When Blogs Were Journals

Looking back on my history of writing on the internet, I came across this nice personal history written by another early EditThisPage user, Frank McPherson who wrote Notes From The Cave.

I don’t think it was the change to titles that did in blogging, it was the move to writing articles rather than journaling, a larger conceptual shift. Looking back through those early sites they were frequently posted links, comments and quick thoughts. And indeed, this is a space now occupied by Twitter and other social media. Social connections in the early days of blogging was easy since the world was small. Twitter and Facebook provided scale for both personal and private networking, so its natural that the infinity of small island blogs like this faded away.

Over the years, this site has been found because of long form reviews or observations that get ranking in Google searches. Any other readers are long time net friends and family. The photos I feature on most pages are decorative, they can’t be found by search engines. I have Flickr for my photographic social network, a place that seems to be recovering from Yahoo’s neglect at this point.

19 Years of Deciding . . . Better

As Hal Rager at Blivet points out, we’ve been blogging for 19 years now since Dave Winer’s EditThisPage. I can’t say it’s been continuous over that time, but it’s been an ongoing project. I always get a kick out of reading the first page I wrote here: Imagination as Simulation

Over the years, I’ve started and stopped work on a long form version of ODB, which I guess most of the world would call a “book”, but the scope of the project has always proved to be overwhelming. The work goes on behind the scenes, with lots more reading on brain mechanisms of deciding, if you look back over the 10 posts I made in 2018.

I think I can see what the outlines of a workable synthesis, but the way the brain works seems to be very, very alien compared what we perceive. It’s not surprising since neurons and their networks aren’t accessible to conscious awareness, so they work very differently from the we would guess or by analogy to mechanical devices. It’s been clear for a long time, given optical illusions that most of awareness occurs automatically. In a way it looks like Sherrington was right, way back in the 20’s that it’s all down to reflexes that act to govern the body via analogues with the external environment. I think we now understand that the awareness is built up from differences between the expected state and the contents of sensory input.

And Scully the cat’s brain mechanisms seem to be very much like our own. Minus the symbolic environment we create through culture, as we are the social animals born with the mechanisms in place to use language.

And yes it’s a bit scary to realize that our perceptions and actions aren’t based on any kind of rational engine, but instead the brain models we’ve developed over a life time of sensory experience. We don’t choose what we see and we don’t choose how we react. Yet I think that it points to relatively simple approaches to deciding better, mostly by being in better, more informative environments that nurture our best selves. And taking time to use imagination as simulation to provide more options for better decisions. Coming full circle.

Nikon Z7: The New Digital Benchmark

I ordered Nikon’s first mirrorless offering, the Z7 as soon as it was announced. I got one of the first shipments through my great local camera store, Service Photo here in Baltimore. I played around with it a little, and thought the image quality was the equal of the Nikon D850 in a smaller package. I had the FTZ adaptor to try my collection of Nikkor’s, but it kind of kills the small package. So when I traveled to Italy twice, I brought the Leica M10 as a small travel kit and one drive to Pittsburgh seemed best suited for the D850 since it has the tripod mounting plate attached.

But as I mentioned, I’ve returned to photography these last few weeks and when leaving the house I’ve grabbed the Z7 with the new 50mm f1.8 lens and I’m finding that the images I can produce are a level I’ve never seen before. With the 45 megapixels, lack of antialiasing filter and lenses with that really wide mount, I get an almost large format feel to lots of the images.

This image is a scene a see several times a week as I drive to the gym in Owings Mills on Park Heights Avenue. The winter landscape had that gentle light coming at me, so I stopped in the middle of the road, opened the door, leaned out and grabbed this image. There wasn’t any traffic behind me, but the rear LCD let me frame at that awkward angle, resting the camera on the window frame.

The only real post-proccessing trick in the image was converting the RAW image twice, once at normal exposure and one at two stops under to get as much detail in the highlights and sky as possible. So its a single exposure HDR image if you wish, converted to a chromatic grayscale image using Nik Silver Efex.

It’s one of those images that I know I saw, I know I captured, I know I coaxed this out of the RAW file, but can’t quite believe the result. So I’ll give the Z7 a lot of credit.

Winter Break Project: Photography

Every year during the Christmas – New Year period when work slows down, I usually take on a project. My first web page was built many years ago when I learned HTML for the first time. I had planned to work on my long term project to write a book based on my explorations here at On Deciding . . . Better, but somehow I fell back into photography again. My Capture1 catalog tells the story. Lots of casual iPhone shots with a few collections of images associated with travel. Newfoundland this past summer, Milan this fall. But not much real image production.

I played around with a few iOS image tools, thinking that if I got images onto the iPad, I might spend more time doing the digital darkroom work. Fortunately, I noticed in a B&H Photo email that my photographic mentor, Vincent Versace, was doing some live sessions int the B&H Event Space. The series 21st Century Composition Theory sounds like its the basis of a new book or two from Vincent. His Oz books are out of print now because of the demise of the publisher, Rocky Nook. The sessions are a fine example of his approach to photography, using techniques familiar to those who have worked through the Oz books. The first session: The Journey is the Destination, a Live Fire Demo of Post Processing an Image From Vincent’s Most Recent TripI s a tour of creating an image, from color management in camera, through RAW conversion, photoshop processing, and printing. The second presents a computation photography technique using Nikon’s “Focus Shift” called ExDR Extending the Dynamic Range of Focus and Bokeh (the quality of blur) and How to Shoot For It. And the last is The Conversational Portrait showing how using silent shooting plus facial recognition can change the way you shoot portraits. But really, in a way the focus of the sessions is beside the point. It’s really about the overall approach to image capture and the cinematic post-processing in Photoshop.

Watching those videos swung me back int image making. For me, it was reminder of how much of the interest in an image comes after the RAW file is loaded into the computer. My entire artistic pursuit is simply framing interesting visual encounters with a camera and pulling that through to an image that tells the story of why a viewer might find it interesting.

And I’ll gladly admit it’s much more accessible than my thoughts about decision making, so in some way a pursuit of the easier path to truth by looking at what works.

Why I Sold All of My Apple Stock After 14 Years

Back in the day, I used to discuss investing and my portfolio here at OD…B. But the last 10 years have been uninteresting with an unrelenting bull market recovering from the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis up through the 2016-2018 “Trump Trade”. I believe that the run is coming to an end as the globalized economy splinters and Nationalism rises in the world.

Back in 2004, in the aftermath of the 2000 DotCom crash, I bought Apple stock. I had sworn never to invest in that failed company again, but with the success of the iPod with those white earbuds combined with the new iTunes Music Store, I bought into Steve Job’s vision of the Mac as a Digital Hub. In the end it was the iPhone that drove Apple valuation to it’s current stratospheric heights as the largest company by market cap.

Over the last few years, I began valuing Apple as a typical blue chip, based on its dividend payments. Apple became a huge company that was going to be judged on growing earnings and paying out a portion of the profits to investors. Apple’s been paying a dividend for about 5 years now. Initially yielding 2.5%. It’s been in a general range of 2 to 1.5%, but reached as low as 1.2% a few months ago as the market peaked. I looked at that and took it as a clue that the stock was overvalued.

Now this is combination with the original investment thesis I had in Apple, as the center of the home computing ecosystem. And the iPhone/iPad/Mac combo has done just that for me over the years. That iPhone camera connected to social media has killed both the camera industry and professional photography. The Apple Watch has decimated the mid price quartz watch market. But at this point, I don’t see the growth driver. I think the iPhone X is a nice iteration, but I see lots of older phones out there and a sentiment that some of this technology is just unnecessary. There’s a reaction against social media and connectedness.

And Apple has not introduced a new category killer since the Watch. The AirPods are a nice accessory and I seem them everywhere now. The HomePod and AppleTV haven’t gained real dominance because the streaming services and cable companies can’t be displaced by hardware.

Worse, Apples strategy of pushing prices up is now seeing consumer resistance. And if economic times turn tougher, it will be a completely untenable strategy. For years we’ve had stable prices for electronics with gradual improvement that made upgrading worth it from time to time.

So, I believe Apple’s stock price will fall back to where the dividend yield supports the value, back to yielding in the the 2 to 2.5% range. Then I’ll be a buyer as long as the company remains strong and the product lineup attractive.

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.

Mental Events Can’t “Cause” Anything

A quick note: There are some questions that can’t be asked because they make no sense. Posing the question seems to lend legitimacy to the underlying assumptions, when the premise of the question is false to begin with.

I think this is true of our questions regarding the existence of free will and the cause of consciousness. As choice and the experience of choice are processes of the brain, asking how mental events can control brain processes is just asking how one brain process can lead to another brain process. It’s really not a useful question.

While in some sense it may be a category error, trying to combine two categories into one question, it seems more just based on an illusion from introspection, much like asking how does the sun go around the earth when really we know that the earth rotates. It’s the question that’s at fault, not some missing stuff that makes up the “qualia”.

Bye Blogroll

I just deleted the Blogroll from the site template. I doubt it will be missed.

The blogroll is a charming throwback to a time when the web consisted of individual sites like this one. We all linked to each other as a community trying out the new publishing medium of the World Wide Web. Came the RSS reader followed by the social network revolution and we’re all looking at Twitter or getting email newsletters from subscription supported sites.

And yes, most of the links in my now Blogroll turned out to links to shuttered or inactive sites. Even the mighty dangerousmeta!: is no longer updated. Garret wrote in his last post:

Blogs, I found, are swiftly becoming broadcast-only devices. Discussions are spread out over Facebook, Twitter, Slack, Signal … and many other services. Often hard to predict where a person will choose to elucidate their blog postings.

Garret notes that there are some other ways to go- like writing a book, a form that seems to have survived a few centuries in spite of movies, TV and podcasting.

I’ve always described this blog as a “Personal Journal”. I have almost twenty years of intellectual exploration, hobbies and nonsense cached here. All searchable and available to anyone who cares to look. I’ve had more readers here than most pre-internet authors even though my writing has tended to somewhat obscure most of the time.

Maybe for sentimental reasons I treasure having an instant publishing platform, even if the readership amounts to a few dozen individuals.

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.

Maps and Legends: Brain as world model

Can you map decision theory onto brain mechanisms?

It’s clear brain doesn’t make decisions in the way that’s been formulated as “rational” by decision theory. You won’t find branching decision trees composed of options and there’s no probability calculation that weights the potential payoff of different options. It’s a complex system built of networked neurons, quite opaque as to where it hides meaning. Yet somehow the brain makes decisions that within limits appear pretty optimal.

Are brain maps central?

It’s been known since the beginning of modern neuroscience that the cerebral cortex is organized as a series of maps. There are maps of the body surface in primary sensory area for touch, maps of the retina for vision, and tonotopic maps for hearing. Of course the the primary motor cortex responsible for fine movement is mapped across the body.

Flattened out, it’s an area of about 2.5 square feet, but we see it it folded into gyri to fit compactly in the scull. Other than the sensory maps, the rest of the cortex, the “association areas”, doesn’t have explicit physical maps, but instead maps other kinds of space- either movement or meaning much of which is still bound to a sensory or motor channel- vision (by far the largest in the human brain), touch, etc.

Perhaps these interconnected maps of the world are central to to decisions are made in the brain, because we experience consciousness as a representation of the world through these maps. It’s as if the brain is a simulation of our body moving through space. The global simulation I’m thinking about isn’t just a sensory image of the world built of reflected light and air pressure changes, it includes implicit understanding of physics and meaning (semantics) built into it. See an apple and know that it is something that doesn’t weigh much and is good to eat. It seems attentional mechanisms limit our access to everything going on across the cortex because of limitations on working memory or other real time control mechanisms, but the simulation is there to provide the options for action available moment to moment.

So maybe map is a bit limiting as a term. That’s the two dimensional representation of the skin or the retinal or the scale. The brain assembles that raw information into shapes and objects with qualities like color and geometry that don’t vary by quality of illumination or by angle of view. We actually see letters and words event though language is metadata cued by visual input.

Content, not mechanism of mind

While I like the map analogy, I’m not enthusiastic about “theories of consciousness” in general. I think they are mostly category errors where someone tries to explain an emergent observation, mind, in terms of the component parts of the system, neurons and networks. It’s useful to try to understand underlying mechanisms, but fruitless in general to go the other way. I can tell you how a clock moves in a regular pattern so that I can tell the time. A clock however doesn’t have in it the idea of time or hours or late for my next appointment.

This was the challenge understood by early systems theory thinkers. As they saw very simple robot systems evidence complex and unpredictable behavior, they quickly realized that while the behavior was contained in the system, it hadn’t been designed in and wasn’t there explicitly. Each part has a limited part to play, but in interacting a complex behavior emerges. No individual ant knows how to signal to others how to get to a food source or build a network of tunnels. Implicit knowledge is built into each one. The DNA of a single cell has all the information needed to build a whale or a platypus. But no one reading the string of nucleotides would imagine there was a potential mammal there.

I’d put the theorizing of Tozzi, Friston and others into the systems theory camp. For example in Towards a Neuronal Gauge Theory, they attempt to formalize this mapping idea, casting the brain in the role of minimizing uncertainty about the external world. In fact they cite Conant and Ashby’s good regulator hypothesis [34], which states that every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system.

Where choice comes from

So choice is implicit in the brain’s modeling of the world. The maps provide the options, values and probabilities that have been formalized as decision theory. There’s a neural calculus going on, but one that is far from the small world of even our most sophisticated models and mathematics. Fundamentally, The brain is a functioning part of a bigger system that includes other brains and a real environment that feeds a network of meaning and physical complexity that can’t be captured in the static numbers we use for computation.