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Visualizing Enlightenment-Era Social Networks

Why Mark Zuckerberg has nothing on Voltaire.

Social networking isn’t really a modern phenomenon. Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history.

Mapping the Republic of Letters is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time — an inspired cross-pollination of humanitarian scholarship and computer science. (An important larger trend thoughtfully examined in this New York Times article.)

The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.

They were able to create and to foster public opinion, critical thinking, something that was going on in one city or country would soon be known and discussed elsewhere. So there was a sort of freedom of information that was created thanks to these networks.” ~ Dan Edelstein

For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, we highly recommend Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.

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Jane McGonigal on Gaming for Productivity

We recently featured The School of Life — the brainchild of an eclectic group of London artists, writers and philosophers, who attempt to address the needs of the modern self in the familiar college class format. Every Sunday, the School invites prominent cultural figures to “preach” about contemporary values and vices, in an attempt to bring back the Sunday Sermon within a modern secular context.

The School’s latest speaker was acclaimed game designer Jane McGonigal, who delivered one of our favorite TED talks this year — a provocative perspective on gaming and how it could change the world. In her sermon, On Productivity, Jane McGonigal uses her personal experience with games to challenge our definition of productivity. She urges us to examine the real value in our “productive” activities and whether they produce something that truly matters in the great scheme of humanity. She also shares the findings of a brand new, still unpublished, psychological study on happiness shedding light on the things we need in order to flourish.

We have this warped, moralistic view of productivity thanks largely to the faithful intertwining of these two things: the protestant work ethic, which is the idea that God wants us to be busy all the time, lest we have enough spare time to find ourselves sinning, intertwining it with the rise of modern capitalism where every person’s duty is to spend the precious days and hours of their lives, contributing to the gross domestic product, instead of enjoying them.” ~ Jane McGonigal

The talk is engaging, fun yet thought-provoking and well worth the full 45 minutes — think of it as a productive investment in your personal productivity.

McGonigal’s highly promising new book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, comes out in January and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.

Teddy Zareva is a young filmmaker and photographer currently located in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is prone to excessive dancing and impulsive traveling. Her favorite activities are eating chocolate, hunting for music, and shooting humans.


And The Pursuit of Happiness: Maira Kalman Illustrates Democracy

“We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. This is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

And The Pursuit of Happiness: Maira Kalman Illustrates Democracy

I do love Maira Kalman. In 2009, the celebrated visual storyteller released a wonderful and quirky illustrated twelve-part meditation on democracy in her New York Times blog. The series is now released as an equally wonderful illustrated book.

And the Pursuit of Happiness begins with Barack Obama’s inauguration on Chapter One, with each subsequent chapter representing a month in Kalman’s yearlong quest to explore the underpinnings of contemporary democracy.

In February, she travels to both costs, so the respective chapter is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. In March, she goes to an actual town meeting, the quintessential haven of democracy. In April, she visits the Supreme Court and the office of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which prompts a rumination on women breaking social barriers. For December, she concludes with a chapter on George Washington and a thoughtful reflection on happiness itself.




Brimming with Kalman’s childlike aesthetic, delightfully kooky typography and subtle wordplay, And the Pursuit of Happiness takes you on a playful yet philosophical journey into the human side of politics and democracy — a genuine treat for eye, mind, and heart.


Jet Age: Entrepreneurship Lessons From The Sky

A drama-driven revolution, or what Sillicon Valley can learn from 1950s test pilots.

If you’ve ever seen Louis C.K.’s now-iconic Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy bit (which you absolutely should), you know not to take air travel for granted. And yet we still do. (For some meta-ironic full disclosure, we’re writing this from aboard Virgin America.) But a new book by New York Times correspondent Sam Howe Verhovek, released for the 50th anniversary of the Jet Age, pulls us back from our modern aero-complacency and reintroduces mystery, exhilaration and fascination into the world of human flight.

Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World is as much a design and engineering epic as it is a timeless manifesto for entrepreneurship and risktaking.

Though it explores the rich and turbulent history of commercial air travel as a force of globalization, Jet Age is not a history book per se. Rather, it’s part adventure story, part detective book, in which the technological marvels of the era are but a mere vehicle for the electrifying human spirit that underlies them, from the remarkable engineers to the brilliant businessmen to the fearless test pilots.

It is also a David and Goliath story we all love to hear, the one about the nimble little guy, in this case Boeing, taking a big gamble to eventually defeat the slow-moving behemoth.

The insight and inspiration in that story make it required reading for any modern entrepreneur struggling to break through with nothing but passion, character and — never to be understimated — the right team. Jet Age is a powerful reminder that it can be, and has been, done.


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