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:

210902 – On 1) this blog & plans for it, 2) having a blog (Guzey), and a 3) blogroll – + Annex re-Leonardo’s codices as a kind of renaissance studio’s blog/wikipedia, v0.1

This blog

I started this blog as a way to have polished/finished things online and shared but it has increasingly evolved via experimentation into something quite different.

Rather its somewhere at the intersection of being an Instagram for thoughts, a public notebook, a collection of 1st drafts of various things, fragments for 1st drafts, a public noticeboard, a commitments/targets pad etc. Something of an experiment in the benefits of radical transparency for driving progress in various projects/personal endeavours. So its primarily a blog written for myself at present (see Alexey’s piece below), with the knowledge its possible for others to read it being useful. There are various posts kept private at the moment. See also the Annex re an intriguing suggestion from Bamford’s biography of Leonardo regarding how Leonardo used his notebooks that was also in my mind when thinking about the uses a blog could serve…….

I’m hoping its the solution to a problem I alluded to in my April 2020 piece re-advice for lockdowns, namely that as an undergrad my weekly essay provided an organising feature to my explorations and study, whereas post undergrad this system vanished. Even if no one reads the essay, its a helpful exercise. So committing to a cadence of publishing things here drives progress, the knowledge it might be read means I get my notes in a slightly better form, and over time I hope more substantial things might emerge.

One benefit already is I’ve realised the benefits of creating a rudimentary blog post as a placeholder to be grown later and added to, like a stub wikipedia page. Having something on a public blog is far more ingraining of it in memory than having it in a google doc. Its kind of like establishing a mental ‘schema’ of a kind for your explorations. The things you have blogs on gain prominence in your mind and plans. So if you see lots of small, undeveloped posts like this one go up, that’s why!

I’ll have 3 broad categories of posts over the years.

Series 1 – Notes for an Emergent I – I have a lengthy series of blogs/notes collections loosely covering what I think are unusual/under-appreciated aspects of embodied cognition and neuroscience that allowed me to learn to see in 3D, which is my main blogging focus over the next two years.
Series 2 – Zen Habits – Transferring lessons from Zen Buddhism into everyday life as a journal of my own experiences exploring zen (early days). Looking for another name as this name is already taken by another blog – Deep Living (after Newport’s Deep Work), Zen Living….. hard to find one that isn’t cliche.
Other general posts – collections of reading lists, unusual stuff i’ve found online, photos, general notes etc.

I’m also likely to blog at some stage on: Notebooks of Leonardo & Newton, and approaches to keeping notebooks/notes, especially re digital vs paper, Memory Palaces as cognitive living spaces, maybe some notes on ‘economics’……. again, posting this makes me more likely to write them, establishes them in my mind etc etc

Having a blog – Alexey Guzey’s “Why you should start a blog right now”

If I could change/create one work habit from age 18 it would have been to have a blog. Alexey Guzey summarises this in his blog post well, so I will just link to that. If you don’t have a blog I strongly recommend reading his post and starting a blog of your own, even if it is password protected and no one can read it.

Summary: in this post I explain why you should start a blog (to help others and to help yourself), what to write about, and how to start it. I hope to persuade you that you should start a blog even if you feel that you have nothing to say and even if almost nobody will read it.”

Read here – https://guzey.com/personal/why-have-a-blog/


Some blogs I check periodically. I mostly get articles via twitter and being sent them but these blogs are useful.

The homepage of the zen monastery I’m a patron of – Korinji.org

Alexey Guzey

Steve Hsu’s blog –https://infoproc.blogspot.com

A collection of intelligence/foreign affairs reporting – intelnews.org



Zen Habits has an excellent collection of minimalist lifestyle advice – https://zenhabits.net/archives/

https://www.calnewport.com/blog/ – imo best thinker re how to work and get stuff done in 21st century.

https://terrytao.wordpress.com – I don’t understand the maths but it has some excellent productivity stuff there.

A free thinking blog – Quillette

Annex – Langford on Leonardo’s Notebooks in ‘Becoming Leonardo’, w/comments

First line refers to Leonardo, then Pacioli was a collaborator/tutor on mathematics, then it reverts back to Leonardo.

Book available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Becoming-Leonardo-Exploded-View-Vinci-ebook/dp/B01MXNN9MQ/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=becoming+leonardo&qid=1626950849&sr=8-1

Note – I disagree with the highlighted bottom right hand page text “one thing we know for sure: he would’ve loved sticky notes. A match made in heaven.”

Did Leonardo use Silverpoint tablets as ‘workpads’?

Gattis, Moffat & Thompson did a reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century with Cumberbatch playing Sherlock as the misanthropic but hero detective. If I ever adopt the challenge of writing a TV series, I’d try to do similar for Leonardo. I think you’d have to set it slightly in the past, otherwise you would have the near impossible challenge of discovering things for him to discover etc. If you set it in the past, you can fictitiously assign him other people’s creations, discoveries, and mannerisms….

Relatedly, if I could do a ‘forbidden experiment’ and take the DNA of any human in history and birth 100 clones of them, born into different circumstances and with different tutoring/mentoring, I’d almost certainly take Leonardo (another couple would be Newton and Von Neumann, erring toward the former as I think he’s a more interesting/mysterious character – will blog later on that.). Far more interesting even than Dinosaurs and Mammoths….. PS – maybe possible oneday? https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/leonardo-da-vinci-descendants-trnd-scn/index.html this might enable us to find which of the skulls, if any, at X is Da Vinci’s and get his DNA…… It could be the basis of an interesting science fiction book also, perhaps combining with the paragraph above….. I have ideas….

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] – Updated 28th July

Tufte: “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.”

This covers a practice to move organisations beyond using powerpoint, which Amazon uses 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. Keeping large groups of people aligned in complex organisations where things can change quickly is an interesting challenge.

I like the sound of this approach so will be trying it. This is partly a summary for me, partly to share with team members.

Table of Contents

Its based on two sources (all quotes are from working backwards, which I will blog more on later).

Chapter 4 of this book, ‘Communicating’

And Tufte’s essay referenced within.

From Tufte – Original image from a soviet military parade

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

Amazon meetings 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 are 1/2 of the amazon narrative system – I’ll cover the PR/FAQ one later (the ‘bezos doc’). 6 pagers are prepared for every meeting.

6 pagers came about in Amazon due to dissasitification with powerpoint presentations.

I’ve long disliked powerpoint presentations. if you get lost in one part, 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. If you like powerpoint, stop reading.

Jeff Bezos and Colin Bryar found similar to my experience at Amazon, describing even deep dives into a topic using powerpoint as ‘frustrating, inefficient, and error prone.’ 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’.

Here is Tufte’s essay for those interested (from here: https://www.inf.ed.ac.uk/teaching/courses/pi/2016_2017/phil/tufte-powerpoint.pdf)

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 they 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:

They eventually settled through experimentation on a 6-pager format, optimised for a meeting length of an hour. This is 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. For a 30 minute meeting, you could imagine doing a 3 pager, etc etc.

Toe methis timing issue is an important point: the concept here, as i see it, 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.

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.

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.

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 more examples of 6 pagers, and additional guidance.

What happens next when people have read the 6 pager?

The meetings themselves, following the 20 minute read, should also have a certain 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 one of two strategies, or your teams own approach:
1) High level comments by al, then work through the docmument line-byline together.
2) go round the group in a circle each giving feedback on the document.

They then move to a discussion, which its imperative to write down and keep a record of!

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 unit of planning out weeks and projects.

I’ll update this blog in 6 months and report back on how I’ve found it.

A couple resources

Here is an online doc that might be of use: 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/

Appendix -Bryar and Carr’s ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’ document

Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen recently online – #2 [updated 1st August with a video of a very weird & cool animal (+ a submarine spider etc)]

Updated with this – how cool is this!

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

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):

Some Resources

Here are some links to password protected pages that don’t appear on the main blog roll. Password shared with people who need access to them.

Photographs 1991-2017


Wearing my monocular occlusion patch. The person kneeling is my mother.
Me with dad and little brother. My most charming facial expression.


School debating 2007
My favourite place to read, 2007
My sixth form in snow
Snow fights at school, 2009
At the Royal Albert Hall to see Elton John solo
2009, Elton John
A puppy we found
2009 On holiday in Greece
On holiday, 2010
10 minutes after I found out I had an offer from Oxford University. On a beach in Antigua.
On a 4 day hike for the Duke of Edinburgh award

Oxford days – 2010-2013

Visiting Exeter College, Oxford, the summer before joining (2010)
2010 – The Oxford Fellows Garden of my college
At matriculation on joining Oxford, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi visited our college
A brain scan I had done for medical purposes
Studying for Oxford Exams, 2011
With my brother and father, 2011
With my brother, 2011
With family, 2011
Florence, 2011
Preparing for an Oxford ball, 2012
At a ball with close friend Joe Birch

At a lecture Kasparov gave in 2013, I interviewed him the next day (i’m front row on the right side)

Cycling in Bordeaux
Having dinner with Sydney Brenner
Graduation with the medics

1st part of PhD years 2014-2017

Ordering drinks at a bar in Oxford, 2014
With a good friend from Oxford days, 2014
I was incredibly fortunate to be one of 7 current/recent graduates and undergraduates to be included in the Oxford Honorary degree ceremony, Encaenia
The Encaenia Ceremony procession
Me top left
Receiving our round of applause from the heads of the university
At the Encaenia Ceremony, 2014
Walking through Magdalen College, 2014
At Exeter College’s 700th Anniversary Ball
The 700th Anniversary Dinner. I am on the middle table, 5 seats up
Another ball photo
With Eric Betzig’s Nobel Prize, 2015
me at janelia
Child minding a colleague’s child. Syuta just scribbled in my notebook and is proud of the damage.
At Bailey’s leaving party, 2016.
Turl Street, Oxford, 2016
Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford
The Turf, Oxford, 2016
Broad street, Oxford
Cambridge, 2016. Kings College
Newton’s Study is the right hand side, Trinity College Cambridge
My brother did an undergraduate rotation at Janelia

At the Christmas party, 2015, dressed according to the cowboy theme
With Erina & Osceola. Erina was critical to ThalamoSeq
Outside the White House situation room, 2016
Front door of the white house

In an intensive care bed, 2017
My favourite photo – me in ICU

Florence, 2017
Pizza in Italy
Partying in Florence
2017, Looking after a hamster

Viewing Newton’s College notebook

In my twenties I became quite interested in the notebooks of Da Vinci and Newton, more interested than in their finished works, as a way to try and learn more about them and how they worked. I’ll blog a study of these later.

In 2016 I was allowed to see and handle the Fitzwilliam notebook for an hour, the first surviving mathematical notebook of Isaac Newton. it contains his early studies of Euclid, as well as a collection of his expenses and confessions of sins. Here are some photos I took. Newton was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge at the time.

Note 1: I was told not to wear gloves by the curator – the oil of the hands is good for the paper, and the gloves make you more clumsy.

Note 2: there is an excellent facsimile available of another notebook at kroneckerwallis

The Notebook is very small.
This is a list of Newton’s confessions of sins, written in a code broken only last century.
A list of Newton’s expenses
Newton’s expenses continued – note the beginning of his interest in chemistry, and alchemy, in the top line.
Beginning of the mathematical section of the notebook

2019 The ThalamoSeq team project – an article about our research on how the centre of the brain is organised

Some of my thesis work was the subject of a press release article. It is in part this work (a team effort) that won me the British Neuroscience Association Thesis of the year award in 2020.

Copied from: https://www.janelia.org/news/now-we-know-how-the-thalamus-is-organized

Now We Know How the Thalamus is Organized: Janelia’s ThalamoSeq Project Team uncovers new details about the organization of the thalamus, a central control center in the brain.

Slowly, the thalamus is being uncloaked. 

The brain structure sits just above the brain stem and acts as a central switchboard, directing sensory and motor signals to the cortex. Different regions of the thalamus direct traffic to different areas, like the visual cortex or the auditory cortex.

Now, a Project Team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus illuminates this crucial structure’s organization in new detail. An analysis of RNA from neurons in the thalamus suggests that those specialized regions of the thalamus are built in much the same way as one another, the team reports September 16, 2019, in the journal Nature Neuroscience. This hints at surprising parallels in how different types of information are transferred around the brain.

Individual cells in the thalamus are highlighted in a rainbow of colorsA cross section of the thalamus reveals three main types of cells, marked here in different colors. Credit: James Phillips 

Based on measuring RNA, “there were three main types of thalamic pathways that repeated across essentially every system,” says study coauthor James Phillips, a graduate student at Janelia. 

Many structures in the brain send signals through the thalamus. Scientists at Janelia and beyond were studying some of those parts individually, but how those areas communicated with each other via the thalamus was largely a mystery. There just weren’t good tools to study specific subsets of cells in the thalamus, says Adam Hantman, a Janelia group leader who helped direct the project. And without the ability to isolate cells receiving messages from certain brain areas, it was hard to know exactly how signals were being relayed.

This project, ThalamoSeq, aimed to make the thalamus easier to study and understand. It built on techniques honed during a previous Janelia team project, which categorized neurons in mouse and fly brains by analyzing RNA from individual cells. ThalamoSeq adapted those techniques to take a deeper dive into one key brain structure, generating an online resource far more complete than one lab could typically accomplish alone.

Now, “we’ve redefined the cell types of the thalamus based on the pattern of gene expression,” says study coauthor Anton Schulmann, also at Janelia. It’s a more holistic and detailed way of looking at brain cells than simply looking at where they go or what kind of signals they send, and one that opens doors for future research into how the brain is built and organized.

By analyzing the way RNA transcripts varied between cells in the thalamus, the researchers identified three primary profiles of cells. That spectrum of cell types repeated itself over many regions of the thalamus responsible for transmitting different signals – each area contained the same subsets of cell types. That is, the part of the thalamus that communicates with the visual cortex has the same types of cells as the part that communicates with the auditory cortex, the motor cortex, or other brain areas.

“I think the most attractive and intriguing part of this is that for a long time, there’s been a suggestion that the cortex, the seat of cognition, is organized in a similar way across its structure. But what this suggests is, this is actually true right at the core of the brain,” says Phillips. “By understanding the thalamus’s organization, we can get a great deal of information about how the rest of the brain is organized.” 

But notably, the boundaries between those cell types were somewhat blurred – not everything fell into a clear category. “I think that’s an important lesson that might be true for other parts of the brain,” says Hantman. “We love to split things into types, but these intermediates are interesting.” And without looking at the thalamus in this much detail, he says, that nuance might have gone unnoticed.



James W. Phillips, Anton Schulmann, Erina Hara, Johan Winnubst, Chenghao Liu, Vera Valakh, Lihua Wang, Brenda C. Shields, Wyatt Korff, Jayaram Chandrashekar, Andrew L. Lemire, Brett Mensh, Joshua Dudman, Sacha B. Nelson, and Adam W. Hantman. “A repeated molecular architecture across thalamic pathways,” Nature Neuroscience. Published online September 16, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41593-019-0483-3

Photographs, 2018-2020 [updated July 18th w/Videos]


I visited Emory University for a conference on learning and memory, and one of the additional perks was a visit to their Gorilla behaviour research program at the local zoo 🙂
A gorilla from the zoo we got up close to 🙂 He/She was able to play video games in return for fruit reward. I have videos of them juggling but sadly WordPress requests I pay for an upgrade to post it…
Fruitcake from a monastery in Virginia 🙂
My brother and I had an article published in the Telegraph
at my home town, summer 2018. down that road is my old victorian school
A view of the Somerset landscape from my home town highstreet
I wrote my thesis partly in the forests behind my parents house. I put a chair there, and one day came back and found the chair had gone….
Presenting my thesis work with Anton at SFN 2018
An image from my thesis. This is of Thalamus, with different colours showing different gene expression (blue is a nuclear stain)
Misha’s kid asked me to teach him to play chess…. I told him he needed to get the king out of the way, so he picked it up and moved it off the board….Video below
Christmas party, 2018


We discovered that if we put a bin over an air vent, it turned into a ghost
Virginia, Chongxi and I rescued a snapping turtle from the road, but not before we tested if it could snap.
My terrible impression of Australian Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, with the snapping turtle!
Virginia snapped me reading in Misha’s lab
I found a nest of snakes in the forests near my work, and went back each day to handle them 🙂 Some of them were huge!
Our boat trip on a summer course for theoretical neuroscience
At the theoretical neuroscience course at the champalimaud

I visited Auschwitz with my father in winter 2019.
I visited Auschwitz with my father in winter 2019.

Anton + I’s paper made the front cover of Nature Neuroscience
My thesis work won a prize 🙂
Some of my reading list, in my book cave in my parent’s attic, winter 2019
With Alan Kay at the British Library after we went to a Da Vinci exhibition (back when I was fat)
Me after having eye surgery to remove a surgical stitch from the eye 🙂
With my cousin and grandpa at his 89th birthday. Sadly he had a fall a few days later but moved into a care home on our road so we could see him every day 🙂


On a walk in my home town, which is twinned with Terry Pratchett’s fictional disc world, hence the strange street names 🙂
Early 2020
A portrait of a personal hero of mine, Witold Pilecki, that I had drawn
The spot in the fields behind my parents house where I made lots of phone calls in mid March prior to entering my current job, these calls would later turn out to be key!
My first day walking into Westminster
The Cenotaph being guarded by a man with a lightsaber
The Palace of Westminster, the oldest intact parliament at almost 1000 years old
The backdrop to mass at Westminster Abbey is Isaac Newton’s grave
Downing Street decorated in Union Jack flags

Leaving Downing Street after a long evening, Winter 2020
We got a Christmas tree 🙂
A portrait of Ada Lovelace
At an early birthday party, putting out my candles with a scarf to be COVID secure.
The bells in Westminster abbey returned during a lockdown lull 🙂
Selfie with my lockdown bubble Ginny – this is our compromise between us having a photo and my stubborn insistence on not having a photo before she left for America on a rainy very cold night….
A Downing Street Christmas bauble 🙂