Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

08 OCTOBER, 2010

What Is Procrastination: 5 Perspectives


We meant to publish this last Friday.

What exactly is procrastination, this seemingly universal source of everyday vexation? And what can we really do about it? How did it evolve as an adaptive mechanism and does it serve any creative purpose? Today, we look at the infamous phenomenon from five different angles, from the scientific to the philosophical to the playful, and hope to emerge with some insight for tomorrow or, at the very least, a smile for today.


A long, long time ago we raved about this fantastic animated exploration of the nature of procratination by artist Johnny Kelly, created as his Royal College of Art graduation film in 2007 — an investigative study of putting things off that is as thoughtful as it is creatively outstanding.

(You may recall more of Kelly’s work from pickings past.)


Behaviroal economist Dan Ariely, author of the excellent Predictably Irrational and its fantastic sequel, The Upside of Irrationality, is easily the world’s most compelling researcher on the relationship between emotionality, rationality, morality and decision-making. In this BigThink interview, he breaks down the psychological underpinning of procrastination and what we can do about it.

We say we’re not designed to care about the future. We just can’t change that. We just can’t change the fact that we’ll think every day: what I do now will translate to 30 years from now. So instead of what we can do, is we can create other benefits that will be more in the present; kind of import new benefits for the present.”


Episode 3 of the 2006 season of Lev Yilmaz‘s YouTube sensation Tales of Mere Existence tackles the issue of procrastination with pen, paper and Lev’s characteristically humble humor.

For more of Lev’s genius, we highly recommend his book, Sunny Side Down — a charming adaptation of his video tales to the printed page with original comics on various stages and circumstances of everyday life, from childhood to twentysomething uncertainty.


We heart Ellen. And this bit about procrastination from her excellent 2003 HBO special, Here & Now, reveals every brilliant, hilarious, intelligently funny reason why.

For what it’s worth, we think Ellen is one of the great entertainers of our time, the ones who manage to sidestep today’s easy weapons of quasi-humor — insults, stereotyping, pointless profanity — to deliver a kind of comedic genius that is timeless, universal and built on poking honest fun in tender human truths without drawing blood. Here & Now is that genius at its pinnacle and we highly recommend it.


The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning the entire spectrum of theoretical and empirical.

From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. That is, if you get around to reading it.

For a closer look at the book and what insights from it can tell us about ourselves, do read this excellent inaugural New Yorker article by James Surowiecki, which offers both a fascinating historical perspective and a practical takeaway from decades of research on the subject.

This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.” ~ James Surowiecki

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2010

Mapping European Stereotypes


Geopolitical cartography is all about an objective view of the world’s political conventions. But there’s nothing politically correct in Bulgarian-born, London-based designer Yanko Tsvetkov‘s Mapping Stereotypes project — a series of amusing, often tragicomically true maps of Europe based on various subjective perceptions and ideologies.

Europe According to USA

Europe According to France

Europe According to Germany

Europe According to Italy

Italy According to Posh Italians

Europe According to Bulgaria

Europe According to Britain

Where I Live

Europe According to Gay Men

Tsvetkov’s maps are available for purchase as prints, mousepads and t-shirts on Zazzle.

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23 AUGUST, 2010

Everyone’s Favorite Guessing Game: 7 Must-See What’s My Line Episodes


What girdles have to do with civic activism.

In the 1950’s, the popular TV gameshow What’s My Line? cemented America’s relationship with television as an entertainment medium and a voyeuristic window into celebrity culture. The premise of the show was simple: In each episode, a contestant would appear in front of a panel of blindfolded culture pundits — with few exceptions, a regular lineup of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress Arlene Francis, Random House founder Bennett Cerf, and a fourth guest panelist — who would try to guess his or her “line” of work or, in the case of famous “mystery guests,” the person’s identity, by asking exactly 10 yes-or-no questions. A contestant won if he or she presented the panel with 10 “no” answers.

Over the 17-year run of the show, nearly every iconic cultural luminary of the era, from presidents to pop stars, appeared as a mystery guest. Today, we’ve curated 7 must-see What’s My Line? appearances by some of history’s sharpest minds and most compelling creators.


In a WML episode that aired on January 20, 1952, Salvador Dalí is assigned the line “artist” and identified as “self-employed.” But the real comedic genius of the footage is that the great creative cross-pollinator answers nearly all questions in the affirmative, to the audience’s exponential amusement, not with the intention of misleading the panelists but merely as a reflection of his vast intellectual curiosity and creative output — our kind of character.

There’s nothing this man doesn’t do! What we have to guess is an all-around man.”


On November 11, 1956 — just a few months after the grand opening of Disneyland — Walt Disney appeared as the mystery guest on WML. One particularly interesting piece of the conversation unfolds when Daly asks Disney’s opinion of television, which he had just recently begun dabbling in.

Well, it’s wonderful. You get to reach people in a sort of an immediate way. With pictures, you work for years and then it’s quite a while before you know how what you’re working on is going to come out, how it’s going to be received, but with television you know, well, in a very short time.”

We’re left wondering what Disney would make of the Internet, with its even more instant gratification yet ever-harder to decipher impact.


From the impressive pretend-accents and speech impediments to the priceless facial expressions to the facetious disregard for the show’s rules by dodging yes/no questions with lengthy, Yoda-esque answers, Hitchcock’s performance on WML is just that — a performance, and an outstanding one at that.

I was hoping to see Marilyn Monroe here tonight, but I didn’t hear any ooh’s and ahh’s, so I take it you are not Marilyn Monroe. Is this correct?” Hitchcock: “It is impossible.”

Hitchcock’s humor is unparalleled and particularly fascinating in contrast with the dark, often grim undertones of his films.

Daly: “Did you ever make a picture in which you haven’t appeared, in one time or another?” Hitchcock: “The indignity of being a ham is thrust upon me.”


In 1954, an elderly yet razor-sharp Eleanor Roosevelt took her seat at WML for a near-silent performance.

Are you now or have you ever been associated with politics?” “The answer to that would have to be a ‘yes’ … but that is also to advise you that, in one way or another, almost every good citizen in this country is associated with politics.”

Well said, Mr. Daly, well said. A powerful statement on civic engagement, delivered with a wink, is just the kind of commentary that made WML as much an entertainment brand as it was a pipeline for the social, political and cultural ideas that moved the era forward.


To step away from the celebrity focus of WML for a moment, let’s return to the show’s original roots — having panelists guess an ordinary person’s occupation, or “line.” To keep things interesting, WML would invite contestants with unusual, bizarre and downright wildcard occupations, from Marilyn Monroe’s calendar salesman to this professional girdle-tester, who actually wins the game by getting all 10 “no” answers.

Judging by that answer, may I assume that this product is not edible?” Desmond: “You’re right, not edible.”

Oh, dear sir, if only you had lived to see the advances in… materials innovation.


Lucille Ball, the woman who arguably single-handedly catapulted the sitcom genre into its pop culture pedestal, is both witty and charming in her

Perhaps the most priceless moment of this clip, however, is a subtle one that becomes a living hallmark of the medium’s technological deficiency: The telling question, which exposes Ball’s identity, asked on black-and-white national television:

Are you a dazzling redhead?”


The final episode of WML aired on September 3, 1967. Besides its grand-finale status, what makes is particularly notable is that on it, host John Daly himself is the mystery guest, an exercise in meta-comedy long before meta was the hottest hipster humor.

The heritage of WML poses one interesting question: In its heyday, the show was essentially the only media property that could “have” any celebrity or cultural figure. The one entity no one said “no” to. And much of this was due to the involvement of Random House founder Bennett Cerf who, through his deep connections in the journalism and media world, was within a few degrees of separation from just about any public figure.

Nearly half a century later, after an epidemic of media fragmentation and audience erosion, we’re left wondering what contemporary culture’s version of WML is, this can’t-say-no-to platform for ideas. The closest thing that comes to mind is TED, spearheaded by Chris Anderson who also rose to status as a publishing entrepreneur. So is TED this generation’s WML, the potent mix of cultural commentary and smart entertainment that frames for its audience the people and ideas that matter in the world? If not, who is? Or are those shoes even fillable in today’s fragmented media landscape? We’d love your thoughts.

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09 AUGUST, 2010

5 ½ Werner Herzog Gems


Monkey philosophy, literary incongruity, and what eating a shoe reveals about the state of contemporary culture.

We’re a little obsessed with the endlessly eccentric, delightfully dark German director Werner Herzog. So we’ve curated five — and a half — of our favorite Werner Herzog nuggets to get existential with or simply have a good intellectual chuckle over.


Directed by Ramin Bahrani of Goodbye Solo fame, Plastic Bag follows the existential journey of a plastic bag, narrated by Herzog, searching for its maker.

The film is part of FutureStates, a series of 11 fictional mini-features exploring hypothetical scenarios for our future through the lens of the world’s current realities.


Okay, so it isn’t really Herzog. It’s an impersonator, filmmaker Ryan Iverson. But the prospect of the dry, uncompromising, deeply existentialist German interpreting children’s classics is oddly alluring, both humorous and awkwardly disturbing. Either way, you can’t stop listening.


Yep, it’s another impersonation. But we just can’t get enough of them. The urgency with which “Herzog” recites the playful rhymes of the book is so comically incongruous that you — or at least we — can’t help chuckling.


No children’s books parody is complete without a stab at Where’s Waldo. Here, “Herzog” takes a tone that’s somewhere between Freud and The X Files, taking the absurdity of the whole concept to a whole new level.


Returning to the authentic Herzog, these excerpts from Les Blank’s classic 1980 short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, are part serious cultural commentary, part humorous encounter with Herzog’s public persona, part rare glimpse of his private creative process as a deeply thoughtful filmmaker.

The film documents Herzog delivering on a bet he made with Errol Morris, which held that if Morris finished his acclaimed first feature, Gates of Heaven, Herzog would eat his shoe.


You may recall an old Brain Pickings favorite from a couple of years ago, Clemens Kogler’s Le Grand Content — a brilliant blend of humor and philosophy reflecting on today’s infographic culture. Inspired by Jessica Hagy’s equally brilliant indexed blog, another Brain Pickings favorite, it’s narrated by a (rather excellent) Werner Herzog impersonator who nails Herzog’s characteristic monotonous snark with a degree of precision and an ounce of caricature that only adds to the dark charm of the piece.

This instant classic is without question in our top five animations of all time.

For a deeper dive into the magic of Herzog, we highly recommend Werner Herzog Collection, a fantastic 1977 film anthology featuring eight of his excellent films, along with commentary, as well as Herzog on Herzog, a priceless collection of interviews Herzog has given throughout his prolific career in both fiction and documentary.

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14 MAY, 2010

Sorted Books: The Library as a Standup Comedian


What shark attacks and the New York art world have to do with Shakespearean codependence.

Since 1993, artist Nina Katchadourian has been sifting through library collections and remixing their holdings in a delightfully unconventional way. Her ongoing Sorted Books project constructs irreverent, humorous and witty sentences by arranging a stack of books so that their titles can be read from top to bottom or left to right.

Katchadourian has scoured private collections and public libraries alike, for a total of over 130 book clusters to date. Sometimes kooky, sometimes snarky, and always entertaining, her stacked sentences span the entire spectrum of slapstick humor and subtle social commentary.

So witty is Katchadourian’s micro-comedy that we couldn’t restrain a few spontaneous chuckles. But what makes the series so powerful is the way these pithy quips and laconic snippets of narrative allow the viewer to construct complete stories around them, capturing in just a few words entire situational plotlines in this brilliantly innovative storytelling experiment.

Explore the entire Sorted Books for more fun than you ever thought you’d have with Shakespeare.

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