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Posts Tagged ‘history’

12 AUGUST, 2011

Salvador Dalí on Decadence, Death and Immortality: The 1958 Interview

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What Freud to antimatter, or what pre-birth memories and lucid dreams have to do with the ego of genius.

Between 1957 and 1960, iconic television personality Mike Wallace — who anchored the first documentary on homosexuality — hosted a series of 30-minute conversations with luminaries from the era known as The Mike Wallace Interview. We’ve previously seen him discuss morality and love Ayn Rand. In 1958, Wallace interviewed the great Salvador Dalí, then 53, making for a fascinating discussion of “decadence, death and immortality.” We see a heavily accented Dalí face a mildly mocking, partly confused, wholly curious Wallace to discuss everything from surrealism to nuclear physics to chastity to what artists in general contribute to the world. The footage is a true time-capsule of the moment, from Dalí’s famous third-person narratives of himself to the extended tobacco commercial prefacing the program, but more importantly, a genuine testament to the power of combinatorial creativity as we marvel at the great painter’s remarkable curiosity and vast pool of cross-disciplinary inspiration, from ancient philosophy to psychology to antimatter.

Dalí paints the Atomic Age and the Freudian Age — nuclear scenes and psychoanalytic scenes.” ~ Salvador Dalí

The interview is almost a caricature, though one that makes you truly grasp the gravity with which Dalí took his work, himself and his delightfully grandiose persona. When asked who the greatest contemporary painters are, he responds in a matter-of-factly manner, “First Dalí. Then, Picasso.” Wallace, half-mockingly, concludes: “The two geniuses of modern times are Dalí and Picasso.”

I cannot understand why human beings should be so little individualized, why they should behave with such great collective uniformity. I do not understand why when I ask for a grilled lobster at a restaurant, I’m never served a cooked telephone.” ~ Salvador Dalí

Scattered throughout the interview are a number of references to 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, Dalí’s excellent semi-biography, offering a revealing look at the mind and creative process of the eccentric genius.

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12 AUGUST, 2011

Digital Humanities Spotlight: 7 Important Digitization Projects

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From Darwin’s marginalia to Voltaire’s correspondence, or what Dalí’s controversial World’s Fair pavilion has to do with digital myopia.

Despite our remarkable technological progress in the past century and the growth of digital culture in the past decade, a large portion of humanity’s richest cultural heritage remains buried in analog archives. Bridging the disconnect is a fledgling discipline known as the Digital Humanities, bringing online historical materials and using technologies like infrared scans, geolocation mapping, and optical character recognition to enrich these resources with related information or make entirely new discoveries about them. As Europe’s digital libraries open up their APIs, techno-dystopian pundits lament that these efforts diminish “the mystery of history,” but such views are myopic and plagued by unnecessary nostalgia for a time when knowledge was confined to the privileged cultural elite. Instead, here are seven fantastic digitization projects that democratize access to and understanding of some of our civilization’s most valuable cultural assets.

MAPPING THE REPUBLIC OF LETTERS

Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history. Mapping the Republic of Letters, which we first looked at last year, is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time, bridging humanitarian scholarship and computer science.

The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.

For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, you won’t go wrong with Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.

LONDON LIVES

London Lives offers a fascinating record of crime, poverty and social policy in one of the world’s greatest cities between the years of 1690 and 1800 through 240,000 fully digitized manuscript and printed pages from 8 London archives, supplemented by 15 datasets. The nonprofit project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and implemented by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield and the Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire, provides access to historical records containing over 3.35 million names, allowing you to link together records relating to the same individual and to even extract entire biographies of the best-documented individuals.

A wiki invites users to contribute to biographies of 18th-century Londoners, track corrections and monitor activity on pages to which they’ve contributed.

BIBLION

From the New York Public Library comes Biblion — an ambitious iPad app putting NYPL’s 1939-40 New York World’s Fair collection at your fingertips. Though the app is free, its documents, images, films, audio, and texts make it a priceless piece of historical fascination.

From essays by beloved writers like Karen Abbott, William Grimes and Henry Jenkins to the wild restaurant ideas that never made the cut at the Fair to the extravaganza’s designs, uniforms and buildings — including Salvador Dalí’s controversial Dream of Venus surrealist pavilion — the app takes you on an extraordinary journey of wonder and curiosity, not only making previously exclusive artifacts and knowledge available to the world at large, but also presenting them through the kind of rich, immersive storytelling never possible while strolling through the aisles of the physical library. How’s that for the mystery of history, Tristram Hunt?

(In that vein, Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic recently wrote a fantastic, must-read article on what big media can learn from NYPL.)

CHARLES DARWIN’S LIBRARY

Charles Darwin is easily one of the most influential scientists who ever lived — so much so that entire collaborative albums have been written about him — and now, thanks to The Biodiversity Heritage Library, the intellectual fuel for his work is accessible to the rest of us. Charles Darwin’s Library is a digital reconstruction of the surviving books Darwin owned, complete with full transcriptions of his annotations and marks — the kind of marginalia essential to fleshing out our thoughts as we ingest ideas. (More voyeurism of great thinkers’ notebooks here.)

The initial release, launched earlier this year, features 330 of the 1480 titles in his library, focusing on the most heavily annotated books, with an ongoing effort aiming to further digitize his book collection.

SALEM WITCH TRIALS PROJECT

Though decidedly unsexy and anything but sleek, the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project from the University of Virginia offers a rich online archive of materials relating to the Salem witch trials of 1692 — court records, books, notable people, and images of the original court documents, indexed according to various archival collections.

A regional accusations map displays the geographic chronology of the accusations, a Salem Village accusations map shows the day-by-day accusations in the month of March, 1692, and a complete alphabetical list catalogs every person mentioned in the court documents.

THE NEWTON PROJECT

Thanks to The Newton Project, 4.2 million published and unpublished words by Isaac Newton are now online as interactive diplomatic transcriptions that show every addition, change or revision the great scholar made to his texts, browsable by subject.

From Newton as a historian to his character and personal habits, the database spans materials as diverse as Newton’s gum water recipe and a list he made of 47 sins he could remember having committed in his lifetime. (More on the love of famous creators’ lists here.)

QUIJOTE INTERACTIVO

From the National Library of Spain comes Quijote Interactivo, a project we first examined last fall — an impressive interactive digitization of the original edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ cult 1605-1615 novel, Don Quixote. Though the site is entirely in Spanish, the sleek interface, rich multimedia galleries and thoughtful sound design make it a joy to explore whatever your linguistic heritage.

A social widget even makes each of the 668 pages from the book shareable via email or on Facebook, and a transcription overlay makes the original 17th-century manuscript legible in Times New Roman.

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11 AUGUST, 2011

The Homosexuals: A CBS “Documentary” from 1967

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A vintage signpost for how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

In 1967, CBS aired an episode of the network’s CBS Reports series exploring homosexuality, a topic so taboo and controversial at the time that it took three years in the making, several revisions and a change of two producers to finally air the program. Titled The Homosexuals, the hour-long broadcast was anchored by Mike Wallace, whom you may recall from his provocative conversation with Ayn Rand on morality and love as a business deal, and was the first American network documentary to ever explore the topic of homosexuality on national television. It featured interviews with a number of gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation, complete with psychoanalysis that pegged it all on the inevitable domineering mother.

Particularly poignant is this short interview with a young man identified as “Warren Adkins,” who is in fact the prominent gay rights activist Jack Jichols, founder of the Mattachine Society:

The innermost aspects of a person’s personality is his sexual orientation, and I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, can imagine giving that up either.”

When asked about the “cause” of his homosexuality and whether he dwells on it, Nichols responds with a kind of quiet bravery certainly far ahead of its time and in many ways still more evolved than the opinions of many on the subject even today:

I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”

As part of the research for the broadcast, CBS conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans saw homosexuality as an illness and the vast majority favored legal punishment even for homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults. But what’s most fascinating is that the segment portrays gay men — and, mind you, completely neglects gay women as part of the homosexual community — as inherently promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. And yet, even as we cringe at the general trauma and civil rights failures around the issue in 1967, here we are nearly half a century later, still debating gay marriage and questioning the rights of those men and women who do want to legally enact these loving long-term monogamous relationships. One has to wonder whether a documentary on today’s gay rights opponents would sound just as foreign and antiquated half a century from now.

But, hey, one thing we’ve made unabashed progress on is gay rights sign design.

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09 AUGUST, 2011

In The Plex: How Google Changed Our Lives and Everything Else

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What red gym balls have to do with censorship, privacy and organizing all the world’s information.

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what beloved technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

For a taste, here’s Levy on what Google does and doesn’t know about you:

(For a more worrisome take, see Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

James Gleick writes in the New York Review of Books:

Most people have already forgotten how dark and unsignposted the Internet once was. A user in 1996, when the Web comprised hundreds of thousands of ‘sites’ with millions of ‘pages,’ did not expect to be able to search for ‘Olympics’ and automatically find the official site of the Atlanta games. That was too hard a problem. And what was a search supposed to produce for a word like ‘university’? AltaVista, then the leading search engine, offered up a seemingly unordered list of academic institutions, topped by the Oregon Center for Optics.” ~ James Gleick

(Gleick should know — he is the author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, easily the most important book on media history and information theory to come by in decades.)

More than an ambitious — and often entertaining — profile of one of today’s most powerful companies, In The Plex captures a priceless piece of cultural history, one that has shaped and continues to shape how we interact with information, the world and each other.

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