomenal as the latest Sigur Rós album may be, it might be time to take it off repeat and expand your taste for Icelandic music.

via Coudal

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Urawaza: The Japanese Art of Lifehacking

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We’ve already established that there’s a great deal the Japanese can teach us about everything from the art of storm drain covers to the philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection. But nowhere is this Eastern wisdom more condensed than in the concept of urawaza — roughly speaking, the Japanese term for “lifehacking.” Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan is a fantastic compendium more than 100 such once-secret tips and tricks for the modern urbanite, packing a formidable toolkit of daily hacks that will make you, as the cover promises, “do everything better” — or at least have more fun doing it.

Tokyo-born, Silicon-Valley-based journalist Lisa Katayama and illustrator Joel Holland deliver a punchy, irreverent, yet surprisingly practical guide to everything from keeping bathroom mirrors fog-free with a cut potato to picking up broken glass with a piece of bread to using a diaper to automate your plant watering while on vacation.

Clever and handy, Urawaza is certain to arm you with a powerful arsenal for city living, as well as a few potent mother-in-law-charmers and dinner party guest-impressers — and, really, who couldn’t use some of those?

Thanks, @kgillem

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Invisible Cities: A Transmedia Mapping Project

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What social media activity has to do with the literal lay of the land.

In December, the now-infamous map of Facebook friendships revealed an uncanny cartography of the world depicted purely through social relationships data. Now, a project by Christian Marc Schmidt and Liangjie Xia is taking the concept ambitiously further: Invisible Cities is a transmedia mapping project, displaying geocoded activity from social networks like Twitter and Flickr within the context of an actual urban map — a visceral, literal embodiment of something VURB‘s Ben Cerveny has called “the city as a platform,” the idea that cities are informational media and living computational systems for urban society.

By revealing the social networks present within the urban environment, Invisible Cities describes a new kind of city — a city of the mind.”

Individual nodes appear whenever real-time activity takes place and the underlying terrain represents aggregate activity. As data accumulates, the landscape morphs into peaks and valleys that represent highs and lows of data density and information activity — a data topography visualization not dissimilar in concept to Aaron Koblin’s Amsterdam SMS project, and also built with Processing.

The interplay between the aggregate and the real-time recreates the kind of dynamics present within the physical world, where the city is both a vessel for and a product of human activity. It is ultimately a parallel city of intersections, discovery, and memory, and a medium for experiencing the physical environment anew.”

Invisible Cities is available as a free download for Mac OS X and Windows — read the instructions and go play on your own.

via Creators Project

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