Brain Pickings

Jonathan Harris: World Building in a Crazy World


Simplicity vs. complexity, mental junk food, and how to be your own person.

We love artist, thinker and digital experimenteur Jonathan Harris — he’s one of the great storytellers of our day. His latest project, World Building in a Crazy World, is a simple yet philosophical reflection on the current state of the digital world, wrapped in a vision for our shared future.

Based on a recent talk Harris gave at UCLA’s Mobile Media Lecture Series, the project consists of a series of 15 short vignettes, each capturing a different and often unexpected facet of our digital reality and reflecting on the intangible interconnectedness of things.

Our Digital Crisis calls out a glaring truth that we all, at least on some level, sense but choose to closes our eyes to and click on.

Most online experiences are made, like fast food, to be cheap, easy, and addictive: appealing to our hunger for connection but rarely serving up nourishment. Shrink-wrapped junk food experiences are handed to us for free by social media companies, and we swallow them up eagerly, like kids given buckets of candy with ads on all the wrappers.

This idea of homogenization is something very near and dear to us. And we see curation — the smart and systematic culling of off-mainstream interestingness — as the only real antidote to the “Digg mentality” dominating the vast majority of web content consumption, where a small number of highly vocal people regurgitate the same content, causing it to float to the top of our collective awareness and feeding it down to that broader “junk-food”-hungry audience.

In Baz, a very personal story about Jonathan’s recent encounter with his 84-year-old fourth grade teacher, Harris reveals some universal truths about the nature of human experience, the wholeness of personality, and the value of asking the right questions rather than shooting for the right answers.

I asked him what was the secret to being a great teacher, and he said, ‘Well, you’ve gotta bring yourself to class every day. Your whole self. Your problems, your opinions, your stories—all of it. When you’re a full person, your students see you as an equal, and they trust you like they trust each other.’

Simplicity explores a much-trumpeted concept, popularized by companies like Apple and Google, from a little-considered vantage point, making a case against the knee-jerk dismissal of complexity driven by trend rather than true consideration.

… there is a difference between simplicity based on familiarity and simplicity based on universal truths. The lemming-like aesthetic conformity of today’s digital world has more to do with the former. True simplicity comes not from imitation, but from understanding. Certain situations will suggest a minimalist approach, but others won’t. Our digital worlds should feel like they sustain life—not just geometry.

1.2.3. explores the three fundamental principles that guide all of Harris’ work.

We love TED, but in Ideas, Harris makes a well-argued point about a sore shortcoming of such idea-conferences, which he says generate “city ideas.”

City ideas have to do with a particular moment in time, a scene, a movement, other people’s work, what critics say, or what’s happening in the zeitgeist. City ideas tend to be slick, sexy, smart, and savvy, like the people who live in cities. City ideas are often incremental improvements — small steps forward, usually in response to what your neighbor is doing or what you just read in the paper. City ideas, like cities, are fashionable. But fashions change quickly, so city ideas live and die on short cycles.

The case Harris makes for “natural ideas” — ones that come from solitary meditation and nature — is really a case for authenticity of thought, a personal resistance to the homogenization of beliefs, ideas and opinions. And we think that’s a skill, not a hard-wired trait — something we work at daily, by indulging our individual curiosity about the world and exploring the unique stories we tell about ourselves, each other and life at large.

Explore World Building in a Crazy World in its entirety for more modern philosophy on the building blocks of reputation, the tricky thing about having opinions, the evolution of language, and other integral parts of being.

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Esoteric Creativity: Michael Paukner’s Visualizations


What 100 monkeys have to do with Atlantis, Indian yoga and Stonehenge.

One of the reasons we love data visualization and the infographic arts so much is that at their best, they can bring a level of intuitive understanding to overwhelmingly esoteric subjects. Which is why we’re head-over-heels with Austrian visualization artist Michael Paukner, who tackles the obscure and the enigmatic with creative quirk and a unique graphic style.

The Hundredth Monkey Effect: Theory, which posits that a learned behavior or idea spreads instantaneously within a group, in an almost paranormal fashion, once a critical number is reached. Click image for details.

His work is a kind of modern artistic alchemy, exploring both real phenomena and the eeriest corners of quasi-science, those fringe worldviews that have always coexisted with and challenged the dominant scientific dogmas of the time.

The Celtic Zodiac: 13-month lunar calendar dating back to around 1000 B.C., devised by Celtic priests known as Druids and constituting the ancient origins of Halloween. Click image for details.

Kundalini: Sanskrit word meaning either 'coiled up' or 'coiling like a snake.' The Kundalini movement in Indian yoga deals with 'corporeal energy' that circulates in and around the human body in an artificial electromagnetic flow. Click image for details.

Stonehenge Rebuilt: Click image for details.

Metatron's Cube: Pattern believed to have sacred geometry with religious value depicting the fundamental principles of space and time. Click image for details.

Capital City of Atlantis: Reconstruction of the mythical city based on a German plan Michael found on an obscure website. Click image for details.

See more of Michael’s work in his relentlessly fantastic Flickr stream.

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Best Albums of October


A whale, a 5-year wait, and imagining Amy Winehouse as a happy person.

Fall is usually the hottest season for indie releases. And October has been sizzling in more ways than we can count. With new releases from old favorites, debut albums by promising up-and-comers, and even some fantastic free mixed samplers, it’s been a grand month for music.


An instant classic by a cultural legend, The Flaming Lips‘ latest, Embryonic, may be a bit self-indulgent at 19 tracks and 70 minutes of play-time, but so long as it’s good music — which it is — that’s okay by us.

Bonus points for releasing it as 2LP color vinyl as well.

Favorite track: Anything You Say Now, I Believe You (Amazon MP3 Exclusive).


Brushfire is one of our absolute favorite indie record labels. (Who, by the way, record in a solar-powered studio.) And their Fall 2009 Sampler is not only completely free, but also DRM-free — something rare and respectable in today’s domination of iTunes proprietary formats and licensing restrictions.

It features tracks from indie favorites like Jack Johnson (the label’s owner), Zach Gill, Matt Costa and the fantastic up-and-comer Zee Avi, whom you may recall from our spotlight feature.

Favorite track: Zee Avi’s Darling.


Songwriter duo The Swell Season began with the romance between The Frames’ frontman Glen Hansard and Czech vocalist Markéta Irglová, who met on the set of Irish indie film gem Once. But the band, named after a novel by humanist Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, suffered an inevitable setback when the romance ended, leaving fans to question its fate. Luckily, the two had the good sense to put their creative integrity first, and continued collaborating on what quickly became one of the best folk bands around. Strict Joy, their formal debut, is every bit as rich and remarkable as their story.

For a taste, grab a free download of In These Arms, the thrid track from the album.

Favorite track: Two Tongues.


We already reviewed British pop-folk outfit Noah and The Whale‘s First Days of Spring and their brilliantly innovative release model, the world’s first-ever film/album hybrid. So no need to wax poetic any futher, but we’ll just say the album a stunning string of quietly excellent tracks.

Favorite track: Slow Glass, which you can hear in full here.


We’ve been infatuated with Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience since the release of their debut album in 2004. So we were increasingly impatient as they took a 5-year sabbatical from recording. Which is why the October 19 release of their new album, Declaration of Dependence, is incredibly rewarding culmination of a long, long wait.

With beautifully melodic acoustics and vocals that clutch you in their quiet but firm grip, their sound is both vulnerable and powerful, full of that intangible but highly distinct Nordicness. Their lyrical sensibility sneaks up on you and catches you by surprise with deep reflections on the simple complexities of everyday life.

For a teaser taste, you can snag Boat Behind, the fourth track from the album, for free.

Favorite track: Mrs. Cold.


Thao With The Get Down Stay Down is easily among the best acts we’ve discovered over the past few years. Their sound has continued to evolve, with vocalist Thao Nguyen channeling Cat Power and and Fionna Apple while innovating in her very own way. Bassist Adam Thompson and drummer Willis Thompson bring a rich layer of vibrant instrumentals to the mix, for a grand total that much grander and more fantastic than the sum of its parts.

And their new album, Know Better Learn Faster, is every bit as brilliant as we expected it to be.

Favorite track: Cool Yourself, because this track is just too white-hot.


Although Danish alt-pop outfit Asteroids Galaxy Tour released a couple of EP’s last year, Fruit is their first full-blown album — and full-blown it is. It’s a glorious intersection of the psychedelic-pop of the 60’s and what Amy Winehouse might sound like if she were a happy person, all wrapped in stunning, unmistakable Scandinavian vocals, with a hint of brilliant but elusive indie collaborator Bajka. Beautiful brass instrumentation and superb drum work give their sound that extra zing that takes it from great, listenable music to head-bobbingly superb.

Favorite track:
Tie between The Golden Age, which you can hear in full here, and Hero.

For more curated music, check out tune of the moment, our Tumblr spinoff, where each day, you can listen to a full track that’s making us smile.

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Retro Revival: Man as Industrial Palace


Vintage German artwork on digital steroids, or why you house a factory.

In 1926, German writer and artist Fritz Kahn came up with his famous Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace) analogy. Kahn’s illustrations compartmentalized the body’s functions in great detail, brilliantly depicting human physiology through analogies with an industrial factory. His work was a visual commentary on industrial modernity and an intersection of two timeless fascinations — with machines and with the human body.

In 2006, German visual communication and animation student Henning Lederer discovered Kahn’s poster and decided to resurrect this complex and unusual way of explaining the body, growing on the original work and translating it into motion graphics. He made himself a cabinet with a mix of analog and digital objects and technologies, and set to creating Industriepalast — an interactive application based on the poster.

Lederer explores human physiology in six cycles — five representing the five main biological systems, and one melding them together into the complex human factory Kahn had envisioned.

For thousands of years, human beings have used metaphors as ways of understanding the body. We talk about our ‘ear drums’, or our ‘mind’s eye’. When we are in love we say our hearts are ‘bursting’ or ‘broken’ […] These familiar images help to explain the unfamiliar and to comprehend the complexity of our bodies.

This is the wonderfully animated preview for the project:

We find this project a particularly timely reminder of our growing inability to reconcile our incessant lust for technology with a dwindling appreciation of the purely human. In an era where incredible robots in our image draw oohs and ahhs from all sides, it’s easy to forget the complex, intricate and utterly awe-inspiring machinery that is the human body. Let’s not.

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