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What NASA Can Learn from X Prize (And Vise Versa)

A human story worth $10 million, or why imagination will always remain the next frontier of technology.

NASA, a longtime flag-bearer for America, is in trouble. A struggle that began with the tragic 2003 Columbia disaster now extends to an expensive and disappointing space shuttle program (due to retire in 2010) and the likely postponement of a scheduled 2020 moon landing due to problems with the Ares 1 rocket. Meanwhile, it suffers the absence of a new permanent chief and a shrinking budget yet to be addressed by President Obama.

NASA needs superior technical vision, which is where the Ansari X Prize has triumphed. By enlisting private sector competition in the service of technical expertise, the Ansari X Prize inspired the world’s best thinkers and doers to successfully launch the first-ever commercial spacecraft. Twenty-six teams from seven nations competed for the $10 million jackpot, and like the Orteig Prize before it that ignited to $300 billion commercial aviation industry, the competition went on to generate more than $1.5 billion dollars — solid funding for the private spacecraft industry, spearheaded by Virgin Galactic.

Still, NASA has something that X Prize is yet to master: The ability to capture the world’s imagination.

Its amazing astronauts inspired generations, filled a nation with pride, and had entire countries holding their breath. X Prize, by contrast, is little-known or misunderstood as elitist. While a $10-million jackpot is certainly stride-stopping, what truly captures the imagination is the flight of the human spirit. It was the cultural and emotional journey of Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 13 that people followed, even as they vanished across the Atlantic or behind the moon.

The stories of the unique men and women participating in today’s X Prize are yet to be told. These competitors possess the same willingness to put their hearts, minds and bodies into a seemingly impossible idea. The X-factor they have in common is not the pursuit of a technological breakthrough — it’s the very character trait of those willing to try.

As both NASA and X Prize move forward, their future and success depend on the ability to rally the world around the stories of these men and women, around the technological feat wrapped in the relatable, riveting human element.

Simon Mainwaring is a former Nike creative, worldwide creative director for Ogilvy, author, speaker and general idea junkie. For more of and about him, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.


We Got Time: Hand-Illustration Meets In-Camera Animation Magic

What a French invention from 1877 has to do with superb modern animation.

A couple of weeks ago, a fantastic video for Moray McLaren‘s We Got Time made waves with its brilliant in-camera animation magic. It’s pure creative genius — despite the utter visual indulgence, it isn’t stop-motion, no computer super-imposing was used, and everything you see is exactly what rolled off the camera.

The animations in the side-on views were produced by the camera capturing the moving reflections from the mirrored carousels, and the animations in the top-down views were created by matching the cameras frame rate to that of spinning record.

Now, we go behind the scenes with London-based animator David Wilson, who directed it and hand-drew all the illustration.

Beyond being a pure joy to watch, We Got Time is a testament to our belief that creativity is simply the genius of combining existing resources — knowledge, ideas, inspiration — in completely revolutionary ways: In this case, a vintage Praxinoscope device and old-school hand-drawn illustration.



Curating Twitter: Three Hand-Picked Must-Follows

Because #followfriday is insufficient, props are to be given, and we like Big Words.

Twitter is quickly evolving into a superb way to discover fascinating content you normally wouldn’t have, by following interesting people who tweet with great editorial curation. The key, of course, is exercising your own curatory judgment in identifying said interesting people. And since we’ve been in the business of sparing you unnecessary curatory work since 2006, here’s some help — 3 incredible Twitter personas on whom we have a massive, butterflies-in-the-brain culture-crush.


Nick Bilton may work at a pillar of traditional media — The New York Times, to be exact — but his interests are closer to what we like to call enlightened futurism: Cultural and technological innovation of the most compelling kind. You can count on him for a steady stream of fascination across technology, new-age publishing, media, data visualization and miscellaneous finds of cultural relevance.

Nick may tweet infrequently, but when he does, it’s quality stuff.


  • Followers: 3,072
  • Following: 342
  • Tweets/day: 0.8

Underwritten by Mel Exon and Ben Malbon, @BBHLabs is the Twitter outpost of — you guessed it — NY-and-London-based neo-agency BBH Labs.

These guys just “get it” — “it” being all the diverse incarnations of the business of ideas, from design to advertising to social media to interactive wizardry. Mostly, they seem to share our belief that the future of the marketing and advertising industry is not in the pushing of product but in the pulling of ideas — from innovators, from artists, from various cultural agents who pursue their own passions that may just so happen to make for great marketing.

You can count on @BBHLabs for a variety of creative explorations, but especially for bleeding-edge developments across data visualization and crowdsourcing.


  • Followers: 2,888
  • Following: 802
  • Tweets/day: 3.6

If you’ve been reading Brain Pickings, you’re well familiar with TED and thus with Chris Anderson — TED’s brilliant curator but oh-so-much-more.

Unlike most people who tweet as the “public face” of a big organization or institution (sorry, @SamsungMobileUS), Chris goes well beyond simply promoting TED’s (already fascinating) content and actually walks the walk of what TED stands for — ideas worth spreading — sharing brilliant ones across all facets of culture: Design, art, sustainability, technology, social media, philanthropy and miscellaneous curiosity about the world.

Chris also writes The Untweetable — a roomier outpost for insight that can’t be contained in 140 characters. There, you’ll find anything from the continuation of compelling, heated Twitter discussions to bonus content beyond Twitter to original social media experiments.

He comes with our highest stamp of approval — a rare combination of superb editorial judgment, compelling cultural curiosity and, to use a TEDism, incredible moral imagination.


  • Followers: 100,422
  • Following: 269
  • Tweets/day: 5.6

Writing Without Words: Visualizing Jack Kerouac’s On The Road

Literature as a canvas, a book as a living organism, and rhythm as a texture.

London-based artist Stefanie Posavec has a gift for words. Or for the lack thereof, to be exact. Her Writing Without Words project explores the literary world when its most important building blocks are removed by visually representing text.

The project uses Jack Kerouac’s iconic On The Road and takes a number of different approaches in dissecting its content visually. One examines “literary organism patterns” through simple tree structures that divide each of the book’s three parts into chapters, which divide into paragraphs, paragraphs into sentences, and sentences into words. All these elements are color-coded based on key themes in the book.

Another visualization technique looks at sentences, representing them by lines organized according to the number of words per sentence and color-coded to the theme.

Finally, there’s an exploration of rhythm textures — visualizing sentences by using their punctuation to create circular diagrams. Each line represents a word, with the thickness of the lines and the space between them representing the cadence, pauses and emphasis created by the punctuation.

So if you fancy yourself a fan of the written word and an advocate of visual literacy, now’s your chance to nail both — to your wall, that is: The work is available as on-demand posters here.

More about Stefanie and her work from NOTCOT.


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