Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘data visualization’

09 AUGUST, 2010

5 ½ Werner Herzog Gems


Monkey philosophy, literary incongruity, and what eating a shoe reveals about the state of contemporary culture.

We’re a little obsessed with the endlessly eccentric, delightfully dark German director Werner Herzog. So we’ve curated five — and a half — of our favorite Werner Herzog nuggets to get existential with or simply have a good intellectual chuckle over.


Directed by Ramin Bahrani of Goodbye Solo fame, Plastic Bag follows the existential journey of a plastic bag, narrated by Herzog, searching for its maker.

The film is part of FutureStates, a series of 11 fictional mini-features exploring hypothetical scenarios for our future through the lens of the world’s current realities.


Okay, so it isn’t really Herzog. It’s an impersonator, filmmaker Ryan Iverson. But the prospect of the dry, uncompromising, deeply existentialist German interpreting children’s classics is oddly alluring, both humorous and awkwardly disturbing. Either way, you can’t stop listening.


Yep, it’s another impersonation. But we just can’t get enough of them. The urgency with which “Herzog” recites the playful rhymes of the book is so comically incongruous that you — or at least we — can’t help chuckling.


No children’s books parody is complete without a stab at Where’s Waldo. Here, “Herzog” takes a tone that’s somewhere between Freud and The X Files, taking the absurdity of the whole concept to a whole new level.


Returning to the authentic Herzog, these excerpts from Les Blank’s classic 1980 short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, are part serious cultural commentary, part humorous encounter with Herzog’s public persona, part rare glimpse of his private creative process as a deeply thoughtful filmmaker.

The film documents Herzog delivering on a bet he made with Errol Morris, which held that if Morris finished his acclaimed first feature, Gates of Heaven, Herzog would eat his shoe.


You may recall an old Brain Pickings favorite from a couple of years ago, Clemens Kogler’s Le Grand Content — a brilliant blend of humor and philosophy reflecting on today’s infographic culture. Inspired by Jessica Hagy’s equally brilliant indexed blog, another Brain Pickings favorite, it’s narrated by a (rather excellent) Werner Herzog impersonator who nails Herzog’s characteristic monotonous snark with a degree of precision and an ounce of caricature that only adds to the dark charm of the piece.

This instant classic is without question in our top five animations of all time.

For a deeper dive into the magic of Herzog, we highly recommend Werner Herzog Collection, a fantastic 1977 film anthology featuring eight of his excellent films, along with commentary, as well as Herzog on Herzog, a priceless collection of interviews Herzog has given throughout his prolific career in both fiction and documentary.

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19 JULY, 2010

7 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers


Design imperialism, what gender equality has to do with military spending, and where 185 pig parts go.

Last week, reported from this year’s TEDGlobalfour grueling days of cerebral stimulation and idea orgy spectatorship. Today, we spotlight 7 must-read books by some of this year’s speakers, litmus-tested for brilliance in the world’s most reliable quality-control lab: the TED stage.

PIG O5049

Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma set out to explore the increasing difficulty with which we can trace the origin of the products we consume in this age of globalization, labor specialization and outsourcing.

In PIG O5049, she hunts down the astounding number of different products — 185, to be exact — made from parts of a specific pig, owned by a farmer friend and tagged with the identification number 05049.

The book is a photographic anthology of these items — ranging from — complete with infographic charts and diagrams outlining the production destiny of the various pig parts.

Beautifully bound and visually stunning, the book takes an unusual, non-preachy approach to an issue of ever-growing importance, leaving you the reader to draw your own conclusions — a task more challenging than it sounds in an age of information overload and prescriptive ideology.


We’ve had a longtime brain crush on cultural theorist and author Steven Johnson, one of the sharpest thinkers and most compelling writers in the broader world of creative culture and intellectual property. His latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explores exactly what the title promises — and, based on his instant-hit TED talk, it does so in a brilliant way that treks across anthropology, sociology, philosophy, behavioral psychology, cognitive science and copyright law, breezing through the cross-pollination of these diverse disciplines with an ease and humor that promise a read not fit for putting down.

The book comes out in October and is now available for pre-order.


The Visual Miscellaneum, which we reviewed in full last October, is one of our all-time favorite books, so we were delighted to see its author, David McCandless take the TED stage. (And even more delighted to chat with him about infoviz and Britishness over wine.)

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this visualization gem, a brilliantly curated anthology of infographic whimsy on anything from military spending to the most pleasurable guilty pleasures.


Chef and entrepreneur Arthur Potts Dawson has set out to revolutionize the restaurant industry, the world’s most wasteful, second only to war. His Waterhouse restaurant, for instance, is the world’s first fully non-carbon eatery, running entirely on hydroelectricity from kitchen to table — a true walk-the-walk manifestation of his principles.

In The Acorn House Cookbook: Good Food from Field to Fork, with a foreword by TEDPrize winner and food activism celebrity Jamie Oliver, Dawson intersects great food with environmental sensibility in a recipe arsenal that makes for the most refined kind of moral and gustatory palate.


At TED, women’s rights crusader Sheryl WuDunn made a convincing case for the idea that gender inequality is the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century.

Her bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is as much a necessary course in cultural anthropology and gender politics as it is a manifesto for intercepting a vicious cycle of raging abuse and quiet oppression. She points to local women as the most powerful change agents without which it is impossible for a country to raise itself from poverty.


In The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak weaves a fascinating story-within-a-story involving a Bostonian suburban housewife, literary infatuation, and 13th-century mysticism.

The novel exudes Shafak’s characteristic East-West narrative, a cross-cultural bridge of eloquence and captivating storytelling, and links nicely to her excellent TED talk about how fiction can overcome identity politics.

Stories help us get a glimpse of each other and, sometimes, maybe even like what we see.”


Last year, we reviewed Emily Pilloton‘s fantastic humanitarian design anthology, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. Since then, Pilloton and her partner have moved the Project H Design headquarters to Bernie County, North Carolina — one of rural America’s poorest areas, where 13% of children live below the poverty line. There, Pilloton has set out to revolutionize a broken education system from the ground up, founding the country’s first high school design/building program. She lives and breathes the Project H Design manifesto: There is no design without action; design WITH, not FOR; document, share and measure; start locally and scale globally; design systems, not stuff.

Design Revolution remains a powerful reminder of why humanitarian design matters — not to egos but to communities, not to award committees but to human ecosystems. It’s a particularly interesting read in the context of the recent epic kerfuffle in the design community, initiated by Bruce Nussbaum as he called designers the new imperialists, unleashing a deluge of responses by some of today’s most arduous in-the-field humanitarian designers, including Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, FrogDesign’s Robert Fabricant, and Pilloton herself.

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29 JUNE, 2010

Waiting for “Superman”: Education by the Numbers


Why 26 seconds are enough to end up in prison, or what Superman has to do with the economy.

A couple of months ago, we raved about Waiting for “Superman” — an ambitious new documentary about the state of public education from filmmaker Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame.

The film explores the human side of education statistics, following five promising, talented, intelligent kids through a system that inhibits rather than inspires academic and intellectual growth. While very much a curtain-peeler for a broken system, with all its “academic sinkholes” and “drop-out factories,” the film is also a hopeful manifesto for the transformational power of great educators, whom Guggenheim casts as the only true ushers of education reform.

This week, the film released an infographic-driven teaser in addition to standard trailer, offering a compelling visual narrative around some eye-opening education statistics.

In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty.”

The film ultimately asks the most critical question: How do we ensure that talented teachers help their students succeed?

We highly, highly encourage you to see Waiting for “Superman” when it hits theaters this fall — you can even pledge to do so right now. Meanwhile, the site offers a handful of ways to take action and lend a hand in fixing a broken system from the ground up.


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