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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, menzelphoto.com

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?

BP

Return of the Dapper Men: Tim Gunn Meets Alice in Wonderland

What would you get if you crossed Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, and Tim Gunn? Return of the Dapper Men, that’s what — a lyrical and impressionistic new tale by Jim McCann with charming illustration by Janet Lee and a foreword by, yes, quintessential modern dapper man Tim Gunn.

It’s the story of a human boy named Ayden, a robot girl named Zoe, and 34 Dapper Men who restart the world they live in — a world without time or progress, which only robots and children who never grow up inhabit. It’s part remarkably crafted graphic novel, part beautifully told morality tale, part something else entirely.

Return of the Dapper Men is as much a wonderful and whimsical piece of children’s literature as it is a timeless and profound meditation on individualism, community, change and permanence — which makes it a fine addition to both our favorite children’s literature of 2010 and our top five children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups.

BP

The Best Apps of 2010

Social magazines, Victorian tablets, and what 100-year-old educational traditions have to do with analog photography.

After spotlighting the year’s best books in in Business, Life & Mind, Art, Design & Photography and the top children’s literature, we’re back with the 10 most interesting, innovative and plain useful apps launched in 2010.

FLIPBOARD

Yes, Steve Jobs named it the best app of the year. Yes, TIME picked it as one of the 50 best inventions of 2010. And, yes, we happen to be a featured stream on it. But mainstream acclaim and ego flattery aside, Flipboard is, quite simply, absolutely brilliant. The sleek iPad app turns your social streams — content your Facebook friends and Twitter follows are sharing — into a beautiful visually-driven magazine, padded with extra interesting content from curated channels around your passion points.

Oh, and it’s free.

A HUMUMENT

From British artist Tom Phillips comes A Humument, combining 367 stunning full-color illustrations from Phillips’ artist book, based on and a contraction of the title of the Victorian novel A Human Document, with an ingenious interactive oracle function that will cast two pages to be read in tandem using a chosen date and a randomly generated number. A Find wheel lets you navigate the pages visually. You can share oracle readings with friends via email and post individual images to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Design Observer called it “one of the most successful artist’s books ever published” and we won’t disagree — it does for the iPad what Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes does for the bound book.

A Humument was first published as a private press edition in 1973, with several subsequent print editions and spinoffs. But the iPad app is the pinnacle of it all, weaving an immersive, non-linear narrative and featuring 39 new, original pages not available elsewhere. It’s the epitome of harnessing the full potential of a new publishing platform to engage in a different, more compelling way, rather than merely repurposing the print experience to a tablet screen.

A Humument is available for $7.99 which, given it’s more a book and art project in one than it is an app per se, is an absolute steal.

RAPPORTIVE

Rapportive is your personal social media detective. The clever Gmail extension pulls a rich profile of the sender to the right of each email — everything from social media presence to location to job titles past and present.

Rapportive is free and available for Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Mailplane.

INSTAPAPER FOR IPAD

Sure, Instapaper, the ingeniously simple app for saving web pages to read them later, has been around since 2008 as an iPhone app. But the Instapaper iPad app, launched in March, completely changes the relationship between the reader and the digital page. With its stripped-down, minimalist aesthetic sprawled gloriously on the wide iPad screen, the app turns your favorite online reads, sans the annoying ads and the distracting meta-links, into the perfect companion for everything from your train commute to your cardio workout at the gym.

Instapaper is the brainchild of Tumblr cofounder Marco Arment. The iPad app is available for $4.99 and triple-worth every penny.

TED

It’s no secret we’re big TED fans here, so the October launch of TED’s free iPad app was an absolute treat. It tailors TED’s familiar brilliance — powerful punches of inspiration by some of the world’s most remarkable thinkers and doers — to the touchscreen experience, offering some nifty iPad-exclusive features. An “Inspire Me” button lets you find the perfect dose of inspiration based on the amount of time you have to watch; curated playlists offer thematic insight on topics like “How We Learn” and “The Power of Cities”; smart tags break down the 800+ TEDTalks into 250 easily navigable categories.

The app was developed by a former Apple developer who worked on the first iPhone SDK — and it shows.

WORDLENS

With real-time translation as the next frontier of the web and augmented reality as easily the most buzzed about mobile technology this year, it’s no surprise that the marriage of the two would be a win. WordLens is a new real-time translation app that turns your iPhone into “the dictionary of the future,” using optical character recognition and augmented reality to translate text captured with the phone’s camera. From t-shirt slogans to street signage, its applications for globe-trotters are astounding and its implications for the future of language learning and cross-cultural communication remarkable.

The app itself is free, with various language pairs available for in-app purchase. The first pair released is Spanish-English, with more coming soon.

DESIGN OBSERVER

Design Observer is the world’s premiere online design journal and their new iPhone app puts today’s most important conversations about design in your pocket. From photography to architecture to to urbanism to sustainability and beyond, the sleek app lets you browse the entire spectrum of visual culture and social innovation by channel, topic or author. A special Mondrian view allows you to scan articles visually by thumbnails of key images.

The app is free and highly recommended.

INSTAGRAM

Visual lifestreaming is one of the most rapidly growing branches of new media storytelling. Instagram takes your hum-drum iPhone photos, runs them through some retrotastic filters, and churns out gorgeous images oozing Lomo charisma and vintage goodness. What makes the app interesting is that it comes with a built-in mobile-only social network: You get to follow friends and interesting users on Instagram, much like you would on Twitter, with the option of liking or commenting on images, but there’s no web version whatsoever — you can only engage with your stream within the app. (Though you can, of course, share instagr.am links to individual images on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.)

The app is free and one of our most recent (now full-blown) obsessions.

FOODUCATE

Navigating the torrents of marketing hype, nutrition labels, overwhelming ingredient lists and questionable health claims can take the joy out of food shopping. Fooducate is a smart app that helps you see behind the veil of healthspeak and make better choices at the store. The app, developed by a team of dietitians, uses the iPhone’s camera to scan barcodes and pull up product highlights, both good and bad — including stuff manufacturers don’t want you to see, like excessive sugar, hidden trans fats, additives and preservatives, artificial coloring and more. It currently features a databse of 160,000 products, growing daily.

Fooducate is free and a solid investment in your health.

MONTESSORIUM

The Montessori method is easily the best-known system of self-directed learning in formal education. This year, Montessorium put the 100-year-old educational tradition at the fingertips of today’s children with two simple yet brilliantly executed mobile apps that let kids learn the basics of language and mathematics. Minimalist yet engaging, the sleekly designed app makes self-directed learning what it should be: Fun, simple, yet effective.

Montessorium comes in three varieties — math, letters and writing — each available for $4.99. The folks at Montessorium have kindly offered 10 free downloads of the brand new writing app to Brain Pickings readers, so if you’d like to try it out, say so in the comments below and we’ll email the first 10 a promo code. [UPDATE 12/27/10: All 10 invitations have been claimed!]

BP

ABC NYC: The Language of New York’s Found Typography

Between our unabated obsession wtih all things alphabet and our choice of I LEGO N.Y. as the best quasi-children’s book of the year, it’s no surprise that ABC NYC: A Book About Seeing New York City hits the sweet spot. Though designed as a learning tool for toddlers, the book is a typography lover’s wet dream — a stunning celebration of the alphabet’s visual diversity, as seen on the streets of New York. Ten years in the making, the book features remarkable vintage urban typography, from graffiti to subway signs, captured across New York’s five boroughs by photographer Joanne Dugan.

To sweeten the treat, Dugan has made the letters available for purchase not only as full alphabet sets, but also as self-adhesive, eco-friendly individual prints to spell your way to home decor bliss.

ABC NYC has an equally wonderful number-centric companion, naturally titled 123 NYC: A Counting Book of New York City — a vibrant counting book exploring the city through its rich numerical iconography. A portion of profits from both books is donated to nonprofits promoting education and literacy.

BP

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