Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘omnibus’

28 DECEMBER, 2010

Susan Sontag: A Trifecta Remembrance

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What frontpage news has to do with graphic design and the craftsmanship of the self.

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the death of Susan Sontag, one of my big intellectual heroes and favorite authors. From her seminal treatise On Photography, required reading in any serious photography class around the world, to her poignant observations on human suffering in Regarding the Pain of Others to her status as an honorary citizen of Sarajevo due to her relentless activism during the Sarajevo Siege of the mid-90s, Sontag’s cultural legacy is as far-reaching as it is wide-spanning.

Today, I take a moment to remember her with three essential cultural artifacts that celebrate her work and capture her spirit — an interview, an essay and an animated short fim.

THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEW

Earlier this year, the iconic Paris Review opened up its archive to make available half a century worth of interviews with literary legends and cultural luminaries. In the journal’s 137th issue, published in the winter of 1995, Susan Sontag gives a priceless interview that reveals more of her countless facets than any other public inquiry into her rich, fascinating persona.

Of course I thought I was Jo in Little Women. But I didn’t want to write what Jo wrote. Then in Martin Eden I found a writer-protagonist with whose writing I could identify, so then I wanted to be Martin Eden—minus, of course, the dreary fate Jack London gives him. I saw myself as (I guess I was) a heroic autodidact. I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life. I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” ~ Susan Sontag

DESIGN OBSERVER REMEMBERS

The day after Sontag passed away in 2004, Design Observer founder Bill Drenttel wrote a thoughtful and personal essay on his experience of knowing Sontag as her son’s close friend and how her keen intellectual curiosity applied to the essence of the design profession.

Susan was the most intelligent person I have ever met. She was intense, challenging, passionate. She listened in the same way that she read: acutely and closely. There was little patience for a weak argument. She assumed, often wrongly, that you possessed a general level of knowledge that would challenge even most college-educated professionals. She assumed you knew a lot and that you were interested in everything precisely because she was so interested in everything. Anything less left her unsatisfied, and, as she would not suffer fools, she wanted every encounter to be one in which she learned something.” ~ William Drenttel

REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS

Regarding the Pain of Others was Sontag’s final book, published a few months before her death in 2004. In what’s partly a sequel to On Photography, a quarter century later, partly a tremendously important larger conversation about the role of visual media in war. In it, Sontag sets out to answer the quintessential question posed in Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?”

This simple yet beautifully crafted and powerful short animation, narrated by Sontag herself, uses the single most universal touchpoint with war — mass media — as a raw visual metaphor for the cultural criticism at the heart of Sontag’s book: Our media-driven desensitization and diminished capacity for empathy towards those truly suffering in the world.

BONUS

On Self is a priceless selection of Sontag’s private journal entries, first published in New York Times Magazine in 2006. It offers a rare glimpse of Sontag’s “four selves,” revealing the meticulous craftsmanship of her public persona and the raw tenderness of her private self. For more of that, see the excellent Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963.

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27 DECEMBER, 2010

The Best Apps of 2010

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Social magazines, Victorian tablets, and what 100-year-old educational traditions have to do with analog photography.

After spotlighting the year’s best books in in Business, Life & Mind, Art, Design & Photography and the top children’s literature, we’re back with the 10 most interesting, innovative and plain useful apps launched in 2010.

FLIPBOARD

Yes, Steve Jobs named it the best app of the year. Yes, TIME picked it as one of the 50 best inventions of 2010. And, yes, we happen to be a featured stream on it. But mainstream acclaim and ego flattery aside, Flipboard is, quite simply, absolutely brilliant. The sleek iPad app turns your social streams — content your Facebook friends and Twitter follows are sharing — into a beautiful visually-driven magazine, padded with extra interesting content from curated channels around your passion points.

Oh, and it’s free.

A HUMUMENT

From British artist Tom Phillips comes A Humument, combining 367 stunning full-color illustrations from Phillips’ artist book, based on and a contraction of the title of the Victorian novel A Human Document, with an ingenious interactive oracle function that will cast two pages to be read in tandem using a chosen date and a randomly generated number. A Find wheel lets you navigate the pages visually. You can share oracle readings with friends via email and post individual images to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Design Observer called it “one of the most successful artist’s books ever published” and we won’t disagree — it does for the iPad what Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes does for the bound book.

A Humument was first published as a private press edition in 1973, with several subsequent print editions and spinoffs. But the iPad app is the pinnacle of it all, weaving an immersive, non-linear narrative and featuring 39 new, original pages not available elsewhere. It’s the epitome of harnessing the full potential of a new publishing platform to engage in a different, more compelling way, rather than merely repurposing the print experience to a tablet screen.

A Humument is available for $7.99 which, given it’s more a book and art project in one than it is an app per se, is an absolute steal.

RAPPORTIVE

Rapportive is your personal social media detective. The clever Gmail extension pulls a rich profile of the sender to the right of each email — everything from social media presence to location to job titles past and present.

Rapportive is free and available for Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Mailplane.

INSTAPAPER FOR IPAD

Sure, Instapaper, the ingeniously simple app for saving web pages to read them later, has been around since 2008 as an iPhone app. But the Instapaper iPad app, launched in March, completely changes the relationship between the reader and the digital page. With its stripped-down, minimalist aesthetic sprawled gloriously on the wide iPad screen, the app turns your favorite online reads, sans the annoying ads and the distracting meta-links, into the perfect companion for everything from your train commute to your cardio workout at the gym.

Instapaper is the brainchild of Tumblr cofounder Marco Arment. The iPad app is available for $4.99 and triple-worth every penny.

TED

It’s no secret we’re big TED fans here, so the October launch of TED’s free iPad app was an absolute treat. It tailors TED’s familiar brilliance — powerful punches of inspiration by some of the world’s most remarkable thinkers and doers — to the touchscreen experience, offering some nifty iPad-exclusive features. An “Inspire Me” button lets you find the perfect dose of inspiration based on the amount of time you have to watch; curated playlists offer thematic insight on topics like “How We Learn” and “The Power of Cities”; smart tags break down the 800+ TEDTalks into 250 easily navigable categories.

The app was developed by a former Apple developer who worked on the first iPhone SDK — and it shows.

WORDLENS

With real-time translation as the next frontier of the web and augmented reality as easily the most buzzed about mobile technology this year, it’s no surprise that the marriage of the two would be a win. WordLens is a new real-time translation app that turns your iPhone into “the dictionary of the future,” using optical character recognition and augmented reality to translate text captured with the phone’s camera. From t-shirt slogans to street signage, its applications for globe-trotters are astounding and its implications for the future of language learning and cross-cultural communication remarkable.

The app itself is free, with various language pairs available for in-app purchase. The first pair released is Spanish-English, with more coming soon.

DESIGN OBSERVER

Design Observer is the world’s premiere online design journal and their new iPhone app puts today’s most important conversations about design in your pocket. From photography to architecture to to urbanism to sustainability and beyond, the sleek app lets you browse the entire spectrum of visual culture and social innovation by channel, topic or author. A special Mondrian view allows you to scan articles visually by thumbnails of key images.

The app is free and highly recommended.

INSTAGRAM

Visual lifestreaming is one of the most rapidly growing branches of new media storytelling. Instagram takes your hum-drum iPhone photos, runs them through some retrotastic filters, and churns out gorgeous images oozing Lomo charisma and vintage goodness. What makes the app interesting is that it comes with a built-in mobile-only social network: You get to follow friends and interesting users on Instagram, much like you would on Twitter, with the option of liking or commenting on images, but there’s no web version whatsoever — you can only engage with your stream within the app. (Though you can, of course, share instagr.am links to individual images on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.)

The app is free and one of our most recent (now full-blown) obsessions.

FOODUCATE

Navigating the torrents of marketing hype, nutrition labels, overwhelming ingredient lists and questionable health claims can take the joy out of food shopping. Fooducate is a smart app that helps you see behind the veil of healthspeak and make better choices at the store. The app, developed by a team of dietitians, uses the iPhone’s camera to scan barcodes and pull up product highlights, both good and bad — including stuff manufacturers don’t want you to see, like excessive sugar, hidden trans fats, additives and preservatives, artificial coloring and more. It currently features a databse of 160,000 products, growing daily.

Fooducate is free and a solid investment in your health.

MONTESSORIUM

The Montessori method is easily the best-known system of self-directed learning in formal education. This year, Montessorium put the 100-year-old educational tradition at the fingertips of today’s children with two simple yet brilliantly executed mobile apps that let kids learn the basics of language and mathematics. Minimalist yet engaging, the sleekly designed app makes self-directed learning what it should be: Fun, simple, yet effective.

Montessorium comes in three varieties — math, letters and writing — each available for $4.99. The folks at Montessorium have kindly offered 10 free downloads of the brand new writing app to Brain Pickings readers, so if you’d like to try it out, say so in the comments below and we’ll email the first 10 a promo code. [UPDATE 12/27/10: All 10 invitations have been claimed!]

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right and helps pay the bills.





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22 DECEMBER, 2010

2010’s Best Long Reads: Science & Technology

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Longreads and Brain Pickings have teamed up to highlight the most fascinating in-depth stories published on the web this year. Earlier, we featured the best of Business and Art, Design, Film & Music. Our final spotlight shines on Science, Medicine & Technology.

FOR THE LOVE OF CULTURE

Google, Copyright and Our Future (Lawrence Lessig, The New Republic, Jan. 26, 2010)

Time to read: 26 minutes (6,454 words)

In the wake of the Google Books project—and the subsequent settlement with publishers — Lessig calls for a new approach that untangles copyright law and helps keep information accessible to all.

What are the rules that will govern culture for the next hundred years? Are we building an ecology of access that demands a lawyer at every turn of the page?”

For more on this complex and controversial subject, see our continuous coverage of remix culture.

SEARCH FOR A STRESS VACCINE

Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine (Jonah Lehrer, Wired, July 28, 2010)

Time to read: 23 minutes (5,700 words)

Lehrer profiles Robert Sapolsky, a scientist researching ways to create a vaccine-like treatment to protect people against stress. (In early research he’s injected a modified herpes virus into rodents’ brains.)

Sometimes it’s not enough just to tell people, ‘Jeez, you should really learn to relax.’ If stress is half as bad for you as we currently think it is, then it’s time to stop treating the side effects. It’s time to go after stress itself.”

NEW DRUGS AND CLINICAL TRIALS

New Drugs Stir Debate on Rules of Clinical Trials (Amy Harmon, New York Times, Sept. 19, 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,173 words)

A heartbreaking story from Harmon’s “Target Cancer” series about two cousins with skin cancer enrolled in the same clinical trial — but only one of them received the powerful new drug.

At times beseeching and belligerent, Mr. McLaughlin argued his cousin’s case to get the new drug with anyone he could find at U.C.L.A. ‘Hey, put him on it, he needs it,’ he pleaded. And then: ‘Who the hell is making these decisions?'”

THE STATUS QUO OF ELECTRIC CARS

The Status Quo of Electric Cars: Better Batteries, Same Range (Gail E. Tverberg, The Oil Drum, May 19, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (3,940 words)

The Chevy Volt is Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year, but Tverberg argues that, in many ways, we’re no better off with electric cars than we were a century ago.

Weight, comfort, speed and performance have eaten up any real progress. We don’t need better batteries, we need better cars.”

AUTISM’S FIRST CHILD

Autism’s First Child (John Donvan and Caren Zucker, The Atlantic, October 2010)

Time to read: 33 minutes (8,165 words)

While there is quite a bit of attention on autism as it relates to children, what happens when they grow up? Donvan and Zucker track down Donald Gray Triplett, 77, the first person ever diagnosed with autism.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Donald’s life is that he grew up to be an avid traveler. He has been to Germany, Tunisia, Hungary, Dubai, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, and Colombia—some 36 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states in all.”

THE GOLDEN BOY AND THE INVISIBLE ARMY

The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army (Thomas Lake, Atlanta Magazine, June 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,777 words)

Writer Thomas Lake puts the H1N1 virus in human terms with this story of John Behnken, a 27-year-old Atlanta man who seemed an unlikely target for swine flu.

Dr. Stauffenberg had done close to 1,600 autopsies, and this was the first time she had seen an otherwise healthy person die from the unaided influenza virus.”

SHOULD WE CLONE NEANDERTHALS?

Should We Clone Neanderthals? (Zach Zorich, Archaeology, March/April 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,274 words)

An examination of the scientific, legal and ethical questions raised by the possibility that scientists may one day be able to clone neanderthals. At least one paleoanthropologist predicts: It’s going to happen.

If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have, and if your experiment fails…well. It’s a lose-lose.”

THE PEANUT SOLUTION

The Peanut Solution (Andrew Rice, New York Times, Sept. 2, 2010)

Time to read: 21 minutes (5,258 words)

A peanut-buttery paste called Plumpy’nut is praised for its potential to help end malnutrition across the globe. Patents, intellectual property and competing interests make distribution more complicated.

I wouldn’t want to see a new world order where poor people are dependent on packaged supplementary foods that are manufactured in Europe or the United States.”

SHOOTING FOR THE SUN

Shooting for the Sun (Logan Ward, The Atlantic, November 2010)

Time to read: 13 minutes (3,149 words)

The story of Lonnie Johnson, an inventor with some 100 patents who is best-known for creating the Super Soaker squirt gun. His latest obsession: Bringing affordable solar power to the world.

Johnson is a member of what seems to be a vanishing breed: the self-invented inventor.”

THE PLASTIC PANIC

The Plastic Panic (Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,788 words)

Is the BPA found in plastic bottles actually harmful to us? And if so, why isn’t it banned in the United States? A look at the regulatory issues that keep potentially toxic chemicals in the marketplace.

The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, does not require manufacturers to show that chemicals used in their products are safe before they go on the market.”

See more Longreads 2010 “best-of” lists here.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.

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