Fee, Φ, Foe, Fum.

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the SoulPhi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phi attempts much, and achieves most, but not all, of what it attempts. It is a masterful work. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was extraordinarily heavy – the paper is very thick, and there are a tremendous number of beautiful images and illustrations in every chapter.

Tononi’s approach here could be viewed as derived from a combination of Dante’s Divine Comedy or from Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. For the first, our protagonist (Galileo) is led by a guide (in our case a great thinker rather than Virgil) to meet various people through history and on a quest to identify the je ne sais quoi that is consciousness. For the second, after each of the encounters, the author includes his own notes (à la the GEB dialogues) describing the relative success or failure of the chapter in a metatextual context, as well as identifying the accompanying illustrations.

Tononi’s prose is lyric – far more than any writing about neuroscience has any call to be – and bears re-reading. His central thesis is that phi (Φ) is a measure of irreducible organized consciousness, and that a substrate such as a brain is required for consciousness (of high Φ at least) to exist. He begins by examining many possible ways brains can fail, some more tortured and hellish than others, and showing their effects on the consciousness of the individual (and perhaps unwittingly on the people around them).
He does a masterful job unravelling the challenge posed by the question “can a camera be conscious?” and shows that while only a single neural complex may be necessary to fire to recognize that it is “dark”, “darkness” can only be understood in relation to being not-anything else: not hot, not round, not pointy, not red, not salty – and that this unstated exclusion is the difference between the person in a dark room and a photodiode.

There are missteps: there is a chapter where Tononi admits his inspiration was Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and that chapter is as disturbing as the Kafka, although mercifully shorter. I think that Tononi could have gotten to the same points regarding the nature of pleasure and pain without resorting to horror and evil, but perhaps he tried and failed. I am not sure whether the book would have been better without that chapter, but it certainly would have been prettier.

The great fault to my mind is that for a book which includes the word “soul” in the title, they are inadequately treated – they seem little more than little more than more personable versions of the consciousness in Tononi’s view. He sees them as evanescent, brilliantly illuminating during life, and then winking out in a breath with the destruction of their host. This is disappointing to me: I would have hoped that there would be a greater distinction – perhaps that the soul is the part which would live on after the substrate has been vanquished. Or, to put it in Tononi’s terms, if there is a God, because by definition He does not cease to exist, then all of those Φ would continue in His sight. Tononi does not make that argument, but it would not have been out of place coming from one of several characters (not in the least Galileo).

The fault and the misstep do not make this book anything less than a masterpiece. I first got it from the library, and will buy a copy so that I can re-read it at leisure. I could not recommend this more highly.

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Roundup doesn’t just kill weeds

This holiday season has been pretty good. I think the most amusing part was probably the Shmini Atzeret debate between our educational intern (who had a physics degree) and a philosophy graduate student about heliocentrism versus geocentrism – the philosopher wouldn’t give an inch, and the argument spent a tremendous amount of time on whether the moon had mass. Heh. Now, the kick of this is that in a relativistic universe, neither position is correct: the entire universe is in motion relative to the rest, so the only way you can actually judge motion is to set an arbitrary point as “fixed” and then use that as your frame of reference. This is a great visualization of how the motions of the planets would work using either model. Of course, I’m glad that NASA SpaceX uses a heliocentric model when doing calculations, but the point stands.


That is a close up of the door assembly I built for the sukkah: I cut the tarp, and was all set to sew up the two new edges (even to the point of buying a hand stitcher), and then I happened to call my mother, who is an excellent, make-her-own-clothes level sewer. She’s the reason I know how to sew (and also the reason I know basic automotive repair!). So anyway, I was talking to her about the project and she was giving some suggestions, when she said: “wait a minute – this tarp is plastic, right? Why aren’t you using black duct tape?”


But when the expert seamstress says that duct tape is the answer, you know that it’s true. The sliders are shower curtain rings (Thanks, Dan G!), and the wood assembly is just designed to give them clearance to slide under the s’khakh (without letting metal touch it of course).

We hosted 1 Rosh Hashana meal, 3 Hag Sukkot meals, one Shabbat Hol hamoëd Sukkot meal, and one Shmini Atzeret meal, for a total of 43 guests. Total number of paper products used: zero.

I got to lead shaharit for multiple sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, which I enjoy a great deal, and I’m pleased that people seem to finally be learning the “Ma Ashiv” tune that I learned via Gary (from Seth from Rena).

Yom Kippur was a bit of a beast: because I had had such a hard time not being allowed to fast on Tisha b’Av, I asked the other doctor in my practice whether there were any options for me. Now, this doctor happens to be a very religious Muslim (fast on Ramadan during her 7th pregnancy religious), so she gets fasting. It also just so happens that I already had gotten a PICC line, so she thought for a minute, and then prescribed a few litres of saline for me so that I could still participate in the fast. I had a bunch of folks tell me I was lucky (no, I’m still sick, remember?), I had others bring upthis article about people getting IVs (not my case: I already have the catheter, so it isn’t a wound, and I’d have to take my antibiotic anyway), and I had even more say that I was going to feel great (actually, if you get IV saline, but don’t drink, you get more thirsty, but it’s just unpleasant rather than dangerous). Having several people watch while I infused was a little strange, but on the whole it went well.

Apparently I am of a dying breed when it comes to certain opinions about what is correct and not correct in the nusah (correct tunes) of prayer: I learned that the “victory Kaddish” was only for after Musaf and after Neilah, but it seems that lately it’s become the de facto Kaddish after pretty much all of the services (which makes not the least bit of sense to me, thematically, but my choices are to accept it or be upset about it because it sure doesn’t look like I can change it…

About Time!

The first half of sukkot (Tabernacles) rained on-and-off, and one of the theodicy challenges present there is the conflict between the conflict to dwell (really, “eat”) in the sukkah and the admonition that one should not do so if it is raining lest one be considered a hasid shoteh (pious fool) in the eyes of God – how precisely should we deal with these challenges where God tells us to do something and then doesn’t let us do it?

In some part, that is a microcosm of my larger theodicy challenge over the past couple of years with regard to Sarah’s and my attempt to enlarge our family – I’m commanded to have children (for intriguing reasons of Jewish law, women aren’t obligated to have children- only men are – but those reasons aren’t relevant here), but we haven’t been able to do so. Each failure has burned itself into memory indelibly, making me far more familiar than I ever wanted to be with the wrong end of an OB/RE’s office.

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
– from Longfellow, “The Rainy Day”

It’s tempting to preemptively give up – to see a darkening of the sky and presume that this means that the storm is inevitable – and yet, only today I noticed this in Kohelet:

:שמר רוח לא יזרע וראה בעבים לא יקצור
כאשר אינך יודע מה דרך הרוח כעצמים בבטן המלאה ככה לא תדע את מעשה האלהים אשר יעשה את הכל׃
:בבקר זרע את זרעך ולערב אל תנח ידך כי אינך יודע אי זה יכשר הזה או זה ואם שניהם כאחד טובים

He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all things. In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand; for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
Ecclesiastes 11:4-6 (translation from Mechon-Mamre.org)

And if I needed a swifter kick in the pants from God, the post today predicted stormy weather starting at 5PM. However, walking home, we saw extremely dark clouds, and the consensus was that we would be lucky to make kiddush (the first blessing, lit. “sanctification”) in the sukkah before the rain came. Long story short, there was a lot of threatening, but no rain: we had a lovely meal with a lovely bunch of friends which went until after 4.

Lesson received, God, thank you.

One nice thing about the meal is that while our six guests are all over the place politically (some to my right [a little bit], more to my left [a lot], I’m pleased to say that we’ve been able to maintain civility and comity even in these divisive times. On a separate note, I got introduced to a new delicious and reasonably priced wine – Recanati Yasmin (I had 2009, while that link is to the 2010). Delightful!

But all in all, it sure is nice that we got to have one of our large meals actually start, continue, and finish in the sukkah.