Brain Pickings

Running The Numbers: Oceanographic Visualization

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What 20,500 tuna have to do with your old toothbrush, or how a plastic comb ended up on top of Japan’s most iconic volcano.

We love TED. We love data visualization. We hate environmental demise.

Naturally, we love artist Chris Jordan‘s (remember him?) response to the overlooked but tremendously concerning issue exposed by legendary ocean researcher Sylvia Earle in her TED Prize wish — overfishing and the rapid decline of oceans’ natural vitality.


In Running The Numbers II, the second installment of his Portraits of Global Mass Culture series, Jordan looks at mass phenomena on a global scale. Again, each image portrays concrete data about a specific issue.

Depicts 270,000 fossilized shark teeth, equal to the estimated number of sharks of all species killed around the world every day for their fins.

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Finding meaning in global mass phenomena can be difficult because the phenomena themselves are invisible, spread across the earth in millions of separate places. There is no Mount Everest of waste that we can make a pilgrimage to and behold the sobering aggregate of our discarded stuff, seeing and feeling it viscerally with our senses.

Depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world's oceans every hour.

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Detail of the top of Mt. Fuji

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Jordan’s work is both a reminder of and an antidote to our individual sense of insignificance as we face these disturbing global issues with an increasing sense of urgency — we love the idea of juxtaposing the effect of our collective actions with the tiny individual contributions that make them up. It’s a new kind of call for personal responsibility — could that be your old toothbrush at the foot of Mt. Fuji?

We are stuck with trying to comprehend the gravity of these phenomena through the anaesthetizing and emotionally barren language of statistics. Sociologists tell us that the human mind cannot meaningfully grasp numbers higher than a few thousand; yet every day we read of mass phenomena characterized by numbers in the millions, billions, even trillions.

Depicts 20,500 tuna, the average number of tuna fished from the world

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For a deeper look at our collective individualism in its cultural context, be sure to check out Jordan’s absolutely brilliant book, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait — it comes with our highest stamp of recommendation.

via @TEDchris

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(R)evolutionary Record: The Darwin Song Project

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Under house arrest by art and science, or what evolution has to do with independent music.

You may have forgotten Charles Darwin’s birthday — he turned 200 in February — but you still have a chance to commemorate it. Recently, Neil Pearson, owner of Fish Records and director of the UK’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival, persuaded 8 of Britain’s finest singer-songwriters to visit Darwin’s farm house. Little did they know he’d lock them inside for one week and have them create an album from scratch, dedicated to the life and work of the eminent evolutionist.

What has emerged is a juicy mix of storytelling and incredible talent, dubbed the Darwin Song Project.

British singer/songwriter and multinstrumentalist Jez Lowe, for instance, found inspiration in Darwin’s personal affairs: His wife, Emma, with whom he never seemed to agree, always wanted to spend more time with her husband, who spent countless hours away from Emma on his work, Voyage of The Beagle. They differed on many levels, particularly in the clash between Emma’s belief in God and Charles’ evolutionary theory. Lowe writes,

Where’ve you been, your tea’s been in the oven. Come home now.

Other artists include Rachael McShane, Stu Hanna, Emily Smith, Chris Wood, Mark Erelli, Karine Polwart and Krista Detor — and they seem to have had a blast collaborating. Catch their reflections on the experience here and here.

Originally created for a live concert at Theatre Severn in March, the music from the project will be released as an album this summer. The group will also reconvene to perform at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in late August.

Stay tuned on the project’s website.

Update: The album is now out, and it’s every bit as fantastic as we’ve come to expect it to be. Grab a copy.

Julian Dominic carries a pocket notebook and 0.3 pen everywhere; continuing to record, research and repeat almost everything he sees, hears and tastes on the road.

Collaborative Cinema: The Hunt for Gollum

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The new age of cinema has officially arrived.

These days, there seems to be an ongoing cultural contention that anyone, armed with a cheap little digital camcorder, can make a movie. Being filmmakers ourselves, we have received it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But a group of Lord of The Rings fans and enthusiast filmmakers showed us that anyone can indeed make a Hollywood-like movie in their backyard.

Well, sort of.

The Hunt for Gollum is an unofficial, collaborative prequel to the Peter Jackson trilogy. Directed by Chris Bouchard, the film is completely independent — meaning it was produced solely by the fans, and no one got paid. In Bouchard’s words,

We made this purely for the enjoyment of the material and the experience of making a high quality low budget film.

And don’t let this “experiment in low-budget filmmaking” fool you, because watching the trailer makes it very, very hard to believe it isn’t an authentic Peter Jackson prequel to the trilogy.

Then there’s this admittedly hilarious teaser.

The Hunt for Gollum premiered yesterday. The best part: Besides innovating on this new culture of collaboration, the film is also distributed for free online, where you can watch it in HD.

And we think that’s the freeconomic future of the entertainment industry.

The Sale of Manhattan: A Saul Bass Gem Circa 1962

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What Saul Bass has to do with George W, or why Manhattan is worth $32 worth of junk jewelry.

Today’s short-and-sweet is a cultural gem in more ways than we can count — illustrated by iconic graphic designer Saul Bass, this animation segment comes from the 1962 ABC hit special Stan Freberg Presents: The Chun King Chow Mein Hour and tells, humorously and creatively, the story of The Sale of Manhattan.


Although undeniably marked with the stylistic stamp of that era, it isn’t hard to see how this short is a distant predecesor to the animated political comedy of today. (JibJab’s This Land, we’re looking at you.)

Or, it’s simply a testament to our timeless cultural need for storytelling, humor and art.

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