Reading: Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang

This was one of those email on sale alert impulse purchases I make for Kindle Books from time to time. It looked like it would fit into my current theme of reading on creativity and craft. It turned out to be a great intuition.

This a 25th anniversary editon of what is called in the blurbs “a classic book”. Picture This is very simply a short, illustrated deconstruction of how some identifiable elements of an image (color, position in the frame, shape, distance from other objects) are interpreted by us emotionally. Since it’s a classic book and I readily agreed with almost all the observations, these truly appear to be universal, wired in aspects of brain function in interpreting the visual world. Often Bang takes exactly the kind of ecological approach I’d use, talking about why something would feel a certain way based on relationship or common experience without resort to theory or some evolutionary design concept. Quite simply, we can’t be sure how we got here, but here we all are. In fact, it would be interesting to know to what extent these observations hold true across cultures.

Right after I finished the book, I pulled up my public gallery in Flickr. It’s been a while since I actively used the app, but it’s a quick way to get an overview of my photographic work.

Looking at my work through the eyes of Bang’s book, it’s amazing how almost all of my images are restful, balanced and lacking tension. I chose this image from a few years ago as a good example. There are two objects in frame, the white paint square to the left and the remnant window sill on the right. There are the background gray and white color blocks. The main characters here are off center vertically, but balanced. They seem friendly as if they might be chatting with each other. Even though nothing is centered vertically, the greater weight of the dark object rests comfortably away from the picture edge and the the white square takes up the other side, getting close to the dark bar in its space.

Will my images change? Actually, I doubt it, given that this is how I see the world. Maybe more a reflection on me than on the art. Or both.

Reading: Slough House by Nick Herron

Number seven in the series, Slough House by Mick Herron is another great addition to this spy thriller series. Of course, if you’ve read any of the series or watched the AppleTV+ show, it’s character drama and commentary on post-cold war bureaucracy and politics. This book focuses particularly on the domestic politics of England.

I’ve realized through reading the series that by focusing on this outcast group in the spy world and their often inept efforts that are always successful ultimately, the books have a way of looking upwards into the corridors of power- both political and organizational. Like much good fiction, we get a pointed reflection of our times. This is what life was like.

Macrofactor: How to Lose Weight in 2023 as an Endurance Athlete

Let me tell you how to reach and maintain your target weight as an endurance athlete.

Weight loss is a difficult subject for endurance atheletes. Eating disorders, obsession with intake and crash diets are big problems in athletes historically. While the idea of fitness for all body types is a great inclusivity goal, it’s true that for most endurance sports, body weight and composition are among the most important factors in performance.

I’ve been training seriously as a cyclist for 4 years now. By nature, I’m an endomorph, meaning that I tend toward body roundness. After graduating from high school, I was never able to wear 31 inch waist shrink to fit Levi 501’s and remember one dieting episode while in medical school when my weight was as low as 137 pounds. As someone who is 5 foot 5 inches tall, my usual weights in the 150 lb range are in the overweight range on the standard BMI chart.

I did make some progress with simple food logging using Lose It which provides a comprehensive food database. Regardless of calorie target, honest food logging reveals where exess calories are coming from and provides feedback for better eating and nutrition.

Even riding thousands of miles a year on the bicycle, my weight has been remarkably stable. For endurance athletes, the challenge is fueling the efforts that need hundreds of calories for energy yet create a minor deficit that creates a negative caloric balance. THe problem with simple food logging is handling the daily expendature variations for big effort days, regular training and rest days. Without good control, the body adjusts intake for stable weight at its setpoint. Which for me as a cyclist has long been unnessesarily high. There’s no real reason why I need to walk around with 25% of my body weight as fat that needs to be accelerated and dragged up hills on my super light carbon fiber bicycle.

The solution I’ve found is an iPhone app called MacroFactor. I discovered Macrofactor from this post at Lifehacker The Best Paid Diet App. That title is not really accurate because MacroFactor is really a weight management system, not a diet app.

The new approach taken by the system is to control caloric intake based on weight trajectory. So if one wants to maintain a weight, the app will find the daily calorie intake that produces a flat weight curve without gain or loss. If the goal is weight gain, it will increase calorie target until the desired positive weight slope is achieved. And the same for weight loss. Since expenditure is varying day to day, week to week and month to month, the process is dynamic, adapting to the rate of change. The algorithm used isn’t explicit, but after using it for a few months, I can see that it is primarily looking at slope over time to predict current expenditure.

Here’s a screen capture of the last 3 months of my weight data:

You can see that the dark blue trend line doesn’t run through the center of the data like a moving average or a smoothing technique like a loess curve. Instead, it looks like the line is showing the slope in the underlying data, often sitting above the line as it trends down. And yes, I’ve been able to get back down toward that goal weight in just a few months. A few flat sections as well- when I had recovered from COVID and the last week or so.

Now here’s what the. expenditure curve looks like over the same period.

The initial suggested daily burn was way too high and as my weight was not trending down at the targeted rate, the algorithm reduced it day by day until the desired rate of decline was in view. Actually, it overshot a bit and then, when my weight leveled off, it brought the expenditure down to a pretty low level of 1800 kcals/day. This oscillation is one of the problems anticipated with a simple feedback loop where the output is controlled by a lagging input. Like a simple thermostat, temperature oscillates above an below the target temperature as the thermostat cycles the furnace on and off. But the oscillation is around the correct value, providing a homeostatic control over time. We’re talking about one or two hundred calories a day- a 10 or 15 percent error range.

The app tracks macronutrients in a nice display as well with targets for protein, fat and carbs. So as it shifts the calorie allowance based on weight change, it pushes me to keep protien intake up. So I base all of my meals around protien often supplemented with a protein shake, fueling the exercise sessions with all the allowed carbs. I’ve shifted body composition without being underfueled and without being too hungry between meals.

For me, one of my favorite aspects of the program is how non-judgemental it is. If I go over the day’s caloric intake target to fuel a big workout, the app doesn’t care. In fact, the whole approach not only discourages cheating, it encourages complete entry of all dietary intake. After all, the more I say I eat, the more it allocates as calorie expenditure, since all it knows is what I say I eat and what I weigh. Expenditure is based only on the relationship between calories in and weight.

The monthly subscription is $11.99 a month, but has certainly been worth it for me. I believe that even once I’m at a goal weight and stable I’ll be happy to support the developers and see how training and life influence my metabolism over the longer term..

Reading program update

Today I finished summarizing my notes on The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience by Matthew Cobb. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve written about it here, so I’ll need to remedy that with a note on the book.

I learned two things in taking reading notes on the Cobb book. Last fall I started a more formal practice of Bullet Journaling. Along with it came my reading note taking method of reading straight through the book and then going back and taking notes in the Bullet Journal. With this book, it got unwieldy as there ended up being 16 pages of notes scattered across 6 writing sessions. It seems to me that while putting the notes in the BuJo is convenient, it becomes hard to find and review the notes. So for the next book I’ll be taking notes on, I’ll use a dedicated reading notes notebook.

My second discovery was that the Cornell format of notes works well for reading notes. The most viewed page on this site has long been How Bill Gates Takes Notes, which is really about the value of using the Cornell system for meetings. I realized that by laying the reading note page similarly, I could clearly see the topics discussed at the left margin and at the bottom, my own thoughts and followup items occuring to me during the note taking session.

I’ve finished my read through of Luiz Pessoa’s The Entangled Brain. It’s a really nice book serving both as an introduction to modern neuroscience and the view that I’ve long held that only systems theory approaches will help us understand how brain activity underlies behavior and awareness.

I’ve been not only been writing brief notes as I finish books, but I’ve been keeping the Reading 2023 page updated as I finish books and move on to the next. So far, it’s 6 fiction and 4 non-fiction books read. Keeping the page updated and committing to writing at least brief notes on the books has turned into a nice discipline to keep me writing regularly here.

Reading: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

It seems to me that the themes of science fiction have been moving into works that would be considered literary fiction and outside the genre of SciFi. While some SciFi, like the work of Ursula Le Guin, had literary aspiration but was seen as part of the Genre, I think the separation now is mostly one drawn by publishers and bookstores as to where to shelve or categorize certain books.

Certainly, if Klara and the Sun hadn’t been written by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, it would very comfortably find its place on the SciFi shelf. I’ve never read any of his books before, so can’t comment on how it fits stylistically with previous work. My only point of reference in Japanese fiction is Murakami, who’ve I read for many years. There’s certainly some similarity in having a relatively simple narrative line with a single character point of view and a straightforward story that moves directly from inception to conclusion.

I’m reminded once again of the idea that the power of fiction is to relate ideas that can’t be simply put into words. Instead, the story evokes themes where characters and situations provoke questions as we witness the unfolding story. Here, the book is narrated by Klara, an Artificial Friend who is a self aware and independently acting android, manufactured to be a child’s companion. Having been manufactured and gifted with an interior life, Klara has aspirations. Her attempts at fulfillment provide a view into the dreams and disappointments of the family that acquires her. It’s a touching story, made poignant by the nature of the limitations of it’s narrator.

Reading: The Creative Act: A Way of Being

The Creative Act: A Way of Being by music producer Rick Rubin seems to be one of those books that brings out strong reactions in readers, good and bad. I’m on the very positive side of the argument and it was a great read for me. If you have a fear of books that seem on the surface like obvious, trivial recitations of cliche, it either may not be for you or just require some patience to get below the surface into the substance of the book.

I think that it’s fitting that a book providing advice to those who seek to create is itself a creative act. In Novelist as Vocation, the novelist Haruki Murakami asserts that to be a novelist you can’t be too smart. Or at least you can’t have crisp, well defined ideas to express. Because if you knew what you wanted to say, you’d write it in an essay as I’m doing right now. The novelist has to bring the reader on a journey of discovery, a journey the novelist travelled in the creation of the fiction. So too Rubin has an idea of what constitutes the right way of being to foster creation, but doesn’t have it down to just a few rules. So the book comes at the ideas obliquely over and over.

Rubin’s findings align with my own experience. Creation is a process and the audience is just the creator. It’s nice when others can also experience the work and take the journey, but the creative act belongs to the artist. It’s what keeps me creating here- photography, philosophy, book reviews, what have you. It’s the result of my process of discovery.

Rubin rightly starts out by asserting we are all creators in one way or another. Making this a worthwhile read for those who create at work, in their family or dabble in the arts.

The book probably doesn’t lend itself to a second reading and note taking. I think it will be more valuable to dip into it from time to time, seeking relevance in its own time.

Reading: Joe Country by Mick Herron

Trying to keep up with my notes on books as I finish reading them. I’m alternating more literary fiction, generally with a SciFi, AI angle with the Slow Horses series by Mick Herron. Joe Country is the 6th book in the series. As of now, there are 8, the most recent published in 2022. The plan is to finish these and then try another series. The Gray Man series looks interesting and has been recommended by Warren Ellis, so I’ve got the first book in the queue.

The Slow Horses books can be a bit formulaic, where we’re all confused about what’s really going on until the action picks up in the second half of each book. With the Cold War over and terrorism an overused threat, Herron tends to make bad actors out of politicians, old spies and simple criminals, stirring them together in badly conceived plots. The Slow Horses, MI5 outcasts, always manage to solve the crime, but inelegantly in a way that never would permit their real redemption and return to the main game. Their boss, Jackson Lamb, is great literary creation- brought to life in the AppleTV series by Gary Oldman.

Reading: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

One of the older posts here that continues to get some hits is a bit of a meditation on the photographer Eliot Porter, who was an influential early color landscape photographer who is now, I fear, largely forgotten, even though he was an important influence on landscape photographers and my own approach to the intimate view.

I had no answer at the time, but after finishing Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, I felt like maybe I had a bit of insight into why some artists, while influential, are forgotten while others, influential or not, continue to be relevant. Cloud Cuckoo Land is very much a work of contemporary fiction. It is generally somewhat fantastic in its settings, plot and characters- shifting in time and space from ancient Greece to the fall of Constantinople to modern day and a future time, all tied together through the device of the Ancient Greek manuscript, Cloud Cuckoo Land. Most fiction today shifts scene and character point of view. Or makes narrative construction a central part of the experience in one way or another.

For some reason, it brought to mind James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I reread last year, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I reread a few years ago, both influential books of my youth. But it seems to me that while Joyce is still celebrated and read, Pynchon is becoming another forgotten artist who was influential, but now seeming less interesting to read.

Perhaps one reason why artists like Porter and Pynchon fade is that those they influence, surpass them in the very areas in which they innovated. It’s clear that most landscape images taken by YouTube photographer influencers and now much better images than those Porter took. We have better capture methods, better exposure control and better post-processing tools than Porter had. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone has created the kind of majestic monochrome images that Ansel Adams made, keeping his work relevant for us. Sometimes doing it first means doing it so well that those that follow seem to be imitating. Others are surpassed by those that come after and so are forgotten as they were innovative and influential, but ultimately not of a quality that lasts.

Cloud Cuckoo Land seemed to me to take the tools of modern fiction and use them in a fun, somewhat hopeful way. The basic text is an absurd Greek fantasy of no great merit and the stories told that are spun from it similarly are comedies of no particular great merit. Yet the whole is a nice meditation on literature, stories, comedy and, perhaps best of all, is a compelling fun read.

I won’t judge it for the ages. That will depend on those that follow us.

Wabi-Sabi Intention

This photo is one extreme of the casual approach, approaching the almost arbitrary selection of content. I’m showing this just to make a point about what I’m thinking about this year in creating photographs. My instinct is that this is just a bit too far, but with just some structure it would work. It lacks gesture which is enough of a subject for an image.

My contribution to working in public.