The Narrative Paradox of Blogging

Blogging as reverse narrative

Blogging is a really hard way to tell a long story.

The presentation is in reverse order, the opposite of chronological.  The most recent event is presented first, so that the end of the story up until now occurs to the reader first.  Then next down the page is the previous post and so on . . . into the past. I think it’s interesting that this is how we percieve the story of our lives — with our most recent experience on top of the stack. Our most recent experiences are freshest in our memories. To go back further takes some effort.

But can blogs tell extended stories? Stories are not unprocessed records of moments, they are how we make sense of the sequence of events, putting time an causality into a rationale for how we got from then to now.

Continue reading “The Narrative Paradox of Blogging”

The 50mm f/1.8 S on the Nikon Z7

This image was captured with my favorite Nikon Z7 lens so far, the 50mm f/1.8. Thom Hogan is out with his take on the lens, which backs up my subjective impression with data. It’s impressive considering what you need to pay for a Leica 50mm f/2. Now the Leica’s rendering qualities may go beyond it, but it’s diminishing returns and thousands of dollars. I agree with Thom that this is the best 50mm that Nikon has ever made and it alone justifies the Z7 for me as a companion to my Leica cameras. It may be that I end up shooting primes on the Z7 if the upcoming 20mm f1.8 is as good as the 35mm and 50mm that are available now.

By the way, at this point I find I need to use the Nikon RAW processor to get the best results out of the camera. For Leica, the Capture One converter is fine, but somethings going on with microcontrast that Nikon is pulling out of its files that Capture One and Adobe RAW can’t quite get yet.

The Nappuccino Productivity Boost

I was skeptical about Daniel Pink’s Nappuccino concept, but being the empiricist that I am, I had to give it a really try. So for the past week or so, at 2:30pm when my productivity usually comes to a halt with the mid-afternoon slump, I’ve started this practice. Continue reading “The Nappuccino Productivity Boost”

Mental Causation

A few years ago I read George Soros’ small book The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University in which he describes how he came to conceptualize reflexivity in markets, the idea that there is a feedback loop between what people think and market reality, which in turn affects what people think. It’s mental causation, but of course it’s just a manifestation of the the way brains interact socially through language, we affect each other with consequences in the real world.

In copying over note’s from last year’s Hobonichi, I found a note on a similar idea of inducing negative opinions. When you merely bring up a topic with some negative connotations for others, they are compelled to fill in the blanks. When I say “It’s like comparing apples and …”, you can’t help but think oranges. The word rises unbidden to mind, caused by my speech. It’s a powerful effect to have on another person as it’s reflexive and automatic. So by my mentioning a name and situation, your negative feelings, already in place, are reflexively activated cause you to think about those negative feelings and attitudes. Your brain does it, but I’ve directly caused it by my actions.

Just a thought about how powerful we are with just the power of words.

Can the Nikon Z7 Replace my Leica M10?

On New Years Day, we visited the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. This is a smaller museum in the Smithsonian focusing on American Art and Craft. It’s a joy when a museum encourages photography.

A welcome sight

So I took full advantage of the low light capability of the Z7 to collaborate with the artists on view to create some of my own art based on their art.

The Z7 works well as a travel camera. With the 50mm f1.8 attached it weighs just as much as my Leica M10 with the Summicron APO 50mm f2.0 ASPH. It occupies more space, but it’s no more attention grabbing than the Leica. I don’t have the Nikkor 24-70mm f4 zoom, but extended it does look a bit more like a professional piece of gear. Shooting mode is generally aperture priority, minimum shutter speed 1/125 second and Auto ISO as high as it’ll go. Both cameras are much better at setting exposure than me- And I can blend processed RAW images to bring down highlights and light blocked up shadows as long as the image isn’t blown out.

Interestingly, I’ve found over the last few years that using live view is more acceptable in public than looking through a viewfinder. Maybe it’s just that we’re used to seeing smart phone photography and viewfinder based cameras seem more intrusive. Maybe it’s that you can see the photographer’s face and the camera attracts less attention. With Live View on either the Nikon Z7 or the Leica M10, it’s possible to take photos looking at the area and glancing at the subject.

The Z7 adds several features that aid unobtrusive shooting. The LCD on the rear tilts, so the camera can be low on a table or at the waist out of line of sight. For people, auto focus with face recognition allows shooting. Silent shooting on the Z7 provides a completely silent shooting experience, again avoiding attracting attention with that characteristic shutter sound. The the Z7 also has a higher pixel count and sensor stabilization. There are other advanced features of course, but not in use for this kind of travel photography.

So the question arises as to whether I could sell off all of my other cameras (M10, Monochrom, D850) and just use the Z7 exclusively. I’ll need more data on that, but I think I’ll be selling the D850 as I don’t like the weight and bulk. My Nikon glass will work with the Z7, so it’s redundant. Next, I’ll need to try a Leica M to Nikon Z adaptor to see how Leica glass works with the Z7. But I’ll need to look critically at my image library and do some camera rotation to decide whether the compact form rangefinder has real advantages over the technologically advanced Nikon Z7.

Film? It’s not going anywhere and in fact I plan to try some digital negative transfers with Nikon’s new ES-2 adaptor on the Z7.

Waiting for Brain Science

It was back in High School that I became fascinated by the workings of the mind. I was doing lots improvisational theater and acting in plays and saw how I and others could transform into new identities at will. I realized that we did this in everyday life as we slipped between hanging out with friends and behaving (or not behaving) according to norms in school. Mind altering substances were everywhere, so reality could be easily demonstrated to be a mental construct, not the universal truth we all pretended it was.

Eventually, I put the arts into the background of and pursued the science of mind. A combined MD / PhD program led to training in Neurology and now a long career in developing new treatments for brain diseases. Given the state of cognitive science at the time, the practical pursuit of understanding neurological disease seemed more likely to lead to a real contribution.

I now have the luxury of returning to exploring cognitive science 30 years later. Real progress has been made on many fronts, much remains obscure. I’m particularly struck by how clearly we see the process of perception of complex scenes and symbols. When I was in college we were just beginning to understand the tuning of neurons in the primary receiving areas of the cerebral cortex. Now we have a picture of how shapes and words are recognized in the visual regions of brain through activation of tuned networks across the regions of cerebral cortex devoted to sensing the visual world.

Decision making plays a very specific role in the sensory systems. If the system is primed by a preceding stimulus, say a lion’s roar, the sensing areas are readied and more likely to detect a cat among the noise. Or, deciding to look for the color red, suddenly every red shape jumps out from the background, even though just before they were just part of the background.

Most remarkably, these sensory decisions take place in primary receiving areas, preventing the perception of anything else. And these decisions generally are not at all accessible to consciousness. We’re not aware of how we change our perception to fit context since it occurs via basic feed-forward mechanisms.

This is unconscious bias, but of a sort never imagined by philosophers and sociologists. It’s built into the apparatus of perception from the very first steps of visual perception, impossible to control directly, just influenced by the ongoing flow of brain action and reaction.

Not really where I thought cognitive science would end up, making deciding better so much more difficult if the decision process begins by these brain circuits determining what is seen in the first place.

Reading: “Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul” by Giulio Tononi

Language continually asserts by the syntax of subject and predicate that “things” somehow “have” qualities and attributes
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
Gregory Bateson

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul  by Giulio Tononi is an odd introduction to “Integrated Information Theory” (IIT). I came to it having read some of Tononi’s work and the collaborations with Koch and Edelman, so I was hoping to gain a more intuitive feel for how they want to constitute an axiomatic construction of how the experience consciousness arises from brain activity based on information theory and integration.

I can’t really recommend the book as either an introduction or as an aid to understanding IIT intuitively. It’s written poetically, as a series of vignettes involving Galileo being guided by cognitive echoes of figures in philosophy and neuroscience. Echoes, as in Tononi’s vague re-imaginings of them in his own mind rather than real historical figures grounded in the thought and social context of their own time and place. There are notes that provide some explanation and context, but the whole thing reads as a way to avoid simple, straight explanation of the theory.

I did find the book useful as an introduction to some of the fundamental relationships between brain and consciousness. In the vignettes, Tononi nicely describes the mosaic nature of consciousness, distinguishing the difference in the experience of being in the dark (where there is visual world without content) and being cortically blind (where the visual world is actually missing from consciousness). When I was in medical school, cortical blindness was compared to “what it looks like behind your head”. There’s no vision there; it’s not black or unclear, it just isn’t. Similarly, there are vignettes on dementia, development and “brain in a vat” thought experiments that are useful in determining the size and shape of mind.

Maybe ITT is just dressed up dualism

In the end, I find ITT totally unconvincing. I actually think it’s really just dualism masquerading as a theory of emergence. When Tononi writes this, he gives the game away:

How can we be responsible for our choices, if how we choose is determined by brain and circumstance?

As the Bateson quote at the top puts it better than I could, we are used to a world of things, so want mind to “exist” some how. We want free will to be mind controlling brain, when the truth is that mind is what brain does, so there’s no way a process of a thing can control the thing. It is the thing. IIT tries to bring mind into existence , like trying to bring a baseball game into existence when there are just the players, field, bats and balls. Sure we want to say “I saw a baseball game” when it’s more accurate to say “I went to the stadium to watch baseball players play nine innings.”

Bateson and others accurately point out that this experience of mind actually occurs out when the brain interacts with the world, a world that includes some what miraculously other brains of almost the same construction. Brain inhabits a physical world of chemicals and planets and energy and things, but it also inhabits a semantic world of language, emotion, baseball and blogs.

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.

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.