Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

09 MAY, 2012

Going Solo: A Brief History of Living Alone and the Enduring Social Stigma Around Singletons

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“Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.”

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle admonished:

The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.

Indeed, the ancient world held exile as the most formidable form of punishment, second only to execution, though in Greek tragedies it was often regarded as a fate worse than death. For more than two millennia, this fear and loathing of solitary life endured and permeated the fabric of society. In 1949, Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock surveyed some 250 “representative cultures” across history and geography, and concluded:

The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light.

Yet our relationship with solitary life has undergone a radical shift in the recent past. So argues NYU sociology, public policy, and media professor Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (public library) — an ambitious exploration of what Klinenberg calls the “remarkable social experiment” that our species has embarked upon over the past half-century, juxtaposing the numbers with the enduring social stigma around singleness.

Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others — even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together alone […] [T]oday, for the first time in centuries, the majority of all American adults are single. The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.

Klinenberg paints an even more vivid picture by the numbers:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9 percent of all households […] Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million — roughly one out of every seven adults — live alone.

[…]

People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type — more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, the roommate or group home.

To be sure, this trend is far from confined to the U.S. — the four countries with the highest rates of solo living are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, where up to 45% of all households contain just one person. “By investing in each other’s social welfare and affirming their bonds of mutual support,” Klinenberg argues, “the Scandinavians have freed themselves to be on their own.”

Yet the sociocultural norms and dialogue around living solo haven’t caught up with these staggering statistics. As historian David Potter has famously noted:

In our literature, any story of the complete isolation, either physical or psychological, of a man from his fellowman, such as the story of Robinson Crusoe before he found a human footprint on the beach, is regarded as essentially a horror story.

Klinenberg puts it thusly:

Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.

[…]

Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life. Our morally charged conversations tend to frame the question of why so many people now live on their own around the false and misleading choice between the romanticized ideal of Father Knows Best and the glamorous enticements of Sex and the City. In fact…the reality of this great social experiment in living alone is far more interesting — and far less isolating — than these conversations would have us believe.

Klinenberg goes on to explore the forces and factors that have sparked the transformative social experience of living alone, which has in turn changed not only the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships, but also the way we structure our cities and orchestrate our economies, demonstrating that solo living affects the lives of nearly everyone in the social ecosystem. He points to four key developments driving this cult of individualism, championed by Emerson and Thoreau: (1) The wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state (“Put simply, one reason that more people live alone than ever before is that today more people can afford to do so.”); (2) the communications revolution (“For those who want to live alone, the Internet affords rich new ways to stay connected.”); (3) mass urbanization (“Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life.”); (4) increased longevity (“Because people are living longer than ever before — or, more specifically, because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.”).

Going Solo goes on to paint a richer portrait of this age of the singleton, covering a number of complementary forces — including, perhaps most interestingly, the rising status of women and their assertion of control over their own bodies (“[I]n 1950 there were more than two men for every woman on American college campuses, whereas today women make up the majority of undergraduate students as well as those who earn a bachelor’s degree.”). What emerges is a powerful set of questions about some of our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a part of society and, ultimately, what it means to be happy.

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19 MARCH, 2012

Einstein on Kindness, Our Shared Existence, and Life’s Highest Ideals

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“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind… life would have seemed to me empty.”

In times of turmoil, I often turn to one of my existential pillars of comfort: Albert Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the definitive collection of the great thinker’s essays on everything from science and religion to government to human nature, gathered under the supervision of Einstein himself. It’s been a challenging week, one that’s reminded me with merciless acuity the value of kindness and compassion, so I’ve once again turned to Einstein’s timeless “ideas and opinions” on this spectrum of subjects.

On the ties of sympathy:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

On public opinion, or what Paul Graham might call prestige:

One becomes sharply aware, but without regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and consonance with other people. No doubt, such a person loses some of his innocence and unconcern; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits, and judgments of his fellows and avoids the temptation to build his inner equilibrium upon such insecure foundations.”

On our interconnectedness, interdependency, and shared existence:

When we survey our lives and endeavors we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings. We see that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals. We eat food that others have grown, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built. The greater part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language which others have created. Without language our mental capacities would be poor indeed, comparable to those of the higher animals; we have, therefore, to admit that we owe our principal advantage over the beasts to the fact of living in human society. The individual, if left alone from birth would remain primitive and beast-like in his thoughts and feelings to a degree that we can hardly conceive. The individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave.”

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

On good and evil, creative bravery, and human value:

A man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of his fellows. We call him good or bad according to how he stands in this matter. It looks at first sight as if our estimate of a man depended entirely on his social qualities.

And yet such an attitude would be wrong. It is clear that all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals. The use of fire, the cultivation of edible plants, the steam engine — each was discovered by one man.

Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society — nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.

The health of society thus depends quite as much on the independence of the individuals composing it as on their close social cohesion.”

On life’s highest ideals:

[E]verybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavors and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves — such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty.”

Austin Kleon said it best: “Be nice. (The world is a small town.)”

Ideas and Opinions is a fantastic read in its entirety, the kind that stays with you for a lifetime.

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06 FEBRUARY, 2012

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Adam Curtis on How Technology Limits Us

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What Ayn Rand has to do with the Occupy movement.

Documentarian Adam Curtis is among our era’s most influential cultural storytellers, with a penchant for debunking the established order of beliefs and ideologies. In The Century of the Self (2002), he traces the origin of consumerism and how Freud’s theories shaped twentieth-century manipulations of public opinion, from politics to marketing; in The Power of Nightmares (2004), he explores the rise of the politics of fear; in The Trap (2007), he examines the concept and evolution of freedom and the simplistic models of human nature on which it is based. His latest BBC documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, premiered last May, mere months before the global Occupy movement erupted, and paints an infinitely intriguing, though in my view wrong on many counts, portrait of technology as a limiting, rather than liberating, cultural and political force. The title of the series comes from a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan, in which he envisions a world of cybernetics so advanced that the balance of nature is restored and there is no need for human labor.

Though the film has strong techno-dystopian undertones akin to the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock series of the 1970s and neglects how technology enables such powerful phenomena like networked knowledge and crowd-accelerated learning, it offers a dimensional context for many of our present political, economic, and technological givens. Coupled with Curtis’s signature immersive storytelling and exquisite use of historical materials, rare footage, and revealing soundbites, the series is an invaluable primer for much of today’s most pressing sociocultural issues.

The first part, titled Love and Power, deals with how Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism shaped the ethos of Silicon Valley in the 1990s and, eventually, the global economy as Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton set out to create the New Economy, based on the premise of a dramatic rise in productivity thanks to emerging information technology. Curtis, however, goes on to argue that instead of creating market stability, these Randian ideals constricted people into a rigid system with little hope of escape.

We are now living through a very strange moment. We know that the idea of market stability has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us of all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite — that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.”

Part two, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, explores how technology cornerstones like cybernetics and systems theory were, Curtis argues, falsely applied to natural ecosystems and used to develop unrealistic models for human beings and societies. The episode has particularly timely resonance, in light of the recent global Occupy movement, as Curtis argues that such self-organizing network models without central control might be good at organizing change, but are less effective in what comes after.

The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions showed the limitations of the self-organizing model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power. The hippies took up the idea of the network society because they were disillusioned with politics. They believed that this alternative way of organizing the world was good because it was based on the underlying order of nature. But this was a fantasy. In reality, what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines. Now, in our age, we are all disillusioned with politics, and this machine-organizing principle has risen up to become the ideology of our age. And what we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas as to what comes next. And, just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.”

The final part, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, examines the selfish gene theory of evolution, developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Curtis traces how this applied to everything from the civil war in Congo and the Rwandan genocide to George Price’s quest for the origin of altruism to Dawkins’ atheist reformulation of the religious idea of the “immortal soul” as a computer code in the form of genetic patterns. Curtis concludes by asking whether, in accepting these views of humans as machines, we as a culture have disempowered the human spirit.

Hamilton’s ideas remain powerfully influential in our society — above all, the idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programs written in their genetic codes. But, the question is, have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences?… We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.”

Curiously, Brautigan’s original collection of poems, which inspired the film title, was intentionally distributed for free. The Curtis documentary, on the other hand, remains largely (legally) unavailable online and nearly impossible to legally see outside the U.K., as if a stubborn and enforced metaphor for the very thing it argues.

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06 JUNE, 2011

5 Must-Read Books by TED Global 2011 Speakers

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What the pursuit of pleasure has to do with lie-detection, the history of money and the sorrows of work.

TED is among the highlights of my year and, every time before the big event, I like to prepare by reading or re-reading books by that TED season’s roster of speakers. (Previously: Long Beach 2011 in two parts and TED Global 2010.) Last week, TED revealed next month’s TED Global speakers and I was delighted to find, as always, some of my favorite thinkers, writers and doers on the list. Here are five fantastic books by some of them.

HOW PLEASURE WORKS

We’ve previously looked closely at the art and science of happiness, and one of the simplest ways in which we humans grasp after happiness is through the pursuit of pleasure. What is pleasure, exactly, and is it really just a simplistic, false substitute for happiness? That’s exactly what Yale psychologist Paul Bloom explores in How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like — a fascinating look at the complex cognitive and sociological elements of what we find pleasurable. Bloom looks at common pleasure sources across the entire spectrum of social conduct — food, sex, art, video games, drugs, saunas, crossword puzzles, reality TV — through a hybrid lens of developmental psychology, evolutionary science, philosophy, neuroscience, behavioral economics and sociology to examine the mechanisms and ultimate function of pleasure.

Bloom explores the prevalent theory of “essentialism” — the idea that things in the world, including other people, have invisible, distinct essences that make them what they are, and we are born with a predilection for subscribing to this worldview. Bloom uses essentialism to explain the mysterious pleasures of everyday life, from our attachments to objects like celebrity memorabilia to our hunger for art to the pleasures of the imagination to the appeal of science and religion, examining pleasure through both its developmental origin in us as individuals and its evolutionary roots in our species.

If you look through a psychology textbook, you will find little or nothing about sports, art, music, drama, literature, play, and religion. These are central to what makes us human, and we won’t understand any of them until we understand pleasure.” ~ Paul Bloom

What makes Bloom’s argument most interesting, perhaps, is that it centers around two seemingly conflicting claims: That pleasure is deep and transcendent, which implies it must be socialized, cultured and learned, and that pleasure is a byproduct of evolution, which implies that it should be simple, superficial and a knee-jerk response to environmental stimuli. The truth, however, is a marriage of the two — we have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world, but it now pushes us to desire things that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction. (Pornography, for instance, is enjoyed by a great deal of people, and while we’re biologically inclined to have an interest in real-life attractive naked people, there’s absolutely no reproductive advantage associated with watching attractive naked people get it on on the screen.)

Gracefully dancing across everything from Shakespeare to cannibalism to IKEA furniture, Bloom more than lives up to his reputation as one of modern psychology’s deepest thinkers, crispest writers and most eloquent storytellers. Besides, as Newsweek‘s Mary Carmichael put it, “Is there anyone who could resist a book about sex, food, art, and fun?”

THE ASCENT OF MONEY

Historian Niall Ferguson is a prolific and relentlessly fascinating author, so choosing just one of his excellent books is no easy task. His most recent masterpiece, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, makes a compelling case for banking and the development of currency as a central force behind how civilization has evolved. As we’re just beginning to barely emerge from the financial crisis that swept the Western world four summers ago, Ferguson offers a timely and timeless reminder of one of the greatest truths in financial history and, I would add, human psychology at large: Sooner or later, every bubble bursts. What makes the book even more interesting is that Ferguson completed his research for it prior to the actual economic recession in the U.S., yet many of his insights and conclusions presage what was about to happen with uncanny accuracy.

Behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret, and this book sets out to illuminate the most important of these. For example, the Renaissance created such a boom in the market for art and architecture because Italian bankers like theMedici mad fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Habsburg Empire because having the world’s first modern stock market was financially preferable to having the world’s biggest silver mine. The problems of the French monarchy could not be resolved without a revolution because a convicted Scots murderer had wrecked the French financial system by unleashing the first stock market bubble and bust.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Above all, the book is an admirable effort to break down what Ferguson calls “the dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge,” a celebration of the holistic, cross-disciplinary curiosity I so firmly believe is the key to a richer, more creative, more intelligent life.

Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, comes out in November and looks to be very much worth a read.

LIESPOTTING

Years ago, I did a thesis largely on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of emotion through facial expression. He devised a system for coding and interpreting facial “microexpressions,” which has since been used by everyone from the FBI to financial loan officers to actors, and has become instrumental in assisting lie detection. My longstanding fascination with the field led me to the work of Pamela Meyer, who uses visual cues and psychology to detect deception. In Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, Meyer reveals some of the most reliable techniques for detecting and, in turn, protecting ourselves against dishonesty.

Calling myself a liespotter — a human lie detector — might suggest that I live in anticipation of being deceived, wary and suspicious of everyone with whom I come into contact. Actually, becoming a trained liespotter allows you to do the opposite. You’ll know you have the tools you need to protect yourself in situations in which you might encounter falsehood or obfuscation. Becoming a liespotter doesn’t inspire paranoia — it frees you from it.” ~ Pamela Meyer

Though Meyer’s work isn’t nearly as rigorously scientific as Ekman’s and at times calls for a grain of salt, it nonetheless offers the foundation of a skill few of us have and most of us desire.

Liespotting will introduce the [basic] method, which combines facial recognition with advanced interrogation techniques. It will show you how to read the map of the human face and body, as well as how to decode human language and vocal tone, exposing the myriad signs people inadvertently leave behind when they are working to hide the truth about something that really matters.” ~ Pamela Meyer

While the techniques in Liespotting can be tremendously valuable in an ideal, neutral scenario, the thing I find most important to remember — and most difficult to accept — is that even if we worked ourselves into the perfect, most accurate human lie detectors, when it comes to the dishonesty of those we care about the most about the things that most matter to us, we have a remarkable ability to ignore, dismiss and disregard any intuitive or factual evidence of deception. In order for Meyer’s techniques to be of practical value in those most crucial situations, we need to couple them with a keen awareness of this bigger, fundamental human bias and an actionable desire to change.

THE PLEASURES AND SORROWS OF WORK

Sure, I’ll take any excuse to sing the praises of Alain de Botton, dubbed the creator of the “literary self-help genre” and a master of philosophical social criticism through an eloquent blend of wit and wisdom. (His How Proust Can Change Your Life will change your life.) There’s no better way to celebrate his second TED Global appearance than with The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, about which he spoke in his first:

One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” ~ Alain de Botton

One of the reasons we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs. A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses it to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. And the dominant form of snobbery that exists today is job snobbery — you encounter it within minutes at a party when you get asked that famous, iconic question of the 21st century: ‘What do you do?’ The opposite of a snob is your mother.” ~ Alain de Botton

THE PHILOSOPHICAL BABY

Children are at once profound and enigmatic vessels of the human mind, and yet the first 2,500 years of philosophy contain almost no reference to or study of children. But the scientific revolution of the past 30 years has led philosophers and scientists to take children seriously for the first time. That’s exactly what psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik addresses in The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life — an ambitious look at how babies, in many ways, are more conscious than adults in that they don’t operate on the kind of autopilot that often drives us. In the process, Gopnik explores philosophical questions about the nature of love, the relativity of truth, and various facets of the human condition.

Childhood is a profound part of the human condition. But it is also a largely unexamined part of that condition — so taken for granted that most of the time we hardly notice it at all. Childhood is a universal fact, but when we do think about it, it is almost always in individual first-person terms: What should i do, now, about my child? What did my parents do that led me to be the way I am? Most books about children are like this, from memoirs and novels to the ubiquitous parenting advice books. But childhood is not just a particular plot complication of Irish autobiographies or a particular problem to be solved by American self-help programs. It is not even just something that all human being share. It is, I’ll argue, what makes all human beings human.” ~ Alison Gopnik

If you missed last year’s roundup, it’s never too late to catch up with these 7 must-read books by TED Global 2010 speakers, as well as these two sets of must-reads by this year’s TED Long Beach speakers.

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27 APRIL, 2011

Mark of Cain: The Language of Russian Criminal Tattoos

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What encrypted visual communication has to do with the Russian justice system.

The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia is among Brain Pickings‘s most popular books of all time. Its curious subject — the poetic, fading art form and language of Russian criminal tattoos — is also the subject of filmmaker Alix Lambert’s 2001 documentary, The Mark of Cain, which is now available online under a Creative Commons license.

Lambert traveled on a shoestring budget to document the complex social hierarchy of Russia’s prison system, where inmates use highly symbolic tattoo art as a mark of rank. Since its earliest documented cases in the 1920s, this practice has remained largely a taboo and is actually illegal in Russian prisons, yet some estimates suggest that in the last generation alone, more than 30 million of Russia’s inmates have been inked. The unique visual language of the tattoos encrypts everything you need to know about an inmate without ever asking, from the number of convictions an inmate has to his rank in the crime world.

The Mark of Cain explores this fascinating subculture and its duality — its role in prison survival on the one hand and, on the other, the permanent mark it leaves on inmates as they try to reintegrate into society — though a layered look at everything from the actual creation of tattoo ink to the devastating conditions of the prisons to the intimate first-hand stories of prisoners revealed in hard-earned interviews.

The film is also available on DVD and served as source material for David Cronenberg’s excellent Oscar-nominated 2007 film Eastern Promises about the Russian mob in London, starring Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen.

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