Brain Pickings

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

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What 1930 in Paris has to do with Avatar, orphans and broken machines.

Earlier this week, iconic director Martin Scorsese announced that his next film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, will be shot in 3D. While the news didn’t necessarily get us wildly excited (we’ve seen that the combination of big-name director and 3D bling does not superb cinematic storytelling make — sorry, James Cameron), it did remind us of the brilliant book the film is based on.

Set in the 1930’s, Brian Selznick’s visual masterpiece The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a stunningly illustrated 533-page book inspired by the magical films of Georges Méliès. It tells the story of a Parisian orphan whose life changes when he meets a bookish girl and finds a curious broken machine. But here’s what makes the book extraordinary: Rather than merely illustrating the story, the images — illustrations, sketches, vintage movie stills and photographs — actually help tell the story, replacing words in the textual narrative.

I began thinking about this book ten years ago after seeing some of the magical films of Georges Méliès, the father of science-fiction movies. But it wasn’t until I read a book called Edison’s Eve: The Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Woods that my story began to come into focus. I discovered that Méliès had a collection of mechanical, wind-up figures (called automata) that were donated to a museum, but which were later destroyed and thrown away. Instantly, I imagined a boy discovering these broken, rusty machines in the garbage, stealing one and attempting to fix it. At that moment, Hugo Cabret was born.” ~ Brian Selznick

Part novel, part graphic novel, part silent film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is an absolute gem with as much storytelling appeal for kids as aesthetic allure for adults. It’s positively one of the most beautifully crafted and brilliantly illustrated tomes we’ve ever come across, a true pinnacle of storytelling innovation and creative bravery.

Finally, when doing the research for this piece, we discovered this wonderful student short film adaptation of the book. Enjoy.

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Cartograms: Making a Point with Distorted Maps

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Why space is relative and how popular media are making entire continents disappear.

We love maps. And we love data visualization. Naturally, we love cartograms — maps of countries and areas distorted to reflect non-geographic information about them. These representations provide a succinct and visually digestible way to comprehend complex data about the world’s hisotrical, social, political, economic and health reality, among other issues of interest. Today, we look at three particularly eye-opening cartograms that put today’s geopolitical and socioeconomic reality in perspective.

EXTERNAL DEBT

As the world continues to try to make sense of the full context and implications of the financial crisis, University of Sheffield postgrad Ben Henning took a look at the real dimension of the world’s external debt. The map reflects the ratio of debt to GDP, based on 2010 estimates by the World Bank and CIA.

In case you were wondering — or looking for an economically stable place to move to — that green patch amidst the European redness is Luxembourg, doing even better than the stereotypical financial forerunner in yellow right below, Switzerland.

NEWS

There’s no question that news media shape our perception of the world. But, in just four minutes, head of Public Radio International Alisa Miller shows just how distorted the news’ portrayal of the world can be.

Miller’s eye-opening talk embodies the core of why we believe citizen journalism will be a potent game-changer in news, the real “fair and balanced” way to do things.

POPULATION

Today’s moderately educated adult has no qualms about the world’s overpopulation problem. But this issue is as much one of scale as it is of distribution. Earth’s bloated population, combined with its uneven and disproportionate distribution, makes for a number of social, economic and environmental hazards. This cartogram presents a map of the world, with land areas weighted for population size, making all these disbalances unmissably prominent.

Seeing overcrowded India and China explode while Russia and Canada, with their vast, barren and unpopulated Arctic landscapes, shrink does bring the notion of “public space” to life by visualizing, effectively and powerfully, the relationship between “space” and “the public.”

BONUS

The Daily Mail, a source of otherwise questionable reliability and taste level, has a surprisingly excellent series of cartograms that paint an issue-weighted portrait of the world.

Though three years old, the maps are incredibly eye-opening, reflecting everyting from alcohol consumption to HIV prevalence to toy exports.

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The 2020 Project: Visions of the Connected Future

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What Scandinavian luminaries have to do with LEGO and the future of humanity.

There’s no question we live in an age where the cultural landscape is moving more rapidly than many of us can process towards something few of us can foresee. But an unlikely contender is aiming to construct a sober and visionary portrait of our collective future: Telecom giant Ericsson has launched the 2020 Project — a peek inside the minds of twenty of today’s sharpest thinkers for a glimpse of tomorrow.

Ericsson is asking these twenty visionaries to paint a picture of what the world will look like in 2010 in a series of video interviews that explore how connectivity and mobility are changing the world.

Though contributions so far come strictly from the (mostly Scandinavian) academia circuit — professors, authors, researchers — they are intelligenty curated in a way that offers randge and breadth of perspectives, covering everything from access to knowledge to female empowerment to sustainability to human rights.

Still, we hope to see some more diverse luminaries from less academic disciplines and the fringes of culture. It would be particularly fascinating to hear how artists, not ordinarily associated with technology, are being affected by the digital revoluion and how they see the future of communication.

The projet is part BigThink, part Sputnik Observatory, part new breed of realistic optimism for the future.

We can be the generation to end extreme poverty on the planet. No other generation before us could make that claim. No other generation before us had that power in our hands. What a thrill that we can be the ones to do it.” ~ Jeffrey Sachs

Our favorite, which we already raved about on Twitter last week: Blockbuster TED talk machine Hans Rosling, who explains the future of humanity in LEGO and a charming Swedish accent.

The weakest point today is the lack of global governance. Nation states are still very strong. We talk about globalization, but the fact is that nations are very strong. But we do not have a very strong united nation. We do not have a mechanism for governance. West America and Eastern Europe have to accept the world of equal nations. They have to accept that they have no given advantage over the rest of the world. And that’s good for them.” ~ Hans Rosling

Keep an eye on the 2020 Project as more interviews are being continuously revealed this month.

via Open Culture

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Leave Your Sleep: Natalie Merchant Sets Victorian Children’s Poetry to Song

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Musty libraries, otherworldly storytelling, and how dead poets wrote the year’s most moving album.

The cross-pollination of disciplines, which is the seedbed of some of humanity’s greatest creative achievements, hardly gets more bewitching than the intersection of literature and music. (An intersection I hold particularly dear.) That’s what Natalie Merchant accomplishes with great elegance and genius in Leave Your Sleep — a brilliant and beautiful musical adaptation of near-forgotten Victorian children’s poetry, a decade in the making.

The album, her first studio recording in seven years and co-produced with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and creator of the eclectic Red Hot charity series, samples from the entire spectrum of literary fame and obscurity, including poets like Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti and — our favorite — e e cummings, as well as little-known geniuses like Brooklyn poet Natalia Crane, who published her first book in 1927 at the age of ten.

What I really enjoyed about this project was reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life. Bringing them to light.

What makes the album all the more special is that in the six years Merchant spent researching the poets, sifting through newspaper microfilm from the 1800’s and spending countless hours in musty Victorian libraries, she grew increasingly curious about and inspired by their lives and decided to write a book about them. Poetry inspiring music inspiring prose, a beautiful metaphor for the cross-pollination of the arts. Coupled with Merchant’s unforgettable powerhouse of a voice, the album is one of the most inspired projects to come out this year.

We were fortunate enough to experience Merchant’s absolutely breathtaking live performance at TED earlier this year, which, though not doing justice to her live stage charisma, you can sample below. The rich emotion oozing from Merchant’s voice as her melodic storytelling unfolds is just otherworldly.

Sophisticated, playful, bittersweet and utterly haunting, Leave Your Sleep spans as rich an emotional spectrum as it does a musical range, leaving us dangerously close to infatuation in a way that no single recording has managed to in longer than we can remember.

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