Why I don’t blog more

We’ve recently seen some long running blogs shut down and some reflections about the value of blogging in the era of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Here are my thoughts.

I’ve had this site up an running for almost 20 years now. It was part of that first wave of enthusiasm in late 1999 when tools became available to write text, up load photos and link to other writers. I had previously written for another site, The Motley Fool, mostly hosted on America OnLine (AOL) that had evolved out of active message board activity.

At the time, I had become interested in Decision Theory, so it was a natural topic to embrace when I started writing. Of course a lot of what I wrote then was part of the conversation we were all having between our blogs. These were conversations that you could join only if you had your own site.

As my interests shifted and my ideas developed, I found it harder and harder to write a few paragraphs that expressed ideas coherently. It seemed to be a conversation I was having with myself in front of a small group of readers. It was simpler to have the conversation completely in private in my notebooks and text files rather than present them here.

We know that writing for others is more than just communication. It serves to sharpen, refine and clarify the ideas of the writer. I know that I’ve understood an idea better when I’ve taught it to someone else or written about it.

So perhaps in the end, ODB is for me, to share with you. I’m reading William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism a biography by Robert Richardson. Richardson writes intellectual biography by looking at what James read and his notes and journals that document the intellectual journal. I can look back over the years of ODB and see what I was reading and see the sweep of my own journey through these ideas of brain, mind and decision. On balance, it’s been valuable and I expect to keep it up for the foreseeable future.

Reading: The Elephant in the Brain

I very much enjoyed reading “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. In every bookstore there is a shelf of similar books, ranging from behavioral economics to classical neuroscience, all making similar claims as to the inaccessibility of our thought, motivation and decision making process.

My own realization that we had not access to the human decision making apparatus was the main reason I lost interest in analytic decision making tools like decision trees. I found that most decision makers rejected them as artificial and those who embraced them tended to manipulate the results enough to render the process no better than the typical informal methods we use to make decisions large and small.

When I read books like The Elephant in the Brain or listen to Sam Harris on rational morality, I get a bit frustrated with the implicit dualism that creeps into the conversation, the implication that we are in charge of some parts of our brain even if we are not in charge of others. I was very happy to hear Sean Carrol call out Sam on this very point in a recent podcast. It’s as Gregory Bateson said many years ago: speaking of mind affecting brain is a category error. It’s brain and neurons all the way down, there’s no “I”, no ego area of the brain controlling it in whole or part. We experience what the brain is doing through this miracle of conscious experience.

I’m quite impressed in reviewing literature at how far neuroscience has gotten in explaining decision making at the brain level, including the neural correlates of belief and uncertainty. One of the most important conclusions that we reach is that decision making occurs during perception itself. The brain processes ambiguous stimuli as nothing until it reaches some threshold level of certainty. Only then is is the perception formed enough to intrude into consciousness as it activates brain networks controlling action based on anticipated reward.

How I Work Now

I’ve talked about my Hobonichi habit and my Morning Pages ritual.

I recently posted about my tools on the Tinderbox user forum. Here’s a bit of a deeper dive.

When I started my PhD work in about 1978, the library was a building full of bound back issues of scientific journals. There were some useful printed helps to finding literature like Current Contents and Citation Index.

Current Contents was just just a weekly digest of the contents pages of the journals published the previous week or so. The copy circulated through the lab, starting with the boss then going to junior faculty, post-docs, graduate students and everybody else. It would be a few weeks before I got it, particularly if some procrastinator was in the circulation and had a stack on their desk they hadn’t gotten around to. Of course the alternative was just to go over to the library and flip through the four or five important neuroscience journals of the time.

Citation Index had it’s big update yearly with smaller periodic updates as I recall. It listed all of the articles that had been referenced that year by new publications. So one could follow the literature forward by identifying those key papers everyone cited and see who had cited them recently. Of course following the literature backward was the other side it, having found a new paper, you could go through the new paper’s references and identify the previously published relevant literature.

Having lists of references in hand, you went into the stacks and spent days and weeks copying the literature that seemed worth reading. My process was to take notes on papers on legal pads and file the papers in manilla folders (or big piles on my desk). Those notes were the raw material for writing as I could find the original pretty quickly for detailed reference. I took notes on the basic findings and the significance for me.

I now have a system that more or less replicates the same workflow. Finding and copying the original papers is of course completely different. Its a combination of PubMed searching and following chains of references cited by papers or linked via any one of a number of services like Web of Science which is a descendent of the whole Citation Index system I once used.

All of my PDFs live in Dropbox folder. I use Mendeley to provide accurate citation info, keywords, abstract and a standard title for the PDF file. I then index that folder with DEVONthink Pro which provides me with a robust searchable PDF database. I love how I can copy PDFs from the sync database into other project specific databases. These databases function like the manilla folders full of xeroxed papers I used to have before libraries and literature became digital.

In Eastgate’s Tinderbox, I pull links to the files in DEVONthink into notes for use when I want to refer back to the original documents. The idea is to keep my notes and summaries of the literature in a central place independent from all of the PDFs. This is an idea I stole from the Zettelkasten guys. Sometimes I will clip a critical table or figure out of a PDF and paste it into a Tinderbox note for quick reference so I don’t have to copy over or rewrite summary information.

I use the idea of replicating and amplifying my habitual way of working as a touchstone whenever a new tool comes along or I read about someone’s workflow. I think its about adopting best practices that work for you over the long term.

Why Analytic Decision Theory Needs Rethinking

This website is now about 18 years old. I’ve been writing about computers, photography, books and investment. But in the background is a big project I refer to as ODB. “On Deciding Better.”

ODB started with my introduction to analytic decision theory when I left academic medicine to work in a biotech. I had the privilege of working with a few visionaries in drug development, who advocated a more data driven approach to making decisions about how to turn a chemical into a commercial product that improved the lives of patients. It’s been clear for a long time that the pharmaceutical industry is wasteful, best characterized by a combination of wishful thinking and poor decision making.

My biggest achievement in implementing these ideas was in developing a new sedative based on propofol collaborating with experts in state of the art techniques of mathematical modeling and clinical trial simulation. I left the company before the final approval, watching from afar the introduction of the drug to the marketplace and then its withdrawal as a commercial failure.

As I moved on to other positions in the industry, I found very little enthusiasm for wide adoption of these approaches. There were pockets of use, but more broadly no one found them useful enough to pay for their use. Trials were designed using the same flawed methodology and decisions were made as they had always been. By argument and gut feeling.

I came to the realization over time there there was a disconnect between the principles of analytic decision theory and the way people actually made decisions. In the last few years I think I’ve figured out just why analytic decision theory doesn’t work to augment human decision making.

While the basic components of a decision are represented as objective, options, values and probability are all deeply subjective. When I recast them as imagination, emotion and belief, no one would even entertain the idea that this process constituted a rational approach to making a decision.

So get a group of decision makers together and they will see the right answer immediately. Or at least they see the outcome they want the most that they believe is achievable with acceptable risk of things going wrong. It’s a fact of life in organizations with human decision makers.

Fortunately, we’re entering a time where our computational power is great enough that we can augment these intuitions with algorithms powerful enough to capture some of the real world’s complexity and provide ways to support imagination rather than diminish it.

I think the essential rethinking has to how the theory of decision making and Baysian statistics are implemented by brains in our modern cultural context.

Parfit’s Photographs

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for pointing to Philosopher Derek Parfit’s Photography. I’ve never read Parfit, since my intuition and spiritual bent has always led me away from any kind of utilitarian or consequentialist moral philosophy. My commitment to the belief systems of my ancestors is based on my embrace of cultural truth in decision making. I’m living within an ecology of mind as Bateson so fundamentally put it. I choose not to live in a meaningless world, searching for my own personal morality as if I were God. I’m part of a vibrant, adaptive culture. So much of this technical moral philosophy fails to move me.

Like many of us drawn to photography, Parfit believed that most of the world looks better in reproduction than it does in life. Probably the lives of philosophers look better through their philosophy than their reality. There’s a ritualistic nature to Parfit’s photographs that seems to echo the obsessive approach to fundamental problems common to philosophy and creative endeavor.

Tyler’s podcast has found a regular spot in my podcast listening. I like his pro-religion, non-believer stance and pragmatism as an economist. A nice way of enriching the cognitive environment.

Opening the day with Morning Pages

My first line of defense against wasting my day is my Hobonichi. This page a day journal provides me a place to map of the topography of the hours ahead. I use it to plan the day as well as a place to collect thoughts on my priorities. Even though I have lists of errands and tasks, the unpredictable mix of structured and unstructured time that I enjoy at my job needs to be managed by itself. And even though I’ve captured things to do in other ways, I’ve learned to write them down again during the day just to offload them from working mind to paper so that they don’t take up attentional capacity.

If I need to focus on clearly defined activities through the day because there’s particular set of well defined deliverables, then I’m in production mode and I can just jump in and out of the flow of that particular work. Whether its a business presentation or a paper for publication I’m editing, I know I’ll need hours of concentrated effort. Morning Pages then actually feel like distraction.

But when the schedule is more open and available for new creative work, writing Morning Pages is my cue to start the generative activities of creation from within. The idea is simple, begin the day with three handwritten pages of whatever comes to mind. Rarely, the pages will turn into real work that I can transcribe. More often they are a reflection of the wheels turning as I try to get to the place where the real work comes from. Complaints about my cameras sitting empty of film or with batteries uncharged. Images never captured. Or resolutions to write more here at ODB about books I’m reading and progress I’m making on re-examining analytic decision theory in light of modern neuroscience.

If I routinely observe the ritual of Morning Pages, I seem to  make progress  with the creative projects, finding focus. Even when the morning is actually gone, filled with work meetings and email churn, often I can reset the day with the Morning Pages exercise at noon, talking to myself about where things stand and where they might go in the next few hours. Read? Spend time gardening my large Tinderbox file on deciding better? Write a post here? Good idea.

Another Hobonichi Year

My Hobonichi was missing for a bit over a day. I found it hidden under some clutter that had been moved during a tech troubleshooting session with my youngest son over his Thanksgiving school break.

WIth the year almost over, losing an almost full Hobonichi would feel really painful. The truth actually is that I almost never look back in the book more than just a couple of days. It’s really a lot like memory. I’m aware of just the last few pages unless I need to delve back into past events and reconstruct something I’ve forgotten about.

This is the end of my third year with the Hobonichi. I don’t remember where I first heard about it, but I was attracted by its page a day layout on very thin, fountain pen friendly Tomoe River paper. The first year and this year have been the Japanese edition with the start of the week on Sunday. I tried the English version last year, but it only comes with Monday as the first day of the week, which bothers me since the Sabbath, Saturday, is the 7th day, the day of rest and the end of the week. Having the daily quotes translated in the English version was the attraction, but a year of reading them satisfied my curiosity.

My use is pretty well represented on this recent page. I jotted down an Italo Calvino quote, made some notes about the day’s planned schedule, some reminders to get things done and collecting thoughts. While the journal is with me for much of the day, it tends to be open and used at the beginning of the day when I’m planning how to spend my time and at the end of the day to make sure I’m where I thought I’d be. It turns out to serve as a record of the days as they pass, but for me it’s a forward-looking tool to structure the day.

The Charm of Tri-X

At the Bar

Last week I was in Boston for the Clinical Trials in Alzheimer’s Disease (CTAD) conference. The Boston Leica store and Gallery were located right there in the conference hotel, so I got to drop in on the Gallery a few times and take in Jim Marshall’s Jazz Festival exhibit. Marshall is justly famous for his photographs of musicians, having captured many iconic images of jazz and rock figures. The images taken at the festivals are like glimpses into the hearts of these artists, taken by a photographer who is looking in, unnoticed.

I actually was more interested in Marshall’s environmental photographs of peace signs found as graffiti, buttons, and stickers during the 1960’s. It reminds me that all of the images that we take today, seeming so banal because it’s just our everyday environment, will read as historical records in 50 years.

All of the images were scanned Tri-X negatives printed digitally on 20″ x 24″ paper. The grain in these large images was often very apparent, with velvety blacks and nice tonality. I couldn’t help but wonder whether their impact would be different had they been printed as traditional silver prints, but it appears that this hybrid process is now accepted as a way to show negatives captured 50 years ago. Perhaps we’ll need to accept more fully that the negative is the score and the print is the performance, to be interpreted on period instruments or modern instruments, changing tone but creating the music nevertheless.

Great News About Nik

Lines and Distance

Welcome News

Breaking: DxO acquires Nik Collection from Google, will continue development via Photo Rumors:

DxO plans to continue development of the Nik Collection. The current version will remain available for free on DxO’s dedicated website, while a new version is planned for mid-2018.

I learned the Nik U-Point technology via Vincent Versace’s materials on the Nikon RAW converter program as well as the use of the tool’s in his Oz books. As I’ve mentioned many times, Vince’s cinematic approach to digital image processing improved my work a great deal, in which the image portrays a reality that never was, yet is believable in the rendering of light.

Making Digital More Non-linear

For me, the Nik filters overcome some of the flat, plastic rendering of digital sensors. Film emulsions are inherently non-linear. And film reacts both to light intensity and to spatial gradations, just like the eye does. Digital sensors are linear and flat spatially. So the scene is rendered in a way different from the way it is seen by the eye. They eye, presented with that digital capture, knows that it is an artificial capture.

I have a quick workflow now for digital in which I rely on Capture One for RAW conversion with basic exposure correction then an export to Nik for local manipulation. It works well for me since it mimics my old darkroom flow. Pick an exposure time for the print and the right paper grade, then fix local intensity by dodging and burning. Only rarely do I need to take an image into photoshop to create layers with masks to further manipulate the image. I’m not using any HDR or compositing these days, so contrast and intensity are really the only controls I need in an image.

Manufacturer Tools vs All-in-One

Leica works closely with Adobe on RAW conversion. Nikon has its own tools. Capture One does a credible job with both so saves me using different RAW converters when I switch systems. Capture One also does cataloging and non-destructive editing of RAW files like Lightroom. I don’t shoot a high enough volume that I need the advanced organizational tools of tagging and metadata that these programs provide.

My one complaint about Capture One is that it needs to be tricked into cataloging TIFF files that come out of my film scanner. The program is set up to be a raw processor, but will generate TIFFs and jpegs within the catalog. I discovered accidentally that if I drag TIFFs from the Finder into an existing catalog, the import dialog comes up and functions fine.

In the end, workflow needs to easy, automatic and work to create flow. Capture One does that for me and I’m happy that my Nik tools will be there for the foreseeable future

First Image Nikon D850

The Mushroom's Edge

I got in on one of the early shipments of the Nikon D850 DSLR. I had bought the D800 soon after release, but skipped the D810 upgrade as there was no real change in the sensor. I really liked the D800 image quality and it’s remarkable micro contrast. Over the last few years I’ve shot much more with the Leica system, both film and digital with the Nikon sitting on the shelf. However a few months ago I sent my 24-120 mm f4.0 to Nikon for repair and it came back producing really nice images.

So I brought the D800 on a summer trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Out in wilderness and scenic areas, I find I don’t mind the size and weight of a DSLR with large zoom. The 24 -120 mm range covers my most used focal lengths and on a tripod, the image quality is the best I’ve every seen out of my cameras. It’s a different approach than the Leica because the equipment is so much larger and pro looking. I feel comfortable walking the streets of a city carrying a rangefinder, while a full frame DSLR is very conspicuous piece of equipment and so relegated to times and places where capturing photos is socially acceptable.

While the new sensor is my main reason for upgrading the Nikon system, there are a few new technologies in the camera, like focus shift, that are of interest. The speed, fancy tracking autofocus are all outside of my use case. And with a day or two of shooting, I’m seeing another step up in quality through the 24-120mm lens.

Now to explore how it sees the world.