Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘lists’

01 JUNE, 2012

Thomas Edison’s To-Do List, 1888

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What ink for the blind has to do with marine telegraphy and electrical pianos.

The to-do list might be the secret to willpower, and it is certainly an essential tool of creativity, as anyone from Leonardo da Vinci to John Lennon can attest. After peeking at the notebooks and sketchbooks of some of history’s greatest creators, here comes a rare glimpse of 41-year-old Thomas Edison’s to-do list circa 1888, found in The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Losses and Loyalties — the seventh volume of Rutgers University’s digitized Edison papers.

Among Edison’s “things doing and to be done,” while he wasn’t busy inventing and scandalizing cinema, were:

  • Cotton picker
  • New standard phonograph
  • Hand turning phonograph
  • Deaf apparatus
  • Electrical piano
  • New expansion pyromagnetic dynamo
  • Artificial silk
  • Phonographic clock
  • Marine telegraphy
  • Chalk battery
  • Ink for blind

So: What are you doing today?

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02 MAY, 2012

A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching

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“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell endures as one of the most intellectually diverse and influential thinkers in modern history, his philosophy of religion in particular having shaped the work of such modern atheism champions as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. From the third volume of The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1944-1969 comes this remarkable micro-manifesto, entitled A Liberal Decalogue — a vision for responsibilities of a teacher, in which Russell touches on a number of recurring themes from pickings past — the purpose of education, the value of uncertainty, the importance of critical thinking, the gift of intelligent criticism, and more.

It originally appeared in the December 16, 1951, issue of The New York Times Magazine, at the end of the article “The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism.”

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell is a treasure trove of wisdom in its entirety — highly recommended.

Thanks, Will

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02 MAY, 2012

John Updike on the Ethics and Poetics of Criticism

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“Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.”

As Sir Ken Robinson thoughtfully observed, we live in a kind of “opinion culture” where not having an opinion is a cultural abomination. At the same time, the barrier of entry for making one’s opinions public is lower than ever. The tragedy of our time might well be that so many choose to set those opinions apart by making them as contrarian and abrasive as possible. But what E. B. White once wisely pointed to as the role and social responsibility of the writer — “to lift people up, not lower them down” — I believe to be true of the role and social responsibility of the critic as well, for thoughtful criticism is itself an art and a creative act.

We need to relearn the skills of making criticism constructive rather than destructive, and we need look no further than the introduction to John Updike’s 1977 anthology of prose, Picked-Up Pieces, where the beloved author and critic codifies the ethics and poetics of criticism by offering the following six rules to reviewing graciously and fairly. Though they were written with literature in mind, at their heart is an ethos that applies to critique and criticism in any discipline.

My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

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