Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

20 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Frank Show: An Illustrated Homage to Grandparents and the Art of Looking Twice

By:

Because the most interesting stories sometimes come disguised in the least intriguing of packages.

As a lover of vintage and vintage-inspired children’s books, I was instantly enamored with The Frank Show (public library) by British illustrator and designer David Mackintosh — a charming homage to grandparents and the art of seeing beneath the grumpy exterior. Illustrated in a style that’s part Miroslav Šašek, part Paul Rand, it tells the story of a little boy forced to bring his Grandpa Frank — who’s always around and complains tirelessly about how things were better in the olden days — to school for show-and-tell. But, just as the young narrator is dreading total mortification at grandpa’s boringness, Frank rolls up his sleeve to reveal a curious tattoo and tells the wild story of how he got it, a tale of danger and heroism and, above all, a reminder that interestingness lurks beneath the surface of even the most insipid-seeming. Because, as artist Keri Smith wisely put it, “Aways be looking… Everything is interesting. Look closer.”.

Page illustrations courtesy Abrams Books

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 what to expect. Like? Sign up.

20 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012, In a Print Book

By:

A far more brilliant and necessary idea than it first appears.

At first, the idea of publishing some of the web’s finest journalism in a print book might seem counterintuitive, if not downright absurd — after all, half the beauty of online journalism is the magical Rube Goldberg machine of references, strung together via hyperlinks that offer riffs and context without the cumbersome expository bulk of text. So what happens when you strip the writing of its linked context, of the dynamism of hypertext, and confine it to the static printed page?

In The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (public library), editors Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette demonstrate precisely what happens — and it’s something rather curious and whimsical.

Once you’re able to get past seemingly anachronistic footnotes awkwardly compensating for the linklessness, you find yourself immersed in the writing in a way that the web’s blinking, demanding, ad-infested pages never quite allow. But, most importantly, you begin to see connections between critical issues, to understand how things fit together and why, as Charles Eames once observed, “the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” And therein lies the magic of the anthology’s thoughtful curation — a potent mix of critical analyses, witty personal reflections, absorbing feature profiles, illuminating commentary on the intersection of science and social policy, and even long-form investigative journalism, covering everything from the last space shuttle launch to fluid dynamics to gender politics.

In “The Renaissance Man,” the inimitable Ed Yong shows us that rigorous science journalism and exquisite long-form feature profiles can coexist, and when they do, it’s a thing of beauty:

Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field — say, neuroscience or genetics — Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s ‘culturomics’ study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. ‘I guess I just view myself as a scientist,’ he says.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact.

‘I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,’ he says.

[…]

Aiden naturally gravitates to problems that he knows little about. ‘The reason is that most projects fail,’ he says. ‘If the project you know a lot about fails, you haven’t gained anything. If a project you know relatively little about fails, you potentially have a bunch of new and better ideas.’ And Aiden has a habit of using his failures as springboards for success.

In “On Beards, Biology, and Being a Real American,” molecular biologist Joe Hanson, everyone’s favorite Feynman of the Tumblr era, brings his signature blend of the personal and the universally insightful to explore the bacterial ecosystems that inhabit the token signifier of hipster street cred, painting, as he always does, science as as anything but boring. Amidst the fascinating microbiology, you also find such priceless sentences as:

Unsurprisingly, when a live chicken is rubbed across an unwashed beard containing a lethal titer of avian viral particles, then ground up in a blender and injected into fertilized eggs, the rates of survival are not good. Beard-wearing scientists must take care to ensure that they do not repeat this extremely precise and odd sequence of events, lest they ruin dozens of perfectly good eggs.

Vintage ad accompanying Christie Wilcox's original Scientific American article 'Why do women cry? Obviously, it’s so they don’t get laid'

But the anthology’s greatest curatorial feat is the purposefulness with which it debunks the myth that science is dry, passionless, objective, and devoid of emotional investment. Take, for instance, Scientific American’s Christie Wilcox, who in “Why do women cry? Obviously, it’s so they don’t get laid” takes MSNBC’s Brian Alexander’s appallingly sexist pseudoscience reportage head-on and brings to it with equal force the dual lenses of hard science and eloquent, unabashedly opinionated analysis:

Alexander’s reporting of the actual science was quick and simplistic, and couched in sexist commentary (like how powerful women’s tears are as manipulative devices). And to finish things off, he clearly states what he found to be the most important find of the study:

‘Bottom line, ladies? If you’re looking for arousal, don’t turn on the waterworks.’

It’s no wonder that the general public sometimes questions whether science is important. If that was truly the aim of this paper, I’d be concerned, too!

[…]

Of course, Brian Alexander missed the point. This paper wasn’t published as a part of a women’s how-to guide for getting laid. Instead, the authors sought to determine if the chemicals present in human tears might serve as chemosignals like they do for other animals — and they got some pretty interesting results.

She goes on to cite a number of studies that suggest alternative, more complex evolutionary explanations, then concludes:

Why do I care so much? It’s not just that they got it wrong. It’s that their interpretation of research isn’t labeled as opinion. It’s that the vast majority of people who have any interest in science news are going to read inaccurate (if not downright insulting) news articles and think studies like this one are either misogynistic or frivolous. It’s that journalists like Brian Alexander undermine good science for the sake of attention grabbing headlines. And as a scientist and a writer, I am doubly insulted.

The rest of The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is just as stirring and stimulating — do yourself a favor.

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 what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Good Girls Revolt: The Untold Story of the 1970 Lawsuit That Changed the Modern Workplace

By:

How the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media shaped the modern workplace.

In the summer of 2006, a young journalist named Jessica Bennett started as an intern at Newsweek. Shortly thereafter, three guys showed up as interns and by the end of the summer, all three of them were offered jobs but Jessica — who had been given a number of their stories to rewrite — wasn’t. Once she eventually was, a year later, she found herself getting worse assignments and fewer published articles than her less experienced male colleagues. Meanwhile, her best friend, Jesse Ellison, another Newsweek writer, had just found out that the guy who had replaced her in her previous position was hired at a significantly higher salary.

At first, it didn’t even occur to the young women — who had come of age in the post-feminist era — that there might be a gender issue at work, especially at a magazine where women comprised 40% of the masthead and the managing editor was female. But the deeply engrained boy’s-club mentality of day-to-day management became increasingly evident and frustrating for many of the women on the staff, who had started pooling together and discussing the issue. Then, one day, Tony Skaggs, a veteran researcher in the magazine’s library, walked into Newsweek video producer Jen Molina’s office and told her that decades earlier, the women at Newsweek had sued the magazine for gender-based discrimination. Shocked, Molina Googled the lawsuit but found nothing — a particularly besetting outcome for those of us who belong to the generation nursed on the notion that if it isn’t Googleable, it doesn’t exist.

In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), Lynn Povich, one of the original Newsweek staffers who helmed the watershed lawsuit, tells its previously untold story, building — or, perhaps, deconstructing — around it a larger narrative about the tectonic shifts in gender politics in the past four decades and where this leaves us today. Not unlike Mad Men, it exposes the many social, cultural, and legal limits for women at the time, but also tells what Povich calls a “coming-of-age story about a generation of ‘good girls’ who found [themselves] in the revolutionary ’60s.” Perhaps most jarring of all, however, is that even as we read on as modern people who take pride in the progress of the past half-century, we become increasingly aware of the subtler but no less damaging sexist undercurrents that, forty years later, still permeate many social structures and cultural institutions.

At Newsweek, our ‘problem that had no name’ in the mid-1960s was sexism, pure and simple. At both Time and Newsweek, only men were hired as writers. Women were almost always hired on the mail desk or as fact checkers and rarely promoted to reporter or writer. Even with similar credentials, women generally ended up in lesser positions than men. One summer, two graduates of the Columbia Journalism School were hired – he as a writer and she as a researcher/reporter. That’s just the way it was, and we all accepted it.

Until we didn’t. Just as young omen today are discovering that post-feminism isn’t really ‘post,’ we were discovering that civil rights didn’t include women’s rights. . . . We began to realize that something was very wrong in the Newsweek system. With great trepidation, we decided to take on what we saw as a massive injustice: a segregated system of journalism that divided research, reporting, writing, and editing roles solely on the basis of gender. We began organizing in secret, terrified that we would be found out — and fired — at any moment. For most of us middle-class ladies, standing up for our rights marked the first time we had done anything political or feminist. It would be the radicalizing act that gave us confidence and courage to find ourselves and stake our claim.

'Women in Revolt,' Newsweek, March 16, 1970

But what makes the lawsuit most striking is that it took place immediately after Newsweek ran a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement titled “Women in Revolt” in March of 1970, with a screaming cover featuring a naked woman bursting through a broken female-sex symbol. As the issue hit newsstands on that fateful Monday morning of March 16, 46 of Newsweek’s female employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the charge that they had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume subsidiary role” due entirely to their gender. It was the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media, and it garnered prolific news coverage around the world — some of which was itself appallingly emblematic of the sort of culturally condoned sexism at the heart of the lawsuit. Povich offers a chilling example:

The story in the New York Daily News, titled “Newshens Sue Newsweek of ‘Equal Rights,'” began, ‘Forty-six women on the staff of Newsweek magazine, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced today they were suing the magazine.

But the women, undeterred, moved forward with the suit. They had chosen Eleanor Holmes Norton, the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to represent them. Povich recalls a monumental moment at the packed press conference:

‘It is ironic,’ [Norton] said, waving a copy of the magazine, ‘that while Newsweek considers women’s grievances noteworthy enough for such a major coverage, it continues to maintain a policy of discrimination against the women on its own staff. . . . The statistics speak for themselves — there are more than fifty men writing at Newsweek, but only one woman.’ She pointed out that although the women were graduates of top colleges, held advanced degrees, and had published in major news journals, ‘Newsweek’s caste system relegates women with such credentials to research jobs almost exclusively and interminably.’

But the irony didn’t stop there. Povich recalls:

It was an exhilarating moment for us, and a shocking one for Newsweek’s editors, who couldn’t have been more surprised if their own daughters had risen up in revolt. We had been secretly strategizing for months, whispering behind closed doors, congregating int he Newsweek ladies’ room, and meeting in our apartments at night. As our numbers increased, we had hired a lawyer and were just reviewing our options when we were suddenly presented it with a truly lucky break. In early 1970, Newsweek’s editors decided that the new women’s liberation movement deserved a cover story. There was one problem, however: there were no women to write the piece.

Indeed, when the idea of a women’s liberation cover story first came up, the editors immediately realized they couldn’t have a man write it — but they didn’t trust any of the women on the staff with it. Instead, for the first time in the magazine’s history, they went outside the organizaton and hired Helen Dudar, a star writer at the New York Post, to write the piece. (Coincidentally or not, Dudar’s husband was one of Newsweek’s top writers.) As Povich recalls, this only galvanized the women at Newsweek, who then decided to time the lawsuit with the cover story’s release. The rest, as the saying goes, is history — but, oh, what riveting and reverberating history.

In an age when we celebrate how women are changing the face of media, The Good Girls Revolt is an essential piece of media history that shows us not only how far we’ve come but, with just the right amount of self-conscious cultural discomfort, how far we’re yet to go.

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 what to expect. Like? Sign up.