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Mondrian Meets Euclid: An Eccentric Victorian Mathematician’s Masterwork of Art and Science

Math in primary colors and graphic design before there was graphic design.

Almost a century before Mondrian made his iconic red, yellow, and blue geometric compositions, and around the time that Edward Livingston Youmans was creating his stunning chemistry diagrams, an eccentric 19th-century civil engineer and mathematician named Oliver Byrne produced a striking series of vibrant diagrams in primary colors for a 1847 edition of the legendary Greek mathematical treatise Euclid’s Elements. Byrne, a vehement opponent of pseudoscience with an especial distaste phrenology, was early to the insight that great design and graphic elegance can powerfully aid learning. He explained that in his edition of Euclid, “coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners.” The book, a masterpiece of Victorian printing and graphic design long before “graphic design” existed as a discipline, is celebrated as one of the most unusual and most beautiful books of the 19th century.

Now, the fine folks of Taschen — who have brought us such visual treasures as the best illustrations from 150 years of Hans Christian Andersen, the life and legacy of infographics godfather Fritz Kahn, and the visual history of magic — are resurrecting Byrne’s gem in the lavish tome The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (public library), edited by Swiss polymath Werner Oechslin.

Proof of the Pythagorean theorem

A masterwork of art and science in equal measure, this newly rediscovered treasure mesmerizes the eye with its brightly colored circles, squares, and triangles while it tickles the brain with its mathematical magic.

Byrne’s The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid is spectacular to both behold and absorb, offering superb stimulation for both sides of the brain. (Figuratively speaking, of course, for we know that the left-brain vs. right-brain divide is a dangerous myth.) Complement it with Youmans’s gorgeous diagrams of how chemistry works.

Images courtesy of Taschen


Modern Masterpieces of Comedic Genius: The Art of the Humorous Amazon Review, Part Deux

From scientific miracles to literary criticism, by way of bodily functions and failures of common sense.

Many moons ago, I wrote about the art of the humorous Amazon review as a modern masterpiece of parodic genius, embodying Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor and creativity work. It turns out this peculiar micro-genre of satire is surprisingly expansive — here is a sequel-selection of amusing, absurd, preposterous, and plain funny reviews, spanning everything from literary classics to industrial equipment.

Some take advantage of Amazon’s tendency to mash up the brand name and product description in the same title field, which often makes for some inherently funny propositions — like the Pelican 1510-004-110 Case with Padded Dividers, Black, on which “Teddy Picker” pounces elegantly:

With others, it’s hard to tell whether the person was aiming for comedy or was simply displaying a tragic level of learnedness — which, arguably, makes it all the funnier. From a one-star review of Lolita titled “Wake Me When It’s Over” (with Proper Capitalization) to an unambiguously titled one-star review of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, these “literary critics” employ Koestler’s bisociation in juxtaposing personal preference and cultural credence to a comedic effect, whether intended or not:

Some are doubly amusing not only by virtue of the humorous review but also by the sheer absurdity of why such an item would be sold on Amazon in the first place. Take, for instance, the Cyclone 4006 Ultra High Pressure Hard Surface Cleaner — a giant machine weighing 28,000 pounds and used primarily at airports for removing paint and rubber. A reviewer who goes by Wandrwoman ‘Wise as Aphrodite, Beautiful as Athena…'” — a name that already promises amusement — writes:

Some seem wholly earnest — but, between the nature of the product and the language of the review, they produce an irrepressible chuckle. There’s Body Mint and its ultimate fan, a woman named Anita (who, Amazon kindly informs us, is using her Real Name):

Others reap the irresistible low-hanging fruit of an especially questionable product, such as the AutoExec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Attachable Work Surface Tray. Just when you might think this is intended as a gag gift for that common-sense-defiant teenage driver, you realize this is a serious “ergonomic work surface” “designed to be used in a vehicle’s steering wheel” and “developed for the mobile worker on the road needing support for their tablet or a great place to write” … in an age when it’s both idiotic and illegal to text-and-drive, let alone type-and-drive. Some reviewers go for the meta:

Others take it a satirical step further:

I just picked uuyp my laptop hoder from the post offfice and I’m ddriving home now. It’s OK Iguess, but the bumpy road majkes it hard to type. And theree’s a lot of pedeestrians and traffi c that keep distracti9ng me fromm my computer.

It’s prolly OK ffor web browsing or email, but I don’gt think it will be so useful for mmore complex tasks. Oh, and yyou can’t make any sharrp turns. So when you turn right, somnetimess you have to use the oppsing lane of traffic.

Another reviewer points out the obvious:

Adding this desk to my car’s steering wheel has been baby Jesus awesome. I love emailing the Highway patrol while I drive to let them know the tag numbers of cell phone using drivers. Lordy!

Some reviews weave entire micro-novellas around the product, such as this three-star treatise on the Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable by none other than Star Trek star George Takei:

Another reviewer offers a different, equally entertaining twist on the cable:

After I took delivery of my $500 Denon AKDL1 Cat-5 uber-cable, Al Gore was mysteriously drawn to my home, where he pronounced that Global Warming had been suspended in my vicinity.

Yes, I had perfect weather: no flooding, no tornadoes, the exact amount of rain necessary, and he pronounced sea levels exactly right and that they were not going to rise within five miles of my house.

Additionally, my cars began achieving 200 mpg and I didn’t even need gasoline. I was able to put three grams of cat litter into the tank and drive forever.

What’s more, the atmosphere inside my home became 93% oxygen and virtually no carbon dioxide. In fact, I now exhale oxygen.

One heck of a cable.

Didn’t notice any improvement in audio quality though.

The $800 Apple iCable is clearly superior.

Then there are those that simply defy categorization, such as this one-star review for the Accoutrements Horse Head Mask:

But my favorite remains this brilliant gem from the first installment, wherein an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator reviews a humble jug of milk in the style of “The Raven”:

Read the rest in all its full Poe-tastic glory here, then revisit the original omnibus here.


The Creative Pace of the 20th Century’s Greatest Authors, Visualized

A visual taxonomy of lives and literary greatness.

Almost as contentious as the questions of what the greatest books of all time are and what makes a classic is the question of what goes into the making of a literary masterpiece. We look to the daily routines and odd habits of famous writers for clues, but surely there must something more to it, something unqualifiable and unquantifiable. That’s the sort of challenge that my friend Giorgia Lupi and her amazing data visualization team at Accurat — who have previously visualized such diverse cultural curiosities as the history of the Nobel Prize, the lives of famous painters, science fiction’s visions for the future, and the 100 geniuses of language — like to tackle.

In this graphic analysis originally published in Italy’s La Lettura and adapted in English exclusively for Brain Pickings, they set out to quantify the genius behind the most acclaimed fiction of the twentieth century. Using the Modern Library ranking of the best English novels published between 1900 and 1999, as well as several data sets of biographical information, they visualized the timespan between each author’s debut work and the publication of his or her novel(s) included in the ranking.

Color triangles in each circle depict the author’s age at the time of the debut novel as well as at the time of his or her subsequent masterworks. For nearly a third of the authors — 22 of the 75 authors — the debut and the first masterpiece coincide, so a single yellow triangle points to the age at which that author published the respective novel. The circumference of the circle corresponds to the author’s lifespan, out of a possible 100 years for the full circle. The author’s hometown is also listed, color-coded to indicate the continent of its location. (Larger version here.)

One of the curious insights is that for more than half of the authors — 38 out of 75 — the timespan between the debut and the first masterpiece is no more than five years. What also emerges is a certain taxonomy of author types: the “superauthors” who sustain high creative output over their entire lives (Joyce, Lawrence, Forster, Conrad, Faulkner, Waugh, James); those who peak early, then drop off (Mailer, Hughes, Donleavy, Salinger); and those who the data suggests may have produced a great deal more had they lived longer (West, Orwell, London, Fitzgerald, Lawrence).

For more on what goes into the making of great literature, see the collected advice of famous authors. For more of Accurat’s wonderful visualizations, see their portfolio and their previous Brain Pickings exclusives.


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