20 May 2009

Helsinki x New York

Today I was finally able to read a piece that James wrote on Urban Omnibus called My Living Room.

It's about his recent move from New York (after living here for eight years); and all of the things that he now misses (but had to move to Helsinki to pinpoint). It's really touching, and made my heart feel very tight and small. They are things that are truly in danger of being taken for granted, if one lives here. It's not about the bustle, skyline, or "never sleeps" thing, per se, but more specific things that all ladder up to that stuff in a New York City gestalt kind of way.
The numbered grid system. You don’t realize that something as prosaic as First Avenue and 24th Street could be so brilliant until you’re standing at the intersection of two streets named Tarkk’ampujankatu and Korkeavuorenkatu, trying to find Raatimiehenkatu.

White noise. Sirens, radios, trucks backfiring, shouting matches, and the ambient thrum of radiators, air conditioners, and ventilation systems – this constant background chatter is the oxygen of city life, the thing that keeps me plugged in.

Bodegas. The equivalent here are Kioskiis, which are only open until 9pm, closed on Sundays, and they don’t sell flowers, pastrami sandwiches, hammers, bagels, kites, cake mixes, or bhangra CDs.
I've been thinking about places recently, and have wondered why all of the towns I've lived in still haunt me sometimes. Even though I'm more happy in New York than I remember being anywhere else. It can feel silly. While I was in Richmond last weekend, I felt little pricks of nostalgia every time I saw something that was a regular part of my life there: the rocks I used to walk along on the James River, the coffee shops I used to frequent, my favorite restaurant, even the familiar grooves in certain parts of the streets. While thinking about missing all of this stuff, I remembered something a good friend said once:

It's true, isn't it. And a little bit comforting /reassuring. At least we weren't so sick of the place and desperate to leave that we have that "good riddance" attitude about it all. Bittersweet.

I'm going to shut up now, because this post is really about James's piece. Here is the link again, because I liked it so much. There are also some really interesting comparisons between New York and Helsinki, like the layout of buildings; the impact of the weather on how rooftops are built; the cultural integration prohibiting the existence of hubs (like Chinatown, for instance); etc. Read it!

19 May 2009

More cognitive easter eggs

This week's NY Magazine is making me bounce all over the streets. And I'm not even halfway through it yet! The part that I want to particularly share is in the main feature, In Defense of Distraction. It talks about the dozens of things that divide our attention these days; whether or not they are terrible for us; whether or not the great minds of history would have been able to accomplish what they did in today's world ("If Einstein were alive today, [world multitasking expert David Meyer] says, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity."); etc.

Here is a little portion from the last quarter of the piece:
...The most famous moment in all of Proust, the moment that launches the entire monumental project, is a moment of pure distraction: when the narrator, Marcel, eats a spoonful of tea-soaked madeleine and finds himself instantly transported back to the world of his childhood. Proust makes it clear that conscious focus could never have yielded such profound magic: Marcel has to abandon the constraints of what he calls “voluntary memory”—the kind of narrow, purpose-driven attention that Adderall, say, might have allowed him to harness—in order to get to the deeper truths available only by distraction. That famous cookie is a kind of hyperlink: a little blip that launches an associative cascade of a million other subjects. This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.
If that isn't a lovelier and better thought-out articulation of cognitive easter eggs than I could ever write, I will mistake my wife for a hat. Isn't that nice? I loved reading Sam Anderson's take on things.

I recommend reading the entire article, actually. A lot of interesting pieces of history and research come into it, and as serious a consideration this whole thing is, Anderson balances it with a great amount of humor and optimism for our future. Also, he endorses reading about the Boston Molasses Disaster two or three times ("The world is a stranger place than we will ever know"), and I wholeheartedly agree! I wrote about it last June, check it out. It's the oddest historical disaster you'll read about all week, I bet.

08 May 2009

Memory and cognitive easter eggs

Last week, my friend Laura and I were talking about riding a bike. Mostly, the type of balance that it requires, and what our neighborhoods were like, growing-up (conducive to bike riding, too dangerous, close to school, etc.). All of a sudden, I remembered learning how to ride a bike.

Blue states win

I don't remember how old I was, but it was in Germany. I was visiting my grandparents for a couple of weeks, and someone lent me a kid's bike. The street that my Oma and Opa's house was on sloped upward, and ended at a little market. My father would walk to the end of the street with me, and I would glide down, all the way to the house. I did this dozens of times, slowly inching the training wheels up little by little. Eventually, I pedaled all the way down. I had a huge grin on my face, and I think my dad was laughing (which he does when he's really excited about something). It was a beautiful day, the sun reflected off of the green and yellow fence, there were bees on the cherries that had fallen from the trees. It's such a vivid memory, and I hadn't thought about it... probably since it happened.

It reminded me of something I read in WIRED a month or two ago. There is this article about a woman with a seemingly photographic memory that explains how our brains store memories vs. computers. The short of it: computers have a very organized way of storing information, and it's instantly accessible at all times. It looks something like this:

And the brain is really messy about this whole process, which resembles something like this:

Here is the article text:
On a computer, every single bit of information is stored at a specific location, from which it can always be retrieved. Human recall is hit or miss. Neuroscientific research tells us that our brains don't use a fixed-address system, and memories tend to overlap, combine, and disappear for reasons no one yet understands.

The one thing we do know is rather vague: Memories live in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. After that, the entire question of how memory works is up for grabs. For example, where precisely in the hippocampus (or prefrontal cortex) is my memory of reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time? If I try to summon that experience, I am likely to wind up with a blur—a half dozen indistinct recollections. And no brain-scan technology will help me bring it into better focus.
This makes human memory sound potentially a pain in the neck, but it's really kind of awesome. Yeah, I wish there were a way to bring up perfect memories that I haven't thought about in a while. But with this "imperfect" way of storing, the brain actually becomes an enabler of cognitive easter eggs. Throughout life, there are little land mines that will trigger pleasant memories without warning that for years had been tucked away somewhere unreachable. Can't wait for my next one.

On our way to Newport

What are some of your recently triggered memories that you had forgotten about for a long time? What triggered them?

04 May 2009

New Next: It's what's on the inside that counts

I've been working on an internal communications project for a few months now, and have been therefore thinking about it a lot. It's so interesting to me now. I've gotten to play with some applications like Yammer and Jive SBS, and think about channels in a different way. Despite the newness, it still feels familiar. Companies are made of people, just like anything else, and I realized that communicating with people is just that: communicating with people, no matter the context. Sounds a bit obvious, but I didn't consciously think about it this way until I felt that "riding a bike" sense on the project.

Anyway, I wrote about internal culture & communications for the May New Next. For the past two months, the publishing schedule at the magazine was being shifted and sorted around*, so I think I actually wrote this back in February. Kind of explains the not-so-current nature of the examples, but the overall point is still relevant.

New Next: May 2009

Here's the text:

When brands and their agencies plan communications together, a component that largely gets overlooked is what to do within the company itself. Internal communications is a massive group of channels, and in the past couple of years it has become clear that what happens inside company walls is as important (if not more) as what is said outside.

A few brands have been on the right track and investing in their "insides" for a while now, and have earned respect in turn. Starbucks gives health care benefits, coffee and business education to all of its employees; Nokia's "Power of We" environmental initiative began as an internal credo and rallying cry; Google's "20 percent time" philosophy keeps employees inspired and allows them to enrich every part of their lives.

The most recent and impressive example of a brand that has done this is Honda, who recently relaunched their Power of Dreams Web site. Through a series of short documentaries, employees and friends of the company are interviewed to give candid thoughts and anecdotes.

Light bulb clusters

The series that launched first, Dream the Impossible, centers around the tenacity that Honda employees have in achieving seemingly impossible goals and being unafraid of failure. Engineers, designers and even Honda's then-president and CEO regale us with stories. They touch on engine failures, factory recalls, public apologies and taking risks without a safety net. Giving this type of bare-it-all peek behind Honda's curtain is admirable; how many CEOs publicly talk about encouraging their employees to fail as many times as it takes in order to make "fantastic advances in technology"? It feels honest and genuine, and not just a marketing gimmick. The videos also demonstrate the value that Honda places on community by showcasing anecdotes and opinions from employees at all levels within the company.

New videos will be uploaded every few months to give us a peek into Honda, and the minds that make the company tick. Together, the videos lead to an insightful understanding of the values and philosophies that fuel the company, and speak volumes more than a traditional ad campaign could.

The news about Takeo Fukui's stepping down actually broke a week after I sent the article to my editor, so I had to scramble to change the details. I was a bit sad, since his part in the failure video made the biggest impression on me. Hopefully the new President/CEO (Takanobu Ito) continues on with this philosophy.

* Amber also wrote an article that ran in the May issue. It's about the new platforms for tv-watching that are always popping up, and what they mean for content distributors, hardware manufacturers, cable companies, etc. It's really smart and insightful. Check it out: New Next: TV Channels the Internet on her blog. Both are x-posted to House of Naked.

03 May 2009


A few weeks ago, I watched Basquiat for the first time.


I know that I'm, what, thirteen years behind on this one. But, well. It kind of started when I moved to New York in 2006. There were ads in the subway about a Basquiat exhibit that was only around for about 4 more days. I was very taken by the imagery, and later read rave reviews all over the Internet and in local magazines.

Over the next two years, I periodically found myself thinking about him here and there, making notes to myself to find out more. I read some stuff, talked to some people, and here is something I still don't get: why I never learned about him before. I took Art History AP in high school, which covered everything from the Venus of Willendorf all the way to Christo, Duane Hansen and Chuck Close. Basquiat never appeared in my eight-pound book. I was one or two classes away from an Art History minor in college, and more of the same. No Basquiat.



It's really, really strange to me. He had the type of story, acquaintances, friends, problems, fame, and death that I can't imagine ever being left out of a 1200-page history book. Better late than never, though. I hadn't been that inspired and excited about art in a movie since I saw How to Draw a Bunny.


I kind of loved all of the cameos, too. There were so many. Benicio del Toro, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Walken (who was so wonderfully awkward), Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Courtney Love, I even saw Vincent Gallo for a split second at a dinner table. And who could forget this one:


I don't really know what else to say about this that will explain why I keep thinking about it (both him and the movie). Something about the way he absentmindedly poured syrup all over a tabletop just so he could sketch into it; the way he painted all over his girlfriend's dress while she was sleeping; the way he slapped white on stacks of tires. It's the kind of thing that could sound eye-roll-ish and make people balk at what the big deal is. I'm not sure either; maybe it's because I've had similar compulsions.

It's frustrating to not be able to articulate why I love the story so much. It's also frustrating to not understand why it's not more widely told, since it seems so huge now that I know a little bit about it. Is it like street smarts, which you only learn by living in the world and participating in culture first-hand, and getting away from a text book?


In any case, I know I'm light years behind on this artist, but Jean Michel Basquiat has been simultaneously my biggest oversight and my favorite discovery of the year.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...