Brain Pickings

Jane McGonigal on Gaming for Productivity


We recently featured The School of Life — the brainchild of an eclectic group of London artists, writers and philosophers, who attempt to address the needs of the modern self in the familiar college class format. Every Sunday, the School invites prominent cultural figures to “preach” about contemporary values and vices, in an attempt to bring back the Sunday Sermon within a modern secular context.

The School’s latest speaker was acclaimed game designer Jane McGonigal, who delivered one of our favorite TED talks this year — a provocative perspective on gaming and how it could change the world. In her sermon, On Productivity, Jane McGonigal uses her personal experience with games to challenge our definition of productivity. She urges us to examine the real value in our “productive” activities and whether they produce something that truly matters in the great scheme of humanity. She also shares the findings of a brand new, still unpublished, psychological study on happiness shedding light on the things we need in order to flourish.

We have this warped, moralistic view of productivity thanks largely to the faithful intertwining of these two things: the protestant work ethic, which is the idea that God wants us to be busy all the time, lest we have enough spare time to find ourselves sinning, intertwining it with the rise of modern capitalism where every person’s duty is to spend the precious days and hours of their lives, contributing to the gross domestic product, instead of enjoying them.” ~ Jane McGonigal

The talk is engaging, fun yet thought-provoking and well worth the full 45 minutes — think of it as a productive investment in your personal productivity.

McGonigal’s highly promising new book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, comes out in January and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.

Teddy Zareva is a young filmmaker and photographer currently located in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is prone to excessive dancing and impulsive traveling. Her favorite activities are eating chocolate, hunting for music, and shooting humans.

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Edible Landscapes: Miniature Vignettes Made from Food


What Martian landscapes have to do with London’s skyline and the mutations of Thanksgiving.


British photographer Carl Warner doesn’t look at broccoli and cabbage leaves the way you do. He seems in them trees and sunset skies. His fantasy food landscapes are part Ansel Adams, part Anthony Bourdaine, painstakingly hand-crafted with only minimal Photoshop involvement.

London Skyline

Riverbank walls: panini; lamppost: mackerel, asparagus, onion, vanilla pods; London Eye: green beans; courgette, leek, lemon, rhubarb supports; The Dome: green melon.

Coconut Haystacks

Parsley trees with horseradish trunks, red cabbage sky, toasted almonds as distant haystacks, and loaves of bread for hills

Chinese Junk

The roster of ingredients includes dried lotus leaves for snails, noodles for the wood floor, physalis lanterns, and the obscure wild green yamakurage for the rope.

Celery Rain Forest

Canope made of okra with dried chili oarsman, tiny mushroom hat and a cardamom pod; path: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and lentils

Cart & Balloons

Balloons made of red onion, apple, garlic bulb and other fruits; balloon baskets: nuts; hills and fields: bread, cucumber, string beans, green beans, corn, asparagus

Warner’s book, Food Landscapes, came out last month and is a page-turner of visually delicious fascination.

via NPR


Almost two years ago, we spotlighted photographer Matthew Carden’s Small World — a series of stunning macro photographs exploring our relationship with food through a compelling blend of playfulness and meditation on wastefulness.


Monks walking on a lettuce-and-bread mountain trail


Take a ride down the sprinkles-covered hill

Carden’s work is a timely prompt for reflection around Thanksgiving, a holiday designed as appreciation for our blessings yet one that has mutated into a celebration of gluttony and excess.


We featured Matthew Albanese’s Strange Worlds at length back in February, but his miniature condiment landscapes are worth a revisit. The remarkably detailed creations, made out of everyday culinary materials like cinnamon, paprika, jello and corn syrup, depict emotive visions of surreal, often otherworldly landscapes.

Tornado made of steel wool, cotton, ground parsley and moss

A Martian landscape, made out of 12 pounds paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili powder and charcoal

See more of Albanese’s fantastic and fantastical work here.

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Wabi-Sabi: Finding Beauty in Imperfection and Impermanence


Wabi-sabi is a beautiful Japanese concept that has no direct translation in English. Both an aesthetic and a worldview, it connotes a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi Sabi is also the title of a fantastic 2008 picture book by Mark Reibstein, with original artwork by acclaimed Chinese children’s book illustrator Ed Young, exploring this wonderful sensibility through the story of a cat who gets lost in her hometown of Kyoto only to find herself in the process.

The book reads like a scroll, from top to bottom, and features a haiku and a Japanese verse on each spread, adorned with Young’s beautifully textured artwork.

A true wabi-sabi story lies behind the book: When Young first received the assignment, he created a series of beautifully simple images. As he went to drop them off with his editor, he left them for a moment on the front porch of the house. But when he returned to retrieve them, they were gone. Rather than agonizing over the loss, Young resolved to recreate the images from scratch and make them better — finding growth in loss.

While technically a children’s book, Wabi Sabi is the kind of subtle existential reflection adults, with our relentless aspiration for more and our chronic anxiety about imperfection, could take solace in. (A recurring theme this week as we unravel our relationship with imperfection.)

via Altalang

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East + West + Gershwin: Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang Perform Rhapsody In Blue


Herbie Hancock, one of America’s great jazz pianists, landed on the jazz scene in the early 1960s, starting out with Miles Davis, and then working as a solo musician who released his great jazz standards — Cantaloupe Island and Watermelon Man. Thirty years later, and across a big ocean, Lang Lang, the Chinese concert pianist, takes the stage. Only 13, he wins the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, and then quickly starts dazzling Western audiences with performances of Chopin, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.

Finally, the two musicians, the two musical worlds, meet in 2009. Performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London, along with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Hancock and Lang Lang work their way through Debussy, Ravel and then, appropriately enough, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The jazz concerto. Jazz inflections layered onto a classical composition. A perfect meeting in the middle.

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, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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