Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

06 DECEMBER, 2011

How Bananas Became a Global Commodity

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What the silent film era has to do with the architecture of atmospheric control.

Over on Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley has a fantastic longform piece tracing the painstaking production that is the life cycle of bananas as they make their way from tropical Ecuador to your fruit bowl. This reminded me of a fascinating vintage documentary from the end of the silent film era I’d come across some time ago. The 11-minute black-and-white film, currently in the public domain courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, was produced in 1935 and zooms in on the banana industry, from virgin jungle being converted into banana plantations to the fifteen-month growth cycle between root planting and banana bunch to the shipment of the fruit into the American markets, and even ends with a stop-motion visual jingle about the health virtues of bananas.

Bananas are more than a delicious fruit — they are one of America’s most important foods…”

Now, contrast that — the manual farming and inspection, the pick-up locomotives, the “specially constructed ships of the Great White Fleet” — with today’s sophisticated banana-ripening facilities and their “evolving architecture of atmospheric control.”.

In other words, in order to be a global commodity rather than a tropical treat, the banana has to be harvested and transported while completely unripe. Bananas are cut while green, hard, and immature, washed in cool water (both to begin removing field heat and to stop them from leaking their natural latex), and then held at 56 degrees — originally in a refrigerated steamship; today, in a refrigerated container — until they reach their country of consumption weeks later.”

And in observing how far we’ve come technologically, it’s bittersweet — like a green banana, perhaps — to observe how much further we’ve gone from the groves.

HT Andrew Sullivan

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29 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Physics Book: An Illustrated Chronology of How We Understand the Universe

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Making knowledge digestible in the age of information overload, or what a cat has to do with quasicrystals.

Einstein famously observed that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it’s comprehensible. In The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics, acclaimed science author Clifford Pickover offers a sweeping, lavishly illustrated chronology of comprehension by way of physics, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), through such watershed moments as Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and gravity (1687), the invention of fiber optics (1841), Einstein’s general theory of relativity (1915), the first speculation about parallel universes (1956), the discovery of buckyballs (1985), Stephen Hawking’s Star Trek cameo (1993), and the building of the Large Hadron Collider (2009).

The book, which could well be the best thing since Bill Bryson’s short illustrated history of nearly everything, begins with a beautiful quote about the poetry of science and curiosity:

As the island of knowledge grows, the surface that makes contact with mystery expands. When major theories are overturned, what we thought was certain knowledge gives way, and knowledge touches upon mystery differently. This newly uncovered mystery may be humbling and unsettling, but it is the cost of truth. Creative scientists, philosophers, and poets thrive at this shoreline.” ~ W. Mark Richardson, ‘A Skeptic’s Sense of Wonder,’ Science

Pickover takes a wide-angle view of what physics actually is, encompassing everything from relativity to quantum mechanics to dark matter and beyond, in a spirit that honors the American Physical Society’s founding mission statement of 1899, which holds physics as “the most basic and fundamental science.” As much as it is about the great ideas of physics, the book is also about the great minds behind them, including Brain Pickings darlings Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and Erwin Schrödinger.

From the magnetic monopole to quasicrystals to dark matter, The Physics Book is an invaluable treasure trove of curated knowledge in an age when, as Andrew Zolli put it at the opening of PopTech 2011, “the scale of our knowledge is expanding faster than most of our ability to comprehend.” For once, it’s rather nice to make some of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements feel contained and digestible.

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24 NOVEMBER, 2011

Steve Jobs and NeXT: Rare PBS Documentary circa 1986

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A startup sentiment sandwich from the master chef, or why “reality distortion” helps sales but hurts design.

In 1985, shortly after being fired from Apple, Steve Jobs founded NeXT, the somewhat short-lived but revolutionary company focused on higher education and business services. It was there that Jobs honed his visionary approach to computing and design, and crystalized his lens of priorities — the very qualities that made him not only a cultural icon but also a personal hero.

This fascinating PBS documentary, titled The Entrepreneurs and filmed in 1986, offers a rare glimpse of Jobs’ original vision with NeXT, from his aspirations for higher education and simulated learning environments to his decision-making process on price point and product features to his approach to company culture and motivational morale.

Whether NeXT can be a viable business is something only time will tell. But Steve Jobs’ passionate commitment to his vision is clear, and his certainty that it can be achieved — and is worth achieving — is a conviction to be observed in all successful entrepreneurs.”

Some of my favorite parts:

  • 1:20 Iconic designer and notorious curmudgeon Paul Rand reveals the NeXT logo. (See also this fantastic old favorite, in which Jobs reminisces about what it was like to work with a man of such genius and such temper.)
  • Rand doesn’t usually work for infant companies, even if they can afford him. But NeXT isn’t an ordinary startup.”

  • 3:50 Jobs talks about how affordable, accessible technology can make a real difference in the learning environment — a vision also articulated by beloved science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in this 1988 Bill Moyers interview
  • 4:35 On planting the seeds of a new corporate culture:
  • More important than building a product, we are in the process of architecting a company that will hopefully be much more incredible, the total will be much more incredible than the sum of its parts, and the cumulative effort of approximately 20,000 decisions that we’re all gonna make over the next two years are gonna define what our company is. And one of the things that made Apple great was that, in the early days, it was built from the heart.”

  • 10:31 Joanna Hoffman, also known as Apple employee #5, confronts Jobs about the double-edged sword of “reality distortion,” on the one hand a powerful motivator and on the other false prophet for design decisions
  • 13:54 A startup sentiment sandwich of sorts — celebrating the initial idea-high of entrepreneurship, getting grounded into and concerned about the realities of day-to-day operations, then bringing back those big-picture entrepreneurial ideals as a guiding light in overcoming the mundane obstacles.
  • I don’t see that startup hustle… If we zoom out of the big picture, it would be a shame to have lost the war because we won a few battles.”

Merely 48 months later, Jobs stood up in front of a riveted audience at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and introduced four fully crystalized, groundbreaking NeXT products, including “some of the neatest apps that have ever been created for any desktop platform,” “the best color that’s ever been,” and “the most important new application area in the 1990s…interpersonal computing.”

For more on the genius of Jobs, don’t miss the excellent I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, which curates 200 of his most timeless and powerful quotes, and of course the celebrated Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs.

HT TUAW

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22 NOVEMBER, 2011

We Love You, Beatles: Vintage Children’s Illustration Circa 1971

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Can’t buy me love, but you can buy me this vintage treasure.

The Beatles are an utmost favorite around here. We’ve previously explored how the Fab Four changed animation, an infographic visualization of their life and music, Bob Bonis’s lost Beatles photographs, and Linda McCartney’s tender portraits of the icons. Now comes We Love You, Beatles — a stunning vintage illustrated children’s book from 1971 by Margaret Sutton (not the Margaret Sutton who penned the Judy Bolton mysteries). It tells the story of The Beatles, from their humble Liverpool beginnings to meeting the Queen to the British invasion of America, blending the bold visual language of mid-century graphic design with the vibrant colors of pop art.

The trees were rocking and the clouds were swaying and the flowers were swinging and the birds were dancing to the Beatles sound. ‘Let’s sing about love and people being happy.’ The Beatles sing songs you can sing in the sunshine. Sing them! Sing the Beatles’ songs!”

More than a charming way to explain who The Beatles were to a kid, We Love You, Beatles is a wonderful and visually gripping piece of cultural ephemera from a turning point in the history of both popular music and popular art.

Spotted on Burgin Streetman’s wonderful Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves

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