From the monthly archives:

September 2008

Unpleasant Experiences

by Matt Blair on September 23, 2008

in Quotes

Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences, provided they do not go so far as to impair health. They say to themselves in an earthquake, for example: “So that is what an earthquake is like,” and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness


Patterns and Motion

by Matt Blair on September 10, 2008

in Exercises

In a previous exercise, I focused on rhythms — patterns that happen in time.

We are also surrounded by patterns that happen in space, and we experience these patterns as rhythms when we move through space. When we travel in cities, for example, that experience is shaped by three factors: the roads and buildings on the land, the speed we travel, and how our speed changes.

The roadways and architecture are like the grooves on a record: what music would a city play if a stylus was dragged through it?

(Note to younger readers: I’m talking about phonograph records — look it up!)

Here in downtown Portland, the city blocks are relatively small: 200 feet by 200 feet. To visitors from a city with blocks twice the size, walking in Portland might feel twice as “fast” even if they were walking at their normal pace. I grew up in the suburbs, with a hodgepodge of grid and amorphous street designs, and to me, Portland feels metronomic by comparison.

Our pace affects our perception, too: is the record spinning at 78, 45 or 33 and 1/3? I usually walk, experiencing the city as an LP. When I’m on a bike or driving, especially if there’s not much traffic, it’s more like a single.

Different details emerge from the landscape at different speeds, just as different sounds become easier or harder to identify when playing a record at different speeds.

On foot, I notice individual faces, the little spaces that stay wet days after it rains, and the undulations in the asphalt of the bus lanes.

In a car, we usually zip right through such details. We might feel the undulations slightly, get a general sense of how wet or dry the city is, and perceive people moving in flocks around us. But our attention is both farther ahead, and farther behind us. We experience more in the same amount of time, and so we have less attention to direct towards any one patch of ground or building or face.

In crowded urban places, our proximity to one another, and our need to avoid collisions, keeps us continually adjusting our speed, and this too affects our perception of space.

I’ve noticed that on 4th Avenue in downtown Portland, I’m often able to walk at a fairly steady speed and hit every green light. This city is made for foot traffic, or at least the lights are calibrated that way.

Driving the same street, even after rush hour, it’s usually a choice between coasting down hill at eight to ten miles an hour, or constantly accelerating to twenty or twenty-five, then stopping a minute or two at the next red light. This start/stop effect is almost like a hip-hop DJ scratching a record during a transition: the underlying music is recognizable, but it’s not all that easy to settle into a groove until the record starts spinning again.


  • What is the distance between streets and buildings in your neighborhood? Is it consistent?
  • How many homes or stores or parking lots are there in each block? Are there even discernible blocks?
  • How is it different from other places you’ve lived?
  • And how does your speed affect your perception of the patterns and of place?
  • How do other people affect your speed?



Move around your neighborhood in at least two modes of transportation. Note any patterns you experience, and the ebb and flow required for navigation.

If you walk at a comfortable pace, do you tend to hit the green lights, or do you find yourself rushing across the street as the light turns red? Do you find yourself yielding to traffic, or vice versa, or is traffic not an issue?

What do you experience at slower speeds, but not faster speeds?


Look at your neighborhood on Google Maps. How do your perceptions on the ground compare to the view from above?

Some patterns are so large that they are difficult to experience by moving through them. How does your neighborhood look at different scales? What patterns can you see that weren’t obvious on the ground?


Also in Google Maps, take a look at a few neighborhoods nearby, or in a city you might be visiting soon.

Select one that looks interesting from a few thousand feet up. Go to that neighborhood and travel through it using two modes of transportation, reviewing the questions and your thoughts from the first exercise. Does the experience differ in a significant way from your own neighborhood?


Herzog, at the End of the World

by Matt Blair on September 3, 2008

in Inspirations

On Werner Herzog’s film “Encounters at the End of the World”

Antarctica is probably the closest thing to a genuine frontier that I might experience in my lifetime. And I’ve long admired by Werner Herzog, particularly for the tenacity featured both on and off the screen in his film “Fitzcarraldo”.

A few years ago, the National Science Foundation sent Herzog and a cinematographer to Antarctica for six weeks, despite his promise that he would not come back with another cute penguin story. He emerged from this experience with a hybrid: gorgeous sequences of natural beauty paired with the close harmonies of Eastern Orthodox choral music, interspersed with a kind of anthropological study of a land without natives — human natives, anyway.

There are, in fact penguins in this film, but only briefly. While many reviewers seem to focus on Herzog’s attempt to interview a misanthropic penguin expert, I was more interested in the question implied by a single penguin, a question at the core of all our explorations:

What makes us set off for the hills, on a path perpendicular to our known comforts?

Herzog wisely sidesteps any attempts to answer such questions, and simply presents us with the image of this lone penguin headed for the horizon. Headed for “certain death”, he narrates, as though that distinguishes this penguin from any other.

This trailer tries to cram dozens of stunning image into less than two minutes. Don’t let its frenetic jump-cut editing discourage you from seeing Herzog’s actual film, which unfolds at an expansive and contemplative pace.

In between shots of the vast landscapes and languid underwater sequences, we are introduced to a linguist who operates the green houses which provide fresh fruits and vegetables, a climatologist studying icebergs the size of England as they dance across a computer screen, and single-celled organisms that are able to sort sand particles by size to build tree-like shells. We meet an émigré from Eastern Europe who still keeps a bag ready for instant departure at any moment, a pensive cell biologist making his last dive in Antarctica, and watch scientists in those ubiquitous, bulky red parkas, bending slowly to the ground — like performers in a modern dance piece — to press their ears against the ice, and hear the seals below.

These scientists have a perspective of the Long Now, of the ephemeral nature of human civilization, and yet they also have a zest for life, and an enthusiasm for what they are doing that is truly inspiring.


…as far as I can…

by Matt Blair on September 2, 2008

in Quotes

“Deep as the snow is,
Let me go as far as I can
Till I stumble and fall,
viewing the white landscape.”

– Basho, from “The Narrow Road to the Deep North
and other Travel Sketches”