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Wayfinding in Wittgenstein’s World: 88 Constellations

A non-linear tour of philosophy, or what Carmen Miranda has to do with the Vienna Circle.

How do you represent one of history’s famous philosophers, a man who wrote abstruse texts about the nature of representation itself? If you’re Canadian artist David Clark, you create the ambitious online art piece 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand).

Clark wrote, produced, and directed the Flash-based site 88 Constellations, a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative-as-game and an ingenious treatment of some of the 20th century’s greatest cultural touchstones, from the highs to the lows. Navigating its universe is like playing a Choose Your Own Adventure with one of history’s greatest philosophers as the protagonist. The best part is that you can play without any prior knowledge of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which makes the work a bravura feat and great fun all at once.

You start out with the introductory animation, which invites you to “join the dots together; make pictures in the sky. Connect the muddle of our thinking to these drawings in the sky. This story is about a man named Wittgenstein. He was a philosopher. His life was a series of moments, and our story is a series of constellations.” From there, you’re presented with a celestial map and an intricately interlocking set of ideas and images that unfold from the central point, Orion, the constellation chosen to symbolize the philosopher himself.

“Who is Ludwig Wittgenstein?” asks the narrator in a voiceover.

There were so many… He was a boy who didn’t talk until he was four years old. he was an engineer who designed propellors. He was a schoolteacher in rural Austria. He was an architect who designed an elaborate modernist house for his wealthy sister. He was one of the richest men in Europe after his father died but he gave all his money away and lived off of his wages. He was a whistler and a lover of music. He was an aesthete. He was a homosexual; he was an exile…”

All that and we haven’t even gotten to the philosophy yet.

Like its subject, 88 Constellations is in fact many things: an interactive online film, a biography of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a selective history of Europe over a period spanning both World Wars. Whatever you call it, it’s a satisfyingly rich, fully realized experience that could be used as a case study in maximizing the web’s narrative capacity.

From Orion, you can branch out in any order to other stellar clusters on topics ranging from Godard to the Twin Towers. Each constellation launches a short animated film, from which point you can connect to other stars along the same vector. This is how, on one particular journey, we learned such arcana as the fact that Psycho was the first film ever to show a toilet flushing, and that the widow of the film’s lead actor, Anthony Perkins, perished on American Airlines flight 11 when it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Such a seemingly random connection is typical of 88 Constellations, a quality that makes it a very clever conspiracy theorist’s dream; because the cumulative effect of these pieces is the feeling of a system that’s not so random after all. Perhaps, we found ourselves at one point thinking, there was some heuristic as rigorous as Wittgenstein’s philosophical logic that could illuminate all of the connections — if only we could figure it out. Clark skillfully plays to this sensation of mastery just beyond our reach.

For example, on the significance of the number 88: the number of constellations in the night sky; the number of keys on a piano; a component of the year 1889, in which Wittgenstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler were born within days of each other; the age at which Chaplin died; and an integer no longer found on the back of German athletic jerseys (the eighth letter of the alphabet is H, and so the number 88 could be taken to symbolize “HH,” or “Heil Hitler”).

Sometimes the revelations provide pure entertainment. On constellation number 55, Leo, the narrator tells us the following:

[A] lion appears on the screen and roars. if lions could talk then we wouldn’t understand them,’ Wittgenstein wrote. ‘Language is about sharing a view of the world. A lion and a man could never share their world view.’ Leo, the mascot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got this name from Samuel Leo Goldwyn, one of the founders of the studio. Goldwyn, a Polish emigre, was famous for his propensity to mangle the English language in paradoxical ways, something that became known as Goldwynisms. ‘A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.’

The piece, which was started in 2004 and finished in 2008, brings the ideas and life of a commanding intellectual figure from another era into our own digital one, while retaining all of his complexity. You can learn more about 88 Constellations on the project’s blog, including the meaning of its ambiguous southpaw-referencing subtitle.

Take a trip down the rabbit hole that is 88 Constellations — and find out why the rabbit itself was an important part of the philosopher’s seminal treatise, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Thanks, @melissa_djohnst

Kirstin Butler has a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter. For more of her thoughts, check out her videoblog.


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.


Gift Guide: Kids & The Eternal Kid

From thinking to tinkering, by way of color, music and photography.

This is Part 2 of the three-part Brain Pickings holiday gift guide. Today, we’re looking at goods and goodies for kids of all ages and the eternal kid in everyone.


Indie rock icons They Might Be Giants are among the most revolutionary musicians of our time. Their critically acclaimed Here Comes Science children’s series lives up to their relentless thinking-in-all-kinds-of-directions innovation and consistent excellence. The 2-disc CD/DVD album is a bundle of creativity and entertainment, tied with a ribbon of education. Although aimed at the K-5 set, the playful lyrics and brilliantly animated videos are an absolute treat for musicologists and design junkies alike — we can attest.

We reviewed it in full, with trailers and more, here.

Perfect for: Musicologists, science lovers, those into creative and non-traditional education


Polaroid may have barely escaped the kiss of obsolescence, but instant film cameras will always hold immeasurable nostalgic charm in the digital age. The new Fujifilm Instax MINI offers a lovely twist on your dad’s old Land Cam, packaged in a gorgeously designed Mac-ish white body that’s just a joy to hold and look at. It prints credit-card-sized photos and, for those interested in the technical shenanigans, has a built-in flash, four exposure settings for indoor and outdoor shooting, and — our favorite — a wicked wide-angle lens that makes for some gorgeous, gorgeous shots. It’s a return to simpler times of no memory cards and USB cables and i-anything. But it gives you more creative control while still being a no-brainer to operate.

Sure, we love (love love) the design, but we’re even more taken with what it stands for — an analog connection to the fleeting moment, celebrating the essence of the presence in a way that preserves it for the future.

Perfect for: Budding photographers, creatively inclined kids, design aficionados, hopeless nostalgics, retro lovers


Who doesn’t love a good pop-up book? Marion Bataille‘s ABC3D takes the familiar genre it to a whole new level.

Slick, stylish and designerly, it’s hard to capture its tactile, interactive magic in static words — you have to have it in your hands to truly appreciate it.

We took a closer look, along with 4 more creative alphabet books, last week.

Perfect for: Designers and their kids, bookbinding geeks, paper craft lovers


It’s never too early — or too late — to introduce the idea of the conscious consumer. And when it’s done with quirk and creativity, it’s bound to engage, inspire and, well, effect change. Enter Part Of It, a wonderful venture founded by illustrator duo Christopher Sleboda and Kathleen Burns in 2007, working with artists to create products for causes they are passionate about.

From Helvetica alphabet t-shirts to a lovely tote bags, profits from these goodies benefit charities chosen by the artists. (Who, by the way, include Brain Pickings darling Adrian Johnson.)

Perfect for: The socially-conscious and design-driven


Indie music defines itself through the colorful quirk of its artists and evangelists. Without that, it would blend in with the grey mediocrity of the mainstream. For the past two years, obscenely talented UK illustrator Andy J. Miller has been working on a project that celebrates this whimsy. Today, he finally releases the Indie Rock Coloring Book — a wonderful collection of hand-illustrated activity pages, mazes, connect-the-dots, and coloring pages for indie icons like Bloc Party, The Shins, Iron & Wine, Broken Social Scene, Devendra Banhart, MGMT, The New Pornographers, The National, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

We reviewed it in full, with trailers and more, here.

Perfect for: Indie music fans and their artistically inclined offspring


Photographer and all-around geek Theodor Gray spent 7 years gathering objects, from the fascinating to the mundane, that embody and exemplify the 118 elements in the periodic table. Then he shot them brilliantly, producing The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe — an utterly captivating exploration of the matter that we, and all the things around us, are made of.

Set to the first authorized video version of Tom Lehrer’s iconic eponymous song, The Elements video gives you a taste for what to expect from this gem of a book.

Perfect for: Neo-geeks, science junkies, photography lovers, visual learners


We’re firm believers in the power of tinkering in developing creativity.

And there’s nothing more stimulating to the creative brain than playing with simple, flat shapes and basic colors to produce a near-infinite variety of 3D whimsy. Which is why we love this 100-piece set of clear-color magna tiles. Sure, kids will be all over it, but we dare you not to love it yourself.

Perfect for: Tinkerers, builders, color lovers, budding industrial designers


In 1926, English author Alan Alexander Milne took a shelf of his son’s stuffed toys and turned them into some of the best-loved books ever published — the Winnie-the-Pooh series was born. This year, 81 years after Christoper Robin and the gang left the Hundred Acre Wood, they are back for a new adventure.

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is among the most epic comebacks in English literature. Although Milne himself is long dead, the new book is written by David Benedictus — who also produced the audio adaptations of Winnie-the-Pooh, starring Dame Judi Dench — and meticulously based on Milne’s Pooh stories, with artwork by Mark Burgess in the style of original illustrator E. H. Shepard.

We reviewed it in full here.

Perfect for: Readers, nostalgics, Pooh lovers of all ages


We love LEGO — who doesn’t? And what better way to learn about the man-made hallmarks of our civilization than by building them with your bare hands?

No, you won’t be lugging mastabas across the Egyptian desert — we’re talking about the LEGO Architecture Series. From the Taj Mahal to Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces, you — or your little one — can get down and dirty with humanity’s greatest architectural achievements.

Perfect for: Tinkerers, builders, architecture lovers


Ah, Crayola. Easily one of the most beloved brands of all time. Even just saying the name evokes that distinct, wonderful smell of your first crayon.

Now, you can resurrect your inner kid with a lovely, desk-job-safe Crayola Executive Pen, in orange, green, violet and yellow. Need we say more?

Perfect for: Everyone!


Thirty Conversations on Design

The alphabet, need over want, and the relationship between design and time.

Strategic design getup Little & Co. has launched a simple yet brilliant new project — Thirty Conversations on Design, a journey into the minds of 30 of the world’s most inspired creatives. The project asks these architects, designers and authors two straightforward but incredibly complex questions: “What single example of design inspires you most?” and “What problem should design solve next?”

We really need to define what people need, rather than what people want.” ~ Massimo Vignelli

While a few of the answer may be a bit expected, most peel away at the richest layers of design, and many say things that we don’t necessarily want to hear, challenging the idealistic and often unrealistic holy-grail approach so trendy in how we think about Design with a capital D today.

To me, greatest piece of design is obviously the invention of the alphabet.” ~ Erik Spiekermann

The first batch of conversations includes Paula Scher, one of our big design heroes, Massimo Vignelli, who designed the iconic New York City subway map in 1972, and AIGA executive director Ric Grefe.

There’s no single example of design that I find inspiring. I find design interesting in its time in relationship to something else.” ~ Paula Scher

The next two batches will be released on November 10 and November 20. Conversations include Bonnie Siegler, who designed the SNL logo and title sequence, Patrick Coyne, owner and editor of design bible Communication Arts, and legendary designer Joe Duffy, author of Brand Apart, whose thinking on the relationship between design and marketing has revolutionized some of the world’s most iconic brands, including BMW, Coca-Cola, Sony and Starbucks.

via Creativity Online


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