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Brain Pickings Redux 2010

A year’s worth of ideas, inspiration and innovation from culture’s collective brain.

It’s that time again, that very special day on which we turn back on the year whose end we celebrate tonight and take a look at the tastiest tidbits of interestingness that made our radar during the 4,500+ hours we poured into Brain Pickings in 2010. (And if you found any of them marginally interesting, stimulating or smile-inducing, please consider supporting us with a marginal donation — it’s what keeps the cogs a-turnin’ here.)

We kicked off the year with an uncovered gem: Steve Jobs on working with Paul Rand, the iconic designer perhaps as famous for his infamous temper as he was for his legendary work. We wanted to remember 100 places before they disappear.

This hyperkinetic gumbo in space, known as the Antenna Galaxies, may resemble the fate of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy when they collide in about 2.5 billion years.

Photographer Michael Benson took us on the real Space Odyssey with his magnificent images of the cosmos. MIT’s FaceSense read our minds through a webcam. Google Creative Lab director Ji Lee echoed our belief in the transformative power of personal projects. Alex Lundry showed us how our pre-wired visual bias allows data visualization to steer the public in politics. Michael Deal charted The Beatles.

Kirstin Butler took a close look at The Red Book, the fascinating illuminated-manuscript-meets-personal-journal by iconic Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, then curated 5 fantastic resources for the lifelong learner.

Photographer extraordinaire Andrew Zuckerman captured the wisdom of 50 of the greatest living luminaries over the age of 50. A wonderful art project invited us to live in the moment. Our triad-taxonomy of mythical beasts and modern monsters became our most-read viewed page this year.

In February, BBC’s The Century of the Self took us deep into the roots of consumerism and democracy. 88 Constellations delivered the biography of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in spellbinding interactive storytelling. Matthew Albanese’s miniature condiment landscapes blew us a way.

Tornado made of steel wool, cotton, ground parsley and moss

We looked at 6 ingenious creative derivatives of the London tube map plotting everything from personality types to the Milky Way as a subway system. We found 10 more must-attend cross-disciplinary conferences. We went to the mother of all conferences, TED, and came back with photos and soundbites. We curated six fantastic places to buy affordable art from emerging artists. (And later found five more.)

We explored creationism vs. evolution in a brilliant split-screen animation. We celebrated 5 blog-turned-book success stories, and later added another five. We applauded Kopernik, the new microfunding platform for world-changing design that improves lives in the developing world.

We peered past the Burton hype and saw some wonderful art inspired by Alice In Wonderland. In an original interview, legendary anthropologist Robin Dunbar distilled our psychosocial capacity for Facebook friends. We explored the history of the Rube Goldberg machine as a cinematic technique long before OK Go viral videos.

People loved our omnibus resource of 11 ways to micro-fund your creative project and our three alternatives to the traditional business card. In another uncovered gem from 1960, iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan explored his notion of “the global village.”

We looked at three excellent examples of infographic storytelling for kids and traced the origins of animation all the way back to the early 1900s.

Elham, 19, and her mother, 55. Rhinoplasty ‘nose job’ operation.
Tehran, Iran.

Photographer Zed Nelson explored the cross-cultural manufacturing of beauty in an arresting series and designers gave mundane notices ingenious makeovers. We explored the past, present and future of magazine publishing. Our omnibus of vintage posters for modern movies became one of our most-shared articles this year.

Artist Steve Powers wrote a graffiti love letter across 50 building facades over 20 blocks. A global art project constructed a hand-illustrated collaborative video for Johnny Cash’s final studio recording. We took some vintage lessons on design and government from the Works Progress Administration. We looked at some remarkable book sculptures.

Natalie Merchant came back from obscurity to blow us away with her musical adaptations of Victorian children’s poetry. We looked at distorted maps as a storytelling device. Two filmmakers set out to make one documentary per month, every month, for a year. The eerie and fascinating Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia was a big hit with readers.

We looked at subway etiquette from around the world and marveled at incredible artwork made out of money. We saw that, thanks to artsts’ ingenuity, augmented reality can be fully analog.

In may, we celebrated our 500th anniversary with original artwork by the talented Len Kendall. Leonard Bernstein dissected the anatomy of music. The world’s leading data visualization masters pooled together in a stunning new anthology. Nina Katchadourian made wry comedy out of stacked books. In another uncovered gem from 1959, Ayn Rand gave Mike Wallace a piece of her mind on love and business.

We curated 5 iconic children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups. A fascinating documentary explored the state of remix culture and the history of copyright law. Designer Mico Toledo created beautiful typographic art out of famous song lyrics.

We looked at 7 experimental music projects of incredible ingenuity. Spam became art. Marcus Chown shared some insights on what everyday objects tell us about the universe. Designers set out to give every city in the world a (type)face.

Helen Fisher took a fascinating look at your brain on love and one filmmaker wrote an HD love letter to New York. The BBC explored the genius of design and we celebrated the unsung heroes of the information age. We looked at some fantastic vintage Russian animation and marveled at some incredible art made of office supplies.

We launched our very own curated art portal with work from emerging artists. The Museum of Moving Image gave us a fascinating video-essay about the manufacturing of fame and filmmaker Oliver Laric the tensions of sampling and borrowing media in an eye-opening visual essay about the appropriation of images.

An animated adaptation of Mark Twain’s The War Prayer gave us pause about the state of the world today, more than a century after Twain’s poignant reflection on war and morality. These 7 must-read books by TED speakers became one of our most read articles all year and MoMA’s Paola Antonelli echoed our own philosophy on design and innovation in her metaphor of the “curious octopus.”

We were swept away by a spellbinding original soundtrack for Andy Warhol’s little-known silent films and chuckled at some quirky art inspired by Law & Order one-line episode summaries. We loved Robin Moore’s string math portraits and unearthed 5 ½ gems “from” the iconic, delightfully dark German director Warner Herzog, on whose advice one man walked 5,000 kilometers from Madrid to Kiev. We took a journey around the world in 80 diets.

38-year-old Maasai herder, 5 feet 5 inches tall, 103 lbs, typical daily caloric intake: 800 calories. Food staples: Maize meal and milk.
Image copyright Peter Menzel,

A poetic short film about art of being alone became our second most-shared article this year. We were excited for an upcoming documentary about happiness and rallied behind a delightful language conservation effort to save the world’s words. We curated 7 must-see episode of the iconic vintage gameshow What’s My Line, featuring luminaries like Salvador Dali, Walt Disney and Eleanor Roosevelt.

We explored post-consumerism with 7 ways to have more by owning less. 100 artists played a collaborative game inspired by 1920s ideology. We looked at what it means to be human from three cross-disciplinary perspectives. The Mona Lisa Curse traced historical tensions between in art and commerce. We bowed before what remarkable creatures bees are and curated 5 fantastic animations about capitalism.

We looked at how famous creators got their start and listened to a 100-year old tree tweet. We agreed that everything is a remix, a reflection of our philosophy of combinatorial creativity. IDEO reimagined the future of books and, later, the music player. Two icons converged in a lovely new collaboration between Maira Kalman and Lemony Snicket.

Steven Johnson explored where good ideas come from and we looked at the Arctic through the eyes of the Vikings. We celebrated the opening up of the iconic Paris Review archives with 10 priceless quotes from cultural luminaries. The BBC pitted God against science and one designer mapped European stereotypes, which became our most-shared article of all time.

Europe According to USA

We found 5 quirky and wonderful cross-disciplinary cookbooks and explored journalism in the age of data with a fantastic free documentary from Stanford. We couldn’t resist the autobiography and sex life of Andy Warhol. Our list of 7 image search tools that will change your life went viral on Twitter.

We wanted these literary action figures and were thrilled to watch the aurora borealis from home. We celebrated the launch of a new data visualization portal and the return of 30 Conversations on Design. We peered into the audio archives of the Kelly Writers House, full of rare talks by iconic authors and listened to some conversations with iconic art director George Lois, charmingly profane and curmudgeonly as ever.

We explored 5 perspectives on procrastination and swooned over a limited-edition of Moleskine celebrating 30 years of Pac-Man. We tried to understand the scale of the universe, then tried to put it in our pocket. 50 people answered one question. We were thrilled to see Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic Powers of Ten adapted in a flipbook and agreed that all creative work is derivative.

We looked at the history of uncommissioned street art and listened to abstract artists try to explain what they do to their parents, to a delightfully amusing effect. We were sad to lose the great Benoît Mandelbrot, father of fractals, and celebrated his contribution to the world. Marian Bantjes’ I Wonder became our favorite typography project of all time.

We helped our friends at Acumen Fund search for the obvious and bowed before TED as they, in a highly usual move, awarded street artist JR the annual $100,000 TEDPrize. Sir Ken Robinson talked, compellingly, about changing education paradigms.

Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but is an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

We dove into cultural nostalgia with 7 poetic short documentaries about dying occupations and applauded a wonderful project helping children heal through contemporary art. Everything Explained Through Flowcharts became readers’ favorite book this year.

We explored the secret stories of words and listened to a composer reimagine Beethoven as jazz. We were blown away by this interactive version of Don Quixote from the Spanish National Library. We looked at some fascinating portraits of the mind from antiquity to modernity and were stunned by Cedric Pollet’s intimate portraits of the world’s trees.

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

We explored the psychology of choice from five perspectives and rushed to grab Bill Moggridge’s ambitious new book on media innovation, featuring interviews with some some of today’s most celebrated media thought leaders.

Brené Brown’s talk on wholeheartedness was the best TED talk we watched all year. We discovered The Cassiopeia Project, a fantastic free resource for science education online. BBC’s adaptation of Sherlock Holmes was an instant hit. Bill Bryson’s short illustrated history of nearly everything was one of readers’ favorite books this year.

Chinese Junk
The roster of ingredients includes dried lotus leaves for snails, noodles for the wood floor, physalis lanterns, and the obscure wild green yamakurage for the rope.

We looked at some incredible edible landscapes and marveled at Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, positively the year’s most ambitioius publishing project. Roger Sterling’s fictional Mad Men memoir was, in our book, the year’s most ingenious example of transmedia storytelling. Arts & Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton offered a provocative Darwinian theory of beauty mere months before he passed away.

The alphabet became art. We were fascinated to learn that Facebook has nothing on Voltaire as we watched Stanford scientists visualize Enlightenment-era social networks. The past once again one-upped our present bias in a photographic history of bromance.

Composer Alexandra Pajak made music from the HIV virus and iconic designer Paula Scher eloquently captured our own belief in creativity as a combinatorial force. We were enthralled by Coralie Bickford-Smith’s covers of literary classics. We looked at changing views of the family as a social unit and celebrated the great Mohammad Ali.

Mad Men Illustrated

Mad Men Illustrated was an instant favorite. We watched 88 years of American political divide unfold in a minute and revisited Philippe Halsman’s iconic jump portraits.

We launched a shoppe full of curated design goodies, quirky gifts and favorite books and applauded a new platform allowing causes and nonprofits to crowdfund media space via microdonations from supporters. We immediately loved All Facts Considered from NPR’s charmingly librarianly librarian and bowed before this Englishman who posted himself.

We were thrilled for the launch of HeyKiki, a new platform for crowd-accelerated learning and revisited the do’s and don’ts of photography, which really apply to any creative discipline. We watched our favorite statistical stuntsman synthesize 200 years that changed the world in one minute, using augmented reality and celebrated the first 40 years of NPR.

We visited the MIT Museum and came back with pearls of wisdom on the 5,000 steps to success from Polaroid inventor Edwin Land. We upped our snark game and were spellbound by the year’s most beautiful animation.

We learned how music works and explored 3 ways to visualize Infinite Jest. Actor Rainn Wilson stepped outside his Dwight character to surprise us with some keen insight on overcoming creative blocks. We took an unusual tour of New York City with author Ayun Halliday.

This month, we curated the best albums of 2010, our favorite books in Business, Life & Mind and Art, Design & Photography, the year’s loveliest children’s literature, and the smartest apps that launched in 2010.

We were thrilled that James Burke’s iconic Connections series, a BBC history of innovation, was released online for free. We celebrated Christmas with a fascinating documentary about the history of the holiday and a heart-warming story of humanity amidst war from 1914. We commemorated the 6th anniversary of our favorite author’s death with a trifecta remembrance and took a delightfully dark, beautifully illustrated look at Armageddon.

We asked some of our favorite artists to visualize the 10 most popular Brain Pickings articles of 2010.

We had a fantastic year thanks to your readership and support — a big THANK YOU for that and here’s to an even more inspired, stimulating, curiosity-filled 2011.

Now, just for kicks, why not enter our cultural time machine and revisit the best of Brain Pickings 2009?


The Do’s and Don’ts of Photography

In 2006, Charles H. Traub, chair of the graduate MFA program in photography at the School of Visual Arts and former director of New York’s renowned Light Gallery, collected some of the most compelling writing on photography in The Education of a Photographer — a fantastic anthology, co-authored by living legend Steven Heller, exploring what it means to become a contemporary photographer through remarkable essays from leading designers, editors, and gallery owners.

One of my favorite parts of the book is a list of maxims, The Do’s and Don’ts of Graduate Studies: Maxims from the Chair, outlining the art and science of photography with prescriptive pragmatism, conceptual insight and a healthy dose of stern humor.

The Do’s

  • Do something old in a new way
  • Do something new in an old way
  • Do something new in a new way, Whatever works… works
  • Do it sharp, if you can’t, call it art
  • Do it in the computer — if it can be done there
  • Do fifty of them — you will definitely get a show
  • Do it big, if you cant do it big, do it red
  • If all else fails turn it upside down, if it looks good it might work
  • Do Bend your knees
  • If you don’t know what to do, look up or down — but continue looking
  • Do celebrities — if you do a lot of them, you’ll get a book
  • Connect with others — network
  • Edit it yourself
  • Design it yourself
  • Publish it yourself
  • Edit, When in doubt shoot more
  • Edit again
  • Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barth
  • See Citizen Kane ten times
  • Look at everything — stare
  • Construct your images from the edge inward
  • If it’s the “real world,” do it in color
  • If it can be done digitally — do it
  • Be self centered, self involved, and generally entitled and always pushing — and damned to hell for doing it
  • Break all rules, except the chairman’s

The Don’ts

  • Don’t do it about yourself — or your friend — or your family
  • Don’t dare photograph yourself nude
  • Don’t look at old family albums
  • Don’t hand color it
  • Don’t write on it
  • Don’t use alternative process — if it ain’t straight do it in the computer
  • Don’t gild the lily — AKA less is more
  • Don’t go to video when you don’t know what else to do
  • Don’t photograph indigent people, particularly in foreign lands
  • Don’t whine, just produce

My favorite has to be “Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barth,” affirming my belief in the importance of cross-disciplinary curiosity in informing, inspiring and enriching the creative process.

The entire book is an absolute treasure and I couldn’t recommend it more.


BBC’s John Lennon Tribute Rap

We love John Lennon, but the BBC seems to love him more, or at least better: Lennononandonandon is a wonderful Lennon tribute track by UK rapper Dan Bull, composed of oh-so-many Beatles song titles — test your Beatlemania by counting how many you recognize.

Needless to say, it’s an absolute treat. (So great, in fact, that it even got a nod from Yoko Ono.)

The track celebrates the newly revealed English Heritage blue plaque at John and Yoko’s London home at 34 Montagu Square. The blue plaques are a 140-year-old British tradition honoring and commemorating the link between cultural icons of the past and the buildings they lived or worked in. Roughly 850 have been awarded to date, recognizing greats like Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh.

Open Culture


Brain Pickings Redux: Best of 2009

A year’s worth of ideas, inspiration and innovation from culture’s collective brain.

It’s been a colorful and fascinating year here at Brain Pickings. (And if we’ve managed to put some color and fascination into yours, consider supporting us with a small sum of green.) Here’s a look back at some of the things that tickled our — and your — brains the most.

Getting objectified turned out to be a very good thing. The story of stuff burst some serious bubbles in our consumerist fairy tale. Fans saved an iconic photography magazine from a sad demise. Seven of the world’s best 3D animators had fun with one big bunny.

We saw some inspired innovation in orchestras, bike culture, libraries, sustainable agriculture, and bookshelf design. The Smithsonian gave us a century of illustrated letters.

We live-blogged TED and TEDGlobal, with lots of photos, then launched a TED tribute project of our own.

We found some phenomenally creative reinterpretations of vinyl, cardboard, and paper, and the toilet paper roll.

We uncovered the art of the cover and learned some priceless design lessons from the past. We saw three creative meditations on the art of identity. The New York Times fueled our data visualization fetish with the Times Open effort. We saw what the world eats and how it would look if it were a village of 100 people. We went on a hunt for the origins of happiness.

The Little Red Riding Hood met Röyksopp, David Lynch met Moby, and jazz history met 3D shadow art in some of the year’s most brilliant animation.

We found some great, great, great, great, great illustrators and wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful photographers.

We proved you aren’t nearly as unique as you think and found an infinite photograph. Five environmental films challenged our relationship with Earth. We took a ride on a photographic time machine. Chris Jordan exposed the chilling reality of overfishing and pollution in yet another remarkable series of photographic visualizations.

We read some fascinating books about the power of attention, iconic illustrator Charley Harper, the granddaddy of the graphic novel, design as a tool for social change, some wonderfully strange maps, mixtapes from exes, a magical jazz loft, and the art from the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Jack Kerouac’s iconic status was reaffirmed in some brilliant literary visualizations and a cinematic journey starring some of his biggest contemporaries.

Darwin turned 200 and some fine indie musicians got together in his farmhouse to put together a (r)evolutionary record. A vintage praxinoscope from 1877 produced a brilliant lo-fi animation and an interactive music video redefined the relationship between the auditory and the visual.

Revolutionary platforms empowered creators by matching them with grants and offering crowdsourced microfunding for projects. Copyright law took one in the tenders from remix culture. The Internet got mapped.

A grassroots philanthropy project set out to send more girls in India, South East Asia and Nepal to school. A Taiwanese soap commercial proved advertising doesn’t have to be that much different from art. Director duo Terri Timely made some serious waves with Synesthesia. We undertook an original, first-hand investigation of the typography of the San Francisco MoMA. A documentary about street art dissected the cultural anthropology of urban creativity. Designers took on disability and we got up, close and personal with the human face.

We looked at the cross-pollination of disciplines with some fantastic biology-inspired art. Isabella Rosellinni delivered an equally quirky third helping of green porno.

Brain Pickings darling Jonathan Harris co-founded an observatory for the study of contemporary culture, shared some keen modern philosophy about digital culture, and published a visual almanac of human emotion.

Choreography and digital motion intersected in synchronous objects and CG studio Zeitgeist stunned us with some peripetics. Cardon Webb created a new visual language for neighborhood flyers. The BBC had an unusual opener for their poetry season. We interviewed Dutch designer Twan Verdonck. The GRAIL Lab at UWash built Rome in a day by crowdsourcing 3D renderings of some of the world’s oldest cities and a Swedish geek duo served up fresh music from some of the world’s most interesting ones.

MIT students one-upped QR codes. A Canadian documentary refused to water down the water crisis, while Brazilians offered an unorthodox solution to it. The famous Myers-Briggs personality test got visualized as a subway map. We geeked out with some notes and neurons, examining why music resonates with us so powerfully. 51 teams of designers, directors and animators got together to create 17 wonderful short films. Beck took the legendary Velvet Underground & Nico album and reinvented it with some friends.

We discovered fascinating visualizations of poetry, Madrid’s air, foot traffic in a 1950’s house, the hundred monkey effect, and the hypertextual narrative of Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Four Pixar animators released a racy side project. Advertising creatives made lemonade out of the industry’s recession-era layoffs. A new biomimicry portal set out to save the planet by encouraging designers and engineers to emulate nature.

Indie rock got itself a coloring book, dabbled in children’s science education, redefined the recording package as a design vehicle, and made the first-ever album/film hybrid.

We looked at how Helvetica man was born and traced the evolution of symbol signs. Goolery offered a comprehensive database of cool projects using the Google API. We looked at the 6 most compelling efforts in humanoid robotics. A brilliant documentary painted a portrait of our greatest living composer.

Our friends at Green Thing made some sweet glove love, Johnny Carrera resurrected Victorian engravings in a brilliant visual dictionary of curiosities. Minivegas made a visualizer that renders digital sculptures in real-time in response to sound and gestures. A boy harnessed the wind. Winnie the Pooh returned after 81 years. Beau Lotto made us dizzy with some neat optical illusions. Hitotoki unleashed urban storytelling.

The map became art. The UK got itself a museum of everything. We drooled over vintage jazz album covers. An infographic portrait of the East vs. West culture clash became a big hit. Thirty conversations on design gave us some food for creative thought. Public pianos reclaimed urban space.

The Visual Miscellaneum became a bible of information design. A remix of Carl Sagan + Sigur Rós hit the spot for hipster-geeks everywhere. A grassroots movement used music, fashion, photography, design, dance, art and journalism as tools for social justice. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon was the greatest movie never made.

We went on a shopping spree for nothing. Digital platforms revamped the art of learning. We looked at some superbly creative innovations on the alphabet book classic. We counted down the top 10 conferences that spark interdisciplinary creative cross-pollination. The story of cap & trade shed some light on the latest energy hoax. Gender identity and color had a surprising historical relationship.

A brilliant browser plugin promised to nix annoying online ads while generating revenues for social causes, all at no cost to you. The Mobile Mobile reinvented the Christmas tree. A Broken Social Scene musician explored the implicit melodic qualities of human speech while collecting common wisdom on happiness, a New York Magazine writer set out to test all the theories about what makes us happy, and several hundred people put their happiest moments in jars.

We sent you a beautiful wish for 2010 via Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski.


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