Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

10 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Mary Oliver on the Magic of Punctuation and a Reading of Her Soul-Stretching Poem “Seven White Butterflies”

By:

“All eternity is in the moment.”

It’s hard to be human and be unmoved by the grace with which Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) captures the subtleties and mysteries of being alive, from her exquisite poems to her soul-stretching ideas about poetry itself. The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Oliver’s lyrical mastery renders her the Whitman of our day and her sublime attunement to the transcendent in nature place her alongside Thoreau.

In this recording from an event held by the Lannan Foundation in 2001, Oliver shares an entertaining thought about punctuation as a control mechanism and reads her intentionally punctuationless prose poem “Seven White Butterflies,” found in the altogether enchanting volume West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (public library).

One of our great assistances is, of course, punctuation. But it occurred to me that, perhaps, each of us writers has only perhaps a finite amount of it for our use, and we should use it judiciously — lest we hear a voice, suddenly, when we need, saying, “No more semicolons!” “You’re finished with your dashes!” — and, also, that passive-aggressive comma, with which we so carefully set off what is nice, so it won’t be missed — don’t we?

So I thought of, for fun — and I’ve done that a few times — I would write a poem that uses no punctuation (and this particular one has a question mark, which is quite apparent, at the end) and see what I could do simply with the line break and the cadence of the line and so forth. And it is a little breathless to read, and perhaps to listen to, but here goes: it’s called “Seven White Butterflies.”

Seven white butterflies
delicate in a hurry look
how they bang the pages
of their wings as they fly
to the fields of mustard yellow
and orange and plain
gold all eternity
is in the moment this is what
Blake said Whitman said such
wisdom in the agitated
motions of the mind seven
dancers floating
even as worms toward
paradise see how they banter
and riot and rise
to the trees flutter
lob their white bodies into
the invisible wind weightless
lacy willing
to deliver themselves unto
the universe now each settles
down on a yellow thumb on a
grassy stem now
all seven are rapidly sipping
from the golden towers who
would have thought it could be so easy?

That cost me one question mark.

Complement with a beautiful reading from Oliver’s Dog Songs and the beloved poet on the mystery of the human psyche.

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.

10 SEPTEMBER, 2014

100 Ideas That Changed the Web

By:

From the mouse to the GIF, by way of the long tail and technology’s forgotten female pioneers.

In his now-iconic 1945 essay “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush considered the problem of organizing humanity’s knowledge, which he poetically termed “the common record,” in an intelligent way amidst an era of information overload. It was a challenge first addressed a decade earlier by a Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet, whose global knowledge network called the Mundaneum sparked the dawn of the modern information age. But it wasn’t until 1999 that Tim Berners-Lee, who had invented the World Wide Web and launched the first webpage on August 6, 1991, coined the concept of the Semantic Web — a seminal stride toward cultivating wisdom in the age of information, bringing full-circle Otlet’s vision for an intelligent global network of organizing human knowledge. Much like Johannes Gutenberg, who combined a number of existing technologies to invent his revolutionary press, Berners-Lee was simply bringing together disjointed technologies — electronic documents, hypertext, markup, the internet — to create a new paradigm that changed our world at least as much as Gutenberg’s invention. But how, exactly, did we get there?

The 98 landmark technologies and ideas that bridged Otlet’s vision with Berners-Lee’s world-changing web are what digital archeologist Jim Boulton chronicles in 100 Ideas that Changed the Web (public library) — the latest installment in a fantastic series of cultural histories by British indie powerhouse Laurence King, including 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas that Changed Film, 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas that Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas that Changed Art.

IDEA #1: THE MUNDANEUM

In 1936, six decades before the birth of the web as we know it, a Belgian bibliophile named Paul Otlet envisioned an electronic telescope which would transmit any document to a screen anywhere in the world. His primarily female volunteers manually classified some 17 million documents -- a system that became known as the Index Card Internet.

The hundred ideas range from revolutionary concepts, like the personal computer (#9), open source (#28), and peer-to-peer networks (#62), to technologies so rudimentary and ubiquitous that we forget they were once mere “ideas” in a world without them, like graphical user interface (#5), search (#26), email (#51), and the internet itself (#10), to cultural phenomena like the bulletin board systems (#12) that geeks used to connect with one another 30 years before Facebook or online dating (#78), which we still approach with an ambivalent blend of skepticism, eagerness and, on very rare occasions, absolute ingenuity. Boulton’s point, however, is to illustrate how even the most humble among them — like, say, the dear old GIF (#18) — served as combinatorial building blocks that contributed to the web as we know, use, and love it.

IDEA #5: GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE

Inspired by Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart's live demonstration of his vision for the future of computing, the oNLine System (NLS), at the 1968 Joint Computer Conference became known as the 'Mother of All Demos.' It was the very first implementation of a GUI. Unlike many of his peers, Engelbart was interested not in making computers smarter but in how computers could make humans smarter.

Tucked into the various chapters are factlets that reveal delightful and often surprising details about elements of digital communication we’ve come to take for granted. For instance, the section on the emoticon (#19) — which made its debut in 1881 and is also among the 100 diagrams that changed the world — Boulton explains that telegraph operators used early examples of type-based sentiment: “73” meant “best regards” and “88” love and kisses.

He writes in the introduction:

Exploring the history of the Web is not just a nostalgic trip into our recent digital past but an exploration of the very way we think and communicate. Our thought processes are non-linear and erratic but the way we make sense of things and express ourselves is linear. Pioneers like Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, Theodor Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Tim Berners-Lee questioned this conviction. Their legacy is the World Wide Web. A place that breaks down national and cultural borders. A place that blurs the boundaries between generating and exchanging ideas. A place that toppled regimes and created new economic models. A place that has radically changed the way we work, play, shop, socialize and otherwise participate in society. But above all, a place that is for everyone.

The internet, which predates the web by decades, has somewhat unlikely beginnings. (Boulton makes a lucid, charmingly indignant distinction between the two: “The terms “World Wide Web” and “internet” are often used interchangeably, which is plain wrong. The internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks. It is the infrastructure that carries email, instant messaging, Voiceover, IP, network games, file transfer and, of course, the Web.”) In the quest to win the Space Race during the Cold War, the U.S. government established ARPA — the Advanced Research Projects Agency — with grand ambitions, including the creation of an Intergalactic Computer Network. On October 29, 1969, researchers combined ARPA’s three major computing projects — a communications system that could survive a nuclear attack, a computer time-sharing concept, and an operating system — to successfully connect computers between three different universities, creating the world’s first packet-switching network. Known as ARPANET, it was a manifestation of the vision for an Intergalactic Computer Network, which is essentially what we know as the internet.

IDEA #6: THE MOUSE

The first computer mouse, created in 1963, in the hands of its inventor, Douglas Engelbart. The mouse, with its ability to click on specific parts of a document, was the device that made hypertext possible. Without hypertext, there would be no links, and without links, no web. Despite the enormous innovation in computing over the past half-century, the design of the computer mouse has remained practically unchanged. (Photograph: LIFE Magazine)

IDEA #10: THE INTERNET

The location of every IP address on the internet, as visualized by the Opte Project.

Even though the first successful packet-switching network was established in 1969, different such networks around the world operated by different rules and thus could not communicate with one another. In the 1970s, Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf set out to establish a common protocol, which became known as Transfer Control Protocol / Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP. After a successful test was conducted between networks in the U.S., U.K. and Norway in 1977, all packet-switching networks were given a deadline of January 1, 1983, to migrate to the new protocol. Boulton cites Vint Cerf, father of the internet:

When the day came, the main emotion was relief. There were no grand celebrations — I can’t even find a photograph. Yet, with hindsight, it’s obvious it was a momentous occasion. On that day, the operational internet was born.

IDEA #27: WIFI

Hedy Lamarr, inventor of frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio, the technology that underpins wifi.

One of the book’s most heartening touches is Boulton’s effort to shed light on the web’s little-known female pioneers, from Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr, who was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world, starred in cinema’s first on-screen orgasm, and also invented the technology that laid the groundwork for bluetooth and wifi, to the very first photo uploaded to the web thanks to an all-girl science rock band from CERN, no less.

IDEA #45: METADATA

Henriette Avram, creator of the first digital metadata in 1970, the MARC standards (Machine-Readable Cataloging standards) at the Library of Congress. Much like the Dewey Decimal System revolutionized library science by introducing a card-catalog method for organizing books, metadata helps organize digital content by capturing details about it such as who created it, when it was created, its subject matter, and more.

Not all ideas are technologies — many are higher-order concepts that describe cultural phenomena and social dynamics. Among them is the notion of “the long tail,” a term from statistics that Chris Anderson popularized as a lens on business and creative culture in his excellent 2006 book of the same title. (I, of course, am partial — Brain Pickings is made possible entirely by the “long tail” of patrons like you.)

IDEA #73: THE LONG TAIL

Boulton writes: 'The long tail is what happens when everything is available to everyone. Given enough choice and enough customers, obscure products tailored to our individual needs are more desirable than mass-market blockbusters.'

IDEA #68: INFOGRAPHICS

Infographic from 'Information Is Beautiful' by David McCandless.

Fittingly, in the section on infographics (#68), Boulton traces the evolution of this visual communication genre from Otto Neurath’s invention of pictograms in the 1930s to the impact of data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte to the work of information designers like David McCandless, concisely nailing the peril and promise of this singular form of visual literacy, which requires the mastery of a special language to both create and consume intelligently:

The rise of the social web and our reluctance to read long documents has propelled the work of information designers like Neurath, Tufte and McCandless to the fore. It is boom time for infographics. Alongside other bite-sized shareable content such as photos of kittens and GIF animations, infographics have become a staple part of our media diet… Done badly, you get Chartjunk. Done well, they make data meaningful and entertaining. Sometimes even beautiful.

IDEA #18: GRAPHICS INTERCHANGE FORMAT

'Dancing Girl' by legendary GIF artist Chuck Pointer.

And, of course, what history of the web could be complete without everyone’s favorite Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF (#18)? Boulton offers a brief history surprisingly illuminating even for us smug, GIF-slinging moderns:

It’s 20 years old. It supports only 256 colors. It’s unsuitable for photographs. It has no sound capability. It’s inferior to the PNG. Yet the GIF is still hanging in there. Why has it proved so tenacious? Because it can move.

CompuServe introduced the GIF format in the pre-Web days of 1987. It was released as a free and open specification for sharing color images across the network.

[...]

The GIF really took off in 1993 with the release of Mosaic, the first graphical browser. Mosaic introduced the <img> tag, which supported two formats — GIF and a black-and-white format called XMB. Mosaic became Netscape and, as it grew, the GIF grew with it… In 1996, Netscape 2.0 was released. It supported GIF animations — multiple frames shown in succession. The Web went crazy.

But perhaps the most poignant section is also the most conceptual — the notion of “digital fragility” (#41). Boulton captures it elegantly:

Printed in 1455, 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible exist, yet not one copy of a website made a little over 20 years ago survives.

[...]

Digital content is so easy to duplicate that copies are not valued. Worse, the original version is also often considered disposable. Combine this with the rapid obsolescence of digital storage formats, and it is easy to see why many experts describe the early years of the Web as a digital dark age.

[...]

The last 20 years have seen the birth and rise of the Web at an astronomical pace. We have witnessed the birth of the Information Age, equal in magnitude to the transition to the modern world from the Middle Ages. We have a responsibility to expose this artistic, commercial and social digital history — the building blocks of modern culture — to future generations, an audience who will be unable to imagine a world without the Web.

Until we discover the digital equivalent of acid-free paper, bits and bytes remain extremely fragile.

IDEA #8: XANADU

Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines,' an exploration of the creative potential of computer networks, not only predicted the home-computer revolution long before it happened but also served as a clarion call for ordinary people to appropriate computers for their own use, rather than being passive bystanders witnessing a government technology.

But the story of the web is an optimistic one — and, more importantly, one that is still being written. Not coincidentally, the final idea in the book is the Semantic Web (#100) — the concept that, so far, offers the greatest promise of helping us transmute information into wisdom, which is increasingly the defining challenge of our age. As Boulton puts it, “Knowledge is information in context.”

The term, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from Tim Berners-Lee himself:

I have a dream for the Web … in which computers … become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web — the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web,” which makes this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade,bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines.

The main value of the Semantic Web, however, is that it extracts meaningful relationships and connections from large sets of information, which brings us all the way back to Vannevar Bush’s ideal of “establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” and that it helps discern a context for isolated bits of information, which is the foundation of knowledge and the very thing Paul Otlet pursued in his vision of the Mundaneum. The web, it seems, is coming full-circle.

100 Ideas that Changed the Web is wonderfully illuminating in its entirety. Complement it with Clive Thompson on how the web is changing the way we think for the better and a close look at just how revolutionary and influential Otlet’s Mundaneum was.

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.

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Legendary Composer Aaron Copland on the Conditions of Creativity, Emotion vs. Intellect, and the Trap of Public Opinion

By:

“The main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.”

In 1970, long before our present barrage of books on creativity, even before Vera John-Steiner’s pioneering investigation of the creative mind and the influential tome The Creativity Question, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to tackle the question of what makes creators create by bridging the sociological and the psychological approach, which previous frameworks of studying creativity had kept separate. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 celebrated figures in the arts and sciences — from choreographer Merce Cunningham to cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky to astronomer Harlow Shapley — and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library) — an ambitious effort not only to understand the creative mind, but also to expose the false divide between intuition and intellect and to debunk the then-dominant, still-toxic notion that creativity in the arts is the product of hot emotion, while creativity in the sciences that of cool intelligence.

Rosenfeld captures the book’s ethos of integration beautifully:

There do not exist two distinct and separate types of mind, one for the arts and humanities, the other for the sciences… You must possess both intuition and imagination to be creative in the sciences as well as the arts… There is science in all good poetry and vice versa.

Among the most eloquent and interesting interviewees is the influential composer (and the one-time object of Leonard Bernstein’s infatuation) Aaron Copland, recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize in composition.

Copland begins by considering the nature of creativity:

It is very difficult to describe the creative experience in such a way that it would cover all cases. One of the essentials is the variety with which one approaches any kind of artistic creation. It doesn’t start in any one particular way and it is not always easy to say what gets you going.

I’ve sometimes made the analogy with eating. Why do you eat? You’re hungry. You are sort of in the mood to eat, and if you are in the mood to eat, the food tastes better; you’re more interested in what you’re eating. The whole experience is more “creative.” It’s the hunger that stimulates you to eat. It’s the same thing in art; except that, in art, the hunger is the need for self-expression.

How does it come about that you feel hungry? You don’t know, you just feel hungry. The juices are working, and suddenly you are aware of the fact that you want a piece of bread and butter. It’s about the same in art. If you pass your life in creating works of art in one field or another, you recognize the “hunger” signs and you are quick to take advantage of them, if they’re accompanied by ideas. Sometimes, you have the hunger and you don’t have any ideas; there’s no bread in the house. It’s as simple as that.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920–35.' Click image for more.

Copland’s concept of creativity is similar to the notion of chance-opportunism common to great scientific minds — the art of being prepared not only to capture great ideas when they occur but to also direct attention to them and shepherd them into a fruitful direction. Copland points to the importance of cultivating the right parameters for this process — something psychologists have since confirmed in examining the ideal environment for creativity — and outlines the conditions most conducive to productivity:

If you were to set up the ideal situation, I’d have to be in my studio, where conditions are conducive to work and where I don’t have any distractions. It’s difficult to write music on the subway train; it can be done, but it’s not usual. If I feel in the mood to write, something starts me off. I might feel sad. I might feel lonely. I might feel elated. I might have gotten a good letter from somebody. Something starts me off.

At first glance, Copland’s experience seems to contradict Tchaikovsky’s famous proclamation that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” But the notion of mood, as Copland uses it, seems to be less about awaiting some mythic stroke of inspiration as about being attentive to those essential triggers — the starter-offers — that catalyze the creative process. In fact, he echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is the root of creativity, but for him the key to catalyzing the creative process isn’t merely attunement to one’s emotional state — rather, it’s a delicate dialogue between the hotness of emotional excess and the coolness of the intellect:

Whenever you write, you see, nothing will happen unless the creative fantasy is alive. One the other hand, to be alive with creative fantasy suggests, to me, improvising at the piano. But, if you merely improvise, you might never find your improvisation again. And that’s where coolness comes in. You watch yourself being fiery, or sad, or lonely; otherwise you won’t be able to get it down on paper. Writers probably have this same problem of writing fast enough so that they can get it all down while they are under the spell. You can’t be sure how long it will go on. Outside interruption is definitely out. In music, you have to get it down on score paper. Otherwise, you might forget it… If you go on being fiery all the time, by the time you stop being fiery, you will have lost the whole thing.

Copland reflects on his daily routine:

I happen to be a night worker… I don’t know why. Once I read a statement made by Thomas Hardy, in which he said, “Seven-eighths of the intimate letters that are written are written after 10:00 in the evening.” I connected that statement with writing music and working at night, because composing is a kind of intimate letter writing. You are expressing your inward feelings in musical terms.

In a sentiment that legendary songwriter Carole King would come to echo two decades later in her insightful meditation on the interplay between inspiration and perspiration in creative work, Copland returns to this notion of mood:

Musical composition works best when you are in the mood. You can coldly sit down and write anything, but the results will often not be satisfactory either to yourself or to the people who hear it. Nevertheless, it can be induced to a certain extent.

Still, Copland considers emotion not only a far more powerful creative agent than thought but also the primary gateway to self-awareness — an idea quite radical in rationalism’s shadow, which has conditioned us to believe that we think our way into our experience rather than feeling our way into it. Copland writes:

In music, it’s more likely to be an emotion rather than a specific idea or thought that leads to a composition. It’s comparable to a person who starts to sing to himself, though he is not even aware he’s begun to sing. Then, if he suddenly begins to become aware that he’s been singing something with a sad sound to it, he wonders what he’s feeling so sad about.

[...]

Music is a language of the emotions. You can practice it either on a very plain and elementary basis, or you can practice it on a highly complex one. But, it generally gives off some sort of generalized emotional feeling…

Staying with the question of feelings, Copland makes a curious remark about the role of depression in creative work — one that resonates with what psychologists have since confirmed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness and one that counters the “tortured genius” myth:

Too much depression will not result in a work of art because a work of art is an affirmative gesture. To compose, you have to feel that you are accomplishing something. If you feel you are accomplishing something, you won’t feel so depressed. You may feel depressed, but it can’t be so depressing that you can’t move. No, I would say that people create in moments when they are elated about expressing their depression!

Creative work, Copland argues, is invariably a self-portrait of the creator’s unique inner life. His description almost exudes an element of fatedness in the relationship between an artist and his or her art:

The kind of emotion that some of my music expresses would be a reflection of the kind of person I am, because I couldn’t have written that kind of music unless I was that kind of person. The fact that I don’t write other kinds of music means that I am not that other kind of person.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

More than the mere exorcism of emotion, Copland argues that the magic of music lies in its ability to translate our concrete thoughts and feelings into an enchanting abstract experience, and the degree of fluency in such abstraction is what sets great musical talent apart:

Everyone is supposed to like music, but people who are really musically gifted don’t seem to have the need for having music’s significance made specific. They can think about music and enthuse about it, and that’s all that’s necessary.

[...]

One of the reasons why cultivated music is one of the glories of mankind, one of the real achievements of mankind, is that we are dealing in amorphous, highly abstract material without any specific thought content.

This, Copland argues, is largely a matter of education — an education the general public simply does not have, which renders many people incapable of appreciating truly great and visionary music. Perhaps his most poignant point, indeed, has to do with the problem of public opinion and the artist’s eternal struggle not to confuse external approval with self-esteem and not to succumb to the trap of people-pleasing. Copland writes:

Composers, unfortunately, have a serious problem with the present-day public. It’s as if you’re talking a language to them which they don’t fully understand… There is some discouragement in writing in a language that you know in advance can’t be fully understood except by people who have bothered with the language sufficiently to feel at home with it.

But the main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.

Even more than self-gratification, Copland argues, artists’ highest responsibility is to capture the cultural backdrop of their time:

[Today's artists] are the only ones who can express the spirit of what it means to be alive today.

That’s what makes the creation of art seem important. You’re not just expressing your own individuality. You, as a person, are an exemplar; you are one of the people living now who can put this thing down. In another twenty years … the world experience will be different, so the need becomes very pressing. You have a sense of urgency, of being occupied with something essential and unique. To leave our mark of the present on the future — what could be more natural?

He parlays this into a final meditation on the creative impulse as our most potent ally in our incurable longing for immortality, as well as a central component in art’s therapeutic potentiality:

The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant. i don’t think about this when I write my music, of course, but I think about it after the act, and believe it to be the moving force behind the need to be creative in the arts.

The Creative Experience is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Complement it with another seminal treatise on creativity from the same era, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler — who happens to be one of Abt and Rosner’s 23 subjects — and with one of the twentieth century’s first systematic explorations of the creative mind, the 1942 lost gem An Anatomy of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding.

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.