Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

22 APRIL, 2014

Happy Birthday, Nabokov: A BBC Documentary on Lolita and Life

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“Though he never returned, Russia never really left him, either.”

Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) is one of the most influential writers in modern history, no doubt in large part due to his strong opinions on literature and the creative process. In the 2010 BBC documentary How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, writer and broadcaster Stephen Smith traces Nabokov’s trail to attempt cracking open the mind that gave us Lolita. The film begins with one of the author’s classic rants and goes on to explore the artistry and psychology behind his legendary novel, complete with a necessary pronunciation guide to Nabokov’s name. (Yes, you’re probably saying it wrong.)

Complement with Nabokov on inspiration and what makes a good reader, the curious tale of his American immigration troubles, some gorgeous graphic reimaginings of Lolita, and this rare BBC interview, in which the beloved author discusses literature and life.

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24 MARCH, 2014

The Timekeeper: Behind the Scenes of Humanity’s Most Accurate Atomic Clocks, Which Dictate Our Daily Lives

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“Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.”

Since the beginning of human existence, we have sought to understand time, to map it, to hack it, to standardize it, and to perfect our bodily experience of it. We have turned it into our civilization’s greatest meme and have probed it with our most unrelenting scientific rigor. Today, time not only dictates the rhythms of our daily lives but is also at the center of our digital universe — and yet it remains largely misunderstood by us lay people.

In this fascinating micro-documentary, Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for Time Services at the U.S. Naval Observatory — the same federal agency that hired astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman employed by the government — takes us on a tour of the USNO’s 100 atomic clocks, where the time on your iPhone originates. Dr. Matsakis explains how these atomic clocks — which won’t fall behind or race forward by a single second in 300 million years, rendering them the most accurate measuring devices ever created by humanity — also synchronize GPS, coordinate military operations, dictate financial transactions, and orchestrate internet communication. He then peers into the future to imagine the time-accuracy that is to come, as well as the dark side of such precision.

Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.

[…]

In one sense, we’ve figured out everything from a practical point of view — the fundamentals — and in another sense, we don’t know anything at all… There are people who say time could stop, time could have a beginning, time is a derived quantity and not a fundamental quantity, and those are things I can’t give answers to. It’s something like being a doctor who may know how to keep someone alive, but doesn’t know what life is. I know how to compute the second — that’s my job.

Complement it with Dan Falk’s excellent In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time, a fine addition to these 7 excellent books about time, then revisit the curious psychology of why we experience time as elastic.

via The Dish

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05 FEBRUARY, 2014

William S. Burroughs on Creativity

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“The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.”

“What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t,” cultural critic and Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus observed in his fantastic 2013 commencement address. But he wasn’t the first to recognize art’s capacity for opening our eyes by blinding us, for expanding our understanding of the world by illuminating our ignorance.

In this short clip from the altogether excellent 1991 documentary Commissioner of Sewers, William S. Burroughs, born 100 years ago today, articulates the same sentiment and adds to history’s greatest definitions of art as he considers the value of creative pioneers, from Galileo to Cézanne to Joyce, in propelling human culture forward:

The word “should” should never arise — there is no such concept as “should” with regard to art. . . .

One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know they know. . . . Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness. But there is always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough. . . . So the artist, then, expands awareness. And once the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness.

(Burroughs wasn’t the first to articulate this notion, either. Forty years earlier, Bertrand Russell famously advised, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”)

Burroughs revisits the subject of creativity towards the end of his life in Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (public library) — which also gave us his daily routine and his deep love for his feline companions — in a diary entry from January of 1997:

An artist must be open to the muse. The greater the artist, the more he is open to “cosmic currents.” He has to behave as he does. If he has “the courage to be an artist,” he is committed to behave as the mood possesses him. . . .

The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.

Pair with Patti Smith’s account of Burroughs’s advice to the young and his cameo in the love letters of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

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