Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

11 OCTOBER, 2010

Five Visualizations to Grasp the Scale of the Universe


What coffee beans, dinosaurs and lakeside picnics have to do with Isaac Asimov and formalized figments.

Since yesterday was 10.10.10, we’ve decided to celebrate this cosmic alignment of numerical symmetry by illuminating the measurements of magnitude. Today, we are taking five different looks at one of the most difficult concepts for the human brain to quantify and understand: The size and scale of the universe.


What better way to celebrate 10.10.10 than with Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic Powers of Ten film, an adventure in magnitudes circa 1977?

The film opens with a lakeside picnic in Chicago and branches outward into the universe, jumping to a vantage point ten times further out every ten seconds until our galaxy becomes a mere speck of light among many, then speed-zooms back to Earth, magnifying the view tenfold every ten seconds. The journey ends inside the proton of a carbon atom within the DNA molecule of a white blood cell.

Powers Of Ten is among our absolute favorites, a beautiful intersection of design heritage and scientific curiosity — we highly recommend adding the DVD, companion flipbook and breathtaking photography hardcover to your collection of cross-disciplinary cultural trophies.


From Primax Studio comes this interactive infographic illustrating the scale of the universe, inviting you to zoom from the quantum foam of Einstein’s space-time theory to the outer limits of the cosmos an estimated 900 yotameters away.


Isaac Asimov aptly captured our muddled relationship with size and scale he said that “a single particle of sand is a large 32km-by-32km room.”

Universcale is a fascinating interactive infographic by Nikon, exploring the measurement units of the universe, femtometers to light-years. From historical background on when and why the different units of scale were created — because, let’s face it, none of this is absolute and “objective” but, rather, a set of mutually agreed upon conventions that humanity has crafted — to recent scientific developments to near-philosophical insights, Universcale is a treasure trove of knowledge.

The site was created five years ago — which feels like a previous era in the scale of life of the digital universe — and though it’s still a treat, we think it lends itself brilliantly to an iPad app and we’d love to see it as one.


Take a visual tour of what’s hot or not in the universe, from the strictly theoretical concept that is absolute zero to the 141,679,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000ºK of Planck, the temperature immediately after the Big Bang.

Heat Scale of the Universe


The wonderful xkcd gets educational with this map of the universe’s gravity wells — from Titan’s feathery pseudo-gravity to Jupiter’s powerful suck — scaled to Earth’s surface gravity so that you can visualize the energy it would take to escape from each planet’s gravity. The deeper the well, the stronger the pull.


Though not related to the universe in the cosmic sense, this fascinating interactive exploration of cell size and scale from the University of Utah does glean an understanding of our living world that is very much a part of the universe.

As the best of information visualization does, it uses what’s familiar (a coffee bean, 12-point Times New Roman font) to depict what’s hard to grasp (a carbon atom) and, in the process, illuminates the magnitude of difference between these sizes.

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06 OCTOBER, 2010

Conversations with Mr. Lois


Legendary art director George Lois, an original Mad Man, came of age in the 1960’s, when his Esquire magazine covers revolutionized graphic design and shaped the aesthetic direction of magazine publishing for decades to come.

Conversations with Mr. Lois is a series of four short clips of Lois, charmingly profane and non-linear and curmudgeonly as ever, sharing his thoughts on everything from the moral state of advertising the essence of magazines to the sensual sterility of tablets. The series was timed around MoMA’s George Lois retrospective and the publication of the fantastic companion book earlier this year.

There are too many assholes in advertising now.” ~ George Lois

People say the magazine is dead — bullshit it’s dead!” ~ George Lois

When you read a magazine, you put it on your lap, it’s like a lap dance. [With tablets], you’re just looking at a screen.” ~ George Lois

Hat tip to the SPD filmmakers for using Cat Power’s “The Greatest” as the score for the final part of the series.

When you do a magazine with great content and real visual excitement — oh my God! — pages of it, or spreads of it, every week, every month — wow, that’s fun! Let’s do this, let’s do that — it’s terrific stuff. It’s stuff where you can really influence the culture. I don’t care what magazine you do, any kind of magazine [should be] a cultural provocateur.” ~ George Lois

The series was a teaser for an event where Wired creative director Scott Dadich sat down with Lois to talk about his iconic Esquire covers. You can watch the hour-long program below:

We highly recommend George Lois: The Esquire Covers, MoMA’s beautifully curated anthology of Lois’s most influential work. You may also enjoy our recent look at the evolution of magazines over the past century.

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23 AUGUST, 2010

Everyone’s Favorite Guessing Game: 7 Must-See What’s My Line Episodes


What girdles have to do with civic activism.

In the 1950’s, the popular TV gameshow What’s My Line? cemented America’s relationship with television as an entertainment medium and a voyeuristic window into celebrity culture. The premise of the show was simple: In each episode, a contestant would appear in front of a panel of blindfolded culture pundits — with few exceptions, a regular lineup of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress Arlene Francis, Random House founder Bennett Cerf, and a fourth guest panelist — who would try to guess his or her “line” of work or, in the case of famous “mystery guests,” the person’s identity, by asking exactly 10 yes-or-no questions. A contestant won if he or she presented the panel with 10 “no” answers.

Over the 17-year run of the show, nearly every iconic cultural luminary of the era, from presidents to pop stars, appeared as a mystery guest. Today, we’ve curated 7 must-see What’s My Line? appearances by some of history’s sharpest minds and most compelling creators.


In a WML episode that aired on January 20, 1952, Salvador Dalí is assigned the line “artist” and identified as “self-employed.” But the real comedic genius of the footage is that the great creative cross-pollinator answers nearly all questions in the affirmative, to the audience’s exponential amusement, not with the intention of misleading the panelists but merely as a reflection of his vast intellectual curiosity and creative output — our kind of character.

There’s nothing this man doesn’t do! What we have to guess is an all-around man.”


On November 11, 1956 — just a few months after the grand opening of Disneyland — Walt Disney appeared as the mystery guest on WML. One particularly interesting piece of the conversation unfolds when Daly asks Disney’s opinion of television, which he had just recently begun dabbling in.

Well, it’s wonderful. You get to reach people in a sort of an immediate way. With pictures, you work for years and then it’s quite a while before you know how what you’re working on is going to come out, how it’s going to be received, but with television you know, well, in a very short time.”

We’re left wondering what Disney would make of the Internet, with its even more instant gratification yet ever-harder to decipher impact.


From the impressive pretend-accents and speech impediments to the priceless facial expressions to the facetious disregard for the show’s rules by dodging yes/no questions with lengthy, Yoda-esque answers, Hitchcock’s performance on WML is just that — a performance, and an outstanding one at that.

I was hoping to see Marilyn Monroe here tonight, but I didn’t hear any ooh’s and ahh’s, so I take it you are not Marilyn Monroe. Is this correct?” Hitchcock: “It is impossible.”

Hitchcock’s humor is unparalleled and particularly fascinating in contrast with the dark, often grim undertones of his films.

Daly: “Did you ever make a picture in which you haven’t appeared, in one time or another?” Hitchcock: “The indignity of being a ham is thrust upon me.”


In 1954, an elderly yet razor-sharp Eleanor Roosevelt took her seat at WML for a near-silent performance.

Are you now or have you ever been associated with politics?” “The answer to that would have to be a ‘yes’ … but that is also to advise you that, in one way or another, almost every good citizen in this country is associated with politics.”

Well said, Mr. Daly, well said. A powerful statement on civic engagement, delivered with a wink, is just the kind of commentary that made WML as much an entertainment brand as it was a pipeline for the social, political and cultural ideas that moved the era forward.


To step away from the celebrity focus of WML for a moment, let’s return to the show’s original roots — having panelists guess an ordinary person’s occupation, or “line.” To keep things interesting, WML would invite contestants with unusual, bizarre and downright wildcard occupations, from Marilyn Monroe’s calendar salesman to this professional girdle-tester, who actually wins the game by getting all 10 “no” answers.

Judging by that answer, may I assume that this product is not edible?” Desmond: “You’re right, not edible.”

Oh, dear sir, if only you had lived to see the advances in… materials innovation.


Lucille Ball, the woman who arguably single-handedly catapulted the sitcom genre into its pop culture pedestal, is both witty and charming in her

Perhaps the most priceless moment of this clip, however, is a subtle one that becomes a living hallmark of the medium’s technological deficiency: The telling question, which exposes Ball’s identity, asked on black-and-white national television:

Are you a dazzling redhead?”


The final episode of WML aired on September 3, 1967. Besides its grand-finale status, what makes is particularly notable is that on it, host John Daly himself is the mystery guest, an exercise in meta-comedy long before meta was the hottest hipster humor.

The heritage of WML poses one interesting question: In its heyday, the show was essentially the only media property that could “have” any celebrity or cultural figure. The one entity no one said “no” to. And much of this was due to the involvement of Random House founder Bennett Cerf who, through his deep connections in the journalism and media world, was within a few degrees of separation from just about any public figure.

Nearly half a century later, after an epidemic of media fragmentation and audience erosion, we’re left wondering what contemporary culture’s version of WML is, this can’t-say-no-to platform for ideas. The closest thing that comes to mind is TED, spearheaded by Chris Anderson who also rose to status as a publishing entrepreneur. So is TED this generation’s WML, the potent mix of cultural commentary and smart entertainment that frames for its audience the people and ideas that matter in the world? If not, who is? Or are those shoes even fillable in today’s fragmented media landscape? We’d love your thoughts.

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04 AUGUST, 2010

One Designer, Two Designer: Vintage Australian Animation


Tea cups, cavemen and why consumer research is doing design a disservice.

We have a soft spot for documentaries about design — from Gary Hustwit’s Objectified to the BBC’s The Genius of Design. And while industrial design may seem like a relatively newfound cultural obsession, the design of “things” has been on the minds of filmmakers for a long time.

Today, we look at an uncovered gem from the archive of the Design Council of Australia — One Designer, Two Designer, a wonderful animated short film circa 1978 comically exploring what makes good and bad design.

Style can be very easily confused with design and is very often substituted for that. A trendy hook to a product may be just that. To serve a popular style today is often to perform a disservice to the customer. The real function of the designer is to understand the function of the thing he is designing.

Despite the humorous tone, the film delves into the important misconceptions about design and designers’ role in society, emphasizing the need for developing a design sensibility to better and more critically evaluate the value of objects beyond what advertising slogans may promise.

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