A small tragedy within the greater tragedy

To continue our commentary on the recent travesty of an election, let us all remember that in the overall scheme of things this is a small tragedy within a greater tragedy.

Human beings, through their reckless expansion and consumption, have guaranteed, at minimum, that people who are young now will live through a long ‘time of troubles’, during which economic migration increases, agriculture becomes more difficult, and coastal cities are under assault by rising sea level—to mention just a few specifics among many. There is, so far, no sign that a critical number of human beings understand what is happening, neither at the grass roots or among our ‘leaders’.

And by the way, the United States, with ~4.5% of the world’s population, is responsible for something in excess of 25% of the already-committed damage to the climate.

So, Trump and the Republicans will try to make policy changes in the wrong direction; but this will happen at the margins. A Clinton administration would not be proposing a large and rising carbon tax, let alone getting it enacted (certainly not with a Republican House). But this is still the single best thing we could do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The travesty of an election

First, let everyone keep in mind, not just today but for the next four years, that this was not democracy at work; this was our anti-democratic Constitution at work.

The practical effect of the provisions of the Constitution is to give Republicans an unfair advantage in the Presidency (and this has been decisive twice now in the last 16 years), in the Senate (fairly obvious), and in the House of Representatives (this one is harder to explain to people, but true nonetheless).

Every time a talking head interviews a Republican, they should ask them what justification they can give for holding on to this unfair advantage.

If Democrats want to make out like they are the ‘good guys’ in Washington, constantly trolling us all for campaign contributions, they should be proposing Amendments that do away with these anti-democratic provisions. Every Senator or Congressperson, if they pretend to hold lower-case-d democratic values, should support such Amendments. If representatives from small states stonewall them, they are guilty of violating what I would call the ‘implicit oath of office’: to place the public good ahead of personal or partisan considerations.

Indeed, if Republicans stand in the way of this change, they are in the position of abusers: they are saying to Democrats, saying to California and New York and Massachusetts (and so on) ‘An accident of history has given me a position of power over you, but that’s just too bad for you.’ This abuse is less egregious than what went on in South Africa in the days of apartheid, but it is still abuse.

‘That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it …’

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An admirable book on consciousness

On a recent long train journey, I read Consciousness: a user’s guide, by Adam Zeman (Yale, 2002), and I cannot recommend it too highly. The author is a neurologist and a teacher of neurologists, with an engaging and lucid prose style. He inclines strongly (as do I) to the belief that physical facts about brains are sufficient to account for consciousness, but without being strident about it; he recognizes that it is very natural for us to feel that there is something mysterious about consciousness.

From his Preface:

I wrote this book partly to satisfy my own curiousity about consciousness, partly because I felt a need for an introduction to the subject which would do justice both to the science and to the philosophy of consciousness, to ‘mechanics’ and to experience. Much of the recent writing about consciousness, some of it brilliant, has been polemical and partial: I have done my best to strike an equitable balance between the warring faction, to chart out the territory and draw a faithful map.

After an initial exploration into the contemporary and historical usage of the word ‘conscious’ and its close relatives, he turns to neurology, providing a detailed but accessible introduction to the structure and activity of neurons and brain structures, with special emphasis on the systems subserving vision. This material can be a bit dry, but the narrative is enlivened by many excursions: into the stages of sleep, into faints, whether induced recreationally or by the large g forces to which fighter pilots are subjected, into ‘opium, alcohol and other anaesthetics’, and especially into those ‘experiments of nature’ where selective damage to the nervous system reveals subtleties that are invisible when everything is working properly: agnosias, neglect, and blindsight, for example.

The book then steps back to look at what evolutionary biology can tell us about neurology and consciousness, and how other mammals stack up compared to humans. The last Part, ‘Consciousness considered’, first surveys a number of grand theories about consciousness coming from the scientific side, and then takes up what historical and contemporary philosophers of mind have to say on the matter.

There is one especially choice passage that I must quote and comment on. In the course of taking up vision there is a subsection headed ‘Recognition’:

Recognition is usually so effortless that we take it for granted. Once in a while a visual mistake startles us from our complacency: a tree trunk on an evening walk looms up like a dark attacker, a twist of black cotton on the floor announces itself as SPIDER. …

A little reflection reveals that such processes are not the exception but the rule. Our knowledge of the world pervades perception: we are always seeking after meaning. … What we see resonates in the memory of what we have seen: new experience always percolates through old, leaving a hint of its flavour as it passes. …

What we see resonates in the memory of what we have seen: this captures, precisely but also poetically, why, in my view, the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is not a problem at all, even if it will also and forever remain in one sense a mystery. If it is like something to ‘see red’ (in what seems to be the universal canonical example), what it is like is seeing red on thousands of previous occasions.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment