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Monday, October 19, 2015

A Pattern Language

I woke up from a dream this morning, in which I was talking to an architect about A Pattern Language, a book about architecture and urban design. And so as one does I noodled on it a bit abed, in that semi-awake state. Let's see if the thoughts I thought make sense in the cold light of day and full consciousness.

To recap the book extremely briefly, it is written as a set of patterns which are, essentially, ideas or recommendations for how something ought to be done. It starts at a high level, urban design, talking about how to lay out roads, how to do zoning, and so on. It proceeds down through progressively more detailed patterns, working through how to lay out building floor plans for various uses, where to put windows, how to design an entryway, etcetera, and winding up at a quite low level of detail discussing things like how to trim out around windows and doorways.

Each pattern works together with patterns at the same level, it supports patterns at larger scopes, it is supported by and enables the full expression of patterns at more detailed scopes. It is a mesh of ideas, which provide a complete language for building cities, towns, buildings, homes, gardens, parks, in such a way as to enrich human life. It's quite academic, moderately rigorous, and very effective. My wife and I drove across the country looking for a city to live in, and a home to live in, informed substantially by the ideas in the book. I can attest that we're supremely happy with the choices we have made. Some of them are obvious, and others rather non-obvious.

The book works, I think, because it mirrors human life. Our tiny actions roll up into larger ones. Our larger actions express the smaller ones. It's all interconnected, it all flows together. No action, no detail of life, exists in isolation from the others. This is a common thread in organic systems. Biology at all levels from the micro to the macro, ecology, sociology, all these studies tell us that the systems of life are interconnected meshes of interdependence, cause and effect.

There was a bold attempt to re-task the ideas from the book for software development. I have not, I confess, looked into this in any detail, but it strikes me as completely wrong-headed. The whole point of software is that we divide the problems up into independent parts. Interdependence is a bad thing, here.

I neither know, nor want to know, the details of how the daily sales records are kept. I want to know, I need to know, only how to retrieve the one I want. Similarly, much of what is wrong and unhealthy in human existence is due to this same strategy being applied by our corporate masters, our political leaders. They want everything sliced up and separate, the better to understand it, to tax it, to profit from it, to control it. So we end up with vast suburbs full of homes, connected by perennially overtaxed highways to vast office parks and manufacturing parks where Work Is Done. People, workers, taxpayers, customers, are best viewed as interchangeable cogs. I say this as a former corporate master, I know this stuff, and from the company's point of view it makes perfect sense.

It is unhealthy, and it creates stress, precisely because it fails to acknowledge the essential interconnectedness of organic systems. The corporation doesn't care that everyone drives an hour each way to get to work. That's a cost, but the company has shoved it off on someone else. It would be healthier for the workers if they lived close to work, and could walk home for lunch, but they'd spend less time in the office then, and who wants that? Other than the worker, of course, who doesn't count.

Ok, enough politics. What has this to do with photography?

I do not think that a pattern language for doing photography would be particularly productive. My opinion here seems to have changed, interestingly. It strikes me that photography is, like software, an enterprise in which separating things is productive and useful. A photograph is made using a wide collection of techniques, equipment, ideas, and so on, but there does not seem to me to be any particular value in trying to interconnect those in some system.

One always gets more flexibility by keeping things separate separate, which is why corporate masters and bureaucrats like to do it. A photographer might reasonably like more flexibility and more control as well, and the pixels aren't going to be suffering through a rotten commute, or living too far from a park or a grocery as a result.

Where there is scope for some of these ideas is in arranging ones life, in doing ones work, to do photography.

The way we put the battery into the camera is interconnected to the way we hold the camera, which is interconnected with the way we point it, which flows, ultimately, into the pictures we take. This is not to suggest that putting the battery in differently will change your pictures, that's ridiculous. But they are connected, by a chain of motions, of thoughts, of causes and effects. The fact that the saola eats this leaf instead of that one does not cause the tiger to go extinct, but the actions are connected.

I don't propose to write a pattern language for photography, starting from how we insert batteries and ending with the Fine Print, but I do propose that we could (always) be more mindful of the interconnections.

I will now contradict things I have said in the past, as is my right.

The methods and technologies we use flow in to the pictures we make, they matter. While you can make good pictures with anything, the tools and techniques you choose will inevitably color the work you produce, and they will lend themselves better to this work than to that work. In turn, the technologies and techniques we choose flow from our preferences, our histories, these choices are built upon small things, but enable the expression of large things. We find the putting the battery into this camera fiddly, and so we turn to the other camera, which does certain things better and certain things less well. And so we find that we make one kind of thing more, and another less.

Be mindful of the interconnectedness of the processes. I think, perhaps, we sometimes get stuck in ruts. We must use this camera, that lens, when we should be bending with the flow. One day, take up the camera with the difficult battery compartment, and see where it leads you in its capriciousness. On another, set it down, and use the one that feels right in your hands but has the wonky color, and follow its nose. Maybe it wants you to shoot black and white today.

I don't want to write A Pattern Language of Photography but the actions of photography are an interconnected mesh, with actions flowing one from the other, tracing paths through the mesh. I think we get in to trouble when we fight the mesh, when we try to force tools and ourselves into places they don't fit very well.


  1. Do any of your posts detail the process through which you compared possible locations and decided on Bellingham? Nice town, I thought, when my daughter lived there.

    1. Nope!

      But I can sketch a few of the major points here.

      Bellingham is right-sized for us. Large enough to have the things we want, but small enough that we can walk or bike to them. The weather is neither cruelly hot in summer, nor cruelly cold in winter (that rules out a surprising amount of the USA, by the way, we consulted NOAA historical data maps before we started, and eliminated vast swathes of territory).

      We chose to live close to downtown, which has a pretty organic mix of retail, workplaces, living places, ages, and so on, as opposed to the outer, newer, areas of town which have housing, work, and retail pretty well segregated in the modern car-centric style.

      Having a university as a dominant player in town has a number of beneficial effects, as does having a number of powerful indian tribes in the region.

      As for the house, the biggest things that make us love it are: many windows, almost every room has windows (or equivalent) on two or more walls. The kitchen is not on the major pathways children use, but is tangent to a major kid-thoroughfare. There is a "circle", a loop of kitchen, hallway, dining room and back to the kitchen, which has a number of beneficial effects.

      The kitchen looks out on the back yard.

      There is a porch, and we have a long term plan to make it more psychologically connected to the street (it's quite isolated now, probably the single largest design failing) by removing some hedges and altering some landscaping.