Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

08 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Genius of Dogs: A Dimensional Definition of Human Intelligence

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“Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.”

For much of modern history, dogs have inspired a wealth of art and literature, profound philosophical meditations, scientific curiosity, deeply personal letters, photographic admiration, and even some cutting-edge data visualization. But what is it that makes dogs so special in and of themselves, and so dear to us?

Despite the mind-numbing title, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library; UK) by Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offers a fascinating tour of radical research on canine cognition, from how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence to what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. In fact, one of the most compelling parts of the book has less to do with dogs and more with genius itself.

In examining the definition of genius, Hare echoes British novelist Amelia E. Barr, who wisely noted in 1901 that “genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.” Hare points out that standardized tests provide a very narrow — and thus poor — definition of genius:

As you probably remember, tests such as IQ tests, GREs, and SATs focus on basic skills like reading, writing, and analytical abilities. The tests are favored because on average, they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of college and became billionaires.

Instead, Hare offers a conception of genius that borrows from Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences:

A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

For a perfect example, Hare points to reconstructionist Temple Grandin:

Temple Grandin, at Colorado State University, is autistic yet is also the author of several books, including Animals Make Us Human, and has done more for animal welfare than almost anyone. Although Grandin struggles to read people’s emotions and social cues, her extraordinary understanding of animals has allowed her to reduce the stress of millions of farm animals.

The cognitive revolution changed the way we think about intelligence. It began in the decade that all social revolutions seemed to have happened, the sixties. Rapid advances in computer technology allowed scientists to think differently about the brain and how it solves problems. Instead of the brain being either more or less full of intelligence, like a glass of wine, the brain is more like a computer, where different parts work together. USB ports,keyboards, and modems bring in new information from the environment; a processor helps digest and alter the information into a usable format, while a hard drive stores important information for later use. Neuroscientists realized that, like a computer, many parts of the brain are specialized for solving different types of problems.

An example of this comes from the study of memory, which we already know is fascinating in its fallibility:

One of the best-studied cognitive abilities is memory. In fact, we usually think of geniuses as people who have an extraordinary memory for facts and figures, since such people often score off the charts on IQ tests. But just as there are different types of intelligence, there are different types of memory. There is memory for events, faces, navigation, things that occurred recently or long ago — the list goes on. If you have a good memory in one of these areas, it does not necessarily mean your other types of memory are equally good.

Ultimately, the notion of multiple intelligences is what informs the research on dog cognition:

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.
  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

(This second criterion comes strikingly close to famous definitions of creativity.)

The Genius of Dogs goes on to explore the specific types of intelligence at which dogs excel, including their empathic acumen of taking another’s visual perspective and learning from another’s actions, their ability to interpret and act upon human communicative gestures, and the unique ways in which they go about asking for help. Pair it with John Homans’s indispensable What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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07 FEBRUARY, 2013

How Cinelli Revolutionized the Art and Design of the Bicycle

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A visual history of how Italian designer Cino Cinelli shaped the standards for modern cycling.

The history of the bicycle is peppered with curious and wide-spanning cultural resonance — from powering the emancipating (and subjugation) of women to reining in incredible design innovation to serving as a manifesto for the creative life, a a metaphor for computers, and an object of art. But hardly do the bike’s dignity and glory shine more brilliantly than in an exquisitely designed and engineered specimen, and few pioneers have done more to elevate bicycle design than Cino Cinelli.

The beautifully designed Cinelli: The Art and Design of the Bicycle (public library; UK) tells the story of how, since he first began making frames in Italy in the 1940s, Cinelli set the standards for both technical quality and aesthetic elegance in bicycle design, framing the ideal for the classic bike and shaping the evolution of professional cycling.

Even with its very identity, created by legendary designer Italo Lupi in 1979, Cinelli immediately did away with convention:

The aesthetics of the Italian racing bicycle in the 1970s were still defined by a code set in place in the years before World War II. Frames were painted in beautifully applied pure colors — blacks, reds, whites, blues, bronzes and silvers. The decorations and logos were the careful creations of the great artisans of the interwar period — heraldic symbols and traditional Italian iconography combined with great skill to render the final product harmonious.

[…]

The new Cinelli logo employed a Standard Bold typeface with modified spacing to register an iconic effect. The “winged C” itself was inspired by the clean graphic art of 1950s British motorcycle brands. The colors within the wings — an orange-red, mild green, and yellow — made absolutely no reference to any cycling tradition. Lupi recollects that they were inspired specifically by the particular enamel of British locomotives, but with hindsight they seem equally a product of the irreverent postmodern aesthetics of the late-1970s and early-1980s Milanese design.

The logo immediately and starkly distinguished Cinelli from the competition and became perhaps the most imitated bicycle logo of the modern period. It was sexy, funny, ironic, and design savvy — a completely heterogenous mix of the times, but also a reflection of a confident and excited Milanese cultural industry.

Sample Cinelli: The Art and Design of the Bicycle with this teaser from Rizzoli:

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07 FEBRUARY, 2013

Pictures from Italy: A Whimsical Early Travelogue by Dickens, Newly Illustrated

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A beautiful modern resurrection of the author’s lesser-known early work.

In the 1840s, young Charles Dickens — born on this day in 1812 — traveled to Italy and France with his family, recording the experience in a lesser-known early work that was part travelogue, part imaginative fairy tale. Now, Indian independent publisher Tara Books — whose exquisite handmade gems and whimsical children’s picture-books you might recall — has brought Pictures from Italy (public library; UK) back to life in a beautiful new edition, illustrated by Italian artist Livia Signorini in 11 striking full-color gatefolds inspired by Dickens’s impressions, complemented by beautiful full-page black-and-white closeups.

And let us not remember Italy the less regardfully, because, in every fragment of her fallen Temples, and every stone of her deserted palaces and prisons, she helps to inculcate the lesson that the wheel of Time is rolling for an end, and that the world is, in all great essentials, better, gentler, more forbearing, and more hopeful, as it rolls!

Images courtesy Tara Books

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