Brain Pickings

2010’s Best Long Reads: Business


Longreads and Brain Pickings have teamed up to highlight the most compelling in-depth stories published on the web this year. Earlier, we featured the best of Art, Design, Film & Music. Next up: Business. Here are 10 must-reads from 2010, from “wrongness” as a business strategy to procrastination to how culture can make (and break) a company.

Don’t miss our related selection of the year’s best books in Business, Life & Mind.


Error Message: Google Research Director Peter Norvig on Being Wrong (Kathryn Schulz, Slate, Aug. 3, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (4,050 words)

Norvig explains what happens when a company (in this case Google) takes an engineering-centric approach to its products and business. First, it means that errors are actually a good thing.

“If you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments.”


A Cocktail Party in the Street: An Interview with TGI Friday’s Founder Alan Stillman (Nicola Twilley & Krista Ninivaggi, Edible Geography, Nov. 15, 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,193 words)

Before it arrived in strip malls around the country, TGI Friday’s was the first “singles bar” in New York City. Alan Stillman reflects on his transition from “looking to meet girls” to running a business.

“The restaurant business does come down to real estate … A restaurant owner is renting or sub-letting you a piece of real estate for the evening.”


What Amazon Fears Most: Diapers (Bryant Urstadt, Businessweek, Oct. 7, 2010)

Time to read: 14 minutes (3,468 words)

That which one fears… one buys. Just before Amazon plunked down $540 million for, Businessweek profiled co-founders Marc Lore and Vinit Bharara, whose company studied Amazon’s every move.

“We’re obsessed with Amazon … Recently I read every 10-K since 1996. It’s interesting to read all those 10-Ks in a row. They were doing so many things so soon.”


Later: What Does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves? (James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010)

Time to read: 14 minutes (3,574 words)

Take comfort in this exploration of the “basic human impulse” of putting work off.

“The idea of the divided self, though discomfiting to some, can be liberating in practical terms, because it encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder.”


The New Gawker Media (Felix Salmon, Reuters, Dec. 1, 2010)

Time to read: 25 minutes (6155 words)

There were almost as many Gawker long reads this year as there were Insane Clown Posse stories. None revealed more about the business of Nick Denton’s blogging empire than Felix Salmon’s breakdown of the company’s operations.

“The problem with Gawker Media’s current model—and this is true of many other sites, too, including the Huffington Post—is that it’s based on pageviews and those tyrannical CPMs. It’s essentially a junk-mail direct marketing model.”


A Q&A with a Vacuum Cleaner Salesman (Mike Riggs, The Awl, Nov. 24, 2010)

Time to read: 25 minutes (6,342 words)

Tense, depressing, and sometimes very funny, interview with “Darrell,” a door-to-door salesman in Florida whose specialty is selling elderly people on products they don’t need.

“I was like, ‘Ma’am, it’s called a referral. We’re gonna call them, and we’re gonna tell them you referred us. I’m just being honest with you.’ She was like, ‘No, no.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, just write down their name,’ because we are going to f—ing do this.”


What Happened to Yahoo (Paul Graham, August 2010)

Time to read: 8 minutes (1,935 words)

Was it all that banner-ad money being thrown at them? Or their ambivalence about technology? Paul Graham offers theories as to why Yahoo has struggled.

“The company felt prematurely old. Most technology companies eventually get taken over by suits and middle managers. At Yahoo it felt as if they’d deliberately accelerated this process.”


At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture (David Carr, The New York Times, Oct. 5, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (4,081 words)

An archived Times piece from the swinging, inappropriate 1970s? No, a stunning present-day account of eyebrow-raising behavior by executives at the troubled Tribune Company. (CEO Randy Michaels resigned soon after.)

“After CEO Randy Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, ‘watch this,’ and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.”


Why I Sold Zappos (Tony Hsieh, Inc., June 1, 2010)

Time to read: 9 minutes (2,271 words)

The Zappos CEO reveals the events leading up to his company’s purchase by Amazon, and the internal tensions over preserving its famously familial corporate culture.

“The board wanted me, or whoever was CEO, to spend less time on worrying about employee happiness and more time selling shoes.”


A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web (David Segal, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2010)

Time to read: 24 minutes (5,881 words)

The story that introduced us to the term “utterly noxious retail.” Online retailer DecorMyEyes cheated, threatened and stalked its customers — and then claimed to earn better Google rankings because of it.

“He might also be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.”

See more Longreads 2010 “best-of” lists here.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.

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Mad Scientist Alphabet Blocks


Our obsession with the alphabet continues unabated with these absolutely fabulous Mad Scientist Alphabet Blocks, a delightful epitome of play-accelerated learning.

Both a pragmatic education tool for your (or your friend’s) tiny mad scientist and a beautifully crafted typographic treat for the design lover, the round-edged blocks are free of dyes and harmful finishes for extra safety and general Earth-friendliness.

The set includes five gorgeously crafted wooden blocks, each with six mad science concepts — from appendages to zombies — and the appropriate letters per side. The typography is based on original pen-and-ink drawings, carefully laser-etched onto solid American maple wood.

The complete A-Z, in all its geeky glory:

via @KatManalac

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Stefanie Posavec Visualizes The Best of Brain Pickings


We have a thrilling surprise. This year, we asked some of our favorite visualization artists to each capture the 10 most popular Brain Pickings articles of 2010 in a single piece of artwork. We’ll be releasing them one at a time over the coming week, starting with crown jewel Stefanie Posavec, whose Writing Without Words project is one of our most popular articles of all time and whose more recent work you may have seen in the form of mesmerizing album artwork for OK Go or the brilliant MyFry iPhone app for Stephen Fry’s autobiography.

Stefanie used the visual metaphor of stars as a pinnacle, higher than everything else. She constructed a starburst pattern for each post, with each dot representing 10 pageviews. The patterns become more complex the more popular a post is, with each subsequent level of complexity building upon the previous.

Upon the smallest pattern the largest pattern is built: the largest is derived from the patterns of the 9 posts before it.” ~ Stefanie Posavec

Go on, marvel at the talent — we certainly are.

And the articles, in order of popularity:

  1. Mythical Beasts & Modern Monsters — three humorous takes on the relational understanding of the monsters ecosystem.
  2. Mapping European Stereotypes — a Bulgarian designer based in London pokes fun at Europeans’ xeno-bias and the subjective reality of nationalism.
  3. 7 Image Search Tools That Will Change Your Life — 7 visually-driven image search interfaces that change how we look for, find and catalog images.
  4. 7 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers — selection of the 7 most compelling books by speakers at this year’s TED Global in Oxford.
  5. How Do I Explain It To My Parents — Dutch abstract artists sit down with their parents and try to explain to them what they do, to a delightfully amusing effect.
  6. Vintage Posters for Modern Movies — a look at the faux-vintage design trend as it applies to film poster design, spotlighting the work of seven contemporary designers with a retrostalgic aesthetic.
  7. How To Be Alone — a poetic manifesto for the art of solitude.
  8. Strange Worlds: Miniature Condiment Landscapes — remarkable miniature landscapes made out of spices and condiments by artist Matthew Albanese.
  9. What Does It Mean To Be Human? — three disciplines (evolutionary biology, philosophy and neuroscience) tackle the grand question of existentialism.
  10. Literary Action Figures — you know you want them.

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The Best Books of 2010: Art, Design & Photography


Analog interactivity, or what flowcharts have to do with the history of street art.

We reviewed a lot of books this year and after curating the best in Business, Life & Mind yesterday, we’re back with our 10 favorites in Art, Design & Photography — a continuation of our end-of-year best-of series. (Earlier this week, we covered the best albums and the most compelling long reads published online this year.)


Without a shadow of a doubt, Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes is the most ambitious book project of the year. So ambitious, in fact, nearly all bookbinders Foer approached deemed it unmakable. But when Belgian publishing house Die Keure eventually approached the problem with a make-it-work mindset, what came out was a brilliant piece of “analog interactive storytelling” — a book created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. The die-cut narrative hangs in an aura of negative space for a beautiful blend of sculpture and storytelling, adding a layer of physicality to the reading experience in a way that completely reshapes your relationship with text and the printed page.

We reviewed it in full here, complete with a sneak peek of the pages and remarkable making-of footage.


Marian Bantjes, a remarkably diverse creator, she calls herself a ‘graphic artist’ and is an avid advocate for self-education and self-reinvention. Stefan Sagmeister, a longtime Brain Pickings favorite, calls her “one of the most innovative typographers working today” — with no exaggeration. (So innovative, in fact, that Sean “P. Diddy” Combs felt compelled to shamelessly, blatantly rip her off recently.) Her latest book, I Wonder, is a remarkable journey of visual joy and conceptual fascination, intersecting logic, beauty and quirk in an utterly breathtaking way.

Our full review, alongside stunning spreads from the book and Bantjes’ fantastic TED talk, can be found here.


Flowcharts have risen to pop culture notoriety with their delightful intersection of geekery, design and humor. Everything Explained Through Flowcharts by standup comedian and book designer Doogie Horner is the absolute pinnacle of the hipster meme. It goes by the tagline “All of Life’s Mysteries Unraveled” and flowcharts the way to everything from world domination to getting laid to the religion that offers the best afterlife in over 200 illustrations, 40 gargantuan flowcharts and various supporting materials — essays, graphs, annotations — bound to fill your semi-secret inner geek with glee.

Our full review features a sneak peek of the quirky goodness inside, including a flowchart guide to psychoanalyzing Facebook portraits.


Our obsession with visual storytelling around the alphabet is selfevident. And nothing fuels that obsession more richly than Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters — an ambitious exploration of the pervasiveness of letters in everyday life, tracing our visual vocabulary to its roots in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Kanji characters and other ancient alphabets with rich illustrations, beautiful graphic design and typography, found objects, graffiti and more.

X from Pin Ups

From a provocative book shaping letters out of women's bodies represented by negative space

The full review, complete with beautiful artwork from the book, was one of our most-tweeted articles this year.


Design titan Bill Moggridge has formidable credentials — director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, co-founder of design innovation powerhouse IDEO, and considered a pioneer of interaction design. IN Designing Media, he explores the evolution of mainstream media, both mass and personal, looking closely at the points of friction between old and new media models and the social norms they have sprouted.

From design to civic engagement to the real-time web, Moggridge offers a faceted and layered survey of how our media habits came to be, where they’re going, and what it all means for how we relate to the world and each other — all through 37 fascinating interviews with some of today’s greatest media innovators, including This American Life‘s Ira Glass, Pandora founder Tim Westergren, prominent New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn, Twitter founder @Ev, statistical stuntsman Hans Rosling, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The book comes with a companion DVD, featuring the video interviews and other media content.

Our full review, complete with sample pages, quotes, and a video interview of Ira Glass, can be found here.


We have a soft spot for both Taschen books and street art, so it’s no surprise that Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art — the fantastic new book by WoosterCollective founders Marc and Sara Schiller — made us swoon. From Guatemalan guerrilla gardeners to icons like Banksy and Barry McGee, the visually astounding anthology is as much an exhaustive compendium of compelling artwork as it is a modern manifesto for activism, democracy and freedom of speech.

On a related note, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the controversial and critically acclaimed Banksy documentary, is out on DVD this week and we’re giving away 10 copies!


Two years ago, we featured the wonderful work of NYC-based illustrator, designer and comedian Dyna Moe, whose Mad Men illustrations eventually charmed AMC into launching the popular Mad Men Yourself app, which has since populated countless Twitter streams with Mad-Menified avatars. This fall, Dyna Moe released her dynamite work in Mad Men: The Illustrated World — a truly, truly fantastic book that captures not only everything we love about Mad Men, but also the broader cultural landscape of the era, from fashion and style to office culture to lifehacks like hangover workarounds and secretary etiquette.

Mad Men Illustrated

We reviewed it in full here. (And for a fitting companion, try Sterling’s Gold — Roger Sterling’s priceless fictional memoir.)


In the 1920s, a collective of Surrealists invented exquisite corpse, a game-like collaborative creation process wherein each contributor tacks on to a composition either by following a strict rule or by being only shown what the last person has contributed. This year, a collective of Brooklyn-based designers replicated the exquisite corpse idea in The Exquisite Book: 100 Artists Play a Collaborative Game — a brilliant collaborative illustration project, two years in the making, that enlisted 100 of today’s most talented visual artist and designers to co-create a book by building on each other’s work.

Sample this gem of a book with a few wonderful spreads in our full review.


You didn’t think we’d go without a data visualization book, did you? And nothing hit the sweet spot this year better than Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design — the brilliant sequel 2008’s now-iconic Data Flow, a compelling anthology of work in all of data visualization as a broad and cross-disciplinary creative medium, from static infographics to dynamic interactive visualizations to physical data sculptures and beyond. The book is equal parts visual indulgence and conceptual intelligence, with artwork from and interviews of the leading creators in this field of increasing cultural relevance, as information continues to proliferate and overwhelm.

Our full review features juicy spreads from the book and an exclusive quote from data viz superstar Aaron Koblin.


Tree bark may not sound like the most exciting or relatable of subjects but, in fact, it is both. Not only do we come in contact with it constantly in our daily lives, from cinnamon to cork to chewing gum to rubber, but it’s also a hauntingly beautiful, textured piece of living matter that looks like the skin of some magnificent mythical dragon. French photographer Cedric Pollet travels the world to capture this beauty and has documented it in his gorgeous new book, Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees. The book is as much a stunning visual treat for color and photography lovers alike as it is a visceral manifesto for biodiversity and reforestation, two of today’s most pressing issues in preserving the amazing world we inherited.

Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), a flowering deciduous tree native to South America's tropical forests

Image by Cedric Pollet

The full review, which features a gallery of stunning images from the book, is one our most-shared articles on Facebook this year.

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