Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

20 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Night Life of Trees: Exquisite Handmade Illustrations Based on Indian Mythology

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What ancient Indian mythology has to do with fair-trade entrepreneurship and the timeless love of books.

If there ever was a project that reclaimed “authenticity” and “innovation” from their present status of fluff-lined buzzwords and into a genuine ethos, it would be South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. Crafted by local artisans in their fair trade workshop in Chennai, the books are hand-bound and each page is painstakingly screen-printed by hand using traditional Indian dyes, whose fresh earthy scent gently oozes from the gorgeous pages of the finished book.

Tara’s crown jewel is the magnificent The Night Life of Trees (public library) — the kind of large-format tactile treasure you take into your hands and never want to let go. It’s based on the ancient mythology of India’s Gond tribe, who believe that during the day trees serve to nourish and protect the Earth’s creatures, but it’s at night when they come into a life of their own. The breathtakingly beautiful illustrations, screen-printed on thick and textured black paper, come from three renowned Gond artists and blend the whimsical stories about the spirits of the Sambar tree with the practical uses of trees in Indian life, woven together into a delicate lace of magic and mundanity that poetically captures the duality of existence.

Take a peek inside the book’s beautiful pages, but bear in mind the camera and the screen don’t do any justice to their rich, textured splendor, which remains lost in digital translation.

The book comes in a number of limited-edition runs of 2000, each featuring a different artwork on the cover and hand-numbered on the back.

A multisensory delight with a soul-warming story, The Night Life of Trees is a pinnacle of breathing new life into ancient traditions and timeless storytelling with a modern entrepreneurial ethos. Above all, it’s a moving manifesto for the mesmerism of the paper page in the age of e-everything.

Artwork courtesy of Tara Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Queenslander: Gorgeous Vintage Australian Illustrated Covers

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Visual vignettes of the mundane and the monumental from 1920s and 1930s Australia.

Between 1866 and 1939, The Queenslander made a weekly summary of the Brisbane Courier, now The Courier Mail, newspaper available to the regional and outlying areas of Australia’s Queensland state. These stunning illustrated covers from the 1920s and 1930s, culled from the State Library of Queensland public domain collection on Flickr Commons, offer beautiful depictions of life, from the mundane to the monumental, with vignettes ranging from the daily grind in Queensland to major local and national events.

For more vintage Australian design goodness, don’t forget the charming 1978 animated film One Designer, Two Designer, comically exploring what makes good and bad design.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2011

New York and the Dawn of Cartoons: 7 Animation Pioneers

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What lovable dinosaurs have to do with chalkboard, Cab Calloway and the hypocrisies of Hollywood.

While California may have its Pixar and Dreamworks, much of the talent that gave animation its start hailed from New York. Today, we turn to the seminal work of five such pioneering animators who did New York proud, a follow-up to our recent omnibus of five early animation pioneers.

J. STUART BLACKTON

J. Stuart Blackton may be best-known for his 1900 masterpiece, The Enchanted Drawing, which earned him the credit of having pioneered animation in America. But his 1906 gem Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, while less well-known, is equally important and era-defining as the earliest surviving American animated film in the strict sense of single-exposures of drawings simulating movement — in this case, using chalkboard sketches and cut-outs.

MAX FLEISCHER

Max Fleischer, a pioneer of animated cartoons, brought us the iconic Betty Boop, Koko the Clown and Popeye characters. In 1932, Betty Boop appeared in “Minnie the Moocher,” a jazz classic by the legendary Cab Calloway.

WINSOR MCCAY

In 1911, Winsor McCay created the landmark film Little Nemo, which is often debated as the first “true” animation. Three years later, his Gertie the Dinosaur claimed its place in history as the first cartoon to feature a character with a well-definted, lovable personality.

OTTO MESSMER

Otto Messmer is best-known as the creator of the Felix the Cat cartoons and comic strips, produced by Pat Sullivan studio. In this 1923 episode, Felix goes to Hollywood, where he encounters celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Will Hays. Underpinning the cartoon are Messmer’s subtle stabs at Hollywood’s corrupt morals and many hypocrisies.

WALTER LANTZ

Most of us know animator, director, producer and cartoonist Walter Lantz as the creator of Woody Woodpecker. In 1926, some 15 years before Woody, Lantz produced Tail of the Monkey, blending live-action film with cartoon animation.

EARL HURD

Besides inventing the process of cel animation in the early 1910s, Earl Hurd created the once influential and now sadly nearly-forgotten Bobby Bumps animated shorts. Sample them with this treat from 1916: Bobby Bumps and the Stork.

PAUL TERRY

Between 1915 and 1955, Paul Terry produced some 1,300 cartoons, many under his popular Terrytoons studio. Among them was the 1923 gem A Cat’s Life — which, some might say, got a head start on the viral cat videos meme by some 80 years.

For more on the marvel and promise of the dawn of animation, see the excellent Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2011

15 Years of Cutting-Edge Thinking on Understanding the Mind

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What mirror neurons have to do with Abu Ghraib, the science of religion, and how happiness flourishes.

For the past 15 years, literary-agent-turned-crusader-of-human-progress John Brockman has been a remarkable curator of curiosity, long before either “curator” or “curiosity” was a frivolously tossed around buzzword. His Edge.org has become an epicenter of bleeding-edge insight across science, technology and beyond, hosting conversations with some of our era’s greatest thinkers (and, once a year, asking them some big questions.) Last month marked the release of The Mind, the first volume in The Best of Edge Series, presenting eighteen provocative, landmark pieces — essays, interviews, transcribed talks — from the Edge archive. The anthology reads like a who’s who of Brain Pickings favorites across psychology, evolutionary biology, social science, technology and more. And, perhaps equally interestingly, the tome — most of the materials in which are available for free online — is an implicit manifesto for the enduring power of books as curatorial capsules of ideas. Brockman writes in the book’s introduction:

While there’s no doubt about the value of online presentations, the role of books, whether bound and printed or presented electronically, is still an invaluable way to present important ideas. Thus, we are pleased to be able to offer this series of books to the public.”

Here’s a small sampling of the treasure chest between The Mind’s covers:

In “Eudaemonia: The Good Life” (2004), Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology whom you might recall as the author of Flourish and Learned Optimism, one of our 7 essential books on optimism, explores what he calls the “third form of happiness,” which lies in:

knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There’s no shortcut to that. That’s what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it’s unlikely there’ll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And it’s impossible that there’ll be a pharmacology of meaning.”

In “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion” (2007), psychologist Jonathan Haidt (whose The Happiness Hypothesis you might recall as one of our 7 favorite books on happiness) notes:

[I]t might seem obvious to you that contractual societies are good, modern, creative, and free, whereas beehive societies reek of feudalism, fascism, and patriarchy. And, as a secular liberal I agree that contractual societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations (although it remains to be seen if Europe can solve its current diversity problems). I just want to make one point, however, that should give constructualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believer s in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.”

In “Amazing Babies” (2009), psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik laid the foundations for her The Philosophical Baby, one of this year’s must-read books by TED Global speakers:

We’ve known for a long time that human children are the best learning machines in the universe, but it has always been like the mystery of the hummingbirds. We know that they fly, but we don’t know how they can possibly do it. We could say that babies learn, but we didn’t know how.”

Harvard’s Steven Pinker, whose illuminating insights on violence and human nature you might recall and who penned one of our 5 favorite books on language, wrote in “Organs of Computation” (1997), long before the hype of contemporary quasi-sciences like neuromarketing:

Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. [L]ook at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we’re ‘conditioned’ to do this, or ‘brainwashed’ to do that, or ‘socialized’ to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920s, from bad cold war movies from the 1950s, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an ‘organ of extreme perfection and complication,’ to use Darwin’s phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life.”

Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, best-known for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and most recently a founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, drew on his seminal work exploring good and evil in “You Can’t Be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel” (2005):

When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s the dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systemic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.'”

Iconic neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, whose empirical quest for the what makes us human we recently examined, wrote in his seminal 2000 essay “Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind ‘the Great Leap Forward’ in Human Evolution”:

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important ‘unreported’ (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

And in his second essay, “The Neurology of Self-Awareness” (2007), which laid the foundations for his The Tell-Tale Brain, Rama pondered the essence of the self:

What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the ‘turning inward’ aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.”

A coffer of cutting-edge contemporary thought, The Mind contains the building blocks of tomorrow’s history books — whatever medium they may come in — and invites a provocative peer forward as we gaze back at some of the most defining ideas of our time.

Images via Flickr Commons

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