Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

15 APRIL, 2010

Cartograms: Making a Point with Distorted Maps

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Why space is relative and how popular media are making entire continents disappear.

We love maps. And we love data visualization. Naturally, we love cartograms — maps of countries and areas distorted to reflect non-geographic information about them. These representations provide a succinct and visually digestible way to comprehend complex data about the world’s hisotrical, social, political, economic and health reality, among other issues of interest. Today, we look at three particularly eye-opening cartograms that put today’s geopolitical and socioeconomic reality in perspective.

EXTERNAL DEBT

As the world continues to try to make sense of the full context and implications of the financial crisis, University of Sheffield postgrad Ben Henning took a look at the real dimension of the world’s external debt. The map reflects the ratio of debt to GDP, based on 2010 estimates by the World Bank and CIA.

In case you were wondering — or looking for an economically stable place to move to — that green patch amidst the European redness is Luxembourg, doing even better than the stereotypical financial forerunner in yellow right below, Switzerland.

NEWS

There’s no question that news media shape our perception of the world. But, in just four minutes, head of Public Radio International Alisa Miller shows just how distorted the news’ portrayal of the world can be.

Miller’s eye-opening talk embodies the core of why we believe citizen journalism will be a potent game-changer in news, the real “fair and balanced” way to do things.

POPULATION

Today’s moderately educated adult has no qualms about the world’s overpopulation problem. But this issue is as much one of scale as it is of distribution. Earth’s bloated population, combined with its uneven and disproportionate distribution, makes for a number of social, economic and environmental hazards. This cartogram presents a map of the world, with land areas weighted for population size, making all these disbalances unmissably prominent.

Seeing overcrowded India and China explode while Russia and Canada, with their vast, barren and unpopulated Arctic landscapes, shrink does bring the notion of “public space” to life by visualizing, effectively and powerfully, the relationship between “space” and “the public.”

BONUS

The Daily Mail, a source of otherwise questionable reliability and taste level, has a surprisingly excellent series of cartograms that paint an issue-weighted portrait of the world.

Though three years old, the maps are incredibly eye-opening, reflecting everyting from alcohol consumption to HIV prevalence to toy exports.

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13 APRIL, 2010

Leave Your Sleep: Natalie Merchant Sets Victorian Children’s Poetry to Song

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Musty libraries, otherworldly storytelling, and how dead poets wrote the year’s most moving album.

The cross-pollination of disciplines, which is the seedbed of some of humanity’s greatest creative achievements, hardly gets more bewitching than the intersection of literature and music. (An intersection I hold particularly dear.) That’s what Natalie Merchant accomplishes with great elegance and genius in Leave Your Sleep — a brilliant and beautiful musical adaptation of near-forgotten Victorian children’s poetry, a decade in the making.

The album, her first studio recording in seven years and co-produced with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and creator of the eclectic Red Hot charity series, samples from the entire spectrum of literary fame and obscurity, including poets like Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti and — our favorite — e e cummings, as well as little-known geniuses like Brooklyn poet Natalia Crane, who published her first book in 1927 at the age of ten.

What I really enjoyed about this project was reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life. Bringing them to light.

What makes the album all the more special is that in the six years Merchant spent researching the poets, sifting through newspaper microfilm from the 1800’s and spending countless hours in musty Victorian libraries, she grew increasingly curious about and inspired by their lives and decided to write a book about them. Poetry inspiring music inspiring prose, a beautiful metaphor for the cross-pollination of the arts. Coupled with Merchant’s unforgettable powerhouse of a voice, the album is one of the most inspired projects to come out this year.

We were fortunate enough to experience Merchant’s absolutely breathtaking live performance at TED earlier this year, which, though not doing justice to her live stage charisma, you can sample below. The rich emotion oozing from Merchant’s voice as her melodic storytelling unfolds is just otherworldly.

Sophisticated, playful, bittersweet and utterly haunting, Leave Your Sleep spans as rich an emotional spectrum as it does a musical range, leaving us dangerously close to infatuation in a way that no single recording has managed to in longer than we can remember.

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11 MARCH, 2010

Srikumar Rao on Hard-Wiring Happiness

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Why success and failure are exactly the same, or how process supersedes perfection.

We’ve talked a lot about the origins of happiness and the various ways people go about pursuing it. And while all these lofty concepts and creative approaches have their place, it’s in the sore absence of happiness that we fully realize the importance of specific, powerful tools and steps to bringing all the theoretical stuff to life.

In this excellent talk at Columbia University, Srikumar Rao (of Are You Ready To Succeed? fame) offers precisely the kind of cognitive toolkit to combat our ingrained preoccupation with success/fail outcomes standing between us and our own happiness.

You have spent your entire life learning to be unhappy. And the way we learn to be unhappy is by buying into a particular mental models. […] The problem isn’t that we have mental models, the problem is that we don’t know we have mental models, we think that’s the way the world works.

Rao’s points about absolutism as the deadliest poison of emotional well-being poke brilliant holes in the very fabric of Western culture and its obsession with control, which yields only frustration and failed expectation.

We live in a world where what we think of, what we invest in, is the outcome. There is an alternative. You invest in the process.

Rao’s thinking reminds us of the slightly more life-coachish approach by Gay Hendricks in The Big Leap, a similar effort to dispell all the myths we keep perpetuating as we stand in the way of our own success and continue looking for happiness outside of ourselves.

Passion exists in you, not in the job.

Amen.

via TED Best of the Web

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12 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010: Day Two

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Suspended animation, augmented reality, and what sheep’s knuckles have to do with the future of cultural problem-solving.

We’ve been busy live-tweeting from TED 2010, so yesterday’s highlights come mostly in photos and quotes — see Twitter for play-by-play updates.

SESSION 1: REASON

Be skeptical. Ask questions. Get proof. Don’t take anything for granted. But when you get proof, accept it. We have a hard time doing that. ~ Michael Specter

Science tells us what we can value, but it never tells us what we ought to value. ~ Sam Harris

AIDS researcher Elizabeth Pisani shows the remarkable and life-saving effects of HIV treatment, but says that, contrary to popular belief, treatment is not all the prevention we need. In fact, it leads the infected to take their guards down, so they become less careful, which can be dangerous.

Pisani’s book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, sounds fascinating and eye-opening.

Pisani shows some counterintuitive HIV stats

Nicholas Christakis, whose social contagion studies we tweeted some time ago, talked about

Christakis’ book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, is a sociology and digital anthropology must-read.

Christakis calls obesity a 'multicentric epidemic,' reduced not to the behavior of individuals but to that of the 'human superorganism.'

SESSION 5: PROVOCATION

Ex-CIA covert operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson shares Global Zero, her advocacy for eliminating nuclear weapons.

One thing our country needs is better political debates. We need to rediscover the lost art of political argument. ~ Michael Sandel

If we weren't afraid our servers might go down tomorrow, we'd dare say 4chan founder Christopher 'moot' Poole was endearing, but left us underwhelmed and missing a connect-the-dots idea. Hypothetically speaking.

Kevin Bales reveals some shocking facts about modern-day slavery: Today, there are 27,000 people in real, physical slavery. He points to four main causes: Overpopulation, extreme poverty, vulnerability of disadvantaged groups, and corruption.

'What enables slavery is the absence of the rule of law. It lets people use violence with impunity.' ~ Kevin Bales

Kevin advocates “freedom dividend” — letting people out of slavery and letting them work for themselves, which causes local communities to flourish. He says the total cost of enduring freedom for those 27,000 contemporary slaves is $10.8 billion, which is how much the US spent shopping this past holiday season.

We stand wholeheartedly behind Chris Anderson’s recommendation for Bales’ chilling and fascinating book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

A TED first: Mark Jacobson and Stewart Brand (whose compelling new book, Whole Earth Discipline, we reviewed recently) entered a good old fashioned debate on the merits of nuclear power.

Brand for, Jacobson against

If all of the electricity in your lifetime came from nuclear, waste would fit in a Coke can. ~ Stewart Brand

Each got 6 minutes to defend his stance, followed by an audience grill and refuting arguments.

To power the entire world with wind you will need only about 1% of US land area. ~ Mark Jacobson

Despite his charisma, Brand 'lost' in the end -- the audience skew moved from 75/25 in favor of nukes in the beginning of the debate to 65/35 by the end.

SESSION 6: INVENTION

The Extraordinary Legion of Dancers, LXD, were extraordinary indeed.

LXD received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at TED 2010 yet.

Though without the impact of a live performance, you can see for yourself:

When I dance, I want people to question the reality of what they’re seeing. ~ Madd Chadd

Game designer Jane McGonigal delivered some staggering statistics on gaming: Since World of Warcraft launched, we’ve spent 5.33 million years solving it; to put this in time perspective, 5.33 million years ago, the first humans stood up.

In the game world, we become the best version of ourselves. ~Jane McGonigal

Today’s kids, McGonigal pointed out, spend some 10,000 hours gaming by the time they turn 21. At the same time, the average child with perfect attendance spends 10,800 hours in school by graduation — so there’s a parallel “education” going on. She advocates for using social games as something bigger than escapism from reality — a cultural advancement tool putting gamers’ problem-solving talents to work. She demoes World Without Oil, a collaborative social game made in 2007.

Ancient dice made out of sheep's knuckles, invented in Libya, are world's first recorded gaming device.

McGonigal premieres Urgent Evoke, a game developed in partnership with the World Bank. If you complete it, you get certified by the World Bank as “social innovator”.

Music icon David Byrne, a cultural hero of ours.

Byrne says people in 19th-century opera houses used to yell at each other just like they did at CBGB's in the 70's.

Photosynth mastermind Blaise Aguera y Arcas demoes some remarkable Augmented Reality technologies using Microsoft's Bing

Inventor Gary Lauder says energy efficiency is about more than just vehicles: It's also about the road. He points out that converting a traffic light into a roundabout -- something well-adopted in Europe, but tragically scarce here in the US -- reduces accidents by 40%. He proposes a new hybrid sign that blends a Stop sign and a Yield one.

In the developing world, 10-50% of vaccines spoil before delivery. Kids die. ~Nathan Myhrvold

Polymath Nathan Myhrvold delivers some known but still chilling statistics about malaria — it sickens 250 million people a year; every 43 seconds a child in Africa dies — and demonstrates a radical new way of fighting the disease: By laser-blasting infected mosquitoes.

Myhrvold orchestrates an incredible on-stage demonstration, wherein a mosquito is shot by a laser beam in a glass tank.

We've stitched together the slow-motion sequence of the mosquito blast. Click the image to look closer.

SESSION 7: BREAKTHROUGH

Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, amazing as usual.

Stephen Wolfram, creator of revolutionary semantic search engine Wolfram|Alpha, argues raw computation combined with built-in knowledge changes the economics of the web and democratizes programming. He talks about the principle of computational equivalence — the idea that even incredibly simple systems can do complex computation.

Wolfram says you don't have to go very far in the computational universe to start finding candidate universes for our own.

For the first time, Microsoft Labs’ revolutionary Pivot software is availble for the world to tinker with.

MacArthur genius fellow Mark Roth admits he didn’t know what TED was until Chris invited him to talk, but we quickly forgive him after hearing his incredible — literally — and surprisingly grounded sci-fiish work in “suspended animation,” a slowing life process and makes a living being appear dead without harming, then reanimates it. In layman’s terms, resurrection.

The amazing TED Fellows are a mind-blowingly multi-talented group, working in anything from crowdsourced citizen journalism to e-waste management to humanitarian documentary film-making.

For live coverage of today’s and and tomorrow’s TED talks, follow us on Twitter. And keep an eye on the TED website as the first of this year’s talks begin being uploaded.

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