Brain Pickings

Live Now: In-the-Moment Inspiration


A true exercise in art therapy, or what all motivational posters should aspire to be.

It’s still January, and 2010 has already provided no shortage of loss, tragedy, and challenge. But amidst all of this digital distemper lies a website we love for its seemingly infinite supply of authenticity, hope, and optimism.

Live Now! is an art project whose mission is “powerfully pursuing the notion of ‘living now.’ Engaging participants to live meaningful lives & be happy!”

The homepage greets you with a lovely image reminding you of the importance of living in the moment. With messages like True happiness is giving it away and Practice happiness rendered in winsomely quirky typography, each click-through leads to another picture and message.

The images’ style varies, but they all share the kind of handmade energy in response to which you can’t really help but smile.

What confirms these sentiments as so much more than pablum — besides the artistry of their rendering — is the personal story of Live Now!‘s creator, designer and illustrator Eric Smith, who conceived of the project after being diagnosed with three different types of cancer.

Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me — the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life.

Since Live Now! launched, Davis has opened the experience to a host of other talented artists and designers (David Gibson, CD Ryan, and Kate Miss, among others); he also continues to take submissions. We were even more excited to learn that the project’s various messages are available in print form, allowing you to curate a changing rotation of inspirational messages for yourself.

Live Now! reminds us of another fantastic typographic project around personal growth and happiness, Things I Have Learned In My Life, by Brain Pickings favorite (and three-time TEDster) Stefan Sagmeister. Such collaborative initiatives augur an emerging pattern in graphic design work — call it the aesthetics of authentic life principles.

So put down the newspaper, close that Firefox CNN disaster report tab, let go of the earthquake hashtags, and swap them all for an early-morning shot of motivation and encouragement — because you can rarely have too much of either. To experience beautifully crafted messages of Carpe Diem visit Live Now!, well, now.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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.

One Cubic Foot of Life


Lap-sized habitats, or what Central Park gardens and Polynesian reefs have in common.

UPDATE: The project is now a book, featuring a foreword by E. O. Wilson.

Ask a scientist, and she’ll tell you size is absolute. Ask an artist, and he’ll prove it’s relative. That’s exactly what photographer David Liittschwager did in his One Cubic Foot project, exploring how much of different ecosystems can fit within a single cubic foot of space. (Can you tell we’re on a biodiversity roll this week?)

Armed with a 12-inch cube, a green metal frame, and a team of assistants and biologists, Liittschwager set out to probe five sharply different environments — water and land, from New York’s temperate Central Park to a tropical forest in Costa Rica — putting down the cube in each, then waiting patiently, counting and photographing all the creatures that lived or crossed that space, down to those about a millimeter in size.

The Hallett Nature Sanctuary at Central Park, New York

Table Mountain National Park is an iconic mesa towering over Cape Town, South Africa

The endeavor was just as laborious as it sounds — each habitat took about three weeks to catalog, and a total of over 1000 organisms were photographed.

For clear access to the organisms of Duck River, Tennessee, the team had to lift a sample into a tank

It was like finding little gems.” ~ David Liittschwager

The project is highly reminiscent of a WWF campaign we featured last year, putting a global spin on the concept of ecological microcosms.

Towering a hundred feet over Monteverde, Costa Rica, this tropical cloud forest houses a microcosm of organisms the size of a finger nail

Coral reef in Moorea, French Polynesia, where Liittschwager worked with scientists from the Moorea Biocode Project, an effort to catalog every creature in and around the Moorea

Besides the original concept and impressive amount of work that went into it, the One Cubic Foot project bespeaks the incredible richness of our planet — and the regrettable gray deadness of our man-made concrete jungles: Try setting the green cube in the middle of an LA expressway or a New York City sidewalk.

So next time you venture out into the non-grey world, consider the fascinating and intricate homes and habitats framed by your even footstep.

Thanks, @TEDchris

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.

Philosophical Timecapsule of Today: Wisdom


Intelligent insight, the fountain of youth, or what’s love got to do with it.

A couple of months ago, we raved about photographer Andrew Zuckerman‘s extraordinary series, Bird. Turns out, Zuckerman had a much more ambitious project in his back pocket.

Driven by the insight that the greatest heritage of a generation is the wisdom gained from life’s experience, Zuckerman rolled up his sleeves and went wisdom-hunting among 50 of our time’s greatest thinkers and doers — writers, artists, philosophers, politicians, designers, activists, musicians, religious and business leaders — all over 65 years of age. (Though Zuckerman himself is just over 30.)

You don’t stop doing things because you get old. You get old because you stop doing things.” ~ Rosamunde Pilcher, writer

He posed 7 questions, recording his subjects’ candid responses in a way that unearths a landslide of intelligence, inspiration and invaluable insight.

The result was a brilliant book-and-film, Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another. (Zuckerman subsequently divided the great tome into four smaller, more digestible sub-volumes, each with its own thematic DVD: Wisdom: Life, Wisdom: Love, Wisdom: Peace, and Wisdom: Ideas.)

Against the plain white backdrop and in the signature crispness of Zuckerman’s shot, the subjects are stripped down to their core essence, decontextualized and thus democratized in a way that truly captures a cross-cultural cross-section of our era, with all its burdens and triumphs.

From Nelson Mandela to Jane Goodall to Mary Quant, the list of wisdom-dispensers reads like an all-star pickup game between TED and the Nobel Prize, a treasure trove of our greatest heritage and our most precious human capital.

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another. Peace is the greatest weapon for development that any people can have.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Take your profession seriously; don’t take yourself seriously. Don’t take yourself seriously in the process, because you really only matter to a certain degree in the whole circus out here. If a person is confident enough in the way they feel, whether it’s an art form or whether it’s just in life, it comes off — you don’t have anything to prove; you can just be what you are.” ~ Clint Eastwood, filmmaker

The project was also reincarnated as a breathtaking and impactful exhibition in Sydney’s State Library of NSW Galleries.

Love something. I think we’ve got to learn to love something deeply. I think it’s love. It sounds sentimental as hell, but I really think it is.” ~ Andrew Wyeth, artist

Succinct and brilliantly curated, Wisdom is a living corpus callosum bridging the creative and intellectual hemispheres of culture’s collective brain, as close as we can get to an ideological and philosophical timecapsule of our era.

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.

Phylomon: The Game of Life


Pokemon meets Mother Earth, or what preschoolers have to do with the life of life.

The UN has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. And while we’ve seen a number of smart, ambitious scientific and creative efforts inspired by and advocating nature’s bounty, the fact remains that preserving the incredible natural variety of species is in the hands of the future generations. So raising children with a biological sensibility and getting them excited about biodiversity is at the root of any viable effort.

Which is why we love the understatedly brilliant Phylomon project by The Science Creative Quarterly, a wonderful repository for well-written, unconventional scientific literature.

When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all. ~ E. O. Wilson.

Phylomon is a web-based initiative for creating Pokemon-like cards, using real creatures and nature’s own “character design” genius. The project was inspired by a recent study that found young children have the remarkable ability to identify and characterize more than 120 different Pokemon characters, but fail to name more than half of common wildlife species. So Phylomon has set out to broaden children’s natural characters vocabulary, drawing inspiration from the clearly successful model used by “synthetic characters” like Pokemon.

Submissions will be crowdsourced from a variety of creatives, with the scientific community weighing in on the content, game designers invited to brainstorm innovative ways of using the cards, and teachers participating to evaluate the educational merit of the cards.

Best of all, the hope is that this will all occur in a non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet sort of way.

Because Phylomon depends so heavily on the creative community’s contributions, we urge you to submit yours. Use this Flickr pool if you’re a designer or illustrator, this one if you’re a photographer, or this one if you come from the education community.

And if you still have doubts about the momentous importance of biodiversity, take it from Ban Ki-moon, the UNSYG himself — it’s important, alright.

Read up on Phylomon and contribute — why not?

Psst, we’ve launched a fancy weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays, offers the week’s articles, and features five more tasty bites of web-wide interestingness. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.