Quirky and enwondering things #7

Would love to see the numbers underlying this claim:

This would scare the hell out of me if I saw it coming:

Neuro-AI – 2017, ‘The anatomy of the soul’: Willis, 1664 Oxford, and the origins of ‘neurologie’

This is chapter 2 of a book on the brain I was writing in the 2010’s. The first 4 chapters are here, but I’m posting it as a single post. It tells the story of the origins of neuroscience in modern form, with Thomas Wilis and the Oxford circle making the first complete dissections of the brain, and publishing ‘cerebri anatome’.

Chapter 2 – The Anatomy of the Soul

‘Now then, listen. In order for you to fully comprehend
That minds and flimsy spirits have a birthday and an end,
I’ve spent long hours hunting the right words, and labour of love,
To set forth for you in poetry that’s worthy of
Your life’s calling. But do this favour for me just the same,
And yoke both of these concepts underneath a single name,
So that, say, when I speak of spirit, teaching that it dies,
Understand I am referring to the mind likewise,
Seeing that a single soul is formed out of their union’

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1st century BC.
Book 3, lines 417-25

Lucretius’ union

Thought found its location only gradually. It began by entertaining a hypothesis that remains astonishing to this day: that our thoughts come from an organ of the body, of physical matter. In short, that thoughts are flesh.

We begin this story over 2,000 years ago, in ancient Rome. That thought was the product of a physical structure had been inferred by the great Roman atomist philosophers, who believed that everything, however complex, was a product of the combination of the simplest of elements. One of these philosophers was Lucretius, who was quoted by Montaigne in The Essays:

‘We feel the soul is with the body born,
Grows up with it, and with it waxes old.’

Lucretius goes on, more directly:

‘That mind must be corporeal is quite plain,
Since darts and thrusts corporeal give it pain.’

So Lucretius viewed the mind as being physical 2,000 years ago, based upon simple observation, thus beginning the search for the anatomy of the soul. However, Lucretius’ linkage still leaves the nature of thought poorly defined, without mechanism or specific structure. There were two central hurdles to achieving an explanation of the mind that moved beyond this early insight.

The first hurdle was philosophical. To render the spirit physical was to render God physical, an act akin to atheism. The spirit was something deeply spiritual, religious, divine: the greatest of God’s gifts, and that gift which made us a special species. Even when people could overcome the intuitive hurdles of thinking that conscious experience arises from the brain, these religious attitudes made the quest daunting. The hostility led Vesalius, perhaps the greatest anatomist of all time, to ‘wholly abstain from consideration of the divisions of the soul and their locations’. Even today, the view that there is some separation between brain and mind is common. 

Yet for those willing to try to lay the detail onto Lucretius’ conjecture, a second major hurdle still existed, this time technical – how do you actually study the brain?

The elusive organ

‘This lax pith or marrow in man’s head shows no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds.’

Henry More, 1652, An antidote against Atheism.

The early advances in understanding the physiology of the body came from making links between structure and function. What is needed is some feature of anatomy, some pattern in the organization of the physical matter, that gives clues as to how function arises. Hearts connect to the blood vessels, lungs to the airways, stomachs to the mouth and intestine. This principle of linking anatomy to function is now at the foundation of biology, and act as a guiding light for experimental scientists. In the words of Sydney Brenner,  ‘When it’s too difficult to study function, you study structure…. Once you know anatomy you get bits of physiology for free.’ So understanding the organizational logic of physical structure helps you to see how it gives rise to function.

However, even for the heart, an organ whose form is extremely closely linked to its function, this inference was historically challenging one to make. Things that are obvious retrospectively are not so obvious at the time. Even Leonardo da Vinci himself, despite fully understanding the basic anatomy of the heart, did not realize that it implied a circulatory mechanism. Only centuries later did scientists make this link.

For the brain, the task is far harder than for other organs. The brain’s form rapidly deteriorates after death, making it hard to dissect and examine. Even removing the brain intact from the skull was not possible until the seventeenth century; investigators were left with lumps of goo rather than neat anatomical specimens. Further, even if one could extract the brain intact from the skull, the brain’s appearance does not immediately suggest that it is the organ of thought. It looks like a collection of mushy walnuts, with varying folds and bumps, and different greyish hues dispersed seemingly at random. It appears to offer few clues to the investigator. Even the clear distinctions between different brain areas shown in anatomy books are not at all obvious to the naked, unprepared eye. This mess may have been what led many medical researchers, including Galen and Da Vinci, to focus instead on the fluid-filled ventricles weaving through the brain, an area that we now know is the only brain area not directly involved in thought. 

How, then, was this impasse overcome? 

Putting nature to the torture

‘For either by this way, by Wounds and Death, by Anatomy, and a Caesarean Birth, Truth will be brought to Light, or forever lye hid.’

Thomas Willis, Preface to Cerebri Anatome, 1664

The link between the physical and mental, the ‘union’ referred to by Lucretius, was definitively demonstrated in Oxford in the seventeenth century. This was, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of neuroscience. Indeed, this was a time when science itself was new. Nature was, in the words of Francis Bacon, being ‘put to the torture’ by the new tool of inquiry – the experiment –  relentlessly probing and testing nature to reveal her secrets. 

In Oxford, a group of self-styled ‘natural philosophers’ formed a club dedicated to these experiments. This was the ‘Experimental Philosophical Club’, which later became the famous Royal Society. It grew out of the new coffee club culture, and was a social circle of investigators using natural philosophy almost as a kind of entertainment. The group would meet weekly to discuss and share demonstrations, refine and share methods, and drink that  newly-found elixir, coffee. Such luminaries as Robert Boyle, John Locke and Robert Hooke were present in these circles, working on the so-called clockwork universe, discovering laws and explanations to simplify the everyday world into mechanisms free of mystery. 

No subject was fully off limits to these men. Hooke’s law was devised, the Micrografia written, Boyle’s chemical experiments completed, all within a few short years. In secret, a futile search for the alchemical philosopher’s stone was underway, a feat that later captivated Newton. Even the properties of marijuana were investigated. Nature was indeed put to the torture. But whilst these scientists sought to uncover the clockwork universe, only one sought to uncover the clockwork mind.

The man who was addicted to the opening of heads 

‘Willis put the brain and nervous system on their modern footing, so far as that could be then done.’

Charles Sherrington, Nobel Laureate, 20th century.

This scientist was Thomas Willis, the world’s ‘first clinical neurologist’. It is Willis who is quoted at the beginning of this book, and in the preceding section. In a series of books, first and most famously Cerebri Anatome (The Anatomy of the Brain) in 1664, he laid out a set of landmark observations about the basic organization of brains. Cerebri Anatome was the first ever neuroscience book, a catalog of the brain for the first time in history, filled with speculations and details about its working. The outcome, in Carl Zimmer’s words, was the idea of a ‘Soul Made Flesh’, a physical brain, with its structure linked to function, and its function linked to thought. 

Willis’ path to this idea was the result of the convergence of two character traits common to many great scientists. First, he had a rebellious streak, embodying the subsequent motto of the Royal Society – Nullius in verba, or Take nobody’s word for it. He described his own profession of medicine as a ‘sword in a blind man’s hand’, and openly questioned the wisdom of the ancient doctor Galen, who was still greatly revered, even idolized, in seventeenth-century England. He saw the clear conflict between Galen’s theories and his own clinical experience as a doctor, and chose to believe his own eyes.

Willis’s second crucial trait was that he not only disbelieved existing wisdom; he actively sought to overturn it with his own observations. He was a Sherlock Holmes-like figure, with a masterful eye for detail and how those details connect. Prior to working on the brain, he had already written the first case reports of influenza, and made the first link between diabetes and glucose by noticing that flies were especially attracted to the urine samples of his diabetic patients. Observation was thus a central tool for Willis, and his skill at connecting his observations was ideally suited to the problems that he was to tackle.

It was in the early 1660’s that Willis used these two traits to forge a path for the study of thought, resolving to see the brain for himself rather than trust the claims of the ancients:

‘….I determined with myself seriously to enter presently upon a new course, and to rely on this one thing, not to pin my faith on the received opinions of others, nor on the suspicions and guesses of my own mind, but for the future to believe Nature and ocular demonstrations.’

He launched vigorously into this effort, often gathering corpses from executions to fuel his investigation:

‘I betook my self wholly to the study of Anatomy: and as I did chiefly inquire into the offices and uses of the Brain and its nervous Appendix, I addicted myself to the opening of Heads.’

Through this approach, he promised that ‘the impressions, influences, and secret ways of working of the sensitive Soul itself will be discovered.’

These quotes are all from the beginning of Cerebri Anatome. Willis lived before the tyranny of journal editors and academicese had infected science, and so his writings blended his own story, his observations and his speculations. This allows us to retrace his steps as he ‘established links that are still astonishing to us 300 years on’.

Neuroscience’s Dark Side of the Moon

‘The parts of the Brain it self are so complicated and involved, and their respects and habitudes to one another so hard to be extricated, that it may seem a more hard task to institute its perfect Anatomy, than to delineate on a plain, the flexions and Meanders of some Labyrinth’

Thomas Willis, Cerebri Anatome

Yet Willis did not work alone. His ambitions combined with the spirit of collaboration in Oxford at the time, with him forging a team of young investigators to work on his task. They worked tirelessly, almost no day past over without some Anatomical administration’, using Willis’ house on Merton Street in the center of Oxford as a dissection chamber.

We can envisage this crowded hall, still in place today, filled with the meetings of Willis’ investigators. We might see Richard Lower, who later performed history’s first blood transfusion, providing help through ‘his most skillful dissecting hand’, whilst Christopher Wren, of later architectural fame, was also frequently present, ‘delineat[ing] with his own most skilful hands many Figures of the Brain and Skull, whereby the work might be more exact.’ Wren’s beautiful illustrations are reprinted to this day. Willis’ group had thus unwittingly followed Da Vinci’s unpublished advice to not only dissect well, but to also draw well, in order to reveal anatomy in ways that words could not capture (Arraez-Aybar et al 2015). 

The approach that the team took differed radically from earlier scientists, enabling them to see the brain in a very different way. Willis noticed that the critical error of previous anatomists was to remove the brain from the top of the skull in pieces. The brain then lost its shape and form, such that ‘the Phaenomena arising by chance from such a dissection, they easily esteemed for true parts of the Brain’. Willis instead removed the brain intact, by breaking open the skull from the bottom. He described this innovation in some detail in his writings, testifying to its importance. 

These novel dissections revealed the brain as it had never been seen before. There, lying before this group of Oxford mavericks, was the soul in physical form. Beneath the cerebrum atop the brain lay a vast complex of structures, most of which had only been glimpsed at in previous dissections, having been disfigured by the earlier dissection method. Many of these structures were named by Willis, or after him in his honour, including the arterial Circle of Willis. To hold an intact human brain in one’s hands was Willis’ first major advance.

From this new visual perspective came one of the most famous images in the history of neuroscience: Christopher Wren’s drawing of the underside of the brain, neuroscience’s equivalent of seeing the dark side of the moon for the first time. 

Wren’s illustration of the underside of the brain, Cerebri Anatome, 1664 < I own an original first edition print of this image and can take a better version when the time comes

Willis had come a long way from his early days struggling to remove the brain from the skull, a time when he found it difficult to even discriminate between what was brain and what was not. The image had shown that the brain was not merely a ‘lax pith or marrow’, as Henry More had so derisively called it, but a layered, detailed, labyrinthine structure. It was an organ of the highest complexity.

Yet Willis still had a problem. This image alone did not appear to reveal many secrets about how the brain actually worked. The image asked much more than it answered, and thus represented a beginning, not an end, to Willis’s research. Obvious questions protruded from the lump of flesh that he had extracted. Why was the brain he saw not homogenous, a single entity matching the single entity of the soul? What was the reason for this variety of structures? If thought was not homogenous, what was the pattern of this heterogeneity? Most radically, could you link specific variation in the patterns of this flesh to specific variation in the soul? These questions were Willis’ new canvas, onto which were laid new dissections and speculations.

With twenty-first-century hindsight, at least some of the answers to these seventeenth-century questions may seem deceptively obvious, as we are taught from a young age that different brain areas do different things. But instead of jumping to this conclusion, let’s consider what Wren’s drawing shows, and how ambiguous its interpretation could be. At the bottom of the image is the white tube of brainstem, which links seamlessly with the spinal cord. This is what feeds into your neck, and down to the rest of the body. The largest, richly folded structure, farthest from the brain stem, is the cerebrum, the walnut-like structure. So, what do they do?

<<Add diagram>>

With modern knowledge, we may see an obvious solution. The proximity of these lower brain regions to the spinal cord must surely suggest a simpler, more primitive role, whilst the richly folded cerebrum, being further away, would be a more advanced, ‘higher’ structure, serving uniquely human cognition? This inference is partly a product of hindsight bias. An equally persuasive but thoroughly wrong argument and arrangement could be devised. Might one not put the more uniquely human brain areas, the ‘soul’, deeper within the brain, to be more protected? Might the more uniform and exposed cerebrum not be a simple structure, with the deeper and varied labyrinths being the seat of higher complexity and thus of complex thought? Willis used two approaches to circumvent these uncertainties, finding a way to ask Nature questions more directly. 

A notable analogy

‘Concerning the Heads of living Creatures, in the dissection of which it happened for us chiefly to be exercised, it was observed, as to the chief parts of the Head, that there was a notable Analogy between Man and four-footed Beasts’

Thomas Willis, Cerebri Anatome

The first approach Willis used relied upon comparison with animals. Animal dissections had already formed the basis of ancient knowledge of the body. The result was a surprisingly accurate portrait of human anatomy, with some notable errors. 

Willis and his team also used animal brains extensively. The difference, however, was that Willis compared the brains of different animals with those of humans, which the ancients did not do. In doing so, Willis found a ‘notable analogy’ between them. It appeared that the brains of different ‘four-footed beasts’, by which Willis usually meant mammals, differed from one another, and from the human brain, more or less in magnitude alone:

Wherefore when the form and composition of the Brain in a Dog, Calf, Sheep, Hog, and many other four-footed beasts, were little different (the magnitude only excepted) from the figure of the same, and the disposition of the parts, in a man, I was the more satisfied to compose a certain Anatomy of the Brain by the frequent dissection of all sorts of living Creatures

Thomas Willis, Cerebri Anatome

In short, the brains of ‘beasts’ and humans were similar enough that the shape of the former could be used to inform the understanding of the latter. There was a remarkable conservation of the anatomy of the brain, such that in all of the mammals that Willis examined, he found the same set of brain areas. Even in light of our understanding of evolution, this is still somewhat counterintuitive even to this day. Generally speaking, Willis saw few fundamental differences between mammalian brains, including those of humans.

In all of them, he saw the brain connecting to the spinal cord at the base of the brain, through the brain stem. This brainstem structure then appeared to blossom into many other areas. There was the darker, richly folded little brain, or cerebellum. There was the striatum, named by willis, near the front of the brain, with streaks of white passing distinctly through it (hence, striations). There was the thalamus, the inner chamber resting at the brain’s core, and the cerebral cortex, the crowning outer structure, as well as a myriad of other areas of greatly varying size and form. For each area found in humans, an obvious parallel could be found in any mammal. The manner of brain folding was different, so that parts shifted slightly within the skull, but the deep similarity, even sameness, was striking.

Willis understood the implications of his observation. He could find nothing fundamentally different between the brains of humans and animals except size. Previously, the hearts, lungs, digestive and reproductive systems of animals and humans were known to be closely matched. Now brains were added to this list, a far more dramatic shot across the bow of human uniqueness.

So the brains of humans and animals were far more similar than a seventeenth century anatomist might have suspected. But how did they differ? 

The seat of the soul

‘The cerebrum is the primary seat of the rational soul in man, and of the sensitive soul in animals. It is the source of movements and ideas.’

Thomas Willis, Cerebri Anatome

It was in finding differences between mammalian brains that Willis began to link structure and function more precisely. In Cerebri Anatome there is another version of the Wren drawing of the underside of the brain described above. It is the same view of the brain, but this time the brain is of a sheep, not of a human, is depicted. Willis’ pioneering neuroanatomy had peered deep within the brain, where others could not reach, away from the cerebrum sitting atop the brain. Ironically though, his eyes were now drawn back to the cerebrum, where he made one of his most impressive inferences.

The cerebrum, the term Willis used for what we now usually call the cerebral cortex, is a densely folded structure in humans. It is the large, walnut-like area that covers the rest of the brain. The human cerebrum is so large in surface area that it must literally be folded up to fit in the skull. However, Willis noticed that in non-human animals, such folds were much fewer, or even absent. This seemed to be related to the extent of cognition the animals had, that is, to their intelligence. This led him to his famous proposal that the ‘cerebrum is the primary seat of the rational soul in man’. Willis confirmed this link of cognitive ability and the cerebral cortex by dissecting the brain from somebody who had suffered from severe learning difficulties from birth, including an illustration of this with the description:

‘The Effigies of an humane Brain of a certain Touch that was foolish from his birth…..the bulk of whose Brain…..was thinner and lesser than is usual’

The image shows a particularly withered Cerebrum, helping to confirm Willis’ speculation that the cerebrum was indeed the site of the higher faculties. Through detective work, comparative anatomy and clinical case studies, thought had found its place. A specific variation in a piece of flesh had been linked to the very attributes that seemed to make humans unique: their thoughts.

The rivers of animal spirits

“The animal Spirits flowing from the Brain….. irradiate the nervous System.”

Thomas Willis, Cerebri Anatome

But Willis was not quite done. He further speculated on  the functions of multiple other brain regions, including the Cerebellum (meaning little brain), which he linked, correctly, to involuntary movement. He postulated that the parts of movement that were automated, without conscious thought were delegated by the cerebrum to the cerebellum in a division of labour. We shall explore this in later chapters. For now, what emerged from Willis’s work was a picture of a split soul, a brain with ‘provinces’, each dedicated to their own part of the mental firmament.

Willis, however, saw a problem in this view, and then provided the solution. How did the provinces of the brain influence one another, given their separation in space? To answer this, Willis spoke of ‘animal spirits’, which he imagined as travelling like the ‘explosion of gunpowder’ between brain regions. He was arguing that there was a nonphysical element of the mind that flowed between brain areas to carry thought.

It was not in the spirit of the Experimental Philosophy Club to settle for these mystical explanations, however. Instead, Willis theorised that these ‘spirits’ needed a method for travel. To work out how this could happen, he investigated a ‘simple’ type of thinking: vision. He started with the eyes. Here, he traced fiber-like pathways from the eyes to the middle of the brain, concluding that they were ideally suited for carrying the animal spirits from the eye to the brain. Willis could not prove this directly, but we now know that cutting these fiber projections leads to an incurable and total blindness. This means that those tiny fibers, scarcely a few millimetres in width, have provided the pathway for the entirety of the visual experience of your life. Everything you have ever seen has passed through two threads of biological string. 

Willis wanted to prove that these rivers of animal spirits were not unique to vision, but were a general organizing principle underlying the exchange of thoughts within brains. To do this, he used another clinical case, this time involving a movement disorder. Willis obtained the body of a patient who, in life, had had severe problems with movement on only one side of their body, offering the ideal chance to track down the pathways of movement. If he could find a difference between the left and right side of the brain, he reasoned, he could isolate the change underlying the one-sided dysfunction. Willis and his team meticulously dissected the extracted brain, poring over each part for hints of asymmetry. They eventually found that a pathway from the top of the brain, the cerebral cortex, down to the bottom, the brainstem, was selectively and severely damaged, and on one side only. This part, the cerebral peduncle, we now definitively know to be the major conduit for signals from our motor cortex to our brainstem motor control areas. When you decide to move, signals flow down this pathway to your brainstem and onward, driving movement. The individual whose body Willis dissected was part-paralysed not because they could not think about making movement, but because those thoughts were forever trapped high in the brain, unable to pass down to the site of movement execution. The patient was unilaterally trapped.

These varied insights combined to form a simpler image as Willis saw and delineated these same tube-like pathways all over the brain. The different brain areas appeared to be linked in an elaborate web: the brain was a network for the flow of the animal spirits, which move along tiny fibrous pathways as they carry thoughts back and forth.

The doctrine of the nerves

Marcus Aurelius asks in Meditations, ‘If souls survive after death, how has the air above us found room for them all since time began?’ Willis’ answer, which Aurelius may have suspected, is that the soul is flesh, and thus rots away with our bodies. There is no paradox.

But Willis’ contribution was far more than this. He found poetic explanations of thought in the brain where others had found only an amorphous confusion. From Willis’ insights we can extract the fundamentals of neuroanatomy, what he called his ‘Doctrine of the nerves’. A simple distillation of his insights and his doctrine is as follows: thought comes from the physical brain, which is split into parts. Each part is specialized for a particular function, with a progressive elaboration of the higher brain areas: those closest to the tops of our heads are correlated with increased intelligence. The physical connections between these areas are what allows our thoughts to spread, and the pattern of these connections is crucial for determining what an area does. It is a theory of networks, of specializations, of flow. 

The rest of this book is an examination of, and derivation from, Willis’ core insights. The fundamental approach of anatomizing, then understanding the connections and interactions between the resulting brain elements, is the basic logic of neuroscience. We must now turn our focus toward the question of the ‘animal spirits’: what they are, and what carries them.

Quirky and enwondering things, #6

I found this twitter feed, which live tweets World War 2 as though it is happening in real time.

A wonderful example of the importance of setting your sampling frequency correctly to observe phenomena!

I view this as my kind of dream retirement room.

An old school centrifuge:

Gigi doing a voice artist production of thunderbirds, with Lady Penelope escaping. Fascinating to see the physical movements she makes along with the escape noises.

Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen online recently, #5

Obviously DALLE-2 is incredible, as is Imagen. I’ll post on them separately, which reminded me to go ahead and publish an old draft here that was kept as a private post.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/an-ancient-greek-astronomical-calculation-machine-reveals-new-secrets/ Possibly the most amazing thing from the ancient world – an ancient analogue computer. we only know of it due to a single example. what else are we missing?

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/snake-infested-island-deadliest-place-brazil-180951782/ About a small island where, due to a quirk in evolution, the dominant species is snakes who prey on migrating birds. Hence, ‘snake island’, which people are banned from visiting due to how completely snake infested it is.


Zen: Omori Sogen biography “Art of a Zen Master” by Hosokawa Roshi

I recently found a pdf of an important biography of Omori Sogen, the most important zen master of the 20th century, at least in the Rinzai Lineage. Meido Roshi, my teacher, refers to it in this YouTube video. I encourage you to listen to if you are interested in Zen. Meido is in the lineage of Sogen via his Sogen’s Dharma heir Hosokowa Roshi (who wrote the book below) and then one of Hosokawa’s dharma heirs Miller Roshi after Hosokawa retired.

The book itself is hard to get hold of, and cannot be shipped outside the US, so I decided to post the PDF here in case it is of help.

I’ll post some notes later. Its a fascinating read about the life of an unusual zen master who spent most of his life as a lay person in the real world – most zen masters begin their training in their teens or early twenties (such as Meido).

Zen: Dogen’s ‘Recommending Zazen to all people’, 1227

“Having adjusted your body in this manner, take a breath and exhale fully, then sway your body to left and right. Now sit steadfastly and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Beyond thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.”

This is my favourite translation of my favourite introduction to zen meditation, a kind of poem to introduce the central practice of zen: sitting meditation (Zazen). This is also one of my favourite pieces of writing, full stop. Dogen is the key figure in Japanese Soto Zen, which is the most prominent zen branch in the west. People who hear I went on a retreat often ask for a pointer to an introduction to meditation, so here it is.

The words here are largely not meant to be understood literally. They are poetic, as is the case in most zen writings. The key instruction of ‘think non thinking’ is also not meant to be a readily followed instruction – a little like learning to ride a bike, the task of meditation is to learn to find the meaning in the instructions yourself. You may notice contradictions in the writing – zen is full of this. A contradiction is a concept, a thought – part of zen is about seeing through these patterns of thought and seeing they are creations of the mind.

This is not the branch of zen my teacher is in, and the meditation here is different to the breath counting meditation more prominently used in Rinzai Zen, but for beginners like myself and probably for you these differences are not relevant.

Dogen, 1227, Japan – Recommending Zazen to all people

The real way circulates everywhere; how could it require practice or enlightenment?

The essential teaching is fully available; how could effort be necessary?

Furthermore, the entire mirror is free of dust; why take steps to polish it?

Nothing is separate from this very place; why journey away?

And yet, if you miss the mark even by a strand of hair, you are as distant as heaven from earth. If the slightest discrimination occurs, you will be lost in confusion. You could be proud of your understanding and have abundant realization, or acquire outstanding wisdom and attain the way by clarifying the mind. Still, if you are wandering about in your head, you may miss the vital path of letting your body leap.

You should observe the example of Buddha Shakyamuni of the Jeta Grove, who practiced sitting up straight for six years even though he was gifted with intrinsic wisdom. Still celebrated is Master Bodhidarma of the Shaolin Temple, who sat facing the wall for nine years although he had already received the mind seal. Ancient sages were like this; who nowadays does not need to practice as they did?

Hence, you should stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop off and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.

For zazen, a quiet room is appropriate. Drink and eat in moderation. Let go of all involvements and let myriad things rest. Do not think good or bad. Do not judge right or wrong. Stop conscious endeavor and analytic introspection. Do not try to become a buddha. How could being a buddha be limited to sitting or not sitting?

In an appropriate place for sitting, set out a thick mat and put a round cushion on top of it. Sit either in the full or half-lotus posture. Loosen the robes and arrange them in an orderly way. Then place the right hand palm up on the left foot, and the left hand on the right hand, lightly touching the ends of the thumbs together.

Sit straight up without leaning to the right or left and without bending forward or backward. The ears should be in line with the shoulders and the nose in line with the navel. Rest the tongue against the roof of the mouth, with lips and teeth closed. Keep the eyes open and breathe gently through the nose.

Having adjusted your body in this manner, take a breath and exhale fully, then sway your body to left and right. Now sit steadfastly and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Beyond thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease. It is the practice-realization of complete enlightenment. Realize the fundamental point free from the binding of nets and baskets. Once you experience it, you are like a dragon swimming in the water or a tiger reposing in the mountains. Know that the true dharma emerges of itself, clearing away hindrances and distractions.

When you stand up from sitting, move your body slowly and rise calmly, without haste. We understand from past precedents that going beyond ordinary and sacred, where sitting and standing are effortless and boundless, depends solely on the power of zazen.

Furthermore, bringing forth the turning point by using a finger, a pole, a needle, or a mallet, or leading people to enlightenment with a whisk, a fist, a stick, or a shout cannot be understood by discriminatory thinking. How can it be understood by the use of supernatural powers? Zazen is an awesome presence outside form and color. How is it not the path preceding concept?

Thus, do not be concerned with who is wise and who is stupid. Do not discriminate the sharp from the dull. To practice whole-heartedly is the true endeavor of the way. Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness; it is a matter for every day.

Now, in this world and in other worlds, in India and China, buddha ancestors equally carry the buddha seal and teach the practice of sitting immersed in steadfastness. Although circumstances may vary in a thousand ways, whole-heartedly practice Zen, giving yourself fully to the way. Why give up the sitting platform of your own house and wander uselessly in the dust of a remote land? Once a wrong step is taken, you depart from the way.

Having received a human life, do not waste the passing moments. Already upholding the buddha way, why would you indulge in the sparks from a flint? After all, form is like a dewdrop on the grass. Human life is like a flash of lightning, transient and illusory, gone in a moment.

Honored practitioners of Zen, please do not grope for the elephant or try to grasp the true dragon. Strive to hit the mark by directly pointing. Revere the mind that goes beyond study and surpasses all doings. Experience the enlightenment of the buddhas, correctly inheriting the samadhi of the ancestors. Practice thusness continuously, and you will be thus. The treasury will open of itself for you to use as you wish.

Reddit comments on this that I liked:

The translation comes from a book I own, but rather than retype I found it online and copy pasted. Here are comments from the original reddit: both touch on the thing that is often so difficult to understand about zen – you are not adding anything to your mind, you are not grasping some external truth, but rather clearing obstacles that your mind creates. It is only after 3-4 days of near continuous meditation at Sesshin that I felt this long enough for it to be anything but a fleeting sensation, but it is perhaps the most striking state I have ever entered. It cannot be explained in words.

“Zazen is practical self improvement. In that when you practice it becomes obvious that you are improving

This obviousness is what Dogen is speaking to. To chase external mysteries or mysticism is to miss what is right here already, the inner mysteries of ourselves”

“Are you different when you zazen? No. Do you do something different when you zazen? Perhaps but not really. Do you do zazen because you like or dislike it? No neither; it’s just what you do. Why do you do it then? Enlightenment itself.

It’s hard to talk about. When people see Dogen and say they see contradictions or are confused it’s because of this delusion of like and not like, right and wrong or enlightened or enlightened etc. that we are all very fond of holding on to. Dogen in his writing took a step beyond the writing of his ancestors in describing zen in the most non dualistic way possible.”

A Zettelkasten experiment for 2022, + resources [draft]

“The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external aids, memory, thought, and reasoning are all constrained. […] The real powers come from devising external aids that enhance cognitive abilities.” Don Norman

NB: ‘The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone’ by Sloman and Fernbach- is a good book to read to understand how little you actually internally know, how reliant on the outside world you are.

[this is a rough draft, to be turned into a fuller post once I’ve experimented with the system]

Imagine if that image, times 100, was a map of your thoughts, of a lifetime of research. Not just separate facts, pieces of information, but how they relate. How you could dip into one part, and quickly find all the other connecting parts over decade. To me that’s a dream, and the topic of this experiment and blog post. That topic is known as a Zettelkasten.

This Christmas I finished reading a book I hope will hold part of a solution to a range of related research challenges I’ve been toying with since I was an undergraduate. Here I briefly explain what this is, why I am starting one myself, and, mostly importantly, provide an index of resources on the topic, both for myself and for others. I do not attempt to summarise the system myself as others have done it well. I will add my own experiences as I use it over the coming months,.

The book I finished is a book about Zettelkasten’s by Sonke Ahrens, and is called ‘How to take smart notes’. Whilst I cite a range of resources to explore, none come close to explaining what is so attractive about this system and the theory underlying it.

The need for a ‘second brain’

One of the keys to the small amount of academic success I had was to apply simple techniques to address innate cognitive deficiencies that most of us have. Without these I might have got a grade or two lower at University.

I wrote previously about Deep Work in my post giving advice about working in lockdown. I’ll write shortly about another – spaced active recall and memory palaces. Together these address focus and improving memory of isolated facts, and together they addressed key points I needed to be strong at but was not naturally good at.

But there was a major gap in this I’ve been trying to fill since I was undergraduate, and I think I may have found a simple system to address it, just as Deep Work and Spaced Active Recall addressed key points for me.

I always worked in fields where accumulating large amounts of data points, such as results and observations, and then weaving them together, was paramount. This was something I was relatively good at, unlike focus + recall of isolated facts.

If you adopt a strategy of having a broad canvas, of trying to understand disparate areas and weaving them together, you run into a problem over time. Your memory fails, and so does your external memory system such as notebooks.

This is not a problem over a period of a year, and especially not when following a curriculum. As an undergraduate I could keep word docs of key papers and observations, based loosely on the categories I was given by tutors. Likewise, for a narrow topic given at work, you can study for that and keep notes together.

But what about study over 5 or 10 years? You begin to forget where your earlier observations are. You forget they existed. Links you might make between disparate subjects are lost. This is not such an issue if you work serially on a series of topics. But it becomes a big wasted opportunity if you want to work in a much more integrative way.

Most note-taking methods separate knowledge from use of knowledge. A notebook, for example, might have notes on a wide range of things ordered by time. To get around this, you could order your notes by topic. But what if the topic isn’t clear at the time, and will only grow later? And what if an observation is of use to a wide range of topics? Linear writing is not good for developing webs of knowledge.

An intro the Zettelkasten:

This is what the Zettelkasten system addresses. I was attracted to it as it seemed to achieve a number of things I’d been trying to evolve a system to do by trial and error. Zettelkasten centres on the connections between notes, ie how knowledge fits together to form a greater whole. Its not really just a knowledge management system – it is a thinking system where the thinking itself is done in the knowledge system. This is explained well by Sonke Ahrens in his book.

Zettelkasten is German for slip box. It is also a phrase for a note-taking, writing, study, and research system that purports to be both extremely simple and extremely effective.

This is a physical Zettelkasten (image from Wikipedia). I will be using a paper one, as I try to avoid computers as much as I can as I find them impossibly distracting and difficult to think whilst using, and also bad for health as they seem to alter your breathing. I cannot be calm whilst using a computer.

File:Zettelkasten (514941699).jpg

A key reason I was attracted to it is it was developed by Luhmann, a highly productive and influential sociologist who had a ‘rag to riches’ story to which he credited this system he made.

Here is an intro:

Here is a selection of links to intros/deep dives – I recommend reading through before picking which one to follow. Again, none is a substitute for the brilliant book by Ahrens (itself written using Zettelkasten), which is a wonderful exploration of how we may wrongly think of research and writing (never plan!).

3 good intro pieces:

Here is a good written summary – https://kadavy.net/blog/posts/how-to-take-smart-notes-summary/ and that author’s own experiences using Zettelkasten – https://kadavy.net/blog/posts/zettelkasten-method-slip-box-digital-example/

And here is a more practical, example-based introduction to how the system should be used, including ‘writing your first Zettelkasten’: https://medium.com/@rebeccawilliams9941/the-zettelkasten-method-examples-to-help-you-get-started-8f8a44fa9ae6 Important suggestion of converting fleeting notes->literature notes on the same day they are made. This resonates with my own experiences. EDIT APRIL 2022: this is the guide most likely to be of use in my opinion, rereading it having experimented with the system for a little while.

Another good intro piece: https://writingcooperative.com/zettelkasten-how-one-german-scholar-was-so-freakishly-productive-997e4e0ca125

Zettelkasten.de seems to be the best living blog on the topic of Zettelkasten, with explorations of particular points of detail:
https://zettelkasten.de/posts/overview/ < Very good online detail of the system.
https://zettelkasten.de/posts/collectors-fallacy/ < Collectors Fallacy. Gathering knowledge without processing and using it as a work pitfall we often fall into.
https://zettelkasten.de/posts/idea-index-journal-fiction/ < A piece on indexing your work + others.
 https://zettelkasten.de/posts/use-real-notebook/ An argument for using real notebooks, not index cards, for the original pre-zettel note stage: This can work with the explanation the YouTube video has, in which the bibliography has a single index card that could ‘point’ to the relevant page in the notebook.

https://notes.andymatuschak.org/Zettelkasten ‘It’s an unusual system for developing ideas over long periods of time by slowly iterating on thousands of atomic slips of paper, all densely linked to each other. Over time, it evolved into what Luhmann considered to be an independent thought partner in his research, capable of carrying on a conversation with him and eliciting ideas which genuinely surprised him.’

Implementing a Zettelkasten using Roam Research – https://betterhumans.pub/the-complete-guide-for-building-a-zettelkasten-with-roamresearch-8b9b76598df0

LessWrong posts on it: 

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/T382CLwAjsy3fmecf/how-to-take-smart-notes-ahrens-2017  – an excellent LessWrong introduction to Zettelkasten
This is an hour long deep dive on the Zettelkasten method. “

Your first note doesn’t need to be anything important — it isn’t as if every idea you put into your Zettelkasten has to be “underneath” it. Remember, you aren’t trying to invent a good category system. Not every card has to look like a core idea with bullet points which elaborate on that idea, like my example in the previous section. You can just start writing whatever. In fact, it might be good if you make your first cards messy and unimportant, just to make sure you don’t feel like everything has to be nicely organized and highly significant.”

One aspect of digital I will miss is the ability to make maps of your own knowledge like this below (from https://medium.com/@rebeccawilliams9941/the-zettelkasten-method-examples-to-help-you-get-started-8f8a44fa9ae6) – this uses obsidian, a promising looking digital implementation of the Zettelkasten – https://obsidian.md):

Updates – this isn’t readable – its a prompt for myself to add the next stage of this piece.

5th Feb 2022

I’ve begun this, and got around 100 cards. I’ve also found index cards are fantastic for keeping a notebook focussed on quality. Notebooks accumulate many wonderful/interesting thoughts/ideas/sections, but this can get cluttered out by the detritus of everyday reminders etc (another way to handle this is to put reminders in pencil, quality thoughts in pen).

Whats working/note working….

1) the index cards feel like a much better way of organising information than notebooks. Conversely, they are not as good for detailed thinking or writing drafts. They are complementary tools.
2) they promote a sense of flow somewhat better than working on a computer, for obvious reasons.
3) they are very easy to use.
1) I haven’t found a good way to transport index cards to work and back. Most boxes I can find are too big to carry in a box. I briefly thought of using digital, but this means I have to have my laptop open at times when I am trying to have it off……….
2) they are a little slower than digital, but I don’t think long-term that’s a problem as that slowness promotes quality of thought.

One key error has been to fall into converting it into an index, with title cards such as ‘politics’ or ‘Japanese cooking’. This is the role of a bibliography, not the Zettelkasten, and misses its key role- it is an organiser of ideas, identifying links between them. I won’t start from scratch, but will try to convert the existing slides I’ve got into that format.

Update April 2022

https://forums.getdrafts.com/t/zettelkasten-usage-analog-or-digital/10740/6 a useful back and forth on digital vs analog notes…. https://www.reddit.com/r/Zettelkasten/comments/fga4km/paper_or_software/

As in the 5th Feb update, my original sorting of my ZK into clear headings was a major mistake. It has got me trapped inside the index level approach. I’m weighing up the right way to fix this.

To add later: https://medium.com/@ethomasv/the-folgezettel-conundrum-20b14dc986ec, https://medium.com/@ethomasv/understanding-zettelkasten-d0ca5bb1f80e, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2hxygqjx2k, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSM0CZZEDYQ, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMJGKZ7n9hE&t=2s, ZK’s as an antidote to ageing, a wisdom machine, etc.

An example Zettel, from https://zettelkasten.de/introduction/#the-paper-based-zettelkasten:

Luhmann’s slip box notes: https://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

To add later – video of Sonke Ahrens


“Many famous authors and artists used index cards in their work. The Russian-born American novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote his last novel The Original of Laura (subtitled A Novel in Fragments) on a set of 138 cards that were put together and published after his death. He also used index cards for his (in)famous Lolita. ” from – https://www.taskade.com/blog/zettelkasten-method-software-remote-work/ Note this is also how ‘Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance’ was written, as outlined in its sequel.

https://users.speakeasy.net/~lion/nb/book.pdf – This link was recommended by one of the LessWrong posts as an alternative system to this – I have yet to study but will try to look at it before I get too deep into Zettelkasten – (I have tried briefly reading but it is incredibly irritatingly written, as though the author was on cocaine at the time)

Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen online recently #4

Not been keeping track of online quirkiment lately… hence the delay.

@Rainmaker1973 is quickly becoming one of my favourite twitter feeds… a reliable source of enwonderment.

A reminder that you can go to the zoo and experience a time machine of sorts:

Adding this 1st October:

Quirky and Enwondering things I’ve seen online recently, #3

I should post my favourite Da Vinci documentary (there are two versions – one with interviews w/historians interspersed), one just Capaldi acting. I prefer this one:

Quite interesting – Elon Musk endorsed it so I’m assuming its true…..

A mammal that acts a bit like a bee!

This is cool:

Here is my hometown today, and 240 million years ago: (at one point we were in the ocean underwater, which is how it felt some of last year…..)

One of my favourite images:

Dai Sesshin, August, 2021

Tonight I head off to Sesshin and will be away from all email and phone contact until the 22nd of August. I will be doing a week of preparation then a week of Sesshin (beginning Friday week). I’ll post an update on how it went here.

Here is the approximate schedule we will be following. Zazen is meditation:


First Night: Arrive by 6:30pm. Trainees to be dressed and in the zendo by 7:15pm


7:30  Opening of sesshin (in zendo).

7:45  Sozarei (opening tea)

8:00  Daza (zazen)

9:15  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out)

10:15  Group meeting in the dining hall. Optional snack available.

10:30  Yaza (mandatory solo zazen practice, inside or outside) until 11:45pm.

12:00am  Sleep or continue practice.

Typical Day 

4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

6:30  Choka (morning chanting)  

7:15   Shukuza (morning meal)

8:00  Samu (work period, indoor and outdoor)

10:00  Daza (zazen)

11:00  Saiza (mid-day meal)

12:00pm  Suiza (free sitting)

1:00  Sarei/Daza (tea/zazen)

2:30  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

3:00  Kaiyoku (wash)

4:15  Daza (zazen)

4:45  Yakuseki (evening meal)

6:30  Daza (zazen)

7:00  Kaihan/Kentan/Daza (striking the han/zendo inspection by the Roshi/zazen)

8:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)  

8:30   Teisho (lecture)

9:00  Daza (zazen)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out) Afterward, optional snack followed by yaza (solitary sitting practice).

12:00am: Sleep or continue practice.

Final Morning


4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

6:30  Sozarei (closing tea ceremony)

[Clean up, group informal breakfast at 8am]


A friend said he bought a collection of Godel’s proofs, and often enjoys sitting flicking through it, despite not being able to understand most of it.

Likewise with me and notebooks of old masters/brilliant scientists. I blogged here about holding Newton’s Fitzwilliam notebook in 2016. Perhaps a subconscious dream that a tiny bit of the magic will rub off on my inadequate hands….

I’ve been buying facsimiles when I can find them reasonably priced. Facsimiles are life sized replications of full documents. They are hard to find, perhaps because its a very quirky hobby to collect/read them. Anyway I’ll post them here as I get them, partly as an advertisement for ones I’m happy with + ppl shd buy if interested! Or ppl can borrow mine….

Codex Madrid Leonardo

The first is the first section of the Codex Madrid by Leonardo (it is two volumes in real life).

Newton’s college notebook (another one)

This is another college notebook – not the Fitzwilliam one. Its actually not all that different to holding an original…..

Notes for ‘An Emergent I’ – Introduction, Notes #1: Hakuin Ekaku, Rinzai Zen, & Introspective/Embodied Meditation, & Notes #2: The Japanese Art and Way of Hara & Somatic Attention, rough notes v0.1 [pdf’s posted]

Note: “At the core is the view that the control of the somatic location of attention within the self could be a critical part of health and cognition.” This is the overarching theme of these notes, and should be testable with both animal and human experiments.

Here are all 3 parts as a single pdf:

Here are the first three pdfs as separate files, as well as the intro below:

Some quotations…..

‘Of the essentials of preserving life, nourishing the breath has no peer. When the breath is exhausted, the body dies, when the people are downtrodden, the nation collapses.’
Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, Letter to a Sick Monk, 18th century Japan, Yampolsky translation.

‘This elixir field, located in the sea of vital energy, the lower back, the legs, the soles of the feet –  it is all my true and original face. How can that original face have nose holes?’
First line of the Naikan Koan, Zen Master Hakuin, Yasen Kanna (Appendix to Wild Ivy, Waddell Translation), 18th century Japan

‘Breathing to the heels: The true person of ancient times slept without dreaming and woke without care. Their food was plain. Their breathing was deep. The true person breathed to their heels. Most people breathe to their throats. Bent and tight, they quarrel and vomit words. Their desires are old and deep, but they are shallow when it comes to knowing the opportunities of heaven.’
Zhuangzei, one of the two founding books of Chinese Taoism along the Tao Te Ching, 4th century BC
(Translation in Story 44, ‘The wisdom of the Tao’, Deng Ming-Dao)

“As you breathe in, experience the whole body,
As you breathe out, experience the whole body.”

The Satipatthana Sutta’s meditation guidance, attributed to the Buddha in India.
Translation from ‘Breathing through the whole body’ by Will Johnson

“I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.”
Aldous Huxley

“Hence, you should stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop off and your original face will appear.”
Dogen, 13th Century Zen Master and Founder of the Soto school of Zen,  Recommending Zazen to all people

‘….. wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves.’
Confucius, born 551 BC, The Great Digest

Background to these notes

These research notes concern circle around some speculative ideas regarding the physiology of parts of how the brain and body are controlled, and a research project I have been undertaking on myself about things we might be missing in our current understanding of this, that led to me learning to see in 3D. Its mainly a collection of mostly forgotten historical observations from history, anthropology, zen, ethology, neuroscience etc. I thought it would be good to share some of this so others who might be interested can pick up threads, and also consolidate my thoughts. I mostly gathered these notes together from old notebooks during my easter break whilst pondering some questions, so they are not at all polished, and won’t make full sense until the rest is written. 

For the past 5 years I have become interested in some questions around different views of health, zen buddhism & eastern medicine, breathing, the brain:body connection, and their links to my neuroscience work. I hinted at this in the prologue to my book in 2018, a ‘Semi-Monocular I’ – “[My operation], and two other experiences around then, fundamentally changed my sense of self, my thoughts as a scientist, and ultimately this book….  We shall come to this question of embodiment and the mind:body link.” One of those experiences was seeing in 3D for the first time.

The narrative of my book (An Emergent I) in part concerns how I taught myself to see in 3 dimensions (having been born with a cataract) and largely cured an illness I had, that was thought to be genetic but never showed up in whole genome sequencing (prologue of book here). 

However, I figured it will be some time until I can write this up fully as I am currently preoccupied, so I thought I would post some of my notes in rough form now.

These are just a loosely organised set of notes (a small subset) that I intend to use to finish writing that book. This is not intended as a fully polished version or a clear narrative with lots of explanation and links to neuroscience – that will come later as much of it is strewn across various old notebooks, as will some of the specific experiments I think this hints at. Some of the most interesting parts (to me) of this journey relate to why the notes below (as well as others) held the secret to learning to see in 3D, and how I found this path, but that is for the book itself! I also need to learn to draw well to illustrate this properly, which I am trying to do……

(For any eager minded readers who have read the prologue to my memoir, think why the mental habit I described on page 9/10 of the pdf version of ‘A semi-monocular I’, of consciously correcting the displacement between my two eyes, would lead to sickness if the bulk of the thoughts in the notes below are true, and why learning to see in 3D would correct this sickness.)

This is the first of at least 10 sets of notes in this area, which I will then combine, along with neuroscience & AI notes, with my own story of learning to see in 3D, and experimental predictions, in my book. They are one narrative.

At the core is the view that the control of the somatic location of attention within the self could be a critical part of health and cognition.

A couple comments, in part to try to assuage concerns I have gone completely mental in posting this…..

  1. First, these are just notes and not intended to be compelling/scientific yet. One must venture to the edges to see where the center might need to go to find explanations for experiences that current paradigms don’t explain well.
  1. Second, we explore things which appear at face value to make little sense in terms of modern science, but are conserved across several traditions. Its worth noting that practices like fasting are conserved across many traditions from millenia ago, but until recently were ridiculed or at least dismissed by western science. Now fasting’s effects for health are being unravelled. Likewise with meditation (currently largely) for mental health. I think the same may be true of some of the historical practices/methods in this series of notes – they offer experiences potentially hinting at as-yet unknown mechanisms in Physiology – per Da Vinci: ‘Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.” We have largely forgotten the notion of consilience in science, that multiple independent sources converging on similar conclusions is itself evidence absent any single piece being ‘scientific’. I’ll post notes on later on causal inference, especially in the context of the COVID19 pandemic.

As you cannot see the value of controlling the breath without practicing meditating for some time, so too I think with these practices. Some may be false paths, but some might lead to something interesting. I don’t claim any of it is true yet, experiments are needed! But just because something does not fit in our current scientific paradigm does not mean it is not true. This also hits on different epistemological approaches in east and west:  ‘What is meant by eastern wisdom is never a mere condensation of theoretical knowledge but the fruit of ripe experience, confirmed and proved by faithful, patient practice.’ (pg. 9, Durckheim). I intend to make as much of it scientific as truth allows, but this will take time, and other endeavours exist also…..

These notes are disorganised, incomplete, partly redundant – some parts could equally well go in other sections/other note collections for instance. This is for use in writing a book, legible enough for me to read whenever I can immerse myself in said pursuit… throughout the text, sections in photos highlighted with pencil are usually the parts to be read. This text is not meant to be well written – no attempt to have a strong narrative, control tension etc I made.

Recent reading – end July 2021

I’m publishing this now to get back to a monthly schedule. Less reading than a usual post so just doing it as a data dump. Next month I’ll largely be reading Zen stuff as I’m off on a retreat. Closing my mind off for a while from the buzz! This list is not comprehensive.

I have imposed a ban on buying books, as as of 31st July I bought 73 books this month, and a large pile in my basket ready to buy. This is unsustainable, though month is a clear outlier… But it makes me realise how much I like to read and how little time left in my life I have to read them……

PS, just after I posted this, I realised Newton & Nimbus have come and fallen asleep on my foot. So cute! And as I don’t want to disturb I will have to sit here and read for as long as they rest…..

Table of Contents

Nick Kolakowski – Medium article on google/apple tensions on WFH


A piece on how Apple/Google are having employee/executive tension re-ending WFH.

Seems a sensible development might be WFH days synchronising across the company? And will different companies align their WFH days? Will we end up moving to a situation with 3 work from work, 2 work from home, and 2 weekend days?

At some of tech’s biggest companies, tensions around remote and hybrid work could be on the rise. Many employees want to work from home permanently, without taking any kind of pay cut — while executives want their teams back in the physical office as much as possible.

Many of those employees who do manage to secure permanent remote-work privileges may also see their salaries slashed, with the amount of decrease determined by a custom-built internal tool.
Google isn’t alone in weathering this controversy, of course. Various other tech giants, including Facebook and VMware, have announced that any employees deciding to move from Silicon Valley will see a lighter paycheck as a result.

Repeated surveys have found that the majority of technologists actually like the idea of hybrid work. In Dice’s 2021 Technologist Sentiment Report, some 85 percent of technologists found the prospect of hybrid work anywhere from somewhat to extremely desirable. That included 94 percent of younger technologists (i.e., those between 18 and 34 years old), who clearly see the physical office as an opportunity for collaboration and mentorship opportunities. Other Dice surveys have found that technologists generally aren’t willing to take a pay cut for remote work — and only 12 percent have said their companies are slashing pay in exchange for permanent work-from-home.

ProfSerious on Culture/Control tradeoffs in organisational management

I worked closely with Antony when he was NatSec Chief Scientific Adviser. Shades of Alan Kay here re degrees of control vs self-organisation…..


A piece re-body chronotypes and exercise – Dolphins, Lions, Wolves, Bears, and when to exercise…..


Nature – Massive DNA ‘Borg’ structures perplex scientists

“Researchers say they have discovered unique and exciting DNA strands in the mud — others aren’t sure of their novelty.” Not yet peer reviewed.

Named Borgs after the sci-fi creatures after a suggestion by the lead scientist’s son over dinner, these entities are argued to be a novel kind of extrachromosomal elements (ECE), ie a new kind of DNA structure like plasmids in bacteria. Argued to be much larger than existing – perhaps 1/3 the entire genetic material in an organism. They seem to be associated with Archaea, a kind of bacteria. They were found in east river, Colorado. Currently they cannot be cultured in the lab (a common problem with many kinds of bacteria).

Scientists collect water samples from below the bed of the East River, Colorado with forests and mountains in the distance
River in Colorado where the proposed Borgs were found


Borgs seem to house many genes needed for entire metabolic processes, including digesting methane, says Banfield. She describes these collections as “a toolbox” that might super-charge the abilities of Methanoperedens.

So what makes a Borg a Borg? In addition to their remarkable size, Borgs share several structural features: they’re linear, not circular as many ECEs are; they have mirrored repetitive sequences at each end of the strand; and they have many other repetitive sequences both within and between the presumptive genes.

“They’ve made an interesting observation,” says systems biologist Nitin Baliga, at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington. But he cautions that when researchers sift through fragments of many genomes and piece them together, as Banfield’s team has done, it’s possible to make errors. Finding Borgs in cultured Methanoperedens will be necessary for the finding to be considered definitive, he adds.

Form Energy claims to have made an iron battery for cheap long-term storage

Folk who know their stuff say a big deal if true, a battery cheap enough to fully replace fossil fuels in combination with renewables. Too heavy to use in cars however.

Q: does anyone know why simply lifting heavy weights isn’t a useful form of battery, ie use gravitational potential energy? Lift it up, then lower it down again when power needed…….. why don’t we just use this? not enough energy density?


On the sociology of mathematics research, and its subjectiveness in practice

One thing I think about a fair amount these days is how different fields of research operate sociologically. These two links/tweets were very interesting in that respect (first is a thread). The first outlines how in number theory, very few understand all the relevant things they must rely on in the field even for one of their own papers, so often rely on patching together what are to them black boxes.

Interesting in the second link that whilst we think of mathematics as a kind of opposite to the problems of the rest of academia (with false papers etc), actually mathematics often knows whats true or false solely by what ‘elders’ say, as papers can take many months to read and understand (pg4/5 of the second link).

A quote from within: “Voevodsky: “A technical argument by a trusted author, which is hard to check and looks similar to arguments known to be correct, is hardly ever checked in detail.””

I never realised maths was so subjective in the way it is actually practiced…

The outdoors and its benefits – spending time outside is good for your brain

I’d been meaning to read a book called ‘the nature fix’, about an emerging science of the benefits of nature for healing and wellbeing. This study, preliminary, is interesting also with respect to fluctuation of brain size over rapid timescales. If you need a nude, quitting drinking increases brain size over a period of a week (maybe dehydration related, maybe functional activity, maybe both)…


Conor Feehly – Discovery Magazine Brains Might Sync As People Interact — and That Could Upend Consciousness Research


Haven’t evaluated this technically.

Patronage & Research: On Medici and Thiel by Rohit, Medium post


I’ve been meaning to read more broadly about the medici (I once stayed in one of their old villas on the eve of a wedding…).

I’m not saying that the Renaissance geniuses who came together in great concentration during Medici’s reign are the same as the Thiel Fellows. What I am suggesting is that the idea of patronage seems to not have transmitted all that much through the centuries. What seems the simplest trade-off; I pay some of my enormous sums of money to get exposure to smart people, and increase my social stature and secure posterity by helping them achieve greatness, seems to have disappeared.

…….Individual patrons are far more risk seeking than organisations, especially organisations at the later, scaled, stages of its lifecycle. If there’s anything that’s particularly emblematic of this problem it would be the Ivy League universities. Extraordinarily prestigious but extremely ossified. YC probably isn’t there yet, but then they’re only a decade and half old!

…… The modern version also seems to revolve a fair bit around putting your name on buildings, mostly museums and university departments, but little beyond that. There is no movement from the larger scale to the human scale. There’s little interest in the actual details or the specific people who are supposedly leading the research work. The aura that comes from being a renowned patron has now separated from the actual patronage.

It is precisely this increased institutionalisation of what used to be more eclectic that’s rubbed away the corners of that made it interesting. A substantial number of top scientists across fields claim that they would never get past their respective doctoral/ departmental/ review committees today, and this reduction of iconoclasticism is a miss.

The theme of Patronage hits on one of Alexey’s best blog posts, reviving patronage and revolutionary industrial research – its well worth a read:


Foreign Affairs – Dan Wang – China’s Sputnik Moment


China’s Sputnik moment was not alphaGo, but the Trump tech ban – which forced entrepeneurial Chinese companies to work with the state companies, not with US, thus driving self sufficiency. Cian Martin’s comment is helpful:

Ie, the only answer to an adversary competing with you on tech is to up your game and make sure you don’t let key assets get poached.

The Chinese government has long had twin ambitions for industrial policy: to be more economically self-sufficient and to achieve technological greatness. For the most part, it has relied on government ministries and state-owned enterprises to pursue these goals, and for the most part, it has come up short. In semiconductor production, for example, China has barely crossed the starting line. Rather, China’s private entrepreneurial firms have driven the bulk of the country’s technological success, even though their interests have not always aligned with the state’s goal of strengthening domestic technology. Beijing has, for example, recently begun cracking down on certain consumer Internet companies and online education firms, in part to redirect the country’s efforts towards other strategic technologies such as computer chips. This has meant that China’s most impressive technological achievements—building state-of-the-art capabilities in renewable energy, consumer Internet services, electronics, and industrial equipment—have as often been driven in spite of state interference as they have because of it.

Then came U.S. President Donald Trump. By sanctioning entrepreneurial Chinese companies, he forced them to stop relying on U.S. technologies such as semiconductors. Now, most of them are trying to source domestic alternatives or design the necessary technologies themselves. In other words, Trump’s gambit accomplished what the Chinese government never could: aligning private companies’ incentives with the state’s goal of economic self-sufficiency.

The piece is useful for milestones in Chinese tech strategy, and also highlighting the weaknesses in Chinese Industrial policy. I won’t post my broader thoughts for obvious reasons but its worth reading.

Particularly interesting section for a variety of reasons re-‘purchaser of first resort’ style government:

The combined efforts of China’s state drive and its innovative industry will accelerate the country’s technological advancement. In the 1960s, integrated circuits were developed when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was willing to pay any price for technology that could send astronauts to the moon and bring them safely back. Today, the U.S. government is putting Huawei in NASA’s position: a cash-rich organization willing to pay for critical components on the basis of performance rather than cost.

Bryar and Carr’s ‘Working Backwards: insights, stories, and secrets from Inside Amazon’

I bought this book for the ‘working backwards’ section on Bezos docs, which a colleague adopted at work. But I ended up skimming over it, and finding a section which was highly relevant (the 6 pager), which I then turned to during an afternoon when nothing was working, read, blogged about, then used and made huge progress on said issue. Its available here. I’ll try and blog on some other interesting sections (single threaded leadership, for example).


Also read book on COVID…. I won’t comment on it now as it gets political…

Some tweets:

Reminds me of a similar tweet re doing research – find the biggest unsolved problem you face and solve it. Position the rest of your work around that. Then, in downtime, think long-term and strategise. For me at least, I otherwise get stuck on the latter part, not the solving crux of the problem. I endlessly try to find the perfect long-term plan, and not get stuck in. Working on it…

Regarding the news US (again) lost in its fictional war games exercises re China/Russia. Curious: do these war-games include the full complement of Black Budget capabilities? I presume they keep some stuff back, which might be reassuring a little.

Adopting ‘6-pagers’ for communication & organisation: Tufte, Bezos, ditching powerpoint, & beginning meetings in silence instead [5 min read]

“The reason powerpoint is so popular is the same reason Bezos banned it: it saves you from having to think”
Paul Graham

“As analysis becomes more causal, multivariate, comparative, evidence based, and resolution-intense, the more damaging the bullet list becomes.………For serious presentations, it will be useful to replace Powerpoint slides with paper handouts showing words, numbers, data graphics, images together. High-resolution handouts allow viewers to contextualise, compare, narrate, and recast evidence. In contrast, data-thin, forgetful displays tend to make audiences ignorant. and passive, and also to diminish the credibility of the present…….. Making this transition in large organizations requires a straightforward executive order: From now on your presentation software is microsoft word, not powerpoint get used to it.”
Edward Tufte

This covers the six pager method to move organisations beyond using powerpoint. Amazon uses this to ‘evaluate 10 times as much information as the typical company does in a similar time frame’ (p18, ‘working backwards’).

I’m interested in it not only because I dislike powerpoint, but because I’ve been trying to work out a better way to align disparate groups of people in the job I currently do, and also am looking for ‘tried and tested’ methods as I don’t have time to experiment. Here I’ll collect some high level thoughts on it, and link together some resources that people might find useful if they want to give it a try.

The is based on two sources (all quotes are from working backwards, which I will blog more on later). The first is ‘working backwards: insights, stories, and secrets from inside amazon’ by two former employees, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. It also references an essay by Tufte which is linked below also.

Tufte & Amazon: The ‘powerpoint style’ is not conducive to meetings

Hour long amazon meetings instead begin in silence. 20 minutes of silence. Instead of talking, they read the ‘6 pager’, a narrative document that is a key, maybe the most key, communication and discussion tool at the company. This is a ‘narrative information multiplier’ as Bryar and Carr describe it.

6 pagers came about in Amazon due to dissasitification with powerpoint presentations – Amazon found they were ineffective communications mediums, and ineffective meeting mediums. They described even deep dives into a topic using powerpoint as ‘frustrating, inefficient, and error prone.’ The slides needed a narrator, so sharing them afterward is less effective. If you get lost in one part whilst listening, you can’t catch up. People are forced to interrupt in a way that throws off the sequence of the speaker, as slides are only up momentarily. Few are good at using it, and even if they are the format is simplistic, missing nuance, preventing complex communication of ideas. Its like a succession of movie still frames, yet without clear connection between them. It isn’t good for exploring complex ideas as a group or conveying complex information. Powerpoint is bullet points plus images and little more. If you are unconvinced, I suggest reading this: Wired – Powerpoint is Evil.

They often discussed how to improve it, then in 2004 read Ed Tufte’s anti-powerpoint essay, ‘The cognitive style of powerpoint: pitching out corrupts within’.

Bryar quotes a single sentence from Tufte as capturing the problem Amazon faced: “As analysis becomes more causal, multivariate, comparative, evidence based, and resolution-intense, the more damaging the bullet list becomes.”

Tufte proposed a solution: “For serious presentations, it will be useful to replace Powerpoint slides with paper handouts showing words, numbers, data graphics, images together. High-resolution handouts allow viewers to contextualise, compare, narrate, and recast evidence. In contrast, data-thin, forgetful displays tend to make audiences ignorant. and passive, and also to diminish the credibility of the present…….. Making this transition in large organizations requires a straightforward executive order: From now on your presentation software is microsoft word, not powerpoint get used to it.”

Big Amazon meeting change in 2004: they banned powerpoint, moved to the ‘6-pager’

Bezos liked Tufte’s solution. So Bezos banned powerpoint at Amazon. This led to a predictable backlash within Amazon: powerpoint is not just habit but easier for a wide range of reasons. But it was backed by Bezos so was forced through.

Bezos wrote this in a 2004 email pushing back:

Amazon eventually settled through experimentation on a 6-pager format, optimised for a meeting length of an hour. This was because it takes roughly 3 minutes for one page, and a prior powerpoint presentation typically took 20 minutes followed by 40 minutes of feedback & discussion. The length of the ‘6 pager’ therefore is varied to meeting length. For a 30 minute meeting, you could do a 3 pager, etc etc. A ten minute meeting would be a one pager.

To me this timing issue is an important point: the concept here is partly that the unit of written organisation/communication should also be aligned to that which can be discussed in a meeting within the organisation. This is rarely if ever the case with powerpoint, where presentations invariably involve skipping slides, rushing, ending early etc with little consideration of how the presentation will actually be digested and discussed.

6 pagers can vary widely in composition style depending on whether they are covering an idea, review, a decision etc. The authors of ‘working backwards’ provide an example, a 6 pager about 6 pagers, which I copied into the appendix below. If you’re interested in adopting this, I recommend reading it.

Example headings within a 6 pager for an Amazon quarterly business review could be:
Proposals for next period
Appendices (including graphs, spreadsheets, mock ups, tables etc).

In the resource sections below you can find an example of a 6 pager, which is a ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’, which gives more information on how these documents are composed.

What happens next when people have read the 6 pager?

A key guide at amazon is that a 6 pager should anticipate and reflect alternative points of view and objections. These can be dealt with in a Q&A, as in the appendix doc, and I’ll cover this in part in a different blog. This in turn allows the next phase of the 6 pager process.

The meetings themselves, following the 20 minute read, have a particular routine to them. From Amazon’s experience, the authors strongly warn against having the speaker run through the 6 pager once it has been read. This defeats the point, wastes time, and repeats many of the flaws of powerpoint.

Instead, they advise trying one of two strategies to discuss the document, then tweaking to your circumstance:
Discussion approach 1: High level comments by all, then work through the document line-by-line together.
Discussion approach 2: Go round the group in a circle each giving detailed feedback on the document.

They then move to a discussion, which its imperative to write down and keep a record of. I find this helps grow the ‘paper trail’ relatively easily in a nonbureaucratic way, and drives progress to the next meeting such that the 6 pager begins to include follow up actions, and grows into the next is pager.

I like this section re Bezos:

Adopting this for 6 months as an experiment

I’m going to adopt this method for the various projects I work on. One can imagine a process. A 6-pager spins off more 6-pagers, collectively working toward a much longer, finished document, with 6-pagers as building blocks.

II’ll add a slight experimental quirk to begin with: I’ll add a one page summary to the front of every document. Before I started my current job, an old Whitehall veteran said to me ‘no one reads anything longer than a page in Whitehall’. Not only will it act as a quick summary for readers without time, it will also serve as a useful index for picking up the project again quickly in the future, without having to re-read the entire document.

In essence, I can imagine ‘thinking in 6 pagers’ as a unit of planning out weeks and projects.

A couple other resources explaining 6 pagers, and the example ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’ from amazon employees:

Here is an online doc that might be of use, providing a summary of 6 pagers: https://writingcooperative.com/the-anatomy-of-an-amazon-6-pager-fc79f31a41c9

and another, a very short summary of the 6 pager concept: https://mad.co/insights/the-mad-six-pager/

Here is a useful tweet on the subject: https://twitter.com/nathanbaugh27/status/1555556977937375233?s=20&t=eMu0ivMr4KF8LdvzC5O1Hg

Here is an example 6 pager from ‘Working backwards’ by two ex amazon employees – a ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’:

Earlier Versions of this blog post

Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen recently online – #2

The follow up tweet explains: “This acts like a breathing device, extending its time underwater, possibly even drawing oxygen from the water, expelling carbon dioxide in a process known as diffusion, morphological adaptations like the shape of its head may make it easier for the bubble to cling”

Did some follow up scrolling on twitter and found this terrifying underwater spider that basically builds its own submarine:

This twitter account in general is very cool

How your days fill your dreams…

This used to disrupt my soul every week using the Oxford diary….

Nice to know I am actually comparatively sane.

Tech giants add an interesting wrinkle to the research policy field:

An old favourite:

Not sure if this is fake, but I like it if not.

‘UK National Innovation Strategy: Leading the future by creating it’ published today

Reposting from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-innovation-strategy-leading-the-future-by-creating-it:

Increasing innovation will enhance productivity across the economy, and in turn bring jobs, growth and prosperity to all parts of the UK. We need the whole system of businesses, government, R&D-performing organisations, finance providers, funders and others to come together to achieve our innovation ambitions.

This strategy focuses on how we support businesses innovate by making the most of the UK’s research, development and innovation system.

Our vision is for the UK to be a global hub for innovation. In this strategy we set out our plans against 4 key pillars, which will support the achievement of that vision:

Pillar 1: Unleashing business – we will fuel businesses who want to innovate

Pillar 2: People – we will make the UK the most exciting place for innovation talent

Pillar 3: Institutions and places – we will ensure our research, development and innovation institutions serve the needs of businesses and places across the UK

Pillar 4: Missions and technologies – we will stimulate innovation to tackle major challenges faced by the UK and the world and drive capability in key technologies

Through these pillars, the strategy aims to both establish the right underlying policy environment and clearly signal those areas where government will take the lead.

Recent reading – parts of June/July 2021

Posting some of what I’ve been reading. I noticed I read far less than I did 10 years ago, and starting keeping a log of it as a spur to read much more. Might be of interest to others, also useful for myself to keep records. I feel much smarter when I read lots. Quite a bit of my personal reading has been for an upcoming blog post, and isn’t covered here, regarding Zen & some related topics. Forcing myself to prepare something for a third party reader, and the scrutiny of the internet, helps in various ways.

Also in future it will be a useful place to post predictions + calibrate my thinking, though I won’t be posting such opinions whilst in my current role.

Note: posting here doesn’t mean that I agree with it!

Table of Contents



I’ve been filling a knowledge void by studying economics. I realised I seem to learn best partly by reading lots of books on the same topic, rather than reading one book v carefully. Perhaps it helps do a kind of Principal Components Analysis and identify the core features….. I’ve always been skeptical of economics as a discipline, and still am, but its an important language to learn in my role. I’m working my way through the following. I’m also using it as an experiment in different forms of note taking – I might blog later on on both economics & the results of the note taking experiments (which have been ongoing for 10 years but I’ve recently systematised!). Economics poses interesting questions that make you see the world differently, even if I’m not confident it can answer them in a rigorous way…. its seems to be more art than science. But so is life and that’s no reason not to live….

Moretti’s on New Geography of Jobs is a stand out so far.

Robert Reich’s 2019 piece in the Guardian on the US economic system compared to China is interesting/provocative


The American economic system is focused on maximizing shareholder returns. And it’s achieving that goal: on Friday, the S&P 500 notched a new all-time high.………

At the core of China’s economy, by contrast, are state-owned companies that borrow from state banks at artificially low rates. These state firms balance the ups and downs of the economy, spending more when private companies are reluctant to do so.

Samo Burja on the merits of status signalling exercises, and the prestigification of engineering by Musk/Bezos et al

Samo Burja is a thinker I’ve been reading more and more of, he thinks about why civilisations don’t last forever. ( longer piece to read soon – https://samoburja.com/gft/)

[Re Musk launching a Tesla into space etc] – When examining the exceptional and the powerful, nearly everyone underestimates how reasonable their actions are. What some denounce as whimsy or waste is often a wise investment that solves real and difficult problems, sometimes in very prosocial ways. Perhaps we can find better ways to solve some of these problems, but these attacks are mere wishful thinking, resting on the assumption that some unstated alternative will naturally spring into existence.

Status is one of the irreplaceable currencies whose necessary transfer is often denounced in this way. Michael Sauder et al. define status as the relative respect and patterns of deference accorded to people, groups and organizations by wider society. I think this is basically right. People cannot engage in any common projects without some commonly agreed-upon deference to people, groups or organizations, nor can they engage in common projects without someone or something holding, and yes, spending status. Status is a coordination mechanism, and this makes it valuable.The celebration of such people isn’t merely a personal reward: rather, it is how we replenish this social capital of engineering, which in turn powers the social fabric that enables these people to do what they do. Without it, you can’t go to space.

General stuff

Guzey – Intelligence Killed Genius


Piece by my friend Alexey arguing that our modern notions of intelligence has killed the creative and disruptive genius.

“The first requirement to do genius-level work is to not be afraid to do things only geniuses can do, i.e. to have the internal feeling of being better than everyone else in the world.
The concept of intelligence kills this feeling. However smart you are, there is someone who is smarter than you. And if there’s someone smarter than you are, it doesn’t make sense to work on the hardest possible problems and to try to change the world – it’s the smartest person’s job.”

“Genius is like synesthesia. It’s the stray connections between parts of the brain that were not supposed to be connected that make your picture completely different, but might leave you just 2-4 sd to the right in g, orthogonal to intelligence.”

Paul Graham, Fierce Nerds

I quite liked Paul Graham’s article/biography on Fierce Nerds, a special type of competitive/assertive nerd and the good they can do…..

When you combine all these qualities in sufficient quantities, the result is quite formidable. The most vivid example of fierce nerds in action may be James Watson’s The Double Helix. The first sentence of the book is “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” and the portrait he goes on to paint of Crick is the quintessential fierce nerd: brilliant, socially awkward, competitive, independent-minded, overconfident. But so is the implicit portrait he paints of himself. Indeed, his lack of social awareness makes both portraits that much more realistic, because he baldly states all sorts of opinions and motivations that a smoother person would conceal. And moreover it’s clear from the story that Crick and Watson’s fierce nerdiness was integral to their success. Their independent-mindedness caused them to consider approaches that most others ignored, their overconfidence allowed them to work on problems they only half understood (they were literally described as “clowns” by one eminent insider), and their impatience and competitiveness got them to the answer ahead of two other groups that would otherwise have found it within the next year, if not the next several months.”

Youtube – what does a nuclear bomb sound like?

Sound of what a nuclear bomb sounds like

Quite an interesting video on what a nuclear bomb actually sounds like. Answer is its not like you would think if you go on prior videos to set expectation, most videos dont have real audio, its usually dramatic sound effects. Try thinking from first principles. For some odd reason I find this video fascinating, eery, and disturbing.

Guardian on Wellcome’s Photography prize 2021

‘Disconnected’ & ‘An Elegy for the Death of Hamun Hashem Shakeri’ are two favourites. – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2021/jun/23/wellcome-photography-prize-2021-shortlist-health-challenges-in-pictures?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Jack McDonald – What if Military AI sucks?


This is an interesting contrary take on the role of AI in transforming war. Jack McDonald is a lecturer in war studies at KCL. Essentially argues that the failures/hype around autonomous vehicles should make us skeptical about the transformation of war by AI. Argues that key social decision making factors re-ethics will be difficult to automate, moving humans to validation stages (worker reallocation not replacement). The argument seems to be around one of timescale – ie, its a long time till AI can supplant key aspects of human judgement. Note the piece is very focussed on targeting issues, other aspects such as automated cyber intrusion not covered. Worth noting also it doesn’t touch on Intelligence aspects, nor ‘gray zone’ warfare: its very focussed on kinetic kill operations. And it also feels, in its focus on asymmetric warfare in urban environments, focussed on the war of past 20 years not great power wars.

“I see this as a hard limit: most of the concepts we use to make sense of war are too nebulous for machines to efficiently automate. Attempting to use AI for strategic goals will inevitably lead outcomes akin to a paperclip maximizer – where the modelling of a necessarily indeterminite set of desired goals leads to unwanted optimal solutions. Similarly, things like “combatant” or “civilian” are likely never going to be amenable to machines – at least in the sense that human beings approach them.”

“Military objects that are not easy for machines to distinguish as military objects (e.g. a Toyota truck with a heavy machine gun on the back) will be less vulnerable to these systems than things that are easily distinguishable (tanks, large artillery pieces, etc).

I am not predicting the death of the tank, by the way, only that in order to survive, machine-recognisable pieces of kit will need a protective bubble that defeats LAWS that function akin to loitering munitions, whatever form that takes. I’d imagine that such a bubble would be expensive to generate and maintain, so this hunch is particularly likely to apply to middle powers who might not be able to afford it.”

“Even in the case of an AI washout, I think one of the long-term effects of increased AI use is to drive warfare to urban locations. This is for the simple reason that any opponent facing down autonomous systems is best served by “clutter” that impedes its use.”

“My technological predictions here are pretty limited by design: small further advances in computer vision, weaker versions of bleeding-edge weapon technologies being developed by middle powers, commercial object recognition technologies that can be bodged into functional weapon systems by non-state actors. This is a world of kinda-good loitering munitions used by non-state actors, rather than unsupervised uncrewed ground vehicles coordinating assaults on the basis of higher level commands by human beings. What does warfare look like when an insurgent can simply lob an anti-personnel loitering munition at the FOB on the hill, rather than pestering it with ineffective mortar fire? From the perspective of states, and those who defend a state-centric international order, it’s not good.”


Newport on lessons from the pandemic for DeepWork

An article by Cal Newport on DeepWork during the pandemichttps://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/remote-work-not-from-home (see my post on Deep Work during the pandemic from April 2020)

I wrote in my blog on ‘lessons for the bunker’ about Deep Work – purposefully isolating yourself and focussing for periods of 30 mins+ as the critical skill to master for modern work. Newport has an interesting update on this, saying ‘work near home’ is the optimal approach.

We need to consider a third option for our current moment, and if we look to authors for inspiration then one such alternative emerges: work from near home.
Quite interesting work routine from Maya Angelou contained in there – “Benchley isn’t the only author to abandon a charming home to work nearby in objectively worse conditions. Maya Angelou, for example, would rent hotel rooms to write, asking the staff to remove all artwork from the walls and enter each day only to empty the wastebaskets. She’d arrive at six-thirty in the morning, with a Bible, a yellow pad, and a bottle of sherry. No writing desk was necessary; she’d instead work lying across the bed, once explaining to George Plimpton, in an interview, how this habit led one of her elbows to become “absolutely encrusted” with calluses.”….. Angelou said of it: “I don’t want anything in there,” Angelou said, when elaborating on her spartan hotel habit. “I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.”
Also Steinbeck: “John Steinbeck went one step further. Late in his career, he spent his summers at a two-acre property in Sag Harbor (which was put on the market this past winter for $17.9 million). Steinbeck told his editor, Elizabeth Otis, that he would escape this waterfront paradise to instead write on his fishing boat, balancing a notebook on a portable desk.”
Newport cites an interesting UK start-up, flown.com, that allows you to rent places for DeepWork.

Regarding diet and food….. quitting drinking permanently transformed my health, mental clarity, and mood/calmness. I stopped being fat also…. So I resurrected my interest in how diet alters your body, that I had whilst sick. This time my goal is to have greater focus. Read some articles on China Study, trying to break my habit of buying entire books when an article might be easier after my father said I couldn’t house any more books at the family house (I have well over two thousand books stuffed in an attic conversion)…….

Experiment: I’ll follow China Di for 6 months starting 21st July 2021. Note: I’ve noticed my focus is reliably worse after drinking diet soda. So I’ll quite that too.

“launched via a partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, with data collected over a span of 20 years.”

“The study they created included 367 variables, 65 counties in China, and 6,500 adults (who completed questionnaires, blood tests, etc.). “When we were done, we had more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between lifestyle, diet, and disease variables.” They also incorporate a wealth of additional research data from other sources.”

“Animal protein promotes the growth of cancer. The book’s author T. Colin Campbell, PhD, grew up on a dairy farm, so he regularly enjoyed a wholesome glass of milk. Not anymore. Dr. Campbell says that in multiple, peer-reviewed animal studies, researchers discovered that they could actually turn the growth of cancer cells on and off by raising and lowering doses of casein, the main protein found in cow’s milk.”

You should be worried about poor nutrition more than pesticides. The food you eat affects the way your cells interact with carcinogens, making them more or less dangerous, the authors explain. “The results of these, and many other studies, showed nutrition to be far more important in controlling cancer promotion than the dose of the initiating carcinogen,” they state.”

“Heart disease can be reversed through nutrition. The authors share the work of other respected physicians that they say supports their own data’s conclusions, and some of the most interesting are on heart disease. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, a physician and researcher at the best cardiac center in the country, The Cleveland Clinic, treated 18 patients with established coronary disease using a whole food, plant-based diet. Not only did the intervention stop the progression of the disease, but 70 percent of the patients saw an opening of their clogged arteries.”

Carbs are not (always) the enemy. Highly-processed, refined carbohydrates are bad for you, but plant foods are full of healthy carbs, the authors say. Research shows that diets like Atkins or South Beach can have dangerous side effects. While they may result in short-term weight loss, you’ll be sacrificing long-term health.”

“Cancer isn’t the only disease plants can ward off. It’s not just cancer and heart disease that respond to a whole food, plant-based diet, the authors say. Their research showed it may also help protect you from diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases. Are you getting that plants are pretty miraculous by now?”

“You don’t need to eat meat. “There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants,” the authors say. Protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals—you name it, they’ve got it, along with major health benefits.” Would be good to see the ‘virtually no’ broken out – what is lacking?

“The takeaway is simple: Eat plants for health. “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest,” the authors state. Whether you’re going vegan or not, they suggest putting as many plants on your plate as possible at every meal.”

Why is it so hard to walk into a station and not find food that is raw plant-based, without lots of rice/potatoes stuffed in?  Startup idea: a shop chain that serves only pure vegan food, and you buy memberships so you have to eat there. Exploiting pre-commitment. A bit like hello-fresh but for office workers. Volume via subscription->cheaper cost. Might be a useful experiment to run through numbers on whether this could work. The idea here is you are not selling to them cheaper food per se, but a commitment to eat healthy via pre-commitment, as when people buy a gym membership in order to commit to going to the gym.

This study doesn’t eliminate seasonal change – maybe hunter gatherers lived off the land in summer then in winter fasted and had occassional binges on large animals?

A new scientific review has found that steaming your vegetables may boost their nutritional value, making them even healthier. Lettuce explain. (Sorry. We had to.)Researchers analyzed 21 studies that looked at how different cooking methods affect the nutritional density of vegetables, Men’s Health reports, and steaming beet out the competition. (OK, we’re done with the puns now.) Steaming can increase polyphenol content (a type of antioxidant that may fend off cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other health concerns) by 52 percent, since it uses a gentle heating process and doesn’t submerge the vegetables in water, according to Elizabeth H. Jeffrey, a professor of nutritional sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign……

Some tweets in lifestyle/self space:

Napoleon’s definition of a military genius: “The man who can do the average thing when everyone else around him is losing his mind.”

Originally tweeted by Rob Henderson (@robkhenderson) on June 24, 2021.

This tweet reflects a lesson I learnt (or partly learnt) over a few years of writing. Don’t try to be showy!

Paul Graham – How to Work Hard


There are three ingredients in great work: natural ability, practice, and effort. You can do pretty well with just two, but to do the best work you need all three: you need great natural ability and to have practiced a lot and to be trying very hard.”

At 74, Wodehouse wrote

with each new book of mine I have, as I say, the feeling that this time I have picked a lemon in the garden of literature. A good thing, really, I suppose. Keeps one up on one’s toes and makes one rewrite every sentence ten times. Or in many cases twenty times.

“It’s straightforward to work hard if you have clearly defined, externally imposed goals, as you do in school. There is some technique to it: you have to learn not to lie to yourself, not to procrastinate (which is a form of lying to yourself), not to get distracted, and not to give up when things go wrong. But this level of discipline seems to be within the reach of quite young children, if they want it.

What I’ve learned since I was a kid is how to work toward goals that are neither clearly defined nor externally imposed. You’ll probably have to learn both if you want to do really great things.”

“The most basic level of which is simply to feel you should be working without anyone telling you to. Now, when I’m not working hard, alarm bells go off. I can’t be sure I’m getting anywhere when I’m working hard, but I can be sure I’m getting nowhere when I’m not, and it feels awful.”

“That limit varies depending on the type of work and the person. I’ve done several different kinds of work, and the limits were different for each. My limit for the harder types of writing or programming is about five hours a day. Whereas when I was running a startup, I could work all the time. At least for the three years I did it; if I’d kept going much longer, I’d probably have needed to take occasional vacations.”

“Some people figure out what to do as children and just do it, like Mozart. But others, like Newton, turn restlessly from one kind of work to another. Maybe in retrospect we can identify one as their calling — we can wish Newton spent more time on math and physics and less on alchemy and theology — but this is an illusion induced by hindsight bias.”

“along with measuring both how hard you’re working and how well you’re doing, you have to think about whether you should keep working in this field or switch to another. If you’re working hard but not getting good enough results, you should switch. It sounds simple expressed that way, but in practice it’s very difficult.”

“The best test of whether it’s worthwhile to work on something is whether you find it interesting. That may sound like a dangerously subjective measure, but it’s probably the most accurate one you’re going to get.”

Science/Science Policy

‘All possible views about humanity’s future are wild’


Like a galaxy wide version of sagan’s pale blue dot, which is one of my favourite pieces of writing.

Major quantum algorithm advance, speeding up Shor’s algorithm.

“So computer scientists have attempted to calculate the resources such a quantum computer might need and then work out how long it will be until such a machine can be built. And the answer has always been decades. Today, that thinking needs to be revised thanks to the work of Craig Gidney at Google in Santa Barbara and Martin Ekerå at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. These guys have found a more efficient way for quantum computers to perform the code-breaking calculations, reducing the resources they require by orders of magnitude.”


Re-reading New Yorker article on a major maths advance made by someone in their fifties (historically rare)


One of my favourite articles, and gives me hope that ageing will not render me imminently brain dead, one of my long term paranoias since I noticed in my teens almost all great maths, poetry, chess, music etc is done by 20-40 somethings.

Samuel Hammond – How Congress Ruined the Endless Frontier Act

How Congress Ruined the Endless Frontier Act

One of the best articles ive read this month re science policy. Aside from telling the story of what became of the Endless Frontiers Act, there is an interesting example of how the applied/discovery dichotomy is wrong:

“Solar companies spend less than 1% of their revenue on R&D. Exponential cost reductions have instead come through a learning-by-doing process, as those same companies scale-up their production. This isn’t a story of pure scale economies, however. Rather, the need to scale forces genuine process innovations; things like a production engineer realizing, through hands-on experience, that they could improve efficiency 10% by tweaking this or that chemical solvent. Thus the notion that we first do basic science first and then translate those findings into applied technology isn’t just wrong — it’s often just the reverse. The solar panel production boom has even inspired some scientists to talk of “Solar-Driven Chemistry,” as insights derived from the solar industry’s learning-by-doing continue to spill-over into new ideas for basic research.”

There are also some interesting sections on how ‘embedded autonomy’ – setting of high level objectives by central government then letting decentralised action do the detail – gives China an edge and how its reflected in other successful industrial policies.

“The second edge China has over the United States isn’t so much technological as institutional. While often characterized as a command-and-control style economy, the day-to-day of Chinese industrial policy is surprisingly decentralized. Five year plans like “Made in China 2025” mostly serve to set high-level targets and aspirations, helping to coordinate the expectations of bureaucrats and industry partners at multiple levels of government.

A similar story holds true for the successful examples of industrial policy in Korea, Japan, and the United States. As Steven Vogel argues in Level Up America: The Case for Industrial Policy and How to Do it Right, investments in technology and industrial capacity work best when done through institutions with “embedded autonomy.” The central government should set clear, outcome-oriented goals with mechanisms to evaluate progress, but leave implementation and execution to mission-driven organizations with the autonomy to take risks and act nimbly. Embedded autonomy is particularly important when the agency in question has “a strategic position as the central nodes in networks of collaboration among industrial sectors and firms,” and might thus be vulnerable to special interest capture. “An industrial policy driven by bold public missions accompanied with deliberate communication strategies,” writes Vogel, “would be less vulnerable to capture and more amenable to effective implementation.”

Old video on nuclear propulsion

Roughly double the output of conventional rockets. Origins in the 1950s. A Nobel Laureate I was talking to in recent years said this might be his next venture…. Will update when I know!

Scientific American – AI Designs Quantum Physics Experiments Beyond What Any Human Has Conceived


Noahpinion – Answering the techno-pessimists, part 4 – is science slowing down?


Makes a number of arguments re-tech slowdown being illusory in part. One argument is that whilst individual fields may slow down due to low hanging fruit being picked, others come along such as CRISPR (ie, progress is sigmoidal, with new fields popping up). They also point out the limitation of the Collison/Nielsen argument, with becoming less efficient not being the same as slowing down. (Note Alexey Guzey has a similar view that its becoming more inefficient, but not slowing down (in life sciences – https://guzey.com/how-life-sciences-actually-work/)
Combining this with some reading of the ‘the power of creative destruction’. Also worth noting that secondary innovations mean we don’t perceive life changing innovations as being recent – secondary innovations being the tweaks/refinements needed to make a technology work, like long distance cabling for electricity.. Ie, any technology altering our lives will seem old.

Fiction + Poetry

Been reading these two. More on this later when I post re-memorising poems + memory palaces.

and these two

Witold Pilecki

Pilecki is someone I find particularly inspiring, and who I try to mention to people when the opportunity comes up. I’ll update this post over time, but thought I’d gather a few videos/pictures here to point people to who might want to learn more about him. When I was ill I found his example particularly inspiring. I’ll write a fuller blog later. If I could make even 0.1% of the difference he made, and have 0.1% of his courage, I would be very happy.

“I tried to live my life in such a fashion that in my last hour I would look back and feel not sad but happy. In this realisation I found strength within me, from knowing that the fight was worth it”.
Witold Pilecki upon the announcement of his death sentence at a communist show trial.

A drawing I commissioned in 2013 of Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki

This short video explains some of what he did. Video I first watched in 2013. The music is ‘Polski Drogi’ (Polish roads).

“Report back the order is done”. This documents Pilecki’s voluntary arrest to go to Auschwitz, by an eye witness. The first minute or so has some polish in it without translation – the rest is in English. The beautiful music is ‘New Lands’ by Ian Post.


Pilecki used to carry Thomas Kempis’ ‘The Imitation of Christ’ with him wherever he went including Auschwitz, and gave his copy to Eleanora, his wife, just prior to his execution, asking her to read from it every night to their children once he was gone.

Here is a shorter, earlier report written from within auschwitz and smuggled out:

Here is a short book about Pilecki:

From an interview with his child: “My father always taught me one thing: when you start doing something, do it well and to the end. If you think you’re not good enough, do not even start. It’s a wise word. Throughout my life I have tried to live by this principle.”

Family puppies: Newton & Nimbus

After much nagging from Matt, Katie, and I, Mummy and Daddy finally got some puppies in October last year! They are called Newton & Nimbus! 🙂 These are roughly chronological of their first 9 months.

Some images + videos. Near the bottom are them playing with bubbles which is particularly cute.

At the farm where we got them from 🙂
At the farm we got them from 🙂

In our garden
On their first trip
They destroy everything in their path
Attention seeking with Mummy
My first Skype call with them. They were not impressed by me and mostly slept.
They sleep cuddled up 🙂
They enjoy destroying everything
Cuddling my sister
They found toilet roll…
No comment…..
They meet a football for the first time…
Chewing a toy bone together

Learning to sit with Mummy
Another day, another theft.
My first day with them. Playfighting! They bit my hand like a velociraptor.
Tug of war with me
He fell on the floor whilst doing tug of war with me…
Playfighting again
They love the fireplace
Matt giving them a clean after a walk
Nimbus is very handsome
Not sure what this face expression means but Nimbus does it a lot
Cuddling me whilst im on a zoom call
After playing tug of war
Dad taking them for a walk
Sleeping 🙂
On a walk behind our house
Nimbus with a football he destroyed at the Euro finals
Nothing is safe from them…
They still play fight even as grown ups….
They love bubbles

Dai Sesshin 2021 – Preparation log [Updated 3rd August]

[Update/Edit post-Sesshin 21st August – Two major comments. The first is that the schedule below is less strict than the schedule we followed. The 2nd is that my main mistake in this preparation was not to focus on being absolutely still during meditation. I moved and shuffled about, which is not allowed in a training schedule. I will write later on this.]

As I recently posted, I’m doing Dai Sesshin this year. I’m going to track my preparation to keep myself accountable. First, a summary of Sesshin I wrote in the previous blog, then i’ll post short daily updates on progress, as I’m worrying I simply won’t be up to it without doing more intense training and I hate giving up.

Film about Sesshin: http://www.folkstreams.net/film-detail.php?id=175

Here is a typical Sesshin schedule in west (Zazen = meditation):

Earlier blog post: Zen meditation – Doing Dai Sesshin annually, starting this august (restrictions permitting)

I’ve long been fascinated by monks (‘Into Great Silence’ is one of my favourite films). I became very interested in zen buddhism in relation to my unusual visual disorder. I’ll blog on this soon. 

I’ve visited a monastery but never spent significant time there – one of my dreams is to spend a few months in a monastery, and may do in the medium term. Over the past year I’ve been corresponding with Meido Moore, Roshi of Korinji Monastery in Wisconsin, one of the few Rinzai Zen training schools in the west. Sadly due to restrictions I’ve been unable to go to Wisconsin despite various trips being planned, but I’m hoping to become his student more formally.

I’ve got into a good habit of meditating 30 minutes a day. But for various reasons/motivations its a helpful challenge to do more. In a monastery, they work toward doing Sesshin, which is the most intense part of a zen monk’s schedule. Sesshin involves near continuous meditation for a week, with 5 hours of sleep a night. I figured if I am to go beyond ignorant babbling about this, I should commit to doing it myself. I recently got an invite to do this in August, and decided to go for it. 

But I’m also daunted by it and worry I’ll make excuses. So to avoid wimping out, I’ve decided to commit publicly! It will probably be the hardest thing I’ve done but now I’m getting old I need to challenge myself to stay young!

There is an explanation of Sesshin here (wikipedia), and its also covered in this excellent documentary: 

Meido has written two detailed and excellent introductions to Rinzai, available here.

7th July 2021 – Wednesday

I paid for the trip, so fingers crossed travel restrictions do not kick in. And I’ve setup this blog/accountability page. I’ve been doing an hour a day prep, but meditating almost all day, every day, will need more intense prep.

I leave for switzerland 7th July, which is slightly over 4 weeks away.

My target is to do 3 hours a day meditation, every day, until then, and record log here.

I’ll do this training schedule:

  • Wake at 4.55
  • 5am: Meditate for an hour
  • 6am: hour of exercise
  • Midday, or as close as possible with work meetings: 1 hour meditation.
  • 6pm: or immediately on return from work: 1 hour meditate, 30 minutes exercise

I bought a Lacquer Oryoki Jihatsu set to use, and a white cloth and utensils. The guidance is strict on size and even cloth colour. Each zen monk has their own in the monastery.

Lacquered wooden bowl set with 4 or 5 bowls. This set is the traditional Rinzai Zen set, which is also used by many Soto Zen groups and the Shambhala sangha for oryoki practice.

Today: wrote the plan today so will start fully tomorrow, but a good hour of meditation.
Meditated 5:30pm-6:30pm.
First 30 minutes excellent, though puppies kept disturbing me as I had to child mind them for mum. Knees hurt a bit by the end – I’ve been sitting cross legged all day to practice for Sesshin. Ended up lying down for last 10 minutes.

8th July 2021

Poor start – woke too late, too much caffeine last night watching england game…. but will aim 2 hours today which would still be a personal best for this year!

Did 1 hour in the end, so a failure. Tomorrow we start again…


9th July 2021

1 hour of meditation

10th July 2021

1 hour of meditation.

I need to make meditation the first thing I do, or other things get in the way. However, I find on waking I am not in the right space for this. So, like in the Rinzai monastery, I will do some QiGong-style exercises to get my mind moving ahead of meditation.

11th July 2021

1 hour meditation, but also 1.5 hours of exercise before and this made meditation a lot easier. So an improvement.

12th July 2021

Failure – no meditation though did an hour of exercise.

13th July 2021

Did one hour of meditation on the train to Oxfordshire. Tomorrow I must do two hours……

14th July 2021 – 2 hours/day for first time

Morning: 1 hour of meditation in morning, divided in two. 30 minutes exercise.
Afternoon: 1 hour of meditation, divided into two. I focussed a lot on abdominal breathing.

15th July 2021

1 hour meditation so far.

My eating bowls arrived 🙂 Lacquered wood, from GreatEasternSun on Etsy


16th July 2021 – 2.5 hours!

2.5 hours meditation!

17th July 2021 – Saturday

1.5 hours

18th July 2021 – Sunday

45 minutes so far

https://buddhaimonia.com/blog/zen-master-rules-to-live-by I read this, maybe my next project after Sesshin is to turn this into a Franklin journal…..

Pulling an all nighter to reset my sleep cycle……

19th July 2021 – Monday

Up at 5am, by virtue of pulling an all-nighter… off for a jog, then exercise + meditation….

Did only 30 mins meditation as I missed my usual evening meditation, but got to sleep at 7 to make up for lost sleep 🙂

20th July 2021 – Tuesday

Sleep reset worked 🙂 Woke at 5am, now off for a job, then meditation 🙂 Today I will do 2.5 hours come what may, hopefully 3….. There is a heat wave in the UK and we don’t have air conditioning in the UK….. I might use this as a bit of a living diary also. Right, the puppies are complaining they haven’t been let out (im at my parents) despite hearing me wake up and get water, so off I go….

This is Newton & Nimbus being woken up and having their breakfast….

They then spend the next 30 mins or so wandering around aimlessly wagging their tails seeking attention and being mischievous, every single time….

25th July 2021 – Sunday – a confessional

1 hour meditation today.

So, a confessional, I failed in my meditation training so far, and going to 3 blocks of 1 hour straight away was too much. Doing a single hour plus 4 half hours seems much more attainable.

But I realised that my inability to wake up early was a key problem in getting 3 hours a day in, so I focussed on solving that, and I did! For the first time ever I’ve succeeded in waking up between 5 and 6am every day of a week, minus one very late after a social event. So now for a redoubling of effort….. Getting up early means you get a solid chunk done, get ahead of the day, and succeed.

This past week I’ve reliably done an at least hour a day, but now I will push to 2 hours every day then in the final week 3 hours.

26th July 2021 – Monday

2 hours meditation!

31st July 2021 – Saturday – 2 hours

Last 4 days not great…. but did 1.5 hours so far today and will try to make it to 2 hours before sleep.

Did 2 hours 🙂

2nd August 2021 – Monday

1.5 hours. Says a lot that this is considered failure by me. I didn’t start until too late in the late. Will try to sneak in another 30 mins before bed… Sesshin doesn’t start for over a week, as there is an intro time etc, so I’ve still got time to hit my 3 hour target. Not sure how I will do 3 hours meditation on the day I spend 11 hours on a train (saving the climate innit).

3rd August 2021 – Tuesday

1 hour so far, aiming for 1.5 hours today.
Note: today I actually looked at a western sesshin schedule and realised its not as strict as Japanese ones I’d been expecting, and 3*1 hour blocks was too ambitious to aim for. I’m much more on track than expected by hitting around
Sesshin starts 1 week Friday….

To do list of things to buy and check off:

Organising travel:

Still to do

For Sesshin and Zen retreat please bring:

  • Hakama and gi or black pants and white shirt
  • Warm socks (if the floor is cold)
  • Jihatsu set (for formal meals) with cloth if you don’t have, please bring 3 small bowls (diameter 10cm to max 15cm) different sizes even better for putting them together
  • Chop sticks
  • Korinji Okkyo book, if you possess one
  • Appropriate outdoor clothing (rain jacket, solid shoes, hat, sunscreen) for samu (outdoor work practice)
  • Water bottle
  • Eventually sleeping bag (beds with mattress are available)
  • Pajamas
  • Toiletry and personal needs: please no strong smelling parfume or deodorant!
  • Shower towl
  • Flashlight
  • NO electronic devices (mobile, personal computer,…)
  • There will be an emergency phone number
  • Zafu: meditation pillows (zabuton: floor cushions are provided)
  • For Shugendo please bring: Tradition is to wear white during Mountain Training. Please bring white clothes suitable for hiking in all weather conditions (top layer should be white if possible).
  • Hiking gear (rain jacket, solid shoes, hat, sunscreen, hiking poles if needed)
  • Daypack with extra clothes
  • Water bottle
  • Small towel
  • Bathing suit or similar for takigyo (waterfall training)
  • Sandals or other footwear (for takigyo)
  • Eventually sleeping bag (beds with mattress are available)
  • Pajamas
  • Toiletry, and personal needs: please no strong smelling parfume or deodorant!
  • Flashlight
  • NO electronic devices (mobile, personal computer,…)
  • There will be an emergency number The Shugendo mountain training is also a very intensive form of spiritual training in and with nature. A lot of hiking, little sleep and getting by for many hours without food is challenging and therefore suitable for students in good physical health. You do not need to be in top athletic condition for this event, but you should be prepared to hike on uneven, rugged, and exhausting terrain.

3 Public Commitments – Dai Sesshin, Dancing, and Drawing

This blog is to make public commitments to do 3 things – not of interest to others, but if I don’t post it I’ll let these things slip so this is a trial in making myself commit to stuff, of fixing ‘distant stars’ as I wrote here. Hopefully by committing publicly, these will get done!

Zen meditation – Doing Dai Sesshin annually, starting this august (restrictions permitting)

I’ve long been fascinated by monks (‘Into Great Silence’ is one of my favourite films). I became very interested in zen buddhism in relation to my unusual visual disorder. I’ll blog on this soon.

I’ve visited a monastery but never spent significant time there – one of my dreams is to spend a few months in a monastery, and may do in the medium term. Over the past year I’ve been corresponding with Meido Moore, Roshi of Korinji Monastery in Wisconsin, one of the few Rinzai Zen training schools in the west. Sadly due to restrictions I’ve been unable to go to Wisconsin despite various trips being planned, but I’m hoping to become his student more formally.

I’ve got into a good habit of meditating 30 minutes a day. But for various reasons/motivations its a helpful challenge to do more. In a monastery, they work toward doing Sesshin, which is the most intense part of a zen monk’s schedule. Sesshin involves near continuous meditation for a week, with 5 hours of sleep a night. I figured if I am to go beyond ignorant babbling about this, I should commit to doing it myself. I recently got an invite to do this in August, and decided to go for it.

But I’m also daunted by it and worry I’ll make excuses. So to avoid wimping out, I’ve decided to commit publicly! It will probably be the hardest thing I’ve done but now I’m getting old I need to challenge myself to stay young!

There is an explanation of Sesshin here (wikipedia), and its also covered in this excellent documentary:

Meido has written two detailed and excellent introductions to Rinzai, available here.

Dancingposting a video of me dancing by December 31st 2021

Much of my work in neuroscience centred around movement, but it was only through my illness that I became very interested in the mind:body connection, and the role of movement in health. I’ll write elsewhere about the role dance played in learning to see in 3D. But I want to learn some more recreational dances, the kind done to music, so I will be posting a dance by the end of this year, which will doubtless be cringeworthy and embarrassing but its good to make a start…..

NB: There is an interesting chapter in Move! by Caroline Williams about how dancing affects the mind, and vice versa. Its an interesting book to inspire you to move more, I’ll post some notes later as part of a broader post on movement.

Drawingposting a collection of drawings by June 27th 2022

I was inspired by ‘Learning from Leonardo’, a wonderful book by Fritjof Capra, to think about how drawing helps you think about problems. I’ve also always loved drawings, more so than other kinds of art, but I’ve been terrible at drawing despite some attempts in my teens to learn.

I wrote in ‘A Semi-monocular I’: “But double vision did not help me become a brilliant painter. In fact, I’m terrible at drawing: trying to visualize things on the page is very difficult, as the two eyes constantly jostle, meaning there is no fixed point of focus to imagine from. This outweighs any artistic advantages I could gain from seeing a flat world.”

I found recently that if I combine drawing with some of the meditations I’ve used to learn to see in 3D, its a wonderful way to train myself to see detail, as the close coupling of action and sensation provides a strong feedback signal. As double vision disappears, I’m finally finding I can draw. But I need to dedicate some time to it. I also need to learn to draw for a project I’ve been working on, currently paused.

I’ve bought various books on drawing to use, I’ll work my way through them and fingers crossed! Books include: ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’, ‘Drawing Course’ by Gerald Ackerman, ‘Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters’, ‘Beginning Drawing Atelier: An Instructional Sketchbook’, ‘Lessons in Classical Drawing: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier’, and ‘Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice’.

My main focusses will be on anatomical drawing, particularly of the musculature and neural networks, for reasons I’ll post later.

I’ll flesh these out into blog posts at a later date, giving more of the background. I might make a few others also such as publishing a poetry collection, cooking, and swimming, but for now this seems enough for a few months!

Recommendation: Manufactus Journals

I get various comments about my ‘eccentric’ habit of using nice journals for writing. I like to handwrite most things, as it helps me focus and I really dislike using screens (something I’ll write on later, some notes at the bottom). I also find writing helps me remember things – my brain remembers where I wrote particular notes, which seems to create a kind of mental indexing system. Screens are not just digital pages!

As I use them for notes I go back to them some years after, and for this having good paper is worthwhile. It took a long time to find a really nice journal, but eventually I found Manufactus, which uses thick cotton paper. The only downside is pencil doesn’t stick on it so well. Given their size, I find they don’t work out much more expensive than using lots of smaller notebooks, so I think its worthwhile if you like using pen and paper.

Some of my friends have asked me to source them for them, so I thought I’d put up a blog to point people to them.
I first found them in a shop in DC but later found you could get them direct from the shop in Italy – Manufactus. The staff are very helpful and generous and you can get all sorts of variations not available online if you email them. Note, the shipping can be expensive if you just buy a single book but if you batch them together in orders its very reasonable. US people will need to pay taxes on them. If UK friends want some, let me know and I can do them in another batch order!

Here are links to two I particularly like, and some photos to get an idea of size etc.

My dull idea of a good evening – sitting taking notes on some speculative ideas in medicine that I think may have some kernels of truth.

For later – Does using screens/computers drive changes in breathing patterns linked to stress/relaxation?






Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen recently online – #1

Thought I’d gather some of the lighter side of what I read. Installment 1! Not all time on the internet is wasted….

I want to meet Stoffel, the genius Badger:

This is what happens when an underground nuclear test is done underneath a cow (don’t worry, the cow is fine):