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The Botany of Desire: Michael Pollan Explores Big Agriculture

Cannabis, tulips and what a potato has to do with our sense of entitlement.

While the world was busy getting excited over yesterday’s much-anticipated DVD release of Food Inc., an arguably more compelling revelation of truth about food was taking place. Because Food Inc. is a fine film full of eye-opening and well-researched information, but it, like many similar documentaries, has a serious preaching-to-the-choir problem due to the self-selection bias of its audience, composed mainly of people already familiar with the issue and interested in its resolution. These are the people who would go see a limited-release indie film in theaters, or actively pursue the DVD. But what about those who lack the awareness and thus the interest in issues that clearly impact them and should thus warrant that awareness and interest?

Yesterday was also the much-less-trumpeted DVD release of the excellent PBS series The Botany of Desire, which explores how humans have used the plant world to gratify our desires. Featuring the brilliant food advocate Michael Pollan, one of our big cultural heroes about whom we’ve gushed many times before, the series isn’t sensationalistic or alienatingly focused the large-scale, institution-level pitfalls of big agriculture.

Instead, Pollan peels away at the issue through four tangible case studies of everyday plants whose evolution we’ve manipulated ruthlessly in our quest for gratuitous self-fulfillment: Marijuana, gratifying our desire to change consciousness; the potato, filling our need for control; the tulip, reflecting our yearning for beauty; and the apple, which started from Kazakhstan’s forests and ended up as the universal fruit, satisfying our craving for sweetness.

The Botany of Desire is a fascinating and rich exploration of the human relationship with the plant world, an eye-opening reflection of the ugly sense of entitlement governing many of our social, biological and moral choices. Of course, how much such awareness translates into actionable change is a separate issue altogether, one behavioral psychology has been trying to tackle for ages. But it’s a step — and we strongly encourage you to take it.

Catch the full-length programming on PBS or grab the freshly released DVD from Amazon, and think about the story of the next apple you bite into.

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Thirty Conversations on Design

The alphabet, need over want, and the relationship between design and time.

Strategic design getup Little & Co. has launched a simple yet brilliant new project — Thirty Conversations on Design, a journey into the minds of 30 of the world’s most inspired creatives. The project asks these architects, designers and authors two straightforward but incredibly complex questions: “What single example of design inspires you most?” and “What problem should design solve next?”

We really need to define what people need, rather than what people want.” ~ Massimo Vignelli

While a few of the answer may be a bit expected, most peel away at the richest layers of design, and many say things that we don’t necessarily want to hear, challenging the idealistic and often unrealistic holy-grail approach so trendy in how we think about Design with a capital D today.

To me, greatest piece of design is obviously the invention of the alphabet.” ~ Erik Spiekermann

The first batch of conversations includes Paula Scher, one of our big design heroes, Massimo Vignelli, who designed the iconic New York City subway map in 1972, and AIGA executive director Ric Grefe.

There’s no single example of design that I find inspiring. I find design interesting in its time in relationship to something else.” ~ Paula Scher

The next two batches will be released on November 10 and November 20. Conversations include Bonnie Siegler, who designed the SNL logo and title sequence, Patrick Coyne, owner and editor of design bible Communication Arts, and legendary designer Joe Duffy, author of Brand Apart, whose thinking on the relationship between design and marketing has revolutionized some of the world’s most iconic brands, including BMW, Coca-Cola, Sony and Starbucks.

via Creativity Online

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Jonathan Harris: World Building in a Crazy World

Simplicity vs. complexity, mental junk food, and how to be your own person.

We love artist, thinker and digital experimenteur Jonathan Harris — he’s one of the great storytellers of our day. His latest project, World Building in a Crazy World, is a simple yet philosophical reflection on the current state of the digital world, wrapped in a vision for our shared future.

Based on a recent talk Harris gave at UCLA’s Mobile Media Lecture Series, the project consists of a series of 15 short vignettes, each capturing a different and often unexpected facet of our digital reality and reflecting on the intangible interconnectedness of things.

Our Digital Crisis calls out a glaring truth that we all, at least on some level, sense but choose to closes our eyes to and click on.

Most online experiences are made, like fast food, to be cheap, easy, and addictive: appealing to our hunger for connection but rarely serving up nourishment. Shrink-wrapped junk food experiences are handed to us for free by social media companies, and we swallow them up eagerly, like kids given buckets of candy with ads on all the wrappers.

This idea of homogenization is something very near and dear to us. And we see curation — the smart and systematic culling of off-mainstream interestingness — as the only real antidote to the “Digg mentality” dominating the vast majority of web content consumption, where a small number of highly vocal people regurgitate the same content, causing it to float to the top of our collective awareness and feeding it down to that broader “junk-food”-hungry audience.

In Baz, a very personal story about Jonathan’s recent encounter with his 84-year-old fourth grade teacher, Harris reveals some universal truths about the nature of human experience, the wholeness of personality, and the value of asking the right questions rather than shooting for the right answers.

I asked him what was the secret to being a great teacher, and he said, ‘Well, you’ve gotta bring yourself to class every day. Your whole self. Your problems, your opinions, your stories—all of it. When you’re a full person, your students see you as an equal, and they trust you like they trust each other.’

Simplicity explores a much-trumpeted concept, popularized by companies like Apple and Google, from a little-considered vantage point, making a case against the knee-jerk dismissal of complexity driven by trend rather than true consideration.

… there is a difference between simplicity based on familiarity and simplicity based on universal truths. The lemming-like aesthetic conformity of today’s digital world has more to do with the former. True simplicity comes not from imitation, but from understanding. Certain situations will suggest a minimalist approach, but others won’t. Our digital worlds should feel like they sustain life—not just geometry.

1.2.3. explores the three fundamental principles that guide all of Harris’ work.

We love TED, but in Ideas, Harris makes a well-argued point about a sore shortcoming of such idea-conferences, which he says generate “city ideas.”

City ideas have to do with a particular moment in time, a scene, a movement, other people’s work, what critics say, or what’s happening in the zeitgeist. City ideas tend to be slick, sexy, smart, and savvy, like the people who live in cities. City ideas are often incremental improvements — small steps forward, usually in response to what your neighbor is doing or what you just read in the paper. City ideas, like cities, are fashionable. But fashions change quickly, so city ideas live and die on short cycles.

The case Harris makes for “natural ideas” — ones that come from solitary meditation and nature — is really a case for authenticity of thought, a personal resistance to the homogenization of beliefs, ideas and opinions. And we think that’s a skill, not a hard-wired trait — something we work at daily, by indulging our individual curiosity about the world and exploring the unique stories we tell about ourselves, each other and life at large.

Explore World Building in a Crazy World in its entirety for more modern philosophy on the building blocks of reputation, the tricky thing about having opinions, the evolution of language, and other integral parts of being.

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Esoteric Creativity: Michael Paukner’s Visualizations

What 100 monkeys have to do with Atlantis, Indian yoga and Stonehenge.

One of the reasons we love data visualization and the infographic arts so much is that at their best, they can bring a level of intuitive understanding to overwhelmingly esoteric subjects. Which is why we’re head-over-heels with Austrian visualization artist Michael Paukner, who tackles the obscure and the enigmatic with creative quirk and a unique graphic style.

The Hundredth Monkey Effect: Theory, which posits that a learned behavior or idea spreads instantaneously within a group, in an almost paranormal fashion, once a critical number is reached. Click image for details.

His work is a kind of modern artistic alchemy, exploring both real phenomena and the eeriest corners of quasi-science, those fringe worldviews that have always coexisted with and challenged the dominant scientific dogmas of the time.

The Celtic Zodiac: 13-month lunar calendar dating back to around 1000 B.C., devised by Celtic priests known as Druids and constituting the ancient origins of Halloween. Click image for details.
Kundalini: Sanskrit word meaning either ‘coiled up’ or ‘coiling like a snake.’ The Kundalini movement in Indian yoga deals with ‘corporeal energy’ that circulates in and around the human body in an artificial electromagnetic flow. Click image for details.
Stonehenge Rebuilt: Click image for details.
Metatron’s Cube: Pattern believed to have sacred geometry with religious value depicting the fundamental principles of space and time. Click image for details.
Capital City of Atlantis: Reconstruction of the mythical city based on a German plan Michael found on an obscure website. Click image for details.

See more of Michael’s work in his relentlessly fantastic Flickr stream.

via Coudal

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