Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

20 MAY, 2011

A Brief History of Cheese

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What the goodness of Gouda has to do with MRI scans have to do with microbial engineering.

The average American eats some 33 pounds of cheese per year, up from under 22 pounds in 1954. Cheese comes in some 2,000 varieties and has been around for some 4,000 years. The Science and Art of Cheese, a new microdocumentary from KQED, explores the rich and nuanced spectrum of this cultural fixation, from unraveling the secrets of cheese artisans, who hone the aesthetic and sensory attributes of fermented blocks of milk, to scientists who stick feta in the MRI in order to reduce its salt content without changing its texture.

Cheese is incredily scientific. Cheese is a living, dynamic food, and it changes during aging. By adding certain bacteria, we can change the direction of one common nutrient — milk — into many, many different products.”

Artisan cheese is a craft, it’s hand-made, it’s not made by pushing a button. It takes people to try to extract the most flavor and the most beauty of of this handmade product.”

To further feed your cheese curiosity, you won’t go wrong with Andrew Dalby’s Cheese: A Global History — a fascinating journey across eras, cheese types and cultures, interweaving curious factoids to drop at your next dinner party with 40 stunning color plates and 20 in black-and-white.

via GOOD

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17 MAY, 2011

BBC’s The Human Animal

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What offensive Italian hand-gestures have to do with beauty and the evolution of sexuality.

In 1994, BBC and Discovery Channel reached out to British zoologist, ethologist and popular anthropologist Desmond Morris for an ambitious and unusual endeavor: To illuminate human behavior from a zoological perspective — because we are, after all, just another animal species. The result was The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species, a fascinating series later adapted as a book entitled The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal.

More than the mere fascination of finding out about our deep pre-wiring, I find the documentary particularly timely in a cultural moment where we’re constantly caught up in some sort of media-perpetuated otherness, making it ever-easier to see those of other cultures, faiths, political beliefs or sexual orientation as so distinctly different from us that we forget our shared humanity.

Everywhere I go, I’m struck by how similar human beings are to one another in all important respects. Of course, there are many superficial differences and these are often so impressive that we pay too much attention to them and start treating one another as if we belong to different species — with disastrous results. But despite all our variations in costume, ritual and belief, biologically we’re all astonishingly close to one another — a fact that I find very reassuring.” ~ Desmond Morris

The documentary is now available on Google Video in six parts, each examining a different biological component of our beliefs, behaviors and ways of being — a timeless and timely reminder that we share far more than we think.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY

The series begins with The Language of the Body — a fascinating look at how mankind communicated before the evolution of language. From gestures and expressions are so deeply ingrained in our collective memory that they appear to be universal to the curious, confusing and often comically misinterpreted cross-cultural difference of insult gestures, the segment explores the rich vocabulary of body language, both universal and regional.

Most regional body language has a long and complicated history, with the origins often forgotten. One of the special qualities of regional gestures is that they’re amazingly conservative — they remain confined to their own particular area, regardless of the fact that all around them national boundaries keep changing. As a result of this, within a particular country today, you can find what we call a ‘gesture frontier’ — a place where one gesture stops and another one begins.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUNTING APE

The second episode, The Hunting Ape, looks at our most fundamental activity — the quest for food — exploring how our origins as hunter-gatherers permeate every aspect of our modern lives, from fast-food culture to dating.

Viewed as a pattern of human feeding behavior, a trip to the supermarket is the remarkable endpoint of a long journey through evolutionary time, a journey that started in the primeval forest and at the checkout counter. To me, it’s a story of an arboreal ape, which became a ground-dwelling predator, which in turn became a credit card customer.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUMAN ZOO

Part three, The Human Zoo, examines how we managed to go from mud to skyscraper in what’s no more than a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. From the subtleties of human hierarchy in an English pub to the tribal behavior displayed by gangs in Los Angeles, the segment looks at the complex sociology of our species and how it shaped our civilization. It’s also fascinating to see, in 1994, one of the earliest time-lapse simulations of land change as Morris explores the construction of human cities over time.

Some people call the city a ‘concrete jungle’ — but jungles aren’t like that. Animals in jungles aren’t overcrowded. And overcrowding is the central problem of modern city life. If you want to look for crowded animals, you have to look in the zoo. And then it occurred to me: The city is not a concrete jungle — it’s a human zoo.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE BIOLOGY OF LOVE

Episode four, The Biology of Love, explores the profound impact standing upright had on our sexuality and how this simple anatomic fact affect all our lives today. Morris analyzes how patterns of behaviour and signals of health and fertility evolved to ensure pair-bonding and genetic survival, ultimately underpinning many of our romantic quests and decisions. From the stages of courtship to the aesthetics of physical beauty, the segment looks at the very foundations of our sexual behavior.

The more we understand, the more fascinating the subject becomes. But how did it all begin — how did boy meet girl?” ~ Desmond Morris

THE IMMORTAL GENES

Part five, The Immortal Genes, explores the biological basis for parental love.

Our species has the heaviest parental burden of any animal on earth. Why are we so selfless when dealing with our children?” ~ Desmond Morris

BEYOND SURVIVAL

The final part of the series, Beyond Survival, addresses the question we’ve all been asking ourselves since the very first rub with the program’s premise: Are we really merely another animal? And, if so, why do we have things like art, music, literature and philosophy? Morris concludes by exploring the deepest humanness of humans — what we do and who we become once we have our basic needs for food and shelter met. The episode explores concepts like creativity, artistic progression, play and symbolic thinking.

The human animal is not satisfied with mere survival. Our greatest rewards are obtained when we go beyond survival.” ~ Desmond Morris

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal is one of the most extraordinary books on being human that you’ll ever read, a rare and thought-provoking look at the tender and complex creature behind the socially constructed facade.

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06 MAY, 2011

BBC: The Making of The King James Bible

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What Medieval catacombs have to do with remix culture and the evolution of the English language.

This week, the King James Bible celebrated its 400th anniversary. The third official translation of the Bible in English, it was completed by 47 scholars from the Church of England over the course of 7 years, with the grand goal of bringing new life to the churches. To this day, the King James version is commonly considered the greatest piece of English Literature ever produced (regardless of whether you consider it fiction or nonfiction) and remains a key to understanding not only one of the world’s largest religions but also a pivotal era of European scholarship, the history of collaborative creation. and even the evolution of the English language. (Did you know that many modern phrases and idioms — “by the skin of your teeth,” “flesh and blood,” “labour of love” — originate from the KJB?)

When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible is a fascinating new BBC documentary exploring the surprising story of the great volume, from it uncanny similarity to the Millennium Dome to rare recently discovered 17th century manuscripts to the actual translation process itself, revealing why this antique work of art and science is anything but antiquated.

17th-century England was a chaotic, violent, often bureaucratic place. The most unlikely beginnings for a book that would change the world. So how did they make it happen? In this program, I look back to a world of religious power and majesty, of immense seriousness and linguistic skill, fraught with religious and political passions, to show how and why it produced the greatest book of all time.” ~ Adam Nicolson

For a related journey into the history of the epic tome, do see the newly released documentary, KJB: The Book That Changed the World (trailer), in which beloved Welsh actor John Rhys-Davie tours historical landmark and explains essential relics that shaped the culture and context of the King James Bible.

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02 MAY, 2011

Mabel Pike: Portrait of a 91-Year-Old Moccasin Maker

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What ancient beadwork has to do with the blessings of the digital age.

91-year-old Tlingit Native elder Mabel Pike learned beading when she was six and her great-grandmother taught her how to sew moccasins in the 1920s. In 1926, after their village in Douglas, Alaska burned down, Mabel’s parents moved the family to Juneau, where Mabel and her sisters began making and selling handcrafted Native wares. Mabel eventually became a Tlingit master artist, going on to teach beadwork at Stanford and pass on the traditions of her clan’s culture.

In this lovely video portrait, part of Etsy’s Handmade Portraits series, Mabel talks about the traditional patterns of her culture, her deep passion for her craft and everything it stands for, and her hate for the word “abstract.” It exudes the same kind of bittersweet poeticism you might recall from these 7 short documentaries about dying crafts, but it’s also lined with Mabel’s steady, quiet optimism.

When I finish a pair of moccasins, I sure hate to part with them. I’m not in this for money-making. I do my sewing because that’s my life, it’s always been my life, from the day I was six years old.” ~ Mabel Pike

I just lose myself in my sewing. I don’t know how to describe it. You know, when I start beading, it’s like I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing, I forget everything. I’m sewing, and I’m creating, and I’m designing. And I just don’t know how to describe it. I just lose myself in it.” ~ Mabel Pike

The way Mabel describes her work — this state of total engagement, of complete immersion — encapsulates the state renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined as “flow,” the true mark of creativity in action.

For your daily pause moment: It’s utterly remarkable that we live in an age when online platforms like Vimeo and Etsy and Twitter and WordPress are allowing us to not only learn about the fascinating cultural heritage of ancient traditions, but to also actively support these indigenous artists in ways that would’ve never been possible a mere decade ago.

To support Mabel’s work and that of other indigenous artists, do visit Alaksa Native Arts Foundation’s online shop.

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