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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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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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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In a recent tweet referring to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics, I hinted at what I think is absent in digital systems:

My tweet on what digital systems lack...

One of my post-WordCamp Portland tweets

My meaning wasn’t entirely clear in the context of that tweet, so I decided to expand on it.

First, by “digital system” I mean any system built around the processing of numerical data. Examples include the internet, search engines, and the IRS.

A purely digital system is deterministic. The same input will produce the same output every single time. (I’m leaving out faulty parts or accidents for the moment.)

Whether a digital system does exactly what you think it will do or want it to do is another matter.  It’s only going to do what it is programmed to do.

While predictability is a desirable quality in an ATM machine or a heart defibrillator, it’s less useful when our goals are to be innovative, evocative and inspiring.

Preserving the quirky

How can we reduce the predictability?

Unreliability is one option: Poor quality parts can cause frequent and possibly interesting failures.

Intentional chaos is another method: If you build enough complexity into a system, or aggregate enough simple components, the system will start behaving in unpredictable ways. This is not an approach you want to take if you’re designing the braking system of a car, but it can be an effective way to generate a set of ideas you might not have discovered otherwise.

The most common — and in my view, the best — way to add ambiguity, uncertainty and maybe even serendipity back into digital systems is a thoughtful integration of people: allow human beings to be curious and playful and peculiar and idiosyncratic in their use of the system.

Quirky human beings breathe life into routine systems.

What worries me about some (but not all) of these guidelines around SEO, or any set of rules that we allow to burden our self-expression, is that they force us into certain predictable areas where our work becomes less interesting.

They encourage us to make decisions that dilute our ideas and diminish who we are, like watering down a well-aged whisky to meet some arbitrary local regulation thought up by the head of a temperance council.

Less than Human

Most music software packages have a feature called quantization. When enabled, the software alters a recorded performance according to certain settings: it can make all the notes equally loud, for example, and move them around in time so that each lands precisely on a beat.

Playing new ideas into a computer in a steady rhythm can be very awkward. Quantization has saved musicians countless hours of fiddling, editing, and reprogramming, especially given how crude the editing tools where when it was first introduced more than a decade ago.

But it’s also had negative effects.

The message of a system that will quantize you is that you can be sloppy. Don’t worry about drawing a straight line, or playing in time: the machine will fix it for you.  (Auto-tune, a more recent phenomena, applies the same logic to pitch correction.)

When “perfection” is a few mouse-clicks away, it can be come the default expectation, at least for a while, until everyone starts to realize that music “fixed” by machines tend to be very boring and repetitive.

So a few years after software companies introduced quantization, they released the antidote: another feature called “humanize”.

The computer goes through a performance that’s been previously quantized, or one that was played to a metronome or click track, or maybe even typed directly into a computer, and it adds random elements to the data: it plays each note a little softer or a little harder, or shifts it a few tens of milliseconds backwards or forwards in time to give it a sense of imperfection and “human-like” variation.

I love that it’s there, and I love the concept of it, but it’s always seemed like a peculiar thing to have to do. It was a recognition that computers tend to make our self-expression less than human. Feebly, we go to the Edit menu, and select “Humanize”, hoping that an artificial randomization routine can recover what we’ve lost.

The Norms That Lurk Within

Digital systems want to quantize us: they want to put us in boxes, attach us to tags and keywords and categories and clusters.

They ask us questions, and expect us to respond with a yes or a no, or by selecting from a short list of choices which don’t match our current situation. They apply algorithms to us, and expect us to conform to certain inputs and outputs.

Slowly, our instinct becomes one of self-surrender: we voluntarily algorithmize our own lives, if you will, so that we fit better inside their framework.

Of course, the real source of these algorithms and limitations are the designers of these systems which, in most cases, are still human. But we interact with the machine in front of us, not the person who told that machine how to behave. In this context, I’m personifying the systems, because they embody the designers’ decisions about the norms and constraints.

The Simultaneity of Square and Squishy

Machines and searchbots are a fact of life, and I’m not proposing that we all jam our shoes in their virtual gears.

The solution, it seems, is to explore the interplay between the deterministic and the chaotic, the predictable and the surprising, the explicit and the ambiguous.

There’s a quality present in many Caribbean pop songs that represents a kind of ideal to me: crisp drum machines form a structure as precise as the engineering of the chips inside of them, while above those relentless patterns, musicians add laid-back basslines, horns show up from time to time, and languid vocalists ease in and out of each entrance.

It’s lovely because it isn’t either/or: the musical interest comes from the tension between what’s on the grid, and what’s not on the grid, from the simultaneity of square and squishy.

I hear this same pattern elsewhere: In Joy Division, characterized by the contrast between the precision of Stephen Morris’ drumming and the mercurial vocals of Ian Curtis.

Or in Italian Baroque opera, as a soprano gracefully unfolds a melodic line over the tick-tock continuo of harpsichord and strings.

I see this quality, too: even Jackson Pollock used square canvases.

Systems and process provide order. It’s up to us to be a little quirky and chaotic within that, to keep it interesting.

Acknowledge the rules. Flirt with the guidelines. Follow some, avoid others. And remember: in the digital realm, conformity is built-in, and needs no allies.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by rules, how-to lists, keywords to include, tradition, convention or a statistical analysis of retweetability, please just stop.

Stop.

And instead, choose to be the most interesting thing you can be: Human.

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A few days ago, I happened across an old episode of the Guardian Books Podcast which featured authors choosing and contemplating “a key word that opened up the literary territories” they’ve explored in their work.

I particularly enjoyed the delightful obstinancy of Olivia Rosenthal’s exploration of “no” and Anne Weber’s “Attend Attentive” which I quoted on the scrapbook blog yesterday.

And then there was the opening volley of Arthur Japin’s piece about the unreal:

“Reality already exists. What’s the point of describing it one more time? The common place is all around. Why would you want to imitate it? What kind of challenge is truth? It is already there!”

I bristled at that initially — until I understood where he was headed.

Truth and reality would only be boring if we could perceive and understand them in their entirety. And we can’t.

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

Imagine a dozen people whose only experience of the world is wandering through the British Museum. After ten minutes, each in different rooms, they meet out front to compare notes. One person starts enthusiastically describing the Rosetta Stone, another asks “Who are the Egyptians?” and yet another mutters: “Greeks? Never heard of them…”

Common Place

Here’s a less contrived example: Imagine a group of people in the same room for a few minutes. How many details do they each notice? Five? Maybe ten?

Let’s be optimistic and say ten. Do they all notice the same things? Unlikely. And that’s what we have to share with each other.

Reality and truth exist in some physical sense. (I’ll leave philosophical debates about the details for another time.)

But they don’t exist in a way that is always present and complete and comprehensible in our minds. None of us individually can perceive and understand everything.

Ideas emerge from the gaps in our common perceptions, and those ideas become the ingredients of the stories we tell, the art we make and the perspectives we share.

Imagine someone that lives two thousand kilometers (or miles) in any direction from you. Is their daily life so much like your own, do you have so much in common in every thought and action, that they would learn nothing from you, and you nothing from them?

There is no such thing as commonplace, at least not one that we can perceive in any depth or detail.

To the extent that we do perceive a commonplace, it is something we construct by telling each other what we notice about our lives and our work, whether we do that through blogs or tweets or dancing or sculpture or music.

The actual content of the writing on the Rosetta Stone couldn’t be more mundane: an announcement of the specifics of a tax amnesty. That’s right: it’s an Egyptian IRS memo that just happens to be in three languages we find interesting more than 2000 years later.

We learn its significance not from our own direct experience of reality and truth, but by assembling ideas from teachers, historians, archaeologists, and writers.

Abstraction and Truth

I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Arthur Japin. Despite my initial reaction, I suspected there wasn’t all that much distance between my own thinking and his.

When I enter a museum or gallery, I usually walk straight past all the figurative work towards the abstract and conceptual, the absurd and surreal.  While my verbal brain defends capital-R Reality and capital-T Truth, my feet follow orders from my deeper aesthetic instincts.

Japin has an explanation for what makes the mysterious so compelling:

“The further characters are from me personally, the more I want to know about them. The less clear they are, the more I strive to fathom them.”

He then imagines stopping a man on a street, showing him a “vague, smudged, coffee-stained daub” and asking: “Is this you?”

Japin describes the effect on the man:

“Before he can seek a likeness, he has to think about himself. And if he eventually decides that he can’t recognize any of his features in the portrait you have shown him, he will still walk on with a different image of himself than the one he had when you stopped him.”

But doesn’t a realistic portrayal of Iranian women’s lives, or a documentary about a devastating hurricane, or even a series of films about growing up do the same thing? Or more?

When we encounter an artist whose exploration of Truth and Reality implicitly asks us the same question — “Is this you?” — and our reaction is similar to what Japin describes,  we haven’t just changed our image of ourselves. We’ve changed our image of the world.

An idea or piece of art that prompts us to perceive our own likeness in unfamiliar pockets of reality and human experience can have a much more important outcome than self-reflection: empathy.

So when Japin demands: “What kind of challenge is truth?”

I respond: The most important kind.

And, from my perspective, it’s far more elusive and illuminating than the unreal.

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Textural and Temporal

by Matt Blair on August 30, 2009

in Books,Perception,Senses

The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría is the shortest book I’ve read in quite a while.

This concept book consists of a series of paired black pages: text describing a color in both braille and white letters on the left page, and an image in raised black ink on the right. (You can see an example in this review.)

Ostensibly a book for children, it is a book meant to be touched and felt. Sighted readers can tilt the book back and forth in the light to perceive the image — but that’s cheating isn’t it?

Thomas, our guide through this seemingly monochromatic world, explains each color to us:

“Thomas says that blue is the color of the sky when kites are flying and the sun is beating hot on his head.”

Touching the adjacent page with eyes closed, I scanned from upper left to upper right, out of instinct.  There didn’t seem to be anything at all.

Descending the left side of the page, my fingertips caught a bare thread near the bottom. With no other distractions, they followed that thin line up and to the right, until it exploded into the shape and form of a kite.

Our eyes can take in a page at a glance — not every detail, of course, but the general structure of it.  With touch alone, our sensory connection to the page shrinks to narrow points — a fingertip or two. The experience of the page happens not in an instant, but through time.

Looking at a page, we think: there’s a kite on the right.

Touching the page, there’s nothing at first, then a spare line, and then a burst of complexity.

It’s not just that we’re using a different sense: the entire sequence of the experience has changed.

Questions

What is your primary sense?  How do your perceptions change if you mask or ignore that particular sense and focus on your other senses?

Does your primary sense allow you to perceive something in an instant, or does the experience unfold through time? Do some senses take longer than others?

With practice, could your perception with that particular sense get faster? Would you want it to?

Could your perception with that sense get slower over time? Would you want to develop that ability?

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Interlude

by Matt Blair on July 24, 2009

in Background,Replenishing

As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted anything yet this month.  I haven’t quite disappeared…

Morning in the San Juans

I had a generous opportunity to escape to the San Juan Islands for a bit, and I’m attending to a few other projects and aspects of my life through the rest of the month.

The pace of blog posts will pick up again in August, starting with a followup or two, and then a new series I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In the meantime, I do have quite a few quotes and ideas from other creative minds in the queue which I’ll be sharing on the Scrapbook, and you may also want to check out my “fun-size” dispatches on Twitter.

Please stay tuned…

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“I think of all the different music that I have done and will continue
to do almost as photographs of my evolution, and just like
photographs, in some I may look great and in some I may not. What
matters to me is that I risk, I trust, I strive, and let things unfold
as they may.”

Azam Ali

I’ve been thinking about eggs, and the way we form ideas and release them into the wild.

My first thought was that ideas are like eggs in a nest, little orbs of potential that we fuss over and tend to and keep warm, until they are ready to hatch and emerge into the world.

But I don’t think that’s quite right. It doesn’t seem to reflect the experience that artists and innovative thinkers have when sharing their new ideas with the world. It’s too detached.

robin's egg

From the Inside (image by brungrrl on Flickr)

What if we aren’t outside watching over our ideas? What if we are inside? Not just inside the nest, but inside the egg?

Maybe our relationship to the ideas we develop is not one of parental vigilance but symbiosis?

We nourish our ideas, and our ideas nourish us. We grow through the exchange.

It might make more sense if we think of ideas not as something that we have or collect, but as something we are. An idea is something we become, at least during those initial stages of growth, before it takes on a life fully its own.

In other words, hatching ideas isn’t a process of anxious observation as our ideas enter the world: it is we who must emerge each time.

The Nature of Our Shell

What does this mean for our creative process?

The shell could be the walls of our studio, or the anonymity of a blogging pseudonym. It could be the comfortable praise of a long-time mentor, or the fears that keep us from expressing our thoughts. It could be the rounded womb of habit, or the way a well-used tool feels in our hand.

The opacity of a shell provides a kind of veil or disguise — there’s no need to be presentable while still forming. And its hardness provides protection from the elements, elements that might damage and inhibit growth before the life within becomes viable.

But the strength of the shell is illusory. Eggs are fragile. They need to be incubated and tended. And they are temporary.

The protection of a shell allows growth, to a point, and then it starts limiting development and warping growth.

Imperfect Debuts

At some stage in every career — in every project, even — there comes a time to emerge, to tap our way through the shell, and enter the world. And that can be a real mess.

We don’t know how the shell will crack, or how long it will take. We peck and peek, hoping we can leap out fully-formed and strutting like a big, beautiful peacock that has always been that way, or a poised and sedate swan, gliding without effort.

We want to instantly be and appear our best, not a wet stumbling mess, with bits of shell matted in our feathers, wondering how many times we’ll need to fall before we fly.

For perfectionists, it’s that much worse, because this moment is about the possibility of letting a whole lot of imperfection happen — in full view.

Good Morning World

A Wee Punk (image by vladeb on Flickr)

You have to trust that eventually, you’ll be remembered for flying, not the missteps and bad hair days you had along the way.

By leaving the shell, you lose its opacity and protection, but it’s impossible to walk, or fall, or fly or grow while you’re stuck inside it.

Whatever the project, big or small: make the first crack, then the next, until you can stumble out, take a spill, and then stand on your two new feet for the first time. Muscles will follow, then growth, then flight.

And it all starts with a tentative little crack.

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“The extreme irregularity of my life makes poetry out of the question, for the present, except for momentary violences.”

– Wallace Stevens, writing to Marianne Moore, 1927

Our lives are disjointed and fragmented. Devices chirp at us. The kale needs to be steamed before it wilts. The inbox refills as soon as it’s emptied. We’re out of milk.

Wouldn’t it be great to just sit down, without distractions, and work through a project until the ideas run out?

Most of us don’t have that opportunity as often as we like.  And when we don’t, we are fitting creative work and deep thinking into the gaps and spaces of our lives.

From time to time, we can slip into the studio for three or four hours at a go, but then it might be days before we have a solid block of time again.

The brain doesn’t have a pause button. We can’t easily put it to sleep and have it come back to life in the same state 10 hours or two days later. We are more complex than that.

Yet any change in the velocity of thought consumes our time and energy. The key is finding the most efficient method of braking and resuming speed.

The disruptions are inevitable. It’s how we handle them that counts.

Pressing Pause

One of Gretchen Rubin’s techniques is to stop writing mid-sentence. When I’ve tried to do that, it left me anxious as I try to put the work away, and bewildered when I picked it up again.

I’m not saying she’s wrong or I’m right. Solutions for putting your projects on hold are idiosyncratic, and you have to find methods that work for you.

Here are some of the techniques I find helpful:

Always do a wrap-up. If you know you have to stop working on something at noon, stop at 11:45 and spend that final fifteen minutes summarizing what you achieved that day. (Side benefit: Looking at this over time can help you realize how much you’ve accomplished when you are feeling ineffective.)

Also, what would you do next if you had the time? Make a list of three or four ‘next steps’ for the project. This doesn’t have to be as formal as it might be in a business setting. It might just be a note about which colors to add next, or a list of adjectives, or a mood — some invented souvenir to remind you where you were.

Empty your short-term memory. Have you ever been interrupted while sorting notes or receipts, and then later realized that you can’t remember the meaning of each of the piles anymore?

If you are editing or categorizing, and have to stop mid-stream, don’t trust that you’ll recall the details. Supplement your memory with notes and labels on piles and folders so you can build on the work you’ve already done when you have a chance to return to it.

Identify underlying questions. Choose two or three aspects of the projects you need time to think about, state them as briefly and simply as possible, and take them with you to ponder in the in-between spaces of the rest of your schedule.

I sometimes put these questions on a note card in my pocket, so I can pull them out in the middle of the grocery store, on a long walk, waiting for the train, etc. As you mull them over, don’t worry about coming up with definitive answers. Just steep in the questions.

Restarting

The ways to get started again are just as idiosyncratic, and many depend on the techniques you develop for pausing.

Refer to your next steps, mood descriptions, or souvenirs. As described above, when projects get complex, I always leave notes for myself about what I would have done next if I’d had the time.

Caveat: Don’t treat these notes as law. Review them critically. Your time away from the project might have given you a new perspective, and maybe what you would have done before no longer applies.

Integrate new notes. If you’ve been chewing on any questions since your last work session,  synthesize some of your thoughts and mix them into the project.

Use sense cues. This could include a change in lighting, touching tools or artifacts, sniffing scents related to your project, or sound triggers. I frequently leave notes to myself about what music I think I should listen to during my next work session.

Involve your body. Change your posture. Stretch. Use a different chair. Close your eyes for several minutes. Put on a hat, or take one off — anything to physically remind yourself that you are doing something different now.

Tip-toe around it. Do some free sketching or free writing. Pull out your instrument and improvise for ten minutes. Find some way to indirectly re-approach your project that gets you in the mood before you look at the details again.

Just be with the project. Mark Rothko used to just sit and stare at his canvases. This is harder to do with time-based work, but a random sampling of different sections can help set the mood.

Look at a past success. I remember hearing an interview with Christopher Hitchens a few years ago in which he said that every single time he sits down to write, his mind is telling him that this is it: the moment when he will be revealed as an utter fraud who can’t even put a sentence together.

If starting to work puts you in a similar state of mind, keep a talisman of past success at hand — a thank you note, a photo of your favorite work, a poster from a past show — to remind you that yes, you can do this.

Deliberately practice pausing and restarting. Once you find a few techniques that work for you, practice them against arbitrary deadlines until you get used to them. This will make them more effective when you are up against real deadlines. It’s disruptive in the near-term, but it can help you be more effective in the long-term.

If you have any favorite techniques for pausing and restarting your work, I’d love to hear about them! Please add a comment below, or email me.

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