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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.

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.

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.

Using the Monochrom

Steps Away

I haven’t been traveling as much in the last two years as I did in my previous jobs. I was lucky to spend much of last week in Paris with one day available just to walk the streets of the city.

I chose to bring the Leica Monochrom (Type 246) with me rather than shoot film or use the newer M10 with conversion to grayscale. Even though it’s hard to really distinguish in the final images, I find each camera I have renders the world somewhat differently.

For me, the pleasure of photography is in the process from seeing to final print. Even seeing is affected by the camera in hand, since I anticipate how the camera will respond to the world I see. I’m looking for interesting presentations for the camera to capture. Of course, I’m surprised when I see the rendering in camera or after scanning the film, pushing me to look for more tricks of light or form suited to the camera at hand. Digital provides the feedback instantly. TriX takes more time, but teaches me just as well.

I’ve taken many pictures of moving feet, many pictures of manhole covers and many images of damp streets and sidewalks. So this image is a nice summation of my work.


Across the Table

It takes all of the courage I have to simply point a camera at what’s in front of me. Painters had no problem with studying the flowers on the table, asking models to sit for them. Why then should photography always be looking for the extraordinary moment, the place that has been unseen until now when the commonly seen holds so many secrets still?

I’ve taken to shooting in pubic parks because no one bothers you, no one looks for motive. It’s a park and snapping pictures is just something people do there. Acceptable. Not potential terrorist activity, not secret real estate dealings of the gentrifiers. Just snapping of picture in the park.

And yes, the park is ordinary until the sun starts to set casting shadows and pulling the aged wood of the picnic table into sharp relief. As illustrated here.

Workflow as Sequential Image States

Field Blocks

Here’s another recent Leica M10 image rendered in monochrome. This image required very little post processing from DNG to the final JPG.

In traditional printing techniques, like lithography, the print process moves through a set of “states”, from initial image through final image as the plate is worked. Sometimes those states are printed and may continue to exist as alternative versions of the final edition. Digitally, while there’s much more freedom to work and rework in an iterative process, there is still a necessary movement from state to state.

I begin with a RAW file, the data collected by the sensor sites in the camera. It’s a final, irreversible state since that exact capture can never be duplicated. It’s important that the capture be seen as an initial state, though, not the final image. It is the raw material that feeds the rest of the process.

In these images, the next state is the monochrome image. This image, so close to monochrome at capture, was converted in Adobe Camera Raw inside of Photoshop. The grass stalks are yellow orange in the light of a setting sun. So that color can be used to bring them to the lightest tone in the image. Then it’s a matter of a few layers to improve the sense of depth. It’s useful to thing of workflow as moving through print like states.

A word of thanks to Dave Morrow, who has been building an incredible site and set of YouTube tutorials on capture and post processing. His work has been a big motivation for me to get outside and capture some real landscapes outside of my usual suburban environment. Dave’s discussion of Color Theory is great example of how engineering and aesthetics contribute to the experience of creating and viewing images.