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Author: Alistair Knock


Photo showing two butterflies to illustrate changed habitat/potential

When a caterpillar goes into a cocoon, it goes through radical transformation and emerges as a beautiful butterfly. It does not come out as a bigger caterpillar, even having enjoyed the chocolate cake and the cherry pie.

When going through transformation we need to be ready to embrace that end state, as well as recognising the challenges it presents. No more meandering along the leaf. No curling up in a little ball, safely concealed from the rest of the world. Suddenly we have wings, and need to learn to fly. But a butterfly that still thinks it is a caterpillar, local and sheltered, will not survive, and all the pain of transformation (did you know a caterpillar digests itself! Imagine an organisation doing that…) will not be worthwhile.

It can be hard, safely on the ground, to think about floating in the sky. But once you have confidence to lift off, lightweight and free, your whole idea of what a horizon is and what your limits are fundamentally change.

(prompted by, I think, the 534th reading last night of the Eric Carle masterpiece)

‘Recent’ reads

I somehow started making a list about ‘recent reads’ and ended up in an earlier decade. Anyway, points for spotting the hidden theme in my reading (roughly in order of reading):


  1. Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future – Marshall Brain [like an electric shock, or taking the red pill]
  2. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The United States – Dr Jeffery Lewis [good read but probably loses some energy now Trump has gone]
  3. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die – Cassell Illustrated [very helpful in making another big long list of things to do that I will never round to]
  4. Utopia For Realists: And How We Can Get There – Rutger Bregman [if Manna is the red pill I guess this is waking up on the Nebuchadnezzar – I read pre-pandemic and would like to read again because many of the ideas have more traction now (UBI etc.)]
  5. Apollo: The Race To The Moon – Catherine Bly Cox, Charles Murray [five star – all about the engineers and the behind the scenes rather than the astronauts and media (for which I have plenty other books), and some fascinating insight into how such a huge programme was run with such speed and agility]
  6. Pachinko – Min Jin Lee [I remember being totally enthralled and yet not knowing why, which I guess is what fiction does best when it works]
  7. The Moment Of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World – Melinda Gates [he isn’t a woman but he is under-represented in the leader/innovation space so I would pair this thoughtful book with William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind]
  8. No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference – Greta Thunberg [the narrative is of course now familiar but I find it always impressive to look at the forcefulness of those carefully selected words]
  9. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans and Ola Rosling [anything Rosling wins for me and this book (like Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature) succeeds in showing how a lack of personal data refreshes from what you learned in your schooldays shows how out of touch with reality we can become and instead rely on preconceptions]


  1. Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann [wild, shocking history of the treatment of a Native American tribe]
  2. The Art Of Happiness: A Handbook For Living – Dalai Lama [unfinished, useful but repetitive]
  3. Rise: Life Lessons in Speaking Out, Standing Tall & Leading The Way – Gina Miller [now a polarised and demonised figure because of prorogation; wherever you stand though she can just get on with it and get things done powerfully, despite all the abuse and punishment designed to grind her down]
  4. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft – Stephen King [a kindly meander and like all books I have read on writing, conveying a lot of wisdom that has completely left me]
  5. The Rules Of Contagion – Adam Kucharski [read in March and no longer relevant; everyone knows everything about epidemiology now]
  6. Remote: Office Not Required – David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried [Fried and Hansson founded 37signals (Basecamp) and have long been remote working; this was written in 2013. It is accompanied by It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work from 2018. Both have some takeaways to reflect on but not easy to adopt wholesale – culture of a startup is different from a monolith]
  7. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives – Steven Levy [I remember the organised chaos aspects of this most but was disappointed it didn’t get into OKRs as much as it could]
  8. The Ride Of A Lifetime: Lessons In Creative Leadership From 15 Years as CEO Of The Walt Disney Company – Robert Iger [straightforward read, a key point being to stick to your core beliefs]
  9. American War – Omar El Akkad [like The 2020 Commission Report, it was alarmingly easy to see this becoming a reality, and we shouldn’t forget that time just because we are in Biden-land now]
  10. 21 Lessons For The 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari [gained less from this because it recaps what has been in the tech media for several years about the future (there are still no flying cars). An easier read than others though, as with Harari’s other books]
  11. The Counsellor: A powerful true story about addiction, grief and love – Alison Kerwin [a very raw and jarring book about family and loss but ultimately inspiring in working through it all and coming out stronger; I found it even harder to read as I used to work with the author]
  12. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less – Greg Mckeown [there is a sketch on page 6 which stopped me in my tracks; the rest of the book is riffing on the theme so is a bit repetitive]


  1. The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu [it’s been a while since I have found sci-fi readable (only really Iain M. Banks and Dan Simmons], mostly enjoyed and was challenged by this but then peters out at the end]
  2. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity – Toby Ord [brilliant in that he attempts to assign proper probabilities to each risk, and that we know have a ‘black swan’ event in recent memory to remind us that risks can happen even if they are unlikely. He puts AI surpassing human intelligence at 1 in 6, or a dice roll]
  3. How To Avoid A Climate Disaster – Bill Gates [he admits the hypocrisy at least but generally this is simply laid out and makes the same points repeatedly in different contexts, i.e. is perfectly written to influence governmental policy makers]

Next: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men – Caroline Criado Perez)


  • The Order Of Time – Carlo Rovelli
  • Timefulness: How Thinking Like A Geologist Can Help Save The World – Marcia Bjornerud
  • 1491: The Americas Before Columbus – Charles C. Mann


Transformation is like a heart transplant – you see immediate benefits and remediation overnight (provided everything goes OK and on time!) but unless you also embed good practice and continuous improvement – exercise, diet, challenge – the effects decay and in five years you have to start all over again. It isn’t about whether to pursue one or the other – it works best when you do both.


Notable how many people are talking about winter this week (or I am just noticing it!?) and I have surprised myself in the past few years with feelings of slight trepidation, which never happened before.  Part of that came from winter ‘life’ being lived through a rain soaked black windscreen, dazzled by headlights and brakelights in equal measure, but part of it came from not being able to do some of the things I’d like to.  I came across a quote from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in one of our bedtime books last night (A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton):

“Thus we never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries, nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.”

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

And of course I can’t do those things, because it is winter.  “Winter is a time for different feelings”.  We cannot control the seasons but we are in control of our response to it, and as I’ve found with many emotions over the years, you can tame them ‘simply’ by deciding to.  Mentally deciding and accepting that something is the way it is and agreeing with yourself what your response to it is, is a way of re-centring and moving beyond the feeling.  Jason Kottke’s post The Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter resonates with me (including the 30s woo-woo cynicism) and is recommended, including:

When she asked people [in Tromsø, Northern Norway and 69° north] “Why don’t you have seasonal depression?” the answer was “Why would we?”

And if you aren’t into Zen mindset shifts, just doing different things in different quantities:

Nicholas Bate’s seven fall basics are more sleep, more reading, more hiking, more reflection, more soup, more movies, and more night sky

Replace winter with COVID-19 as you wish; get busy with hygge or koselig or friluftsliv or some other trendy Scandiness, but it doesn’t need to be that involved – this serene Ben Böhmer music set floating above Cappadocia got me thinking about being in hot air balloons above Africa many years ago, and how unlike other forms of air travel, when you’re in a balloon there is no wind – you are part of the wind.  You also don’t know where you’re going to end up, but that’s part of adventure and the serendipity of life.

On transformation

We have well established plants in the garden, with deep and mature roots which give strength, breadth, diversity, and a historical perspective on challenges we’ve faced over time. But they are sometimes slow to bloom.

We bring in highly specialised bees with specific expert skills, in the hope of pollinating these plants and ‘making the most’ of the combination of generalised subject knowledge and technical specialisms.

But the bees just buzz around, waiting for the flowers, and the plants just watch, flowerless, having seen this happen before. What’s missing is sunlight – the element that brings the two groups together and energises them into a symbiotic relationship (synergy, if you like).

The trouble is, everyone knows what sunlight is when they see it, but nobody knows how to make it. It just hopefully happens one day. A successful programme needs to focus on creating as many opportunities for sunlight to appear, proactively, rather than flying in the bees and expecting them to sort it out. They’re just bees, one part of the system.

I don’t think this is a governance problem necessarily – it doesn’t matter if you have a tightly governed country cottage garden or a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach, you still need plants, bees, and sunlight. But tight governance can sometimes inhibit the bees from getting close to the plants, and vice-versa loose management can mean the bees start trying to pollinate the weeds. There needs to be central, vertical direction which, crucially, understands just enough how plants, bees, and sunlight each work in order to get the most from them. People who have the understanding and energy to operate all three areas, and then have the confidence and clout to bridge the gaps are rare.

A New Academy

These are propitious times.  We are all students and we are all teachers, with common purpose: the love of wisdom, the creation of a better world.  We wake, asking: ‘what good shall I do this day?’.  Before sleep, the mirror: ‘what good have I done today?’1  

We meet and rest together most days, amongst the olive and apple trees.  Is this an atrium?  An agora, a forum?  It matters not.  The space has no walls, no dividing lines.  All encounter all, on one level, and debate begins from a position of humility, and openness.  One can bask alone in the silence of the sun for days, contemplating.  But should one rise and walk, there is always a chance encounter, an unexpected question, an enlightenment.  There is dullness, of course, the need to enact all bureaucracy in triplicate even with the technological wonders we now harness, and there is intellectual stasis, the interstitial feeling of being lost, weakening by the day.  But these are overshadowed by the excitement of thought, and the application of knowledge to improve conditions for all.

We argue, we fuss about nothings, some believe their school of thought to be somehow the only possible reality.  But when arrogance towers, it quickly crumbles, dissolved by reason.  From many, one.  There are no forced divisions, no départements, artificial separations made only for the sanity of the administrator.  Our study is fluid, moving across disciplines; sometimes immediately repelled, sometimes attracting colour, flavour, novelty.

When we commit ideas to the written form, we do so with the utmost respect for the time of the reader.  ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time2; when text is written once, read by many, this is anathema, an ignorance of the costs incurred by others through sloppiness and impatience.  When we meet, we know why.  If we do not know why, we do not meet, for a gathering is such a costly event.3  ‘We are what we frequently do’, says my fellow Aristotle.

And of course, there is seniority; there need be a decision maker to tackle the challenges which burden our idyll.  They are appointed with our trust and respect, and we give them our authority to act, to take risks, to make mistakes, to make change, progress.  To move forward not through brutish mimicry of power, but through elegance and innovation.4

Nevertheless, the beautiful chaos of creativity and critical thinking is bolstered by some form of structure, some form of process and efficient operation.  Sadly we must devote at least some of our scarce time to eating, drinking, and other mundanities of survival such as the financial outlook.  So we bring into our employ the expert, the specialist at performing certain skills so effectively and with such high regard that their work is almost transparent, seamless.  Their best work may not be the creation of abject joy, at least formally, but in facilitating a lightness of step, the smooth road, providing the perfected process, the considerate warning signs and the safety nets.  The humane administrator; invisible yet essential.

Remember though that the administrator can also think, can contribute new ideas, may even provide the counterpoint to spawn a new branch of enquiry.  They too should have access to the olive grove, and at least a little spare time, a little mental capacity, to be freed from the deluge of second-class tasks.  A tenth of their time set aside for creativity, collaboration, space to properly address fundamental concerns rather than apply perpetual bandages to the wound.  Rather than chopping away at every dying branch, we collectively create the conditions that allow health to bloom from within.

Together, we are one body; unity, universus.  Look closely, and there are fissures, ruptures, coalescence and gravitational effects which create philosophical and scientific revolutions.  New land is formed, bristling with energy, then settles, ready for another lightning bolt of genius to awaken us, another vivid glimpse of the world outside the cave.  These are propitious times.  The sun always shines for those nimble enough to stay away from the rotating night.  We do not know precisely where we are going, but we know who we are, and why we are together.  Through discourse, wisdom.  Through observation, beauty.  Through challenge, progress.  Through curiosity, truth.  

Athens, Greece
380 BC

  1. From Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule:
  2. Blaise Pascal, Provincial Letters Letter XVI, 1656
  3.  ‘Meetings: the practical alternative to work’.
  4. A distinction embodied in Nansen and Archer’s design for the Fram;

Brief history of the universe, through #upgoerfive

So, #upgoerfive – describing things using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. See the Up-Goer Five Text Editor blog for more info and the original provocation from XKCD. This is my Gombrich-inspired history of the universe.


The big place is huge. It is more big than the small place. We do not know how the big place happened but we do know when it happened – between one and two hundred hundred hundred hundred hundred years ago. There was a big happening and the place got bigger very quickly. Very very quickly. The happening then became slower and things got colder over time, but the place is still getting bigger today.

Things came together and formed new groups of things because they liked each other. These groups liked each other and so on. Some time later, in a good place, life somehow started. Time passed and life liked each other and grew into new forms of life. Eventually these new forms became trees and animals and water animals and sky animals and people.

More time passed and people learned new things, like how to make fire and how to eat well. They learned how to make new things from old things and so on. They learned how to talk and then how to save talk by writing and painting. Things happened quicker now. Big places were made from rocks and trees, then people put the fire in the big places and hurt each other and had to start again. This happened a lot. Several times a big cold happened and took away a lot of life and things to eat. Somehow people still stayed with life. Many times big rain happened, many times no rain happened, many times the place shook from down and up and many times the sky made fire. Somehow people still stayed with life.

Lots of times people hurt each other and had to start again. This still happens too much.

(The big place is still getting bigger; the small place is about the same big-small. The small place is getting more people in it – this means the space each person has is getting smaller. This could be a problem.)

Amazing things happened. People made funny drinks from either only water (!) or in real world, small children of (not too tall) trees that grow in warm places after people stood on them and waited. People made large places in many colors and made not-moving people from rock. People made love and pain and still hurt each other and had to start again. People made roads and clothes and pretty things.

And then people in the small place looked up at the big place with a new thing, a great new thing. And they saw there were other small places quite close (in far-close-big-small-speak), and thought about going there. These people could dream. And slowly new things were built – things which quickly took words on paper and made the same words on paper but in a different place, things which turned fire into power, things which quickly took words in the air and made the same words in the air but in a different place, things which used very very old animals and trees to push little moving houses around, things which quickly took pictures of things and made the same pictures of things in a different place (wow).

And then again with the things that turned fire into power and then into fire again, people hurt each other A LOT and most couldn’t start again. It was very sad and stupid. And then they did it all again but even worse and we promised to do it never again.

After that, the most amazing thing. Using the thing that let people see the big place, using the words on paper and the words in the air, using the painting from long ago and the new painting from now, using the power from fire and the fire from power, using the fast adding things and good ideas, using the dreams and the very good thoughts of many many people, the people made the Up-Goer Five. Three people sat on the Up-Goer Five, and a big fire happened but in the wrong place. It was very sad. But the people did not stop and they tried again and again, and the big fire happened in the right place and for the first time since the small place was made, the people in the Up-Goer Five left the small place and went out into the big place. Wow.

The people went away about three ten times the small place and they looked very small. They looked back and saw how small the small place really was, and they took a picture. And then they landed part of the Up-Goer Five on another small place, and they got out and went for a walk. All this time, the people on the small place could see this happening using the things which quickly took pictures of things and made the same pictures of things in a different place! It was quite a day.

Ten and two people went for a walk on the other small place, and another ten and two people stayed warm inside as they flew around it very fast. Six even drove a little moving house there! All these people came back to the small place safe.

That was a while ago and though many people have been into space since (some did not come back, which is sad), they have not gone so far as before. Maybe soon. And now we are now. We are making things that quickly took words on paper and made the same words on paper but in a different place but REALLY FAST this time using the fast adding things, we are making things that go to other small red places without people and do crazy up-to-down moves and take pictures of themselves and send them back, things that quickly take pictures of things (cats) and make the same pictures of things in a different place, and things that help people share ideas and make the small place better for everyone. And maybe, just maybe, these people will carry on hurting each other less and can smile and laugh and love and share and learn and dream.

Space shuttle Endeavour blasting through the clouds in the final night launch of the space shuttle

(* looking back, some of the words I could have used may be permissible, like ‘car’ but when writing such a thing it ends up being fun to try and avoid any culture-matured word)

To be among that band of men

To be among that band of men,
When dawn explodes once more
To feel the trickles of pleasure
unfold on skin
Approaching, but not slowing

And when it comes
Fully and majestically
An eruption of delerium
That I would be complete
Exposed but ready
To spur on my followers

What a day that would be
To reach nirvana
And then once more
Oh, to be a light sensor.

ajdk, 19/01/01


Senna, the movie, recently started screening in the UK. By director Asif Kapadia, it’s a compelling and moving story of the life of a racing driver considered by many to be the greatest in history. Composed entirely of archival footage – of which there’s plenty, thanks to Senna’s fame – the main thread of the story is of course already known, and ends in the fateful weekend at Imola in 1994. It’s a one-sided story, with fans of Alain Prost likely to be dismayed by his portrayal as a political power-monger rather than a talented driver, but then every story is one-sided, and there’s ample opportunity for a sequel – Prost! – to be developed. I’m afraid I can’t imagine the cinema to be as full as it was last night, nor for nearly every viewer to remain, silently, until the very last credits rolled.

For me, the film is not about Formula One. It is about the distinction between skill and success, the difference between finishing 5th because the technicalities mean you can be champion, or giving everything regardless even when you don’t need to, when the risks are higher and potential losses greater. It’s about being, and doing. When you don’t take risks, you become less you and more we – more of an acceptable median, less of an outlier, a peak, sometimes a trough. It’s entirely up to you what you want to be, but everyone remembers a shaky line.

(this was originally drafted on 11 June, and then I drifted into holiday mode and forgot to do…)

Question: does having a Kindle mean I buy more books?

A bit of fun for a Friday. I bought a Kindle 3 when they were launched in the UK in August 2010. Over the past 9 months, my impression is that I’ve been buying more books than I used to, and that they’re mostly Kindle books. I have a second prediction, which is that I read more than I used to, but we won’t cover that today.

To check whether my intuition was correct, I decided to take a look at my Amazon order history. I do buy books from other places, but they’re a minority and tend to be photography books, a category which I’m excluding from this analysis as they’re not the kind of book I’d buy on a Kindle. All other types of book are included, even cookery and programming books.

The first task was to grab my order history. US customers have it easy – have a reporting facility that lets you download all your orders by year. Alas, this doesn’t currently work for the UK site, and there isn’t an API, so I resorted to scraping my order history using Python. I’ll cover this in more detail in a later post, but let’s just say that Mechanize and BeautifulSoup are awesome for doing this kind of thing – Mechanize pretends to be a browser, and so enables you to authenticate with Amazon and let Python into the good stuff. BeautifulSoup then tries to make sense of the HTML being returned by letting you parse the tag tree and grab elements of interest.

Thankfully, the updated physical order history uses ID and class names, which makes it a little easier to home in on different aspects of the order, so this wasn’t too tricky. The Kindle order history is another matter though: nested tables with no identifiers, such that my identifier to find an order block is to grab table rows which have bgcolor=’#ffffff’! Not pretty. The Kindle order page also doesn’t give any information about price – and although I didn’t need to include order total in the visualisation below, having price for the Kindle books was crucial because a large chunk of my downloads will have been for the free, out-of-print editions. Including these wouldn’t have been a fair comparison. So, to get price, I had to send another sub-request off to grab each individual order page from the Kindle order history.

A little while later, and the two scripts gave me 581 items ordered since 2000! (including the free eBooks) This includes non-book orders from Amazon, and helpfully, it appears that the Amazon ASIN identifier starts with a B when the product ID isn’t an ISBN, i.e. isn’t a book. This meant it was easy to separate out the two. I then manually removed anything that looked like a photography book, and brought the data into Tableau.

My books vs paid Kindle books purchases (Current Kindle period: September - May)

Powered by Tableau

Surprise! My Kindle purchases per month in the valid period (it’s only been 9 months since I got my Kindle, so I’m only comparing September-May each year) nearly mirror my physical book purchases from last year. The total for this year is higher, but looking further back, my Amazon book buying has steadily increased year on year, so there isn’t justification to say that the Kindle has affected my overall book buying quantity – though it’s clear that the majority of my purchases are now Kindle books.

One assumption quashed – next time we’ll look at the Python scripts, and then take a look at cumulative order costs over 10 years!

[admin note: migrated from FindingVirtue to Ixyl in April 2019]