Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

02 NOVEMBER, 2011

Balloons for Bhutan: Jonathan Harris Documents Happiness

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A portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom.

Since 1972, Bhutan has been attracting international attention as the only country in the world that quantifies its nation’s well-being not by Gross National Product, the narrow and soulless measure of our economic monoculture, but by Gross National Happiness. In 2007, artist Jonathan Harris ( ) traveled to Bhutan to explore the Gross National Happiness paradigm. Balloons for Bhutan documents his effort to capture “a portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom” in his signature style of multimedia storytelling.

Harris asked 117 people of various ages, occupations, education levels, and social status five questions related to happiness: What makes them happy; what is their happiest memory; what is their favorite joke; what is their happiness level on a scale of 1 to 10; if they could make one wish, what would that be. He then gave each person the number of balloons corresponding to their stated happiness, and wrote each person’s wish on the balloon of their favorite color. On the final night of his journey, he strung up the inflated balloons at Duchala, a sacred mountain pass at 10,000 feet, bobbing amidst Buddhist prayer flags.

Here’s an excerpt from Harris’s 2007 EG / TED talk, where he talks about the project:

Explore the project in its full audiovisual glory for the complete effect. Then, grab some of these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness to better understand this complex, universal aspiration.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Conscience of Television

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What Lucille Ball has to do with the dot-com bubble, or why 2001 was the beginning of the end for TV comedy.

I may have given away my TV set in 2004 and fully endorse Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus but, as a devoted Marshall McLuhan groupie, I’d be the last to renounce the medium as culturally inconsequential. Television, for all its ills and follies, still commands a remarkable portion of our collective conscience — and, it turns out, it has an implicit conscience of its own, as TV executive Lauren Zalaznick demonstrates in this eye-opening, stride-stopping TED talk, using GapMinder, the statistical visualization software made famous by TED rockstar Hans Rosling.

From the intricate balance of moral ambiguity and inspiration, humor and judgement, to the normative shifts scripted television can ignite, to the evolving ideals of motherhood, Zalaznick illustrates not only how history has shaped the medium, but also how the medium itself is shaping cultural history.

Moral ambiguity becomes the dominant meme in television from 1990 for the next twenty years.”

For a related treasure trove of fascination, you won’t go wrong with Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, the fantastic McLuhan almost-biography by beloved novelist and cultural critic Douglas Coupland.

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Culturomics: What We Can Learn from 5 Million Books

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How to put your “beft” foot forward, or what the algorithm of censorship has to do with 1950.

We’ve already established that we could learn a remarkable amount about language from these 5 essential books, but imagine what we could learn from 5 million books. In this excellent talk from TEDxBoston, Harvard scientists Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden reveal fascinating insights from their computational tool that inspired Google Labs’ addictive NGram Viewer, which pulls from a database of 500 billion words and ideas culled from 5 million books across many centuries, 12% of the books that have ever been published.

They call their approach Culturomics — “the application of massive scale data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.” From advising you on the best career choices for early success to figuring out when an artist is being censored to proving that we’re forgetting the past exponentially more quickly than ever before, the data speaks volumes when queried with intelligence and curiosity.

[The database pulls from] a collection of 5 million books. 500 billion words. A string of characters a thousand times longer than the human genome. A text which, when written out, would stretch from here to the moon and back ten times over. A veritable shard of our cultural genome.”

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27 JULY, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity: David Deutsch Explains the World

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A new way to explain explanation itself, or how science and philosophy got their start.

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

Must progress come to an end — either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion — or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

Perhaps most powerful of all is Deutsch’s remarkable ability to shift convictions. As Peter Forbes writes in The Independent,

Deutsch is the kind of passionate, clear-headed advocate who can change minds. He endorses Stephen Hawking’s view that we would be wise to colonise space because the asteroid that will certainly come one day might be beyond even the capacity of our nuclear weapons. I have never believed in space colonisation, thinking it an idle fantasy. With no atmosphere or ecosystem we would have to live in bubbles. But Deutsch convinces me that we could colonise the moon and, after a while, that this life would seem natural.”

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

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22 JULY, 2011

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery & Thermogeddon: Lexicographer Erin McKean’s TEDBook on New Words

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How to spot wordishness when you see it, or what serendipity has to do with digital publishing.

As a hopeless language lover with a soft spot for words, I was thrilled by this week’s release of a new book by lexicographer Erin McKean of Wordnik fame. Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words from a Lexicographer’s Notebook comes from TEDBooks, the ambitious low-cost imprint we featured as one of 7 platforms changing the future of publishing, and, for just $2.99, offers a wonderfully fascinating look at a slew of a new words and phrases across science, politics, technology, social life and other facets of our ever-changing cultural landscape.

And, in the year when neo-words like “lifehack” and “unfollow” were officially inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s safe to say the techno-tangle of formal language is so pervasive it might necessitate professional untangling. McKean does this with equal parts wit and rigor, making the understanding of emergent language as exciting as it is necessary.

Why these words? I haven’t picked the newest words (or the older), the funniest words, or the most scientifically advanced words. Instead, these are all words that have struck me with their ‘wordishness’ — that quality a word or phrase has of packing up an idea into a handy carrying case, making it portable, accessible, and (most important) transmissible — among speakers of English. Wordishness doesn’t imply elegance, grace or even clarity, but we know it when we see it.” Erin McKean

Sample McKean’s linguistic genius and charisma with her excellent 2007 TED talk, in which she redefined the dictionary:

Online dictionaries replicate almost all the problems of print, except for searchability. And when you improve searchability, you actually take away the one advantage of print, which is serendipity. Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult.” ~ Erin McKean

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon is an absolute treat of insight at the intersection of linguistic timeliness and timelessness, served with the kind of passion that makes TED TED.

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