Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘data visualization’

07 DECEMBER, 2009

Gift Guide Part One: Books


How to be a cool and cultured polyglot of a friend and friend of the polyglot.

‘Tis the season of giving, and we have your back with curated gifts ideas that are bound to delight and enlighten with a mix of smarts, quirk and non-genericism. This is Part 1 of the three-part Brain Pickings holiday gift guide: Books. (Part 2 will focus on gifts for kids of all ages and the eternal kid, and Part 3 will give you ideas for priceless free gifts.)


Four Pixar animators release a racy side project — need we say more?

Still, we did — here’s our full review, with a few glorious illustrations from the book to give you a teaser taste of what’s an absolute cover-to-cover gem.

Perfect for: Designers, artists, animation lovers, irreverent culture buffs, hipsters of all stripes


A feat of photography, cultural anthroplogy and music history, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 offers a fascinating slice of life from one of the 20th century’s most defining eras.

We reviewed it here, where you can read about the incredible story of how it came to be and see exclusive images from its pages. (It was also one of the most popular pieces on Brain Pickings this year.)

Perfect for: Lovers of photography, jazz, history, New York, vintage culture


What makes information visualization so appealing is that it bridges so many different disciplines — design, statistics, content curation, art, mathematics — to marry them with pure human curiosity and the love of knowledge, offering digestible, intuitive insight into issues that may otherwise seem confusing, alienating or intimidating. The Visual Miscellaneum does all that and more, with fascinating and gripping visualizations of anything from global Internet trends to the most pleasurable guilty pleasures.

For a look inside and further well-deserved superlatives, check out our review of the book.

Perfect for: Those into data visualization, design, trivia; lifelong learners and the relentlessly curious


When a blog gets a book deal, you know it’s onto something great. And Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves is a perfect case study. Sixty noted writers and musicians wax poetic about their mixtape masterpieces and the relationship that inspired them, revealing amusing and incredibly relatable pieces of human truth in the process.

We reviewed it in full here.

Perfect for: Music lovers, hopeless romantics, cultural nostalgics


Regardless of your political inclinations or nationality, it’s hard to deny the incredible cultural phenomenon of Obamania. From being the first campaign in history to be orchestrated practically on social media, to helping a generation never before interested in politic find its civic voice, to making the boldest case for equality to date, it affected much more than politics and reached much further than America.

Now, author and photographer Rick Smolan (whom you may recall from last year’s fantastic Blue Planet Run, another highly recommended read) is capturing the phenomenon in a unique project: The Obama Time Capsule.

Besides brimming with amazing images by 140 of the world’s leading photographers, the book features an excitingly unusual twist: It’s customizable and personalizable.

We’re keenly aware that politics is a tricky subject. Views vary, people pout, and the concept of “happy medium” is darn near nonexistent. But look at it this way: If your mom had a personalized visual record of Beatlemania, full of vibrant vintage photographs and inscribed with her own dedication to her not-yet-born children, how priceless would that be?

Perfect for: History lovers, Obama supporters, those interested in the sociology of politics, customization addicts


Another excellent blog-turned-book, Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities features 138 of the most fascinating, absorbing and remarkable maps from the blog’s 3-year history of culling the world’s forgotten, little-known and niche cartographic treasures.

From the world as depicted in Orwell’s 1984, to a color map of Thomas More’s Utopia, to the 16th-century portrayal of California as an island where people live like the Amazons, the book peels away at our collective conception of the world over the centuries, revealing rich layers of history, sociology, politics, anthropology and pure amusement.

Snack on a few maps from the book for a taste of its brilliance in our full review.

Perfect for: Map geeks, history geeks, geeks; the chronically curious


Between 1968 and 1972, author and activist Stewart Brand, who helped start the environmental movement in the 60’s, published the highly acclaimed Whole Earth Catalog — an iconic counterculture compendium of tools, texts and miscellaneous information, which Steve Jobs went on to describe as the conceptual forerunner of the World Wide Web.

This year, he followed up with the long-awaited Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, a sharp and compelling vision for engineering our collective future.

Our full review.

Perfect for: The socially-conscious, ecologically-minded, future-forward


Johnny Carrera’s Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities is an absolute feat of artistry and bookbinding — a charming, chunky volume of over 1,500 engravings from Webster’s 19th-century dictionaries, cleaned, restored and curated in a captivating and unusual reference guide for modernity.

There are also two equally delightful companions to the book — a stamp kit and a set of wall cards.

We reviewed it fully here.

Perfect for: Vintage junkies, those who love the art and craft of books, illustration and design lovers, history geeks


Product designer, activist and Project H founder Emily Pilloton is one of our big heroes. This year, she published Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People — a fascinating anthology of 100 contemporary design products and systems that change lives in brilliantly elegant ways.

From a high-tech waterless washing machine, to low-cost prosthetics for landmine victims, to Braille-based Lego-style building blocks for blind children, to a DIY soccer ball, the book reads like a manual, thinks like a manifesto, and feels like a powerful jolt of fire-in-your-belly inspiration.

Our full review.

Perfect for: Design thinkers, change agents, do-gooders, those in need of inspiration and restoration of their faith in humanity


In 2005, visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris embarked upon an ambitious project: To record the collective sentiment of the social web in a massive ongoing visualization. The project, titled We Feel Fine, soon became an icon of interactive storytelling and data visualization.

Four years and 12 million human emotions later, Harris co-authored We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion, a remarkable and visually indulgent anthology of infographics, visualizations, and scientific observations of the dreams, passions and worries that make us human. We’ve been awaiting this book for a long time, and it more than meets our gargantuan expectations — so it’s at the top of this year’s Brain Pickings favorite and comes highly, highly recommended.

Peek inside the book’s whimsical and fascinating pages in our full review and read editor Maria Popova’s interview with Harris for Wired UK.

Perfect for: Everyone and anyone, but especially the visually inclined; fans of PostSecret; cultural voyeurs

For more excellent, eclectic and relentlessly fascinating gift ideas, check out all the books we recommended this year. And stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of our holiday gift guide.

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03 DECEMBER, 2009

We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion


Four years and 12 million feelings later, a book that lives up to its grand expectations.

In 2005, visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris (whom we’ve already established we love) embarked upon an ambitious experimental journey into human emotion. The project, titled We Feel Fine, soon became an icon of interactive storytelling and data visualization. The premise was simple: Every few minutes, an algorithm would scrobble the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling,” and harvest human emotion by recording the full sentence and context in which the phrase occurs, identifying the polarity (happy, sad, depressed, etc. ) of the specific “feeling” expressed. Because the blogosphere is lined with metadata, it was possible to extract rich information about the posts and their authors, from age and gender to geolocation and local weather conditions, adding a new layer of meaning to the feelings.

The result was a database of millions of human feelings, growing by about 20,000 per day.

This week, Harris and co-author Sep Kamvar release We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion, a remarkable book exploring the 12 million human emotions recorded since 2005 through brilliantly curated words and images that make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.

With its unique software-driven model, We Feel Fine is a revelation of emotion through a prism of rational data that only makes the emotional crux deeper and more compelling. It’s the rich symphony to PostSecret‘s scattered and sporadic soundbites, transcending mere voyeurism to offer a complex, layered context that spans sociology, psychology and digital anthropology.

From sentiments about cities to approval ratings of celebrities to the effects of gender and age on emotion, We Feel Fine picks at the fabric of feeling and thought from all sides and angles to reveal a complex portrait of human essence.

You can peek inside the book online and even download many of the pages as PDF’s.

For more about the challenges of translating a web narrative onto a print medium, how the idea for the book first came up, and what’s next for Jonathan, check out our exclusive Q&A with him for Wired UK. And grab a copy of We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion — for yourself, or as one of the smartest holiday gifts out there.

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 an example. Like? Sign up.

19 NOVEMBER, 2009

Nonsequential Narratives: Hypertextual Books


What your weapon of choice has to do with the evolution of storytelling.

Remember Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, the interactive fiction hit of the 80’s? Designer Christian Swinehart is dissecting the genre in CYOA — an incredibly ambitious atomic-level structural analysis of a dataset of 12 such books, visualizing all the possible reader paths within the narrative.

The color-coded visualizations divide the plot of each book into different structural elements and groups based on the number of choices offered and how positive or negative the story ending is. The twelve books are then laid out chronologically, each arranged into rows of ten pages to better reveal their structural patterns. You can even explore each of the narratives as an animated visualization.

This visual dissection of literature reminds us of Stefanie Posavec’s Writing Without Words, though Swinehart’s approach is much less abstract and far more technically elaborate.

While CYOA books may seem like a fad of the past, they’re actually an early example of much of the non-linear storytelling and interactive narratives that take place on the web today — jumping around book pages, constructing your own story, is a lot like exploring a blog through its tag cloud rather than reading the entries sequentially, or skimming your RSS reader with articles from different publishers showing up in a shared timeline, or just hopping around your countless browser tabs.

What makes Swinehart’s CYOA visualizations noteworthy is that they offer insight not only into the structural patterns of the genre, but also into its evolution, revealing a gradual decline in possible endings — the earlier books show a colorful mix of reds and oranges, the middle of the story outcome polarity spectrum, while in the later ones a single favorable ending, in yellow or blue, tends to emerge.

And we hope this isn’t a prophetic metaphor for where the evolution of modern storytelling is headed — but we have to agree with artist and explorer Jonathan Harris, who has spoken up against the sad homogenization of the web. In an era where anyone can be the co-creator of our collective story, it’s all the more important to preserve the authenticity of voices and the diversity of proverbial “reader paths.”

Explore CYOA and think about the endings you’re choosing for your own stories through the kinds of content and narratives you engage with daily, both online and off.

via Information Aesthetics

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