One of the many items lodged in my musical memory (and it’s been there for forty years) is the ‘ritornello’ heard at the beginning of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, all 121 notes of it. You can see it notated here. (I didn’t have it quite perfect, it turns out; I thought the eighth-note ‘e’ at the end of the second bar was two sixteenth-notes.) I can play it through in my ‘mind’s ear’ at will, or sing it (though the range, of over 2 octaves, makes that a bit tricky). It’s not ‘random-access’: I basically have to start from the beginning.

Now,  to represent this tune in a straightforward computer-friendly way would occupy about 4096 bits. But, obviously, its brain-based representation is nothing like what a computer would use.

In one sense there is far less information content than the note-for-note calculation would imply: the tune is ‘memorable’ precisely because it is a tune; it makes musical sense. An arbitrary sequence of 121 notes chosen from a span of 2.1 octaves would be virtually impossible to memorize. In a real tune, the choices for each successive note are limited; we could draw an analogy with the predictive algorithms by which the email app on your phone offers you a few likely choices for each word in your message based on what has gone before.

But consider what this means for the brain-based representation of the tune: it is tied in subtle ways to a whole subsystem of musical knowledge.

Just ponder the implications for the gap between the fact-of-the-matter about connections between neurons and the meaning that those connections represent. More to come on this topic.

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Sketch for a new Constitution

The governmental structures dictated by the current Constitution of the United States, together with certain extra-Constitutional traditions that they have accreted, are a disaster for responsive government. I won’t go into specifics in this post, although most of them are clear in my mind, and I’ve summarized them in emails to various people involved in political advocacy.

The odd thing is that, despite widespread disaffection with ‘Washington’, one gets the impression that most people don’t blame the Constitution, as they should. Education is needed so that people realize that there really is a big problem (and that tweaks like attempting to ‘end Citizens United’ are just a distraction).

Here is a sketch for a governmental structure that could actually work.

Legislative power is vested in a body which I will call the ‘Governing Council’ (GC). This would comprise about 24 members, though this number could be tuned based on experience.

Each member of the GC would represent the votes of at least five million Americans (again, this number could be tuned). This is the same kind of representation as occurs at corporate annual meetings, where most shares are voted not directly by their owner but by someone who holds the owner’s proxy. So when the GC takes a vote, members have different voting strengths: note this well. The GC would select the President from among its number.

The intention is that each political point of view held by a reasonably large subset of Americans should have a representative on the GC. My own vote would go to someone who would advocate a large and gradually increasing carbon tax, along with measures to mitigate the economic disruption this would cause; but the GC might also include a would-be theocrat, or a hard-money advocate for whom ending the Federal Reserve is Job #1.

A big part of the mandate for the GC would be to create and maintain a lively political discourse that revolves around policy rather than personality. For example, there would be substantial budgetary support for town meetings, and for focused debates, each one involving a small number of GC members or their designates. Thus, my carbon-tax proponent would have the resources to try to persuade more Americans that the current cheap-energy policy guarantees a miserable future for their children.

In addition to the GC, there could be a much larger (seriously, much larger, maybe 100,000 or so) group of public servants representing small geographic districts, more or less as ombudsmen: receiving and investigating citizen complaints. They would, of course, never all meet in one place, though regional subsets might.

Okay, that’s as far as I’ve gotten right now. Food for thought, I hope.

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Introspective Neurology

I have developed a strong interest in philosophy of mind, drawing on my experiences with psychedelics and meditation on the one hand, and my long background in computer programming on the other.

This is just a brief post to introduce my notion of ‘introspective neurology’, the practice of catching glimpses (and they can only be glimpses) of the underlying processes of one’s own mind.

One fruitful source of such glimpses comes from handwriting errors (typing errors too, maybe, but I get more from handwriting). Catch yourself spelling a word wrong and ask, where did that particular error come from? Sometimes you will notice that the word actually written had the pattern of the intended word, but that some of its letters come from ‘farther down the pipeline’, letters that belonged to the next word or so in the intended sentence.

Here’s a more elaborate scenario. I enjoy solving sudoku puzzles; I have (U.S.) standard 8.5×11″ sheets on which I print out six grids of a pleasant size; I transcribe a puzzle from an online sudoku source, and then proceed to solve it. More on my methods some day, perhaps.

The point, though, is this: when I transcribe the puzzle, taking each 3×3 subsquare in turn, I say to myself, “eight, five, three”, or whatever the données for that subsquare are. But I do not say, “eight in northwest, five in the center, three in south”; the arrangement of the données within the subsquare is just held in my ‘mind’s eye’ as a visual pattern. I found this dependence on both symbolic and nonsymbolic representation interesting. (The famous TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, My stroke of insight, goes into the strangeness of having to deal with a phone number when the connection between the visual shape of each digit and its compact symbolic representation has been lost.)

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Health saga

First the deep background, briefly: as a child I suffered occasional mild asthma attacks; these went into almost complete remission during adolescence; in my early twenties the asthma returned in more chronic form, and I also began to be subject to very severe attacks, usually in conjunction with an upper-respiratory infection. Generally the asthma has been admirably controlled by minimal levels of a pair of inhalers, a glucocorticoid and a long-acting bronchodilator, with prednisone for flareups. At some point chronic low-level sinus congestion joined the party. I had a sinus operation 17 or so years ago, but don’t remember much about what difference it made. Later, maybe about 12 years ago, I realized that I had lost my sense of smell. For me, this didn’t involve disorders of taste, so perhaps some messages are getting through to a more primitive part of my brain. A few times in the last few years, when a severe asthma attack has required a heavy course of prednisone, the anosmia has been temporarily reversed, which is quite a trip: it’s like, “Wow! Sunflower seeds! Red wine! There’s a whole world of olfaction out there.”

The sinus congestion has been getting worse, and over the last three years I had taken to self-medicating with a short, tapering course of alternate-day prednisone when it become intolerable. Finally around the beginning of this year I brought this situation to the attention of my HMO, and here begins the saga proper.

I was referred to a head-and-neck surgeon, had a CAT scan, got a diagnosis of nasal polyps, and was referred to a second head-and-neck surgeon at a facility where the CAT scan was of a fancier sort that could be used to guide instruments during a subsequent endoscopic sinus surgery. The protocol at this point was, “Let’s give a strong application of medical treatment (prednisone plus an antibiotic, the latter meant to act as an additional anti-inflammatory agent) and take another scan when that has kicked in.”

The prednisone course in this case was twenty days long: four days each at 40mg, 30mg, 20mg, 10mg, and 5mg. Now I had experienced higher doses than this—80mg and even 100mg—but this was the first time I had started such a course when basically healthy (as opposed to barely able to breathe).

By the fourth day I was in one of the most extraordinary ‘altered states’ I’ve ever experienced: very much like the ‘long, sweet tail’ of an acid trip—about ten hours in, after the really dramatic stuff—a condition of mind saturated with a high degree of clarity, energy, effectiveness, compassion, and gratitude. As under acid, I was not very much inclined to sleep, and seemed to do fine on a few hours a night; as under acid, I tended to drink mostly water and to eat lightly and mindfully. I felt about 25 years old, less than half my real age. The flurry of posting in early February was triggered by this phase.

Gradually, life got back to normal. I suffered through the symptoms long enough for them to take a biopsy of nasal turbinate tissue, then went back on alternate-day prednisone.

The biopsy result provided the final bit of evidence to justify an official diagnosis of EGPA, also known as Churg-Strauss syndrome. So far my “Five Factor Score” (FFS) is zero, meaning that none of the scarier organ-involving manifestations have shown up yet. The baseline treatment for this condition is … prednisone. For a while I had gotten the alternate-day dose down to 12.5mg, but eventually things got bad again, and I am now at 20mg. Long-term prednisone carries the risk of various nasty side effects, but life without it is really not worth living. My rheumatologists seem to want to start me on Imuran, but I am resisting for the moment: the papers I can access suggest that the other immunosuppressives (beyond prednisone) are to be resorted to when the FFS is nonzero, or if the prednisone maintenance dose is too high. Also, there is something of a “better the devil you know (i.e. prednisone)” feeling.

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A sad story

Some time ago I was stuck in the right lane of northbound stop-and-go 6pm-ish traffic on the Bridgeway in Sausalito. I was driving my electric car at the roughly average speed of the traffic flow, sometimes letting a space open up ahead of me, since it was clear that that space would be taken up again well before the traffic ahead was able to move.

There was a driver behind me for whom this unassertive driving seemed to come as a personal affront. You know the signs. His vehicle (of course it was a he) was some sort of Hummer-lite macho thing. After being a prisoner of my sissy driving as long as he could stand, he took advantage of a slight widening of the shoulder (covered with zebra-striping, I believe) to gun his engine and pass me on the right.

So far, nothing too out of the way. But when he caught up with the traffic ahead, he got out of his car and came and stood behind it, staring at me as I approached and stopped, as if to say, “So, faggot, do you want a piece of me?”

Did I wish to engage this man in argument, or in fisticuffs? Uh, no. I glanced at him, trying to convey “Are you for real?”, then directed my gaze elsewhere; and eventually, when he felt that masculinitiy had been satisfied, he returned to the driving seat and, not soon enough, passed out of my life.

The point, though, is this. What is happening to our so-called eusocial species? Since we are animals with culture, we cannot say to what extent this sort of bone-headed selfishness is down to genes. But supposing there to be a genetic component, it appears that these genes are not being selected against as strongly as the rest of us would wish.

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Antonin Scalia, 1936–2016

Notwithstanding the tradition of De mortuis nil nisi bonum, we feel that the truth is too important to gloss over. So make no mistake about it: Antonin Scalia was anything but a great jurist. On the contrary, he was a crackpot, with an obviously bad idea of what the remit of our final arbiters of law (short of achieving 2/3 of both Houses and 3/4 of state legislatures) should be. His loyalty to an arch-conservative version of Roman Catholic doctrine was such that by rights he should have recused himself from Obergefell. (Fortunately, his views did not prevail in that case.)

For more details, see 10 of the Most Harmful and Dangerous Opinions of Antonin Scalia’s Career — with Quotes. They quote his dissent in Obergefell: “It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” Which, of course, was exactly the problem with Bush v. Gore.

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Bernie vs. Hillary

As the 2016 election was approaching in the distance, it was natural for Democrats, even progressive Democrats, to summon up enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton. But with Bernie Sanders having demonstrated beyond question that he is a viable candidate,  everyone with a brain and a heart should be getting behind him, at least in this commentator’s opinion.

In the current state of the United States and the planet, in the ecological and the economic and social justice spheres, if you don’t see the need for something approaching a revolution, you’re not looking hard enough. Only one of these candidates is at all prepared to lead that revolution. This blog strongly endorses Bernie Sanders for President.

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