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2010’s Best Long Reads: Science & Technology

Longreads and Brain Pickings have teamed up to highlight the most fascinating in-depth stories published on the web this year. Earlier, we featured the best of Business and Art, Design, Film & Music. Our final spotlight shines on Science, Medicine & Technology.


Google, Copyright and Our Future (Lawrence Lessig, The New Republic, Jan. 26, 2010)

Time to read: 26 minutes (6,454 words)

In the wake of the Google Books project—and the subsequent settlement with publishers — Lessig calls for a new approach that untangles copyright law and helps keep information accessible to all.

What are the rules that will govern culture for the next hundred years? Are we building an ecology of access that demands a lawyer at every turn of the page?”

For more on this complex and controversial subject, see our continuous coverage of remix culture.


Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine (Jonah Lehrer, Wired, July 28, 2010)

Time to read: 23 minutes (5,700 words)

Lehrer profiles Robert Sapolsky, a scientist researching ways to create a vaccine-like treatment to protect people against stress. (In early research he’s injected a modified herpes virus into rodents’ brains.)

Sometimes it’s not enough just to tell people, ‘Jeez, you should really learn to relax.’ If stress is half as bad for you as we currently think it is, then it’s time to stop treating the side effects. It’s time to go after stress itself.”


New Drugs Stir Debate on Rules of Clinical Trials (Amy Harmon, New York Times, Sept. 19, 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,173 words)

A heartbreaking story from Harmon’s “Target Cancer” series about two cousins with skin cancer enrolled in the same clinical trial — but only one of them received the powerful new drug.

At times beseeching and belligerent, Mr. McLaughlin argued his cousin’s case to get the new drug with anyone he could find at U.C.L.A. ‘Hey, put him on it, he needs it,’ he pleaded. And then: ‘Who the hell is making these decisions?'”


The Status Quo of Electric Cars: Better Batteries, Same Range (Gail E. Tverberg, The Oil Drum, May 19, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (3,940 words)

The Chevy Volt is Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year, but Tverberg argues that, in many ways, we’re no better off with electric cars than we were a century ago.

Weight, comfort, speed and performance have eaten up any real progress. We don’t need better batteries, we need better cars.”


Autism’s First Child (John Donvan and Caren Zucker, The Atlantic, October 2010)

Time to read: 33 minutes (8,165 words)

While there is quite a bit of attention on autism as it relates to children, what happens when they grow up? Donvan and Zucker track down Donald Gray Triplett, 77, the first person ever diagnosed with autism.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Donald’s life is that he grew up to be an avid traveler. He has been to Germany, Tunisia, Hungary, Dubai, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, and Colombia—some 36 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states in all.”


The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army (Thomas Lake, Atlanta Magazine, June 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,777 words)

Writer Thomas Lake puts the H1N1 virus in human terms with this story of John Behnken, a 27-year-old Atlanta man who seemed an unlikely target for swine flu.

Dr. Stauffenberg had done close to 1,600 autopsies, and this was the first time she had seen an otherwise healthy person die from the unaided influenza virus.”


Should We Clone Neanderthals? (Zach Zorich, Archaeology, March/April 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,274 words)

An examination of the scientific, legal and ethical questions raised by the possibility that scientists may one day be able to clone neanderthals. At least one paleoanthropologist predicts: It’s going to happen.

If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have, and if your experiment fails…well. It’s a lose-lose.”


The Peanut Solution (Andrew Rice, New York Times, Sept. 2, 2010)

Time to read: 21 minutes (5,258 words)

A peanut-buttery paste called Plumpy’nut is praised for its potential to help end malnutrition across the globe. Patents, intellectual property and competing interests make distribution more complicated.

I wouldn’t want to see a new world order where poor people are dependent on packaged supplementary foods that are manufactured in Europe or the United States.”


Shooting for the Sun (Logan Ward, The Atlantic, November 2010)

Time to read: 13 minutes (3,149 words)

The story of Lonnie Johnson, an inventor with some 100 patents who is best-known for creating the Super Soaker squirt gun. His latest obsession: Bringing affordable solar power to the world.

Johnson is a member of what seems to be a vanishing breed: the self-invented inventor.”


The Plastic Panic (Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,788 words)

Is the BPA found in plastic bottles actually harmful to us? And if so, why isn’t it banned in the United States? A look at the regulatory issues that keep potentially toxic chemicals in the marketplace.

The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, does not require manufacturers to show that chemicals used in their products are safe before they go on the market.”

See more Longreads 2010 “best-of” lists here.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.


The Best Books of 2010: Art, Design & Photography

Analog interactivity, or what flowcharts have to do with the history of street art.

We reviewed a lot of books this year and after curating the best in Business, Life & Mind yesterday, we’re back with our 10 favorites in Art, Design & Photography — a continuation of our end-of-year best-of series. (Earlier this week, we covered the best albums and the most compelling long reads published online this year.)


Without a shadow of a doubt, Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes is the most ambitious book project of the year. So ambitious, in fact, nearly all bookbinders Foer approached deemed it unmakable. But when Belgian publishing house Die Keure eventually approached the problem with a make-it-work mindset, what came out was a brilliant piece of “analog interactive storytelling” — a book created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. The die-cut narrative hangs in an aura of negative space for a beautiful blend of sculpture and storytelling, adding a layer of physicality to the reading experience in a way that completely reshapes your relationship with text and the printed page.

We reviewed it in full here, complete with a sneak peek of the pages and remarkable making-of footage.


Marian Bantjes, a remarkably diverse creator, she calls herself a ‘graphic artist’ and is an avid advocate for self-education and self-reinvention. Stefan Sagmeister, a longtime Brain Pickings favorite, calls her “one of the most innovative typographers working today” — with no exaggeration. (So innovative, in fact, that Sean “P. Diddy” Combs felt compelled to shamelessly, blatantly rip her off recently.) Her latest book, I Wonder, is a remarkable journey of visual joy and conceptual fascination, intersecting logic, beauty and quirk in an utterly breathtaking way.

Our full review, alongside stunning spreads from the book and Bantjes’ fantastic TED talk, can be found here.


Flowcharts have risen to pop culture notoriety with their delightful intersection of geekery, design and humor. Everything Explained Through Flowcharts by standup comedian and book designer Doogie Horner is the absolute pinnacle of the hipster meme. It goes by the tagline “All of Life’s Mysteries Unraveled” and flowcharts the way to everything from world domination to getting laid to the religion that offers the best afterlife in over 200 illustrations, 40 gargantuan flowcharts and various supporting materials — essays, graphs, annotations — bound to fill your semi-secret inner geek with glee.

Our full review features a sneak peek of the quirky goodness inside, including a flowchart guide to psychoanalyzing Facebook portraits.


Our obsession with visual storytelling around the alphabet is selfevident. And nothing fuels that obsession more richly than Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters — an ambitious exploration of the pervasiveness of letters in everyday life, tracing our visual vocabulary to its roots in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Kanji characters and other ancient alphabets with rich illustrations, beautiful graphic design and typography, found objects, graffiti and more.

X from Pin Ups
From a provocative book shaping letters out of women’s bodies represented by negative space

The full review, complete with beautiful artwork from the book, was one of our most-tweeted articles this year.


Design titan Bill Moggridge has formidable credentials — director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, co-founder of design innovation powerhouse IDEO, and considered a pioneer of interaction design. IN Designing Media, he explores the evolution of mainstream media, both mass and personal, looking closely at the points of friction between old and new media models and the social norms they have sprouted.

From design to civic engagement to the real-time web, Moggridge offers a faceted and layered survey of how our media habits came to be, where they’re going, and what it all means for how we relate to the world and each other — all through 37 fascinating interviews with some of today’s greatest media innovators, including This American Life‘s Ira Glass, Pandora founder Tim Westergren, prominent New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn, Twitter founder @Ev, statistical stuntsman Hans Rosling, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The book comes with a companion DVD, featuring the video interviews and other media content.

Our full review, complete with sample pages, quotes, and a video interview of Ira Glass, can be found here.


We have a soft spot for both Taschen books and street art, so it’s no surprise that Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art — the fantastic new book by WoosterCollective founders Marc and Sara Schiller — made us swoon. From Guatemalan guerrilla gardeners to icons like Banksy and Barry McGee, the visually astounding anthology is as much an exhaustive compendium of compelling artwork as it is a modern manifesto for activism, democracy and freedom of speech.

On a related note, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the controversial and critically acclaimed Banksy documentary, is out on DVD this week and we’re giving away 10 copies!


Two years ago, we featured the wonderful work of NYC-based illustrator, designer and comedian Dyna Moe, whose Mad Men illustrations eventually charmed AMC into launching the popular Mad Men Yourself app, which has since populated countless Twitter streams with Mad-Menified avatars. This fall, Dyna Moe released her dynamite work in Mad Men: The Illustrated World — a truly, truly fantastic book that captures not only everything we love about Mad Men, but also the broader cultural landscape of the era, from fashion and style to office culture to lifehacks like hangover workarounds and secretary etiquette.

Mad Men Illustrated

We reviewed it in full here. (And for a fitting companion, try Sterling’s Gold — Roger Sterling’s priceless fictional memoir.)


In the 1920s, a collective of Surrealists invented exquisite corpse, a game-like collaborative creation process wherein each contributor tacks on to a composition either by following a strict rule or by being only shown what the last person has contributed. This year, a collective of Brooklyn-based designers replicated the exquisite corpse idea in The Exquisite Book: 100 Artists Play a Collaborative Game — a brilliant collaborative illustration project, two years in the making, that enlisted 100 of today’s most talented visual artist and designers to co-create a book by building on each other’s work.

Sample this gem of a book with a few wonderful spreads in our full review.


You didn’t think we’d go without a data visualization book, did you? And nothing hit the sweet spot this year better than Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design — the brilliant sequel 2008’s now-iconic Data Flow, a compelling anthology of work in all of data visualization as a broad and cross-disciplinary creative medium, from static infographics to dynamic interactive visualizations to physical data sculptures and beyond. The book is equal parts visual indulgence and conceptual intelligence, with artwork from and interviews of the leading creators in this field of increasing cultural relevance, as information continues to proliferate and overwhelm.

Our full review features juicy spreads from the book and an exclusive quote from data viz superstar Aaron Koblin.


Tree bark may not sound like the most exciting or relatable of subjects but, in fact, it is both. Not only do we come in contact with it constantly in our daily lives, from cinnamon to cork to chewing gum to rubber, but it’s also a hauntingly beautiful, textured piece of living matter that looks like the skin of some magnificent mythical dragon. French photographer Cedric Pollet travels the world to capture this beauty and has documented it in his gorgeous new book, Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees. The book is as much a stunning visual treat for color and photography lovers alike as it is a visceral manifesto for biodiversity and reforestation, two of today’s most pressing issues in preserving the amazing world we inherited.

Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), a flowering deciduous tree native to South America’s tropical forests
Image by Cedric Pollet

The full review, which features a gallery of stunning images from the book, is one our most-shared articles on Facebook this year.


Not Your Mama’s Guidebook: The Zinester’s Guide to NYC

What Chinatown fishmarkets have to do with the astrology of Brooklyn.

The Zinester’s Guide to NYC is no ordinary book. In the age of crowdsourcing and digital everything, it’s a delightfully analog, painstakingly curated tour of all the things that make the city a cross-cultural icon — from its rich culinary landscape to Brooklyn’s bookstores to the midday madness of Midtown to the peculiar cultures of different neighborhoods, ZG2NYC is a remarkable achievement of urban curiosity, beautifully illustrated with original artwork. In the eloquently laconic words of Stephen Colbert’s review, “it kicks ass.” But besides being a quirky yet unbelievably useful guide to the city, the book is also a curious publishing experiment: Rather than doing the traditional book tour dance, with all its nauseating travel and potentially uncomfortable five-person signings, author Ayun Halliday has embarked upon a virtual tour, “visiting” some of her favorite blogs to chat about the book. And we think it’s brilliant.

It’s great! I don’t have to worry about whether there’s something stuck between my gigantic front teeth, or whether my lipstick makes me look like I’m insane.” ~ Ayun Halliday

So today, we sit down with the relentlessly fascinating and sharp-witted Ayun to shoot the breeze about ZG2NYC, civic engagement and “retrostalgia” — join us.


Hey Ayun. Tell us a bit about your background and your brand of creative curiosity.

There was always a lot of support for my artistic pursuits — they conferred a bit of honor on me, because I was good at them. I grew up totally uncoordinated in Indiana, the only child of a family that fell apart right as I entered my teen years. Shortly thereafter, the Preppy Handbook craze took hold. The school I’d attended since 2nd grade was about as preppy as one could get in Indiana, but I was drawn to the scenes I found backstage and in the Art Room because they met emotional needs under-served by a community gone mad for turtlenecks printed with tiny whales. “Cute” and “Darling” remain words of high praise in the milieu in which I grew up. I started gravitating toward “Weird”. By the standards of “Cute” and “Darling”, Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, Jonathan Ames, Kurt Vonnegut, Spalding Gray, all the writers and artists I revere, are “weird” so it’s a label I’m proud to bear.

That said, if you had told the 17 year old me that I would one day write an autobiography where I talk about washing “my malodorous vagina” in a German train station’s public restroom — that people of both sexes would come to hear me read aloud from that book and I would utter that phrase in front of them — I would have swooned in abject horror. I was weird for Indiana in the early 1980s, but it’s nothing compared to now.

My brand of creative curiosity also owes something to my father, who was a great reader, and used to spend hours telling me the plots of movies he had seen as young man, acting out the most dramatic parts with a suspect lack of inhibition. Without ever actually saying so, he taught me that the story is the thing to be valued, the best part of any object, place, painting, memory… I think that’s why my writing is so littered with digressions and associations — my zine is a minefield of asterisks and footnotes. My handwriting dwindles to little specks of pepper in my effort to cram it all in.


New York is an interesting paradox – on the one hand, being a New Yorker is such a badge of identity and on the other, in a city as multicultural and diverse as this, is there really a singular definition of this identity? And yet you seem to have a blueprint to being a “New Yorker.” What’s your secret?

It’s that I’m a Hoos-Yorker. I’ve wanted to live here ever since I was a little twerp devouring the All of a Kind family series and the New Yorker, to which my grandparents mysteriously subscribed along with Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal. Fifteen years in, I’m still agog. Every time I glimpse the Chrysler Building masquerading as just another unremarkable building in the distance, or bike across the Manhattan Bridge, or hear my fellow subway passengers conversing in a multitude of languages, or experience some previously untasted food cart treat, I’m reminded of how privileged I am to live here. Plenty of my fellow Americans would take one look at my family’s living quarters and conclude that I am not privileged at all, but only because they don’t share my pathology. I love it so much that I find the aroma of fallen gingko fruit enticing. Ditto the fishmarkets of Chinatown and the clamor of the car service drivers’ radios as they loiter outside my window at 3am. There’s very little about this city that irritates me. People who park in the bike lanes. Bus drivers who grunt in response to a friendly greeting. Bars catering to young, single conformists who make a lot more money that I do.

There’s one habit associated with ‘real’ New Yorkers that I don’t cotton to and that’s bitching about tourists like they’re some slow-moving, bovine scourge. I aspire to be hospitable.

My goal is to pry them away from Times Square, get them to try something “weird” like a no frills body scrub at Yi Pak Spa or a performance by the Bushwick Book Club.Edward Sorel had a great New Yorker cover of sightseeing farm animals gawking down from a red double decker bus at the sleekly dressed mythological beasts inhabiting the sidewalk. I have to say, I identify more with the ones up top than those down below…maybe that’s why I want them to have a good time and be unafraid.


ZG2NYC takes a very active approach to civic participation, from guerrilla interventions like PARK(ing) to quirky pastimes like bike polo. What would you say is the single most important quality or factor for engaging wholeheartedly in robust public life, in New York and in cities in general?

Not letting shyness or the fear of looking foolish trump one’s impulse to get involved. It may surprise those who’ve seen me riding the subway in my underpants to learn that I am actually pretty shy in situations where I don’t know anyone, but I always have a better time when I force myself to engage, or at least hold my ground.

The other day I got invited to the screening of a movie a friend had written, an unusually glitzy scene for me. The only person I knew was my friend, and it would have been wrong to cling to him when he needed to be able to network and promote his movie. I could’ve hidden out in the restroom or flipped open my cell phone and pretended to be having a very important conversation, but instead I decided that maybe it would be okay to just lean up against the wall, observing, not expending any energy on trying to mask the fact that I had no one to talk to and was not in my natural element. Interestingly, once I started doing that, the star of the movie came over and talked to me for a surprisingly long time. I think he may get off on showing that he prefers ‘real’ people to ‘Hollywood’ people. Whatever. For me, it was a good reminder that you don’t have to be the life of the party to actually be at the party, know what I mean?


What was the single biggest surprise you encountered in the process of writing the book?

The responsibility I felt toward both its eventual readers and the people associated with the establishments I was writing about. Heaven forbid I inadvertently send someone someplace where he or she winds up having a sucky experience.

On the other hand, with an average of just a few sentences per listing, any snarky, offhand comment, however true, begins to feel remarkably bratty and unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Like, okay, the bathroom’s a hellhole, but what if they clean it up between now and the moment when a reader decides to give that otherwise entirely worthy place a miss based on some flippant, outdated remark of mine? Towards the end of the editing process, I could barely sleep, I was so preoccupied with wanting to get everything right.

I learned that the silver dollar implanted in the floor of DeRobertis Pasticceria did not originally belong to Lucky Luciano, as one of the old man regulars had told me many years ago, but to the owner’s grandfather. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m a paragon of misinformation.’

But ultimately, I refer back to what I said about not being afraid to make a fool out of yourself. I’m willing to eat a couple of boo boos.


There seems to be a common thread of a certain retrostalgia about the places you curate, from old-timey dive bars to black box theaters. What do you think is lost and gained for cities in the digital age, and what place do — or should — analog attractions have in our civic lives??

Well, as far as the guidebook goes, it’s a reflection of what I, personally, like. Waiting tables and working as a massage therapist, I developed a distaste for luxury — unless we’re talking about goosedown pillows, it’s usually just a way to mark things up way more than they should cost. I can’t enjoy that unless someone other than myself is using an expense account to pay for it.

And I would rather see an amazing image created with a flashlight and a physioball in a black box theater than pay $100 to see some expensive, electronic set piece used for all of 30 seconds in a Broadway musical. It’s just a matter of taste.

As to the digital age, the internet is certainly a wonderful way to learn about what’s going on. I salute the people behind the skint, NonsenseNewYork and Brooklyn Based to name but a few of the online mouthpieces from which I learn about a great many things I end up participating in. (Even when I’m unable to participate, I enjoy knowing that I live in a place where these things are going on. Can’t do it all.) As someone who occasionally has events and products of her own to promote, I can’t knock social networking and the ease of having a website upon which people can find out all the pertinent information.

What I really object to is the way people get so tethered to their iPhones and droids.

For sure, use your device to double check addresses and hours, but then stash it, man! Your eyes and ears and nose remain excellent portals for receiving, interpreting, and storing information. I get that it could be fun to review your email on the subway, but if you’re always doing that, you are never going to sketch the person seated across from you. Ten years from now, which will prove the better key to this long forgotten day? A deleted digital message (received on a no doubt archaic device) or an inexpert but keenly observed rendering born of being wholly present in the exterior word?

It enrages me to see people engaging with their devices at the theater, or even during a movie. You have to allow for the possibility of being where you are! Even during the boring stretches. As to those who check their little screens in the middle of a conversation, I want to knock their bonnets off. I find that unspeakably, if casually rude.


The painfully inevitable question: What’s your favorite thing to do and place to be in NYC?

Inevitable, yes, but painful, never. My favorite thing to do is wander around Chinatown. I know the place pretty well, compared to other New Yorkers of my race, and yet, I don’t know it at all! My little routines — poking around the grocery, stocking up on Green Parrot soap and dried plum candy, getting my hair cut by Frankie at Tops Cuts, surveying the stationery selection at BJ99 — they’re all just a pretense for having my mind blown by the smallest thing.

Grab a copy of The Zinester’s Guide to NYC for every New Yorker, by heart or by ZIP code, on your holdiay list — it’s a treat.


PICKED: Goodbye Shanghai

We’ve previously taken a lighter look at the East vs. West culture clash, but today we turn to something a bit more serious. Goodbye Shanghai is a beautifully directed and cinematically breathtaking short film by director Adam Christian Clark who, while still a film school undergrad at USC, became the youngest person in history to direct a US broadcast television series, CBS’s Big Brother.

In 2006, Clark traveled to Shanghai, where he wrote and directed Mainland China’s first reality TV show. The series eventually swept the nation with such near-hysteria that in 2007, China’s communist government banned all future prime-time reality TV. Last year, Clark returned to China to shoot Goodbye Shanghai, which explores the detrimental effects of Western imperialism on contemporary Chinese culture.

The film went on to win a number of short film festival awards around the world.

Though the full film is available in HD for free on Vimeo, the $4.99 price tag makes the DVD more than worth it.


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