27 January 2010

Zebra finches playing guitars

As you may know by now, sometimes wildly awesome things that have been around for a long time fly completely over my head for months (sometimes years) before I discover them. Barbican Centre might be one of those things. It's an arts complex in London that features visual art, music, dance, theatre, film, and education events. One part of the complex is called The Curve, for very apparent reasons:

The Curve is home to Curve Art, which is "A series of new site-specific commissions created for The Curve by contemporary artists." The one up right now looks awesome. It's by a French artist named Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, and features a bunch of musical instruments arranged throughout the space (mostly electric guitars, it seems). Also in the space: a bunch of little zebra finches!
Boursier-Mougenot’s installation for The Curve, his first solo exhibition in the UK, takes the form of a walk-though aviary for a flock of zebra finches, furnished with electric guitars and other musical instruments. As the birds go about their routine activities, perching on or feeding from the various pieces of equipment, they create a random and captivating soundscape.
If that sounds a little confusing, this video should help:

I love that! I like the concept alone, but the way that bright green and flecks of orange are brought together amongst muted grays and butter creams – with distortion and tiny tweets as a background – makes me smile throughout the entire thing.

[img via the exhibition page]

If you're in London before the 23rd of May and end up catching it, let me know! Special thanks to Roxy for sharing this with me.

26 January 2010

Happy Birthday, Cellar Door!

It's 12.05 AM, and Cellar Door is now FOUR! Lots has happened since January 2006, but I'll spare the details since I've – as you can see – written about it along the way.

I've been documenting my life since I was six; my first diary was a gradient of neons featuring Minnie and Mickey Mouse. I wrote about Cinderella and a blonde boy I had a crush on. Since then, I've kept with it and added about five thousand layers to it all.

In my two years at the VCU Adcenter, I filled seven 8.5 x 11 black, linen-bound sketchbooks with thoughts, ideas, and things I gathered along the way (everything from postcards to Polaroids and candy wrappers). I stopped writing on paper as much when I started this blog, and filled post upon post with the stuff.

A stack of two years.

My old apartment in Richmond.

I got a little down on my self at the end of 2009 when I looked at my archives and noticed that my frequency of blogging had steadily declined over the years:

2006: 168 posts
2007: 124 posts
2008: 83 posts
2009: 57 posts

I also got a little sad that I was no longer filling books as quickly as I had in school. Had I run out of thoughts? Had my brain stopped racing?

Sketchbook Sprawl

Then I realized that the amount of thinking and documenting hadn't changed, but had been spread across many more platforms over the years. I started taking pictures with everything that could take a picture (even my RAZR for a brief moment in 2006, yikes); I flew onto Twitter in 2007 (I have tiny thoughts all the time and this was finally the perfect place for them); I flew onto Tumblr in late 2008 for my medium thoughts (which were once thrown onto my blog with the rest of them). So really, all of this stuff used to be poured into one place: paper. Then two places: paper and a blog. Now: well, you know where I'm going with this...

4,454 pictures on Flickr
3,899 tweets
676 Tumblr posts

I guess the point I'm getting at is that whatever the platform, the thoughts are flying out as much as they ever were. Thanks for sticking around, guys :] you're inspiring as hell, and only get more so.

17 January 2010

The Butterfly Effect

Sometimes life will give you signs, and it is good if you can see them, because they can show you the way and prepare you for what is to come. The most important signs are usually not labeled, so they are like secret signs. They occur in the physical world, but they map your inner landscape, and they are made just for you. Since they are secrets, you cannot read them directly — instead you must use feeling and intuition to uncover their meaning.

– Jonathan Harris, Jan 16, 2010*

A few months ago, Kevin from Given Collective contacted me about another project he was cooking up (he was behind both One City Left and DOCUMENT Magazine). His next idea was for an online, thematic version of DOCUMENT called Weeklies, and asked if I would consider contributing. At the time something pretty strange was happening around me, and I decided to write about it and call it The Butterfly Effect. Kevin graciously commissioned a Toronto-based illustrator to create a visual to go along with my piece. Awesome!

Screen shot 2010-01-18 at 9.59.33 AM

At the end of September, I read a crazy article in an in-flight magazine, of all places, about the migration paths of monarch butterflies. Every year they fly from Canada and the Northern US all the way down to the volcanic belt of Mexico and back, and for thousands of years this path was a mystery. Then in the 1970s, an American engineer and a kid who had never met each other figured it all out together. The engineer was traveling in Mexico, and had known about a Canadian entomologist who had been trying to figure out the monarchs’ paths by tagging butterflies before they left region each year. The engineer spoke to some locals, scaled some volcanoes, and after a long time of searching happened upon a tagged butterfly. He called the number on the tag, and was shocked when it wasn’t the entomologist on the other end, but a 12 year-old boy in Texas. The boy had been tagging butterflies as a hobby for some time, but had no idea he would one day play a huge part in figuring out one of the biggest mysteries ever.

Two or three weeks later, some research at work led me to the coolest example of biomimicry I have ever come across. Nano-engineers have been using butterfly wings as inspiration to build better security systems. The wings are made up of thousands of little scales, and there is one type of butterfly whose wings change color when they sense certain atmospheric changes. These engineers are trying to recreate the basic structures of the wing scales to improve the technology in public security sensors (potentially making us safer at concert venues, in the subway, at airports, etc.). I couldn’t stop talking about it for days.

Not soon after that, I turned around at work to see Clay putting a presentation together. The slide he was making was a single monarch butterfly on a dark background. When I asked him about it (having forgotten about both the migration and biomimicry cases), all he said was, “Butterflies are actually kind of awesome.” All of a sudden something clicked in my head, and we spent the next few minutes talking about it. He brought up the butterfly effect, which had slipped my mind until then: that something as slight as the flap of a butterfly wing can alter the atmosphere enough to drastically affect weather patterns in the future.

By the time I read a blog post that weekend announcing the opening of a massive butterfly exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, I started feeling like there must be something going on here. I told Jack about it, and over the course of the next couple of weeks, butterfly imagery started popping up everywhere for him as well, the photographic evidence of which would turn up in my Inbox every day. I saw a blue morpho perched among piles of bones and shells in a window display on a cold and gray afternoon; I looked up from a pounding headache in the coffee shop to see a paper kite on a poster; I walked to the subway in the freezing rain to see the silhouette of wings on a hanging store sign; they were in a short story about nuclear holocaust; in the song title of a band I had never heard of who reached out to me online. Sure, this could be partially a case of perceptual vigilance, a type of selective perception that makes one more attuned to (and notice) the things they are looking for.

Refusing to believe that cognitive bias explained this entire thing, I read everything I could about butterflies. Spending some time on Wikipedia, I learned that throughout history butterflies have stood for both good and bad things, depending on the culture. Sometimes seeing one means a loved one is going to visit you, and other times it means that somebody is about to die. Sometimes you can expect good fortune if one lands on you, and other times you will have bad luck if you don’t kill the first one you see each year.

Reading a dream dictionary told me that butterflies often symbolize some kind of major transition. Remembering the fact that I had been through three major life changes in the second half of 2009 got me thinking about the subconscious. If the cryptic things that pop up in our dreams are actually manifestations of our conscious thoughts or stories that our lives are writing, why can’t these symbols be present in our waking life as well? Perhaps they are for everyone, but are so subtle that we don’t notice them at all or even know to look for them.

It’s clear that I haven’t figured this out yet or come to any sort of conclusion. In the meantime, butterflies have become a type of cognitive security blanket for me, every time I see one now, my mood soars. Maybe it’s my own way of telling myself that Things Are Pretty Great.


While I was thinking about all of this, I kept a small Flickr set documenting some of my (and a couple of Jack's) butterfly sightings. Check it out if you're so inclined. Otherwise: Thank you Kevin, thank you Devin for the illustration, and thank you *Jack for keeping the serendipity coming always! })i({

10 January 2010

Audrey Kawasaki @ Jonathan LeVine

I was fortunate enough to catch the final day of Audrey Kawasaki's NY exhibit today with The Retrospective's Gitamba, who was in NY for a few wonderful days. It's called Hajimari–a prelude, and was at Jonathan LeVine Gallery on W 20th Street.

Hajimari - a prelude

For those who are unfamiliar with her work, Kawasaki does illustration and painting on wood. They are nearly all of beautiful girls with pouts and flowy hair, oftentimes featuring underwater themes, skeletons, and creepy little creatures.
The show title Hajimari means beginning in Japanese, and is a word often used in the introduction of a story. Although it is a theme she does not typically explore artistically, Audrey has always felt strongly rooted in two distinct cultures. Born and raised in America, with parents from Japan, she has been immersed in Japanese culture her entire life. Deeply connected to each of the two, she feels both cultures are very much a part of her personal identity.
I haven't gone through my mental list yet, but I can say with a huge degree of confidence that she is my favorite living artist (and has been for a number of years). And there were so many pieces at the show, much to my delight! Here are a few:

Karasu no Jyou (The Bird Queen)

My Dishonest Heart

Mezameru Maeni (Before You Awake)

You can see a few more in my Flickr set, and the exhibit's page has images of all pieces + a description of the show. Hopefully it stays up for a while. Beautiful beautiful beautiful.

04 January 2010

H&R Block: too many shiny objects?

This morning, I read about H&R Block's aggressive social media push to supplement their "H&R Block At Home" software that lets you do your taxes by yourself. Apparently they have screened and selected 1,000 of their current employees to lead (and presumably run) the campaign.
The tax pro force's main domain is the home website, where there are both community pages as well as direct "Ask a Tax Advisor" buttons (staffed beginning Jan. 5). The tax team will answer questions directly, of course, but will also "listen" in to concerns or problems being discussed within communities and forums and respond accordingly.
The article also brings up the fact that H&R Block were hesitant to get into "digital" at first out of fear that this service would cannibalize business from their retail locations. They have ultimately figured out how to combine the two services, by allowing people who do their own taxes to bring their files in and double check with tax preparers at the retail level. Pretty interesting, and I wonder how successful it will be. I won't be experiencing it first-hand.

In 2008, I did my taxes at H&R Block. I don't remember the details of my experience, which probably means that it was a painless one (considering what tax season can do to people). And everything afterward – the debits to my bank account, the refund check I got later on – went pretty much like clockwork.

Fast forward to last year. In early January, I got a big, empty envelope from them. The insert said something like, "We know you aren't thinking about taxes yet, but we are." And they really seemed to be: the empty envelope had a long check list on the back of it, outlining every document I needed to bring with me to have my return done this year. Before I had even received my W-2, I'd already been set up with a comprehensive list of everything I needed, and an envelope to put it all in.


A few weeks later, the woman who prepared my taxes in 2008 in Florida left me a friendly voice message asking that I call her to make my next appointment. Since I had decided to do my taxes in NY last year, I called a downtown Manhattan location instead. "Yes, I see your information all right here," I was told on the phone. So far so good.

Well, almost. During my appointment was when things got complicated. Really complicated. For starters, their database was being temperamental, which meant my 2007 return was impossible to access. The internal call center couldn't access it either, unless I told them the i.d. number of the Florida store (no, I didn't know it). There is apparently no way to find out a store's i.d. number in their system, even if you have its street address (which they also didn't seem to have; I had to pull it up on my BlackBerry); they eventually had to call Florida directly and ask an employee working in the store. I'd been thinking about internal communications and operations a lot by that point because of then-projects, and it was pretty mind blowing to think that some company databases are not equipped to find (or sort by) seemingly-important, basic information.

Other assorted things that happened during this experience include (but are not limited to):

– Charging me $30 for an extended service plan without asking me
– Not being able to refund the above charge directly (it requires an internal request that takes at least 1 month to process)
– Marking me down for nearly $500 of savings account interest income that was not mine
– Refusing my request to itemize my charitable donations
– Receiving "insufficient paperwork /information" notices from the IRS, leading to 3 more visits to the tax preparer and 2 appointments with a certified H&R Block CPA
– Being told "Oh, don't listen to [your tax preparer], she messes up sometimes," by an H&R Block employee upon one of my return visits in which my tax preparer had stepped out

Picture 4.png
[Click for bigger, sorry so teeny]

In consumer behavior, there is an adoption process stage called Confirmation. It's pretty much when post-purchase doubt is removed (and maybe evangelism starts, if things are awesome). H&R Block did a stellar job in many ways of making this process as painless as possible to bring me back in. The automatic debits; the checklist envelope; the followup call; and the ease at which I made my 2009 appointment all went above and beyond Confirmation – and the loop was nearly closed (this cycle would have repeated each year, ideally). And I'm sure there are parts of their new digital strategy that work great along with their At-Home kit as well.

But the thing is: companies have to be on the ball at every stage of the journey. What if my 2009 experience mirrors what many first-time-customers and "H&R Block At Home" walk-ins will only ever come in contact with? Because taxes are something we have to do every year, closing this feedback loop is so important! Otherwise people can end up feeling cheated and potentially go somewhere else the next time around. Like me (this year I'll be with an independent CPA that specializes in my industry). Maybe some of their communications budget should have been reallocated into streamlining database infrastructure or more robust employee training, rather than throwing a Twitter account, widgets, blogs, a YouTube channel, a Facebook fan page, AND apps (?!?!) into this strategy.
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