Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

08 JUNE, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels: A Brief History of the Bike

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What British artisans have to do with geometry, women’s liberation and the local economy.

I’m a big proponent of bike culture and an obsessive cyclist myself. On a cultural level, we’ve seen the incredible effects the bike has had on everything from emancipating women to catalyzing subcultures to revitalizing the local economy. And while the bicycle, since its earliest incarnation, has remained a rather remarkable machine, the never-ending quest for its perfection is a relentless conduit of creativity, imagination and artisanal innovation. That’s exactly what Robert Penn documents in It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels — a fantastic new chronicle of the bike’s story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it.

At the heart of [the capstone of the Victorian era] was the bicycle. In 1890, there were an estimated 150,000 cyclists in the USA: a bicycle cost roughly half the annual salary of a factory worker. By 1895, the cost was a few weeks’ wages and there were a million new cyclists each year.” ~ Robert Penn

Penn, a Condé Nast Traveler writer who has traveled more than 25,000 miles on a bicycle, approaches his subject with equal parts humor, humility and authoritative intelligence as he sets out to find himself a new bike. In the process, he dabbles across industrial archeology, economic theory, design and much more, profiles bike culture pioneers, talks to artisan frame builders from the world’s most arcane bike workshops, and even entertains the conceits of Victorian society, where a fear that the bicycle might be sexually stimulating to women became a real concern.

Illustration by Tamara Shopsin and Jason Fulford for The New York Times

Penn cites novelist John Galsworthy, who eloquently captures the bicycle’s momentous impact:

The bicycle…has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second … Under its influence, wholly or in part, have blossomed weekends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language … equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation — in four words, the emancipation of women.”

Entertaining, illuminating and beautifully illustrated, It’s All About the Bike is a rare and precious portal to the heart and soul of bike culture and its surprising footprint — tireprint? — on all of culture.

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08 JUNE, 2011

American Look: A Technicolor Homage to Mid-Century Design

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Can you identify these 49 classic pieces of mid-century design?

In February, we took a look at American Maker — a fascinating Technicolor film produced by the Handy (Jam) Organization and commissioned by the Chevrolet division of General Motors in 1960 to celebrate craftsmanship and creativity. Two years earlier, the same team produced another film, American Look, celebrating mid-century lifestyle design ranging from dinnerware to public art murals to lawnmowers. It’s Mad Men meets Eames meets Objectified meets Look at Life, an early predecessor of BBC’s fantastic The Genius of Design five-part documentary.

Now, the fine folks at The Atlantic are on a mission to identify the 49 mid-century design classics that appear in the film, which Alexis Madrigal has painstakingly screen-shot and catalogued in order of appearance. So head on over to the gallery and lend Alexis your design geekery — how cool would it be to play human Google Goggles for product design?

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07 JUNE, 2011

The Ascent of Money: A PBS Financial History of the World

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Renaissance royalty, Oriental math, and why financial history is the essential backstory behind all history.

Among yesterday’s selection of 5 must-read books by this year’s newly announced TED Global speakers was The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. But the book was actually meant to accompany a 2008 six-part documentary commissioned by Channel 4 — the same folks who gave us What Is Reality?, The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion, How Music Works, What Is Time? — and distributed in the US by PBS.

The program is now available online in a clip of questionable legality that may or may not get pulled down by the copyright watchdogs at any point. But, while it lasts, it’s very much worth a watch — eloquent and digestible, it distills one of the most powerful driving forces of our civilization and its multiplicitous impact on just about every aspect of our lives.

Banks financed the Renaissance, while the bond market decided wars. Stock markets built empires and monetary meltdowns made revolutions. From ancient Mesopotamia right down to present-day London, the ascent of money has been an indispensable part of the ascent of man. But money’s rise has never been a smooth upward ride. As we’ll see, financial history has repeatedly been interrupted by gut-wrenching crises, of which today’s is just the latest.” ~ Niall Ferguson

(The sixth and final episode was uploaded as a separate video due to YouTube’s length restrictions.)

For an excellent companion to and enhancement of the documentary, you won’t go wrong with the book.

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07 JUNE, 2011

The Sorcerers & Their Apprentices: The Untold Story of MIT Media Lab

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What jazz-playing robots have to do with intelligent cars, the future of reading and augmented intuition.

Since its inception by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, the MIT Media Lab has become a potent petri dish of innovation, churning out some of the smartest, most exciting, most optimistic technology-driven promises for a better tomorrow. From humanoid robots to e-ink to smart city cars, the lab continually pushes the bleeding-edge of what MoMA’s Paola Antonelli calls “humanized technology” — objects, devices and systems that enrich and empower our lives. Now, the fascinating story of the MIT Media Lab is finally told in full in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives — a fantastic new book by Frank Moss, who spearheaded the lab’s vision and operations between 2006 and April of this year, when he was replaced by Joi Ito.

Moss, whose formal background is in aerospace engineering and who became an early tech entrepreneur before taking over the lab, pulls the curtain on what Google’s Eric Schmidt calls “the creative chaos” behind the remarkable inner workings of this hub of human genius.

The book really is about people and their passion, how they go about inventing. So often today people write books and talk about innovation as if it were a business process. True creativity and invention, which are the seed of innovation, come from people and they come from the stories of people. They come from their backgrounds, their passions, what moves them, the things that worry them, the things that are their dreams.” ~ Frank Moss

For a taste of the kind of astonishing, jaw-dropping, all-inspiring brilliance that emanates from the lab and its projects, look no further than the incredible Sixth Sense wearable gestural interface project by Patti Maes and Pranav Mistry, demoed at TED in 2009:

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent review and Amazon has a fascinating (but ironically un-embeddable) video tour of the lab as Moss talks about the book.

More than anything, The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices is a fresh breath of optimism amidst a culture of techno-dystopia 30 years in the making, offering a surprisingly believable blueprint for the kind of innovation that maybe, just maybe, can abate our worst nightmares and materialize our greatest dreams for the future.

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