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 

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.

Instagram Wins

Without meaning to, I seem to have moved my image posting activity over to Instagram, largely abandoning Flickr. I didn’t mean to, but the photographers and websites I want to follow on a daily basis were all there. Flickr remained a nice community, but didn’t have the engagement of prominent names in photography. Once I started my exploration of casual photography, it seemed natural to just start putting up images there.

Instagram feels more casual. Flickr creates a gallery and I felt compelled to maintain a certain quality of finished work when I posted. I’ve mostly posted iPhone images to Instagram in the past, so it feels easy enough to post a modestly post-processed image out of Photos.app to the site.

In the garden Leica M10 Monochrom APO 50mm ASPH

Continue reading “Instagram Wins”

Come on now. Will 5G really destroy weather forecasting?

I don’t know what to make of the report that 5G wireless is going to seriously impair weather forecasting. There are quotes from public officials and academics who all assert that interference with satellite measurements of atmospheric moisture will set back weather forcasting by decades. I often use atmospheric models and hurricane track cones of uncertainty to illustrate how mathematical models aid decision making. Here that decision making can save lives and millions in property losses.

Leica M10 JPEG 35mm Summilux FLE

Why do I resist believing this is as big a problem as it appears to be? Perhaps I think the idea that my government would act so contrary to the public good is inconsistant with my core beliefs about how society functions. The report is full of both the usual equivocation we scientists love (“it appears…”, “if true, this would mean that . . .”) and bombastic flat out assertions of crisis. There’s no reporting from the other side even. No industry scientists claiming the threat is overblown and there are simple technical fixes. Even though it seems that the problem real, I’m left with the feeling that this is interesting and a potential threat. Well, I think, let’s see what happens.

I recently wrote about how we make perceptual decisions in our view of the world at levels that are not accessible to awareness. Certainty is one of qualities we seem to be able to access. Belief can feel strong or week, but the reasons for doubt seem post-hoc and come after the gut feeling of belief. So if I’m doubting that our weather forecasting systems are about to be deeply impaired by the greed of commercial interests working hand in hand with my elected representatives, that’s a feeling not some deeply argued rational conclusion. I really deon’t know. I don’t have any more information that might strengthen or weaken that belief. I’m not really motivated enough to dig deeper, confirming my level of uncertainty.

And yes, if people start dying because of increased uncertainty in extreme weather event forecasting, I guess then at least I’ll remember having read something about this possibility. Certainly the overwhelmings odds will be that I’ll be enjoying my fast 5G mobile internet connection from somewhere safe and not be in the midst of a deadly hurricane that wasn’t forecasted accurately enough.

Act Casual: Photography in the Age of Big Lenses

Beginning in the mid 1980’s we noticed all cars started looking the same. They’d all been through the same wind tunnel. Yes, ads all look the same. Phones too. Fashions persist particularly in user interface design (via dangerousmeta!), but devices tested in similar ways yield similar results and convergent design.

Now camera lenses seem to be getting huge and heavy:

The Online Photographer: Age of Inglorious Excess:

At 136.2mm long (5 1/3 inches), with 17 elements in 12 groups, with a filter size of 86mm (bigger than any medium format lens I ever owned), and tilting the scales at a staggering 1,090g (38 1/2 ounces, not far short of two and a half pounds), it’s got to be a big zoom, right? What, a 28–200mm? Wrong, aperture-bouche. It’s a 35mm normal prime. “Prime” being, of course, slang for single-focal-length lens.

I assume that optical bench software combined with digital camera sensor characteristics led to common considerations: make the lens mount as big as possible and stuff the big lens full of fancy glass. Thus we get the larger mounts of the Leica SL and Nikon Z mirrorless cameras. Then for best edge to edge sharpness, that hulking barrel of a lens holds precisely aligned specialty glass that’s been molded just so.

And so we’re presented with huge, heavy primes and zooms of astonishing quality. Personally I think the Nikkor Z mount lenses are the best they’ve ever made. I get the impression the Leica SL primes may be the best lenses ever made. All very pricey, but very sharp, very high contrast. Thankfully still with some personality in how the scene is rendered, leaving some art in the design for sure.

Why not compromise at least a little bit? After all, the Jeep still looks like a Jeep. These big systems are specialty outfits used for the best possible capture when the subject is aware and generally allowing their picture to be taken; these are not cameras optimized for stealth or style. Or carrying around all day.

For the casual photographer there are a range of other systems like the Fujifilm retro styled cameras or the Leica Q2, M or CL. Or the iPhone for that matter. I’ve found that the big professional tools are now only welcome in places where photography is expected- family events, national parks, tourist attractions. They are not welcome in residential neighborhoods or on most city streets. Big cameras draw suspicion and hostility in equal measure.

For casual photography, documenting life and environment, a more casual camera is needed. We still need to work on once again accepting that cameras can be used in public. I’d like to see the return of casual photography driven by social media sharing. Perhaps we can get back to a place where the guy with the camera is a bit odd, but no longer a threat.

The Suburban Landscape

Shooting with the Leica Q2 has pushed me out of my exclusive use of the 50 mm focal length lens for shooting. I seem to still be stuck with the idea of putting a particular prime lens on a camera and then seeing at that focal length for the duration. So I’m trying the 35 mm view for a while

Loch Raven Reservoir

Now this is not true of event photography, when shooting a family gathering or party. Then the Nikon with a zoom comes out- currently the Z7 with the 24-70 mm f/4 zoom. The relationship of camera and subject is completely different and I need the flexibility of changing point of view in a physically constrained space.

I feel like I’ve taken advantage of the quality of the lens in this image, being sharp edge to edge, with focus falling off quickly when wide open at f/1.4. And the winter light of the low sun even in early afternoon renders a suburban park in beautiful light.

The quest for casual photography, capturing my daily environment in some ongoing documentary fashion has led me back to looking at the suburban landscape. When traveling, looking at the novel environment is a natural partner with photography. But when home and running errands, the environment fades into the background. Hopefully looking for the image is helpful in being more present and appreciative of a more ordinary world.