First Draft of On Deciding Better Manuscript Complete

I surprised myself this morning by writing what seemed to be the final words in my first draft of the book I call “On Deciding . . . Better: The New Ecology of Mind and Brain”.

This version of the book started with an outline in Google Docs on May 19, 2020 and took about a year to turn into a very rough first draft. As I’ve talked about before, the process of creating what Scribe Writing calls a “vomit draft” got me unstuck from all of my previous attempts.

The manuscript as it stands is pretty close to how I outlined it, which may not surprising given that this is a project I’ve been mulling over for a long time. More than 20 years if you start counting when I starting this blog in late 1999. The central ideas in the book were mostly present in the earliest posts I made here, but I’ve made some progress and had wanted to create something coherent from all of the work.

I’ve struggled with the problem expressing the ideas contained in the book as short posts in a blog. It’s clear that a manuscript provides the space to build the  concepts that can guide a reader through this journey out of simple enlightenment rationality. So I tried to document the journey I’ve made from the rational theories of decision theory to the ways we really make decisions which are based in ecology and evolution.

The book is a bit over 60,000 words which they tel me is a 300 or so page published book. Now comes editing, which I’m guessing will both remove a good bit of text but identify some gaps that need some more material, so net-net this seems about right.

For the edit, I hope I can focus on coherency and finding those gaps so that I can have a manuscript I trust someone could read and understand the general flow and arguments I’m making. It’s only at that point I can imagine anyone else reading it. I’d like to get it into some final form eventually and move on to another long term project to explore this ever facinating area of what it means to be human. It will be fun to get back into an exploratory mode rather than the grind of 250 to 500 words a day, aimed at filling in an outline of what I’ve learned.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the ODB book once its done. At this point I don’t have much interest in all of the book promotion activity that goes along with publishing these days and I doubt a major publisher would be interested in this niche of neuroscientific philosophy book on decision making. On the other hand, I would like it to reach as large an audience as possible, so I guess that means releasing it on some platform or other and doing some promotion.

So on to editing!

A Very Good Day

Some advice to myself to mark the day.

Make some time to create today and everyday. Be sure you use whatever means of self expression is at hand, whether words, images or sounds. Don’t be concerned about how many likes it gets on Instagram or even whether you yourself like it.

Trust that you know enough to start, then use that feeling to do something that tells everyone else what’s inside you. The value is in making yourself bigger than the chatter and imagination in your head. You’ll be impressed with what you can do.

Someone’s personal junkyard. Nikon D850 24-120mm f/4G ED VR

Why You Need to Publish Your Notebook

Note taking seems to be having one of its many turns as an internet topic. The world of analog journalling is flourishing, propelled by (mostly) Japanese stationary brands like Midori with its Traveler’s Notebook and the Hobonichi Techo, but some stalwart European and British brands like Rhodia and even Filofax. On the digital side there’s a new crop of back linking network note taking apps that join the still relevant categories of GTD task managers, plain text approaches, Wikis and Hypertext (like my favorite, Eastgate’s Tinderbox), and integrated note systems from Evernote to Ulysses to Markdown editors to the latest like Craft. And then there’s the handwriting on iPad apps like Notability and Good Notes. I almost forgot the emerging ePaper device category, which has tempted me a few times1.

I ask myself, “With all this note taking, where’s the shared content being shared?”

Lots of notes, lots of systems, lots of discussion. Not so much content coming back out of these notes outside of work product like academic publications, corporate reports and the commercial content universe of the internet which has replaced magazines and newspapers, but tends toward the slick and superficial.

I miss the individual voices of the early internet and it seems that all of this note taking should provide some path for sharing what we’re all learning outside of commercial sites.

An Appeal To Contribute

I often see mention of how Google/YouTube has turned the web into a closed system by controlling search and advertising. For a long time, its been noticeable how many searches return no real results on the first or event the second page. I get advertising, shopping and howto Youtube videos.

If I see real content it’s often a link to Reddit, a company support forum or, sometimes a post on Medium. In fact, I’ve subscribed to Medium because so often search results take me there. Since most of the web writing going on is on commercial sites selling courses or subscription content, even when I get sent to a content page, it’s often a teaser for some course or software. I rarely get linked to one of the sites I follow through RSS feeds via NetNewsWire. In fact, I’ll often add a word or two to the search to make sure that I get an answer from Thom Hogan on photography plus others who may have commented on his opinion.

Curiously, huge amounts of the internet are generally completely cut out of these searches- Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. And email subscription newsletters. And Substack. We’re in a world of walled gardens and click farms.

Sadly, this isn’t entirely the fault of the Machine Learning algorithms that now rule the world and decide how to rank the results on a Google search page. There’s definitely less for the search engines to point to and less interchange between web sites that leads to links an interest.

Where’s the useful content then?

Now I’ll admit my own guilt here. I lost the drive to create useful content here when that early blogging community dissipated. I do learn things I ought to be sharing. There’s a steady stream of traffic here, so I could contribute more. I read, take notes, come to conclusions. My notebooks are full, my blog is empty.

An example? Is it worth the cost to buy a 16GB M1 Mac or should I get the quickly available 8GB memory model? Once I found a few examples of limitations, it seemed clear that for my use, processing big RAW files in Photoshop with Nik filters, a 16GB upgrade was going to be worth it. And it is. I don’t have a suite of test results, but I did see how fast the Apple Silicon Photoshop beta processed gaussian filters to create the now infamous Orton Effect2

Another one? Should I switch to editing this website with the WordPress Gutenberg editor or keep my existing MarsEdit staging workflow? It looks like it makes sense to do only early drafts in MarsEdit to take advantage of creating links and pulling in media from Photos, but then publishing is best out of the new WordPress interface. And it looks like there’s no reason to move off of WordPress to any other system.

Workflows. How to use tools. Hacks, tricks and lessons learned in the course of exploration and implementing. All interesting reads and worth sharing.

If I needed any evidence of the value of sharing useful lessons, I need look no further than the content that is seen here. By far, the most viewed page is How Bill Gates Takes Notes, which is a short piece about the tale of his using the Cornell note taking system during meetings. I wrote that page because I found it interesting and there was no where left on the web where it was ell documented. I also have some photography pages and note taking workflow pages that get a hit or two day. Mostly from Google based on questions asked about how to do something or what something is, bypassing all the shopping and YouTube content.

  1. But I know that fountain pen and paper just works for me better than stylus on iPad and probably one of these cool, single purpose devices 

  2. If you haven’t heard, the Orton effect is that glowy landscape look, taking over from the overdone HDR workflow (which is not at all natural looking!) as getting likes on Flickr. Previously, I participated in the oversaturated landscape movement, to my everlasting shame. 

3 Keys To Writing More

During the pandemic I seem to have figured out a few things. Like how to actually write a book manuscript. The method is simple really, just hard to sustain. But know that most everyone has a book or two in them already.

Last year, I mentioned I was renewing my effort to do some longer form writing on what I’ve learned over the last 20 years. It’s turned out to be a busy year for my work in drug development even with travel curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve found myself working from home for most of the year, but with a pretty packed day of calls and need to get out work product. How was I going to push the writing project forward.

Fortunately, about this time last year I found Tucker Max’s website1. His company provides services to authors like you and me who have books in them but perhaps no real ambition for a career in writing. Books can boost careers, publicize businesses and influence public discourse. I don’t have any these motives really. I’m just interested in sharing what I’ve learned from what I think is a unique perspective as a neuroscientist working in business environments.

Tucker provides a lot of free content on the site besides selling courses and services to writers. I extracted three key insights :

  1. Use the tools at hand to get words into the computer. Word, Google Docs, Notes- anything. I know I have way too many tools. So I picked Ulysses because it’s plain text, semistructured and syncs across Mac and iOS.
  2. Writers write. A book of 100 to 200 pages is 20 to 40 thousand words. Write 250 words a day, every day for at least 30 minutes a day. 60 minutes a day is reasonable and 120 is optimal. Since my schedule is different every day given project meetings, fitness schedule and work product due dates, I simply decided that my first 30 minutes free at my desk would be dedicated to getting at least 250 words out. Sometimes I’ve gotten 500 or more if I had an hour, but I just put fingers on keyboard and got the ideas down.
  3. The first draft is a marathon to get the words out. A lousy first draft. A vomit draft. At 250 words a day, 100 days of work equals a short book. What I have is nothing I’d want to share with anyone, but I think that after the first editing round I could serialize the chapters on the website here. Ulysses telsls me I’ve gotten 30,348 words down and I’m about halfway through the outline. So half of a 200 page book done.

I found that Tucker will actually answer questions, just as he promises on his website. One of my biggest obstacles was how much material I already had at hand. 20 years of blog posting and at least 2 previous attempts at turning the material into a book. I wanted to edit it into a book to save the time writing.

So I asked Tucker how to deal with the mass of material I’ve collected over all this time. Several manuscripts in volume really. He suggested I use it as reference, but start with a fresh outline and start writing anew.

Starting over turned out to be exactly the right approach. His assertion that people like me have a book in our heads already is absolutely right. And I’ve done this many times before as it turns out. I’ve often written research papers, review articles and book chapters by referring to. references, but then doing the careful citation and fact checking during editing once the ideas and flow were down on the page. The principle is that that the author has the book inside already, it just needs to get out of their head and into that linear computer file called a book manuscript.

As I’ve been writing, I’ve gotten a clearer idea where this is all going, so I spend some other time diving into some of the newest insights into brain mechanisms for decision making as well as my guidepost books on self improvement and making better decisions.

I hope to share the effort at some point, but given that I have no ambition to an author, the whole exercise has been a personal project to clarify some of the ideas I’ve had over the years about the relationhsip between decision making, brain function and the philosophy of ethics.

  1. Check out the web site Scribe Writing. Download the free ebook. Follow the directions. In a few months, you’ll have a first draft of a manuscript. 

New Virtual Journal Club- Conant and Ashby (1970)

I’ve taken my notes on one of the important papers I’ve been reading and created a page here that I’ve called a “virtual journal club”. Many times in my career I’ve had the pleasure of working with a group that shared what they were learning on a weekly or monthly basis. Since I’m reading and taking notes, I might as well share what I’m reading here.

I anticipate a benefit for me will be the deeper understanding I’ll gain from the discipline of needing to read closely enough to summarize papers.1

The paper Every Good Regulator of a System Must Be a Model of That System by Conant and Ashby is a formal attempt to prove that to control a system, a regulator has to contain a model of the system. If true, then the brain embodies a model of the body in the real world. It becomes the basis of the approach of Friston and his Free Energy Principle which I think is fundamental to how the brain actually makes decisions on a moment to moment basis. I think one of the Friston papers would be a logical next step to create some background that is hard to create in blog posts.

  1. This has been entered internet lore as The Feynman Technique based on comments he made about how he tackled difficult questions.  

How a Hybrid Leica M Camera Would Focus

Ever since mirrorless cameras came on the scene, there’s been hope for a mirrorless Leica M camera. Usually what’s suggested is a hybrid system where the electronic viewfinder (EVF) could be swapped or somehow superimposed on the clear class rangefinder view. Leica has been making mirrorless cameras now for years.1 I’m sure Leica has prototyped the idea, but based on my experience, the essential problem with the hybrid M concept is focus.

My youngest with the M10 Monochrom

Mirrorless means autofocus

The mirrorless L-mount Leicas are all autofocus. The first, the TL, didn’t even have an EVF when introduced. When you mount a manual focus lens on one of these cameras the only way to get decent focus is with “focus peaking”, where the in focus area is signaled in the display as an area of color, usually red. It is never very accurate and becomes almost useless once the lens is stopped down.

Does anyone really want to only focus a manual lens on an M with focus peaking? I can’t imagine capturing a moving person or shifting subjects in a street scene this way. With practice many of us get pretty good at moving focus with the rangefinder, but anyone really capturing sports or wildlife wants a sophisticated, predictive autofocus mechanism. Sure I focus in live view sometimes with my M, but EVF really works best with autofocus.

How could autofocus be added to the M then?

So to add autofocus to the M, Leica would need a new line of M size lenses with autofocus capability. They would then work on both a Rangefinder M and an EVF or hybrid M. That would bifurcate a 100 year history of the M39/M mount, similar to what happened with the Nikon F mount over the years as there was mixed backward and forward compatibility depending on focus mechanism and aperture control.

One way to enable manual focus in an EVF that I can imagine is a dual EVF, one large that’s off the sensor and another small patch that’s digitizing just the rangefinder spot. I think it could be done using the sensors found in every cell phone camera with a tiny lens and tiny sensor. That would truly be a digital rangefinder where the photographer was lining up two digital feeds. You’d gain the ability to see the image through the lens as the the sensor is seeing it. You’d have a rangefinder that was easy to focus in low light. You’d have those lovely small M lenses to work with.

Really, if there is any failing of the Leica SL2 it’s really just the size and weight of a fully outfitted mirrorless camera with a modern large digital optimized mount compared to the M. The SL2 is pretty comparable to the Nikon Z7 in size and the lenses are similarly digital optimized and larger than we were used to in the SLR systems. It’s the Leica Q2 that’s the sweet full frame, small and light camera but you have to get used to a 28mm lens like that of your phone and the need to crop way more often than when you can change lenses to frame better.

The M hybrid approach to exposure

I actually like the current M10 cameras as a hybrid system. I rely on the rear display to optimize exposure, but prefer the direct viewfinder with frame lines to compose and the rangefinder to focus. I’m learning that exposure with mirrorless is a process all its own. I highly recommend Greg William’s course2 to learn a more about how to work mirrorless or with a phone to optimize light and exposure in a casual workflow. It’s all about getting the image right in camera, which of course has always been the goal, but now is even more valuable given our digital post-processing tools. I generally push to get the midtones looking right which gives me maximal ability to recover either highlights or shadows given the huge dynamic range of modern sensors.

  1. The Leica TL, an interchangeable lens APS-C camera was introduced in 2014 and the full frame SL with a compatible mount in 2015 

  2. Skills Faster: Candid Photography Skills 

Another Hobonichi Year

It’s the beginning of a new calendar year and that means transition to a brand new Hobonichi. I’ve used this Japanese yearly planning calendar for the last 5 years. In previous years, I’ve discussed how I use the Hobonichi (here and here). In short, the Hobonichi is my day planner. I use it every morning to figure out my strategy for using my day, since the allotment of time I’ve been granted each day is never enough for everything I want to get done.

For this pandemic year, my usage hasn’t really changed. Of course there’s been no travel since March, so I haven’t had to deal with the question of whether to take the Hobonichi with me on trips. In general, I leave the Hobonichi at home when traveling because I don’t need to do the kind of planning that’s required to be efficient when working from home. Or maybe I don’t care about the efficiency so much when I’m traveling so I can just enjoy the place I’m in. Also, I’d hate to leave the Hobonichi behind at a hotel or airport, since my jet lagged self is often pretty inattentive. I’ve found it better to use a travel notebook to plan and record my trips, with a more portable small notebook.

The Hobonichi is always open first thing in the morning. I review the hard landscape of my day (meetings and calls) and figure out how I’m going to fit in my highest priority activities that day.

The first free 30 minute block will go toward writing the ODB manuscript unless there is some very pressing issue at work that needs review and email replies. In the timeline half of the daily page of the Hobonichi, I’ll block out the meetings and the writing block time, at least 30 minutes, usually an hour if I can.

My next big block is fitness, these days almost exclusively bicycle riding. According to Strava1 I rode 6,460.5 miles in 2020 with 510 hours on the bike. I put more miles on the bike than I did on my car this year.

That’s usually it- scheduled calls, meetings and proposed times to write and ride. The open side of the page gets a few notes about errands that are pressing or tasks that I’ve been putting off but seem suited for today. But this is just a minor morning mind sweep in the spirit of GTD2 Since my Hobonichi is not with me all day, it acts as an inbox and brainstorming device, not a trusted system for tasks and appointments. Those live in small text files on my phone.

I still tape small prints of my photographs from time to time if I’m incubating ideas and want reminding, but I’ve found that the Hobonichi pages just don’t get reviewed all that often. If the images are there, though, I will page back and review my thinking to plan how to move forward. Some days I’ll block out time to capture images if I’ve been remiss in taking a camera out. Some days I’ll block out time for processing or printing.

The new idea I’ve had this year is to use all of the blank space in the planner to dump thoughts that occur in the morning as I start my day. It’s a way of clearing my mind and preparing to work. I’ll think a bit about what I accomplished or got stuck on the previous day to provide some momentum. A list of events or a note about a problem gets recorded. Because it’s the morning and I’m writing about the previous day, I’ll use the blank space on the page for the day before. And if that’s not enough, there’s blank paper in other days preceding the most recent. I’m never without someplace to take a few notes. It complete violates the sense of timed notes that dated pages imply, but that’s easy enough to get over. In my first Hobonichi post, I see I was writing Morning Pages3 which is three pages of undirected writing. While I enjoyed for a while, I found that simply opening up Ulysses and getting 250 words of manuscript typed was a better use of my time. I don’t need much ritual to get into writing hyperfocus.

Looking back over the completed 2020 Hobonichi, I’m gratified that there’s more filled space in the book than in years past. Over the next few weeks, I’l go through it page by page and capture the notes I want to have available to refer to in the future. Last year, I just transcribed everything into on big text file with sections separated by month. I’ll probably start there, but since I’ve got this big writing project going, I’ll want to make sure that the notes are feeding the writing in a useful way.

  1. Strava is a tracking and performance analysis site for cyclists and runners. It has a social component that connects users by sharing activities in your feed. I get to see not only the rides of my fellow Baltimore Bicycling Club members but I follow a number of pro cyclists, getting a real insight into how they train and race performance. 

  2. Getting Things Done of course. 

  3. From Julia Cameron’s lovely book The Artist’s Way: 25th Anniversary Edition is back

With the new year comes a return to the original url for the blog. I’ve been running the site as WordPress install at DreamHost for many years now. There’s been a problem or two, but their support has been really good. With the need to run an https site and some reorganization I’ve been doing, I thought it would be better to have them actually manage the site. With it comes their caching and server management which is making page loads much faster.

I just added the redirect this evening, so I’m hoping the readers, RSS, search engines and browsers of the world can continue to find content here with a problem.

Our Limited Capacity to Decide

With over 30,000 words done on my manuscript and about halfway plowing through the outline, the thesis of the book has become ever more clear. Here’s the essential. question about decision making from the point of view of neuroscience:

The ability of our brain’s executive function to make decisions is limited not only by the model it creates out of experience , but by the decisions made by brain systems that are inaccessible to awareness or executive control. We then can ask : How do you make better decisions when agency is so limited?

This morning I drafted a few paragraphs about eating that seemed to encapsulate much of the argument and seemed worth sharing here. I think it provides a little idea of the style and approach I’m taking in a longer form.

Recognize this? Your visual system will make a perceptual decision.

Embodied cognition

We’re on the subject of what has been called “the embodied mind”1. The brain is the body’s regulator of behavior of all kind including not only attention and voluntary movement but every regulatory system in the body that keeps us alive and healthy. There’s no line between “mind” and “body”, so our experience has to include input from those systems and our behavior has to be adjusted to take care of them appropriately without involvement of the executive network in the cerebral cortex.

For example, while I can’t control my heart rate directly, the feeling of my heart pounding is an important aspect of the world. My internal model of the world needs to account for whether it’s pounding because I’m sprinting in a friendly competition on my bike in a group ride or whether I’m finishing a high stakes race or whether I’m angry with and/or afraid the driver of the car that just side swiped me and who’s continuing to threaten me2. There’s context to heart rate that important in the bigger world model beyond regulation of the cardiovascular system.

The exquisite control of appetite

And so too with appetite. When I was in medical school, they had just introduced lectures on nutrition into the curriculum. There was one fact I took away from the lectures that I think about very frequently. Now you have to understand that the two families that owned the Coca Cola Company (the Candlers and then in 1919 the Woodruffs) have been major benefactors of Emory University, where I got my MD, PhD training.3

A 12 oz can of Coke has 140 calories. If you decided to add a can of coke a day to your daily diet, perhaps with lunch at the campus cafeteria, that would be 365 cans of Coke or 51,100 extra calories a year. Over a decade, more than half a million additional calories from that can of Coke. We know that there are 3500 calories in a pound of body fat. So that half million extra calories would add 146 extra pounds. Drink that can of Coke for a few decades and you’ll be hundreds of pounds overweight. Looked at another way, the average caloric intake for a man in the US is 2500 calories per day. That can of Coke that caused so much theoretical havoc is only 5.6% of daily caloric intake. For most of us with relatively stable body weight year by year, that means that our average daily intake of calories is regulated down to single digit percentage points! Not only that, but the great difficulty that we find with dieting and the empiric data showing that diets don’t work for most, demonstrates that consciously trying to regulate caloric intake is almost impossible over the long term.

Some of the ability to maintain stable body weight is due to cellular metabolic control regulating basal metabolic rate, the burning of calories at rest. But most of it is behavioral- how active we are choosing to sleep, sit or move around. And of course what and how much we eat. We are no more in control of eating than we are of breathing or respiratory rate or blood pressure.

A complex set of signals exchanged between the body’s fat stores, the gastrointestinal tract, the endocrine system and the brain allows hormones and levels of blood nutrients (sugar, amino acids, fats) to trigger food acquisition and consumption. We’re really good at knowning how much to eat. We’re fully in charge yet not aware of the expertise we have implicitly and not in any kind of long term control of it. Within a few percentage points, every day year after year. Despite the best efforts of our executive network to influence body weight.

  1. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes the historical attribution of embodied cogntion to a short list of authors including George Lakoff and Andy Clark. Their books have been important influences on me in formulating the abstract world of thought as metaphor in the brain’s model of the real world 

  2. Sadly confrontations with motorists is all too common out there on the bike 

  3. In fact my father, who had been a Pepsi drinker all his life switched to Coke after I was accepted to the Medical Scientist Training Program there to show his gratitude. It was a program with full scholarship and stipend after all. 

By Way of Update

It’s been a slow year for posting here on the blog. As I noted in my last post here in February, I’ve been living my online life in Instagram, posting images of my cooking and samples of my photography.

But yes, I have been working on a long form work to sum up what I’ve learned writing here for the last 20 years. It’s about a third done because it turned into a bit more of an exploration than I expected.

Photographically, I continue in my approach to casual photography. We’re in a great time to be a photographer with more powerful tools than ever before, allowing capture anywhere, anytime and in the digital domain, as Vincent Versace likes to say, “Impossible is just an opinion.”. I’m shooting with film, I’m shooting rangefinder, I’m shooting with a monochrome sensor, I’m shooting mirrorless, I’m shooting compact full frame. Mostly Leica these days. I’m processing on my iPhone, my iPad, with Photoshop, with Capture One, with the Nik Filter suite. So check my Instagram feed for the recent work. But regardless of the camera in hand or the processing workflow, I capture what’s interesting in the visual environment. That’s the body of work- urban, landscape, travel, and family provide subjects.

The COVID-19 pandemic? Well I work from home to begin with, so life is not so different. I do miss my usual travel schedule as one of the fuels for my photographic efforts. But humans seem infinitely adaptable so I’m capturing more local images and more family images. At the end of the day, the need to create must be met one way or another. On the other hand, I’ve had more time for structured cycling training, so my fitness is at an all time high.

Having a varied set of interests provides ample opportunity for natural selection and a stable life work ecology.