From the monthly archives:

October 2009

Cameras Are Spotlights

by Matt Blair on October 28, 2009

in Perception,Places and Contexts,Senses,Tools

People seem to be tilting their heads a little higher on the streets lately.

(No, not just because of the latest gushing story about Portland in the national press.)

Our trees — the moody ones that change their wardrobe with the seasons, not the stalwart evergreens — are baring themselves for winter, and Portlanders, often with cameras or camera phones in hand, are gathering evidence of autumn before it all falls away and leaves us with short days and drizzle.

This season brings all sorts of sensations: the first time in months when you feel cold even with two jackets on, the pumpkin lattes, the smell of roasting squash, the constant uncertainty over whether it is or isn’t actually raining, the seemingly endless variety of fresh apples, the piles of leaves that the kid in me wants to stomp through, and the intuition to look up a little more frequently than usual.

Life doesn’t stop, of course, and all the things that preoccupied us two weeks ago, and will preoccupy us two weeks from now, are still there, weighing on our minds enough to even our gaze, or turn it back down to the ground.

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Whether absorbed in conversation, mentally re-prioritizing my reading list (again) or simply walking around mulling over nascent thoughts, whenever I see someone fussing with a camera, it acts as a silent, subtle alarm: something interesting must be happening here.

Hmm, a building — must be working for a real estate agent.

Or we see a toddler stumbling down the sidewalk towards the parent, who is documenting another step towards confidence.

Then there are those rare — and to me, beautiful — moments when a quick scan reveals no cause for photography at all. We can find no explanation for why someone has stopped to capture some part of this scene.  And we are left to wonder:  How often am I missing something among all that seems ordinary?

A camera is an attention-directing device as well as an image capture device. To point a camera is to convey to all those around us: I find this worth remembering.

When passing a woman carefully framing a shot causes us to pause, and wonder what she’s looking at, she has done us a great favor by making us more attentive to our surroundings.

Even just seeing a photo later, out of its original context, on Flickr or a postcard or an email, can have a similar effect. We think:

“I saw something like that last week, and I didn’t stop to notice the details.  Maybe I should.”

And with that in mind, I’m going for another walk, before all the leaves are on the ground.

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Into the Unknown

Into the Unknown

After starting off with a somewhat obtuse quote from Glenn Gould, I set up a metaphor of an island and the surrounding sea:

  • The land is certainty, and the sea, uncertainty.
  • The land is solid, the sea is liquid.
  • Land represents belief, and the sea, doubt.
  • Land is well-defined, while the sea is vague and elusive.
  • Land is static, the sea — dynamic.

What do our wanderings between land and sea have to do with the creative process?

Have a listen:

Play

Questions

  • Which areas of  this continuum between system and negation, between land and sea, support your work? Which enrich your life? How do you move within it?
  • Are you content with occasional trips to the beach, to watch the tides of uncertainty lap at the edge of the known?
  • Do you derive enough inspiration by wading knee-deep into the mystery? Or do you long to go deep-sea fishing every single day?
  • Do you like to go to sea in a row boat? A crowded cruise ship, with lots of coordinated activities? A freighter with a few people and lots of heavy but valuable cargo?
  • Do you get sea-sick easily?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

Sources

The Glenn Gould commencement speech I quoted is available in The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page.

Here’s another Gould quote from earlier in the same speech that I ended up cutting from the audio version of the podcast:

“You must try to discover how high your tolerance is for the questions you ask of yourself. You must try to recognize that point beyond which the creative exploration — questions that extend your vision of your world — extends beyond the point of tolerance and paralyzes the imagination by confronting it with too much possibility, too much speculative opportunity. To keep the practical issues of systematized thought and the speculative opportunities of the creative instinct in balance will be the most difficult and important undertaking of your lives in music.”

John Keats, in a letter dated 28 December 1817, to George and Thomas Keats:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

from poets.org: Bright Star: Campion’s Film About the Life and Love of Keats

Björk, in Oceania:

“Your sweat is salty/ I am why…”

Credits

Outro music: An excerpt from Amb07 (DrunkAtTheLabAgain) by AFS (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, who is now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in May, 2001.

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600 Milliseconds

by Matt Blair on October 16, 2009

in Audience,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Perception

I was just taking a break from editing a followup to my English as a Second Language post, and heard this story on NPR:

In Milliseconds, Brain Zips From Thought To Speech.

A new study using electrodes in the brains of epilepsy patients has hinted at the location, timing and sequence of thought formation and verbal response. (The electrodes were voluntarily implanted prior to surgery, in case you were wondering!)

Here’s an approximate time line in milliseconds of what happened after the patients were asked to read and respond to a “group of words”:

  • 200 ms — Word recognition
  • 320 ms — Grammatical processing
  • 450 ms — Preparing a response

Previous research suggests that it takes about 600 ms to form and speak a thought.

What are the practical implications? What does all this mean? That’s not yet clear.

A quote from Ned T. Sahin, one of the researchers involved in the study:

“Sometimes I feel like we’re a colony of ants who’ve come across a cell phone,” he says. “We can describe parts of it, but we really don’t know what’s fundamentally going on here yet.”

Feeling like one of those ants, I’m going to crawl around that followup post and re-work it a bit.

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Play
An unlearned constellation?

An unlearned constellation?

Whose permission do we need to express ourselves?

Questions

How have you found poetic license in your own work — and life?

What do you do to encourage those around you to express themselves?

Are are you inviting others into the conversation?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

Links

  • Clay Shirky on Weekend Edition Saturday
  • Poetry Foundation: e.e. cummings
  • In Just- by e.e. cummings — the kind of poem my 7th-grade English teacher would not have enjoyed

Credits

Outro music: “Kinoko Otaku” by AFS.  (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in January, 2001.

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Play

You may have noticed that the pace of posting on this blog has slowed over the last few months. I’ve been working on a few other projects recently, mostly long-term, some more public than others.

I’m excited to announce one of those projects today: the Six Dense Minutes podcast.

I question the ergonomics of this mic stand

I question the ergonomics of this mic stand...

There’s no intro music, hastily added outro music, and I think I heard a few sloppy splices — it sounds like a pilot episode!

As Pam Slim once put it, sometimes you just have to stop fretting over all the imperfections and “let your scrappy self loose!”

This preview episode includes an explanation of my ideas and goals for this podcast, some thoughts on brevity and density, and a question for the audience.

I’ll be publishing new episodes at least weekly. I hope you enjoy it.

Links For This Episode

The Scrapbook post with the Heather McHugh quote

Blog post: My Experience of English as a Second Language

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Last night, while cutting and roasting these little squares and cubes of yum:

sweet potatoes and red pepper

Not quite squares or cubes...

I was listening to an episode of Philosophy Talk about language titled “What Are Words Worth?” and one of the topics was whether and how our native language constrains our thought processes.

Most people would consider English to be my primary language. Anyone who has tried to comprehend my attempts at French or Japanese or Chinese would consider English my only language. And they’d be essentially correct.

Or is it mostly accurate?  Or spot on? I have a notion of what each of those phrases means, but I’m not sure the best way to say it. I could keep fiddling with it, or come back to it in ten minutes. But I’ll just leave it as an example of my frequent inability to find a word or phrase that precisely fits what I’m thinking.

If my thoughts originate in English, shouldn’t the words and sentences just fall out of my head, fully-formed? Why do I feel inclined to hunt through dictionaries, ponder each word’s heritage, and fret about shared perceptions of what specific words mean?

In other words, why does writing feel like translation rather than transcription?

Micro-Dialects

Maybe it’s a matter of converting my own personal and idiosyncratic dialect into more commonly used patterns? That seems plausible enough.

We each use language in our own peculiar way. Through editing and revision, we move from the quirky, hyper-local dialect of our internal monologues towards the language practices we share with our audience.

To communicate a specific idea, I have to capture its meaning, seal it into these little semantic packets called words and phrases, sequence those into sentences and paragraphs, encode it with one computer, transmit it to another computer, and let you take it from there.

As a reader, you go through an inverse process: you use a tool like a browser to copy it from a computer to your computer, which retrieves text from the numerical codes, and positions the sentences and paragraphs, which you then parse into words and phrases. Hopefully they mean something to you which approximates what they meant to me.

This model works well enough for blog posts, which tend to focus on words and voice, so it’s easy to assume that only the machines are translating and transmuting the ideas as they move from my mind to yours.

An Inadequate Container

But what about all the ideas that never take the form of written or spoken languages?

Could anyone imagine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captured in words alone, and then accurately transformed into sound? It might be possible — after all, musical notation is a kind of language — but it would certainly be inefficient and absurd.

I could have described the objects depicted at the top of this post using only language:

“Two well-scrubbed sweet potatoes from the Farmers’ market (cut in 1.5cm cubes) along with a red pepper from the Farmers’ market (cut in 2cm squares) tossed in olive oil, cumin, coriander, black pepper, a pinch of salt, roasted in a glass dish at 400F for approximately 53 minutes, until they were just right.”

Yet there’s nothing intrinsically linguistic about them. I used language to procure them. I just used language to describe them.

Other than that, the experience of them, it seems to me, has very little to do with language. I decided a photo paired with a flippant phrase (“little squares and cubes of yum”) was a better way to present them. Smell and taste would create a more accurate perception in your mind of what came out of the oven, but digital media hasn’t quite caught up with those senses — yet.

If language is not an adequate container for all thoughts, then what is thought?

Do ideas form out of a kind of raw “thought stuff” which is then sometimes translated into language?

In my experience, yes, which is why I feel like writing is translation, like whatever I express in English is at best an approximation of what I’m after.

I’ll explore this question, and some of its implications for idea-making, in my next post.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences:

  • Do you feel like you are directly transcribing what’s in your head when writing a short story or a blog post or painting or dancing?
  • Or do you feel like you are translating your ideas, whether into language or image or sound or other physical forms?

Please add a comment or send an email or a tweet, and let me know.

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