Clerestory

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.

Oxygenic Photosynthesis

July 24, 2020

In the beginning, there was anoxygenic photosynthesis. OK, not in the beginning beginning, but at least before oxygenic photosynthesis…

Revolutions break bottlenecks

July 24, 2020

Part of a series on revolutions. On this page we define bottlenecks and think about some revolutions that break them. Definition What is a…

The Fertile Crescent

July 23, 2020

Part of a series on revolutions. Here I assert that abundance is a condition for step changes in complexity using the example of the Fertile…

Revolutions occur in conditions of abundance

July 22, 2020

Part of a series on revolutions. What constitutes abundance? More influx than efflux is one way of seeing it. Of what? is a good question…

Characteristics of Revolutions

July 22, 2020

Part of a series on revolutions. On this page I’ll keep a list of observations I’ve made about revolutions, as defined here. This represents…

Revolutions, Step Changes, Paradigm Shifts

July 21, 2020

Part of a series on revolutions. You say you want a revolution? Well, you know We all want to change the world You tell me that it’s…

Revolutionary Disclaimer

July 21, 2020

This is a disclaimer which applies to the series I’m doing on revolutions. First, I’d like to reserve the right to be wrong in the writing…

On Revolutions

July 17, 2020

Today I want to begin a discussion of the big, exciting events in history writ large — by which I mean nothing less than the sum total of…

The Jakarta Method

July 04, 2020

I recently finished The Jakarta Method, a new book about the dynamics of the Cold War by Vincent Bevins. Its subtitle, Washington’s…

Cultivation of the Soul

June 27, 2020

Part of a series on culture. In 45 BC, when Cicero was 61, his daughter Tullia died shortly after she gave birth. “I have lost the one…

Paper Disintegrates

June 19, 2020

Part of a series on culture. Nicholas Ostler, in 2005, wrote the impressively ambitious Empires of the Word, and in it sought to trace…

Does art evolve?

June 18, 2020

Part of a series on culture. Let’s start with the oldest book on my bookshelf that talks about origins of cultural-type things. Aristotle…

On Culture

June 18, 2020

Lately I’ve been thinking about culture in the broadest of all possible senses, including human behaviour, language, knowledge, beliefs, art…

Walking the Planck

June 17, 2020

Planck’s principle is bleak. It says that scientists rarely change their minds. Instead, they die, and younger scientists, brought up with…

Where to Start

June 16, 2020

As there are now a few hundred posts on this site I thought I’d provide some entry points to my writing. Note-taking: I wrote a post on a…

Cycles of youth

June 16, 2020

The first book that I think of when I think about youth is not the perhaps most obvious — namely Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (which…

On Juvenescence

June 16, 2020

Neoteny, or juvenilization, is the delaying or slowing of the development of an animal. It is, at a cellular or physiological level, the act…

Serotonin and Fasting

June 15, 2020

This is a continuation of the discussion of serotonin and dopamine begun on this page. I want to talk about fasting. I’m fascinated by the…

Serotonin and Learning

June 15, 2020

I’m still thinking about the creative/editorial cycles involved in writing and in filters more generally. Kristijan Ivancic pointed out…

Balance in writing

June 14, 2020

This is just a short post about the balancing act or filter which writers have been advised to employ. Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer…

On Filters

June 14, 2020

The reason I wrote about the relationship of “critics” or an “engaged audience” to the avant-garde is that I’m interested in how they act as…

Connoisseurship

June 12, 2020

Yesterday I speculated about the critics of the avant-garde, saying that they are connoisseurs, which literally means “knowers.” The word…

The Avant-garde

June 11, 2020

In artistic movements, the pattern of ambition is clear enough: the avant-garde literally advances art. Wikipedia notes that the avant-garde…

Ambition

June 11, 2020

I argued yesterday that what interests us straddles the boundary of what we know and what we don’t. Today I’m thinking about how this area…

Novelty and Safety

June 10, 2020

We live on a boundary between novelty and safety. This is a balancing act between order and disorder of exactly the same nature in which…

What Is of Interest

June 10, 2020

Everything interesting exists at a phase transition between order and disorder. I mean that literally. If you say that something is…

Entropy

June 09, 2020

Entropy can be thought of as a measure of disorder, uncertainty, or even surprise. If you have shied away from entropy in the past, you’re…

Order and disorder

June 09, 2020

Matter must approach a phase transition in one direction or the other. Either ice is melting into water, or water is freezing into ice. The…

Phase Transitions

June 09, 2020

A phase transition describes a transition between different states of matter. You may remember this from high school chemistry. As…

The Axial Age

May 03, 2020

Carl Sagan, in Cosmos (1983), introduced me to the notion of the Axial Age, a period of “pivoting” in human history: The sixth century B.C…

Gaia House Retreat

April 28, 2020

Last week I did a five-day home meditation retreat in the Sŏn (Korean Zen) tradition. It was taught by Martine and Stephen Batchelor. This…

Space & Originality

April 23, 2020

So lacking am I in originality that I set out to write against it today, and in the process found out that I had already done so, and…

Trillions dead for one to live

April 23, 2020

I was reading about Welwitschia this week, a strange plant found in Namibia and Angola. Its strap-like leaves grow slowly but continuously…

You can't know in advance

April 22, 2020

In Foreknowledge I proposed that you can’t know in advance what you’ll learn before you set out. If you could, you wouldn’t need to learn it…

Writing as Cooking

April 21, 2020

Today I’ve been thinking about writing as cooking. If we don’t quite control the output, then at least we control the initial conditions…

Output

April 20, 2020

If we cannot control much of what we take in, then at least, surely, we can control what we put out? We control what we say and write, don’t…

Foreknowledge

April 20, 2020

There is a further problem, though, with inputs, and that is that you do not and really cannot control inputs either. You set out to read a…

Inputs

April 19, 2020

If method matters more than we commonly think with respect to output, then what of input? If how you do a thing matters as much as what you…

Infinite Knowledge

April 18, 2020

On process vs. outcome, and on whether there is any end to the accumulation of knowledge.

News

April 17, 2020

I’ve started a newsletter, so please sign up to get news about the novel I’m writing and the thinking going on behind the scenes. Much has…

Dry November: Day 30

November 30, 2019

Final evening, having finished the re-read of the novel, which was painful in places, in good and bad ways. There is a staggering amount of…

Dry November: Day 29

November 30, 2019

And death shall have no dominion. A productive day, 320 pages read out of 413, and everything else more-or-less done. A friend’s raucous…

Dry November: Day 28

November 28, 2019

An exceptional day, in several ways, at the Royal Geographical Society. I haven’t the time to say all I need to say, so I’ll leave you a…

Dry November: Day 27

November 27, 2019

Nearly finished with my month of not drinking, but like last year not much looking forward to diminution by drink. The only upside I can see…

Dry November: Day 26

November 26, 2019

In an unexpected turn of events I’m going to How to Change the World on Thursday. Will post about that on Friday. Today I began, after a…

Dry November: Day 25

November 25, 2019

Learned a lot about power laws and criticality today. Most interesting was this idea that for communication to occur requires both…

Dry November: Day 24

November 24, 2019

I failed yesterday, or rather through rationalisation and deliberation decided to have some drinks at a pub, at a party. It was good to see…

Dry November: Day 23

November 23, 2019

Today a discussion of pleasure ex negativo, of whether pleasure can be thought of as absence of pain. Seems plausible, though…

Dry November: Day 22

November 22, 2019

Today thinking about Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV, which somehow reminds me of the chimp/bonobo divide. I’ve also been discussing Sonnet CXXIX…

Dry November: Day 21

November 21, 2019

Another great day. Tonight I’m thinking about whether connectionism might be more true of “System 1” and computationalism might be more true…

Dry November: Day 20

November 20, 2019

Another day, another lime and soda in the pub, discussing the admin aspects of publishing, and other things literary. Otherwise I’ve been…

Dry November: Day 19

November 20, 2019

And now the days are flying by. Good night, discussing Williams’ Stand out of Our Light with a larger group than usual. He’s made me curious…

Dry November: Day 18

November 18, 2019

The paperback edition of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind came out a few months ago. For a little while now I’ve been lugging around…

Dry November: Day 17

November 17, 2019

An extremely busy weekend. Lots of reading and writing. Dinner at Barrafina, houseparty last night, café, cocktail bar, and dinner today…

Dry November: Day 16

November 16, 2019

Today I’ve been thinking through podcasts I’ve heard recently, Douglas Rushkoff and others, and catching up on comms. And sending out…

Dry November: Day 15

November 15, 2019

Yesterday there was a fire in my building, which I forgot to mention. There were, apparently, six fire engines downstairs, and I could smell…

Dry November: Day 14

November 14, 2019

I spent some of today reading Stand out of our Light, a book about digital distractions which is available here for free here, which is for…

Dry November: Day 13

November 13, 2019

Lovely dinner tonight with a friend, discussing many of the topics that have been on my mind lately: enactivism, learning, writing, note…

Dry November: Day 12

November 12, 2019

Another night in a pub on the lime and soda, seeing a few friends I’ve not seen in some time. Everyone is coming and going, leaving London…

Dry November: Day 11

November 11, 2019

Dry in the pub tonight at Darkly as we discussed the ideas of Andy Clark — a really interesting discussion. It began with where to draw the…

Dry November: Day 10

November 10, 2019

Officially, I only made it nine days in. Yesterday I toasted a friend’s birthday with sherry, and had another drink later on. But I avoided…

Dry November: Day 9

November 09, 2019

On the whole it’s been a good week. Yesterday I finished Barney Norris’ Turning for Home which I thought was excellent. It’s quite moving…

Zettelkasten!

November 09, 2019

It’s been a month since I wrote about the adoption of a strange and intense note-taking system, so I thought I’d give an update about how it…

Dry November: Day 8

November 08, 2019

This week I listened to a podcast that James Clear and Cal Newport did together, on concentration and habit formation. Much of it was about…

Dry November: Day 7

November 07, 2019

After a week without alcohol, I feel healthier and more content, more intellectually engaged. But as I said the other day I feel less social…

Dry November: Day 6

November 06, 2019

Today I’m thinking about a friend’s article on resourcefulness, which is great and I recommend reading it. In it, he argues that there are…

Dry November: Day 5

November 05, 2019

I’m considering whether my life and mind have contracted from stretches of solitude. All I do is read and write these days, fast and…

Dry November: Day 4

November 04, 2019

The fog may finally be lifting on my mind. A good day, mostly spent reading, with a bit of writing as well. Tonight heard Richard Beswick of…

Dry November: Day 3

November 03, 2019

Last night, the Arts Club, discussing Kaliningrad, the evacuation of East Prussia, the history of horror films, and more divisive topics. A…

Dry November: Day 2

November 02, 2019

This morning, though I’ve awoken late, I’m writing this post, then I’ll do some handwriting, then I’ll go to a writing critique group in…

Dry November: Day 1

November 01, 2019

This year I am (if not fresh) than at least not hanging. It’s rainy and grey. Last night I was reading Antifragile, about which I have mixed…

Fiction ratio

October 24, 2019

Part 6 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview. Or, how much fiction does a…

Fiction and trauma

October 23, 2019

Part 5 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview. The next claim, by Chad…

Fiction and morality

October 22, 2019

Part 4 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview. Wiblin says: I think people…

Does fiction improve understanding?

October 17, 2019

Part 3 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview. The World Implicit too in…

What is fiction?

October 16, 2019

Part 2 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview. Scope of discussion The…

In Defence of Fiction

October 15, 2019

Yesterday I listened to an episode of the Mission Daily Podcast from May 2019. In it, Chad Grills interviews Rob Wiblin of 80,000 Hours. The…

Posting Daily

October 14, 2019

I’ve let my daily posting lapse, in part due to adopting the new note-taking system. It might sound strange, but the system has been mind…

Originality

October 10, 2019

Why is originality so highly valued? What does it mean to be original? If you’ve had a great idea, wouldn’t you want it to be related to a…

Zettelkästen?

October 09, 2019

Not a great word, is it? Neither is its most typical English translation: “slip-box.” In German, a “Zettelkasten” (plural Zettelkästen) is a…

Systems

October 08, 2019

Like many nerds I’ve used many productivity systems, and naturally it all started with Getting Things Done. David Allen promised to provide…

Fame

October 07, 2019

Last night, in a fit of insomnia, I found myself reading the 80,000 Hours Guide, which is an excellent resource for thinking about what to…

Feelings

October 06, 2019

Lately I have been thinking through Derek Sivers’ idea (well worth reading) that you ought to write things down because it’s hard to…

Relaxed Beliefs under Psychedelics

October 05, 2019

Robin Carhart-Harris, whom you might know from Michael Pollan’s book, may have done it again. In 2014 he wrote the insanely insightful…

Observation

October 04, 2019

I have a theory that it is in the act of observation that philosophy, science, and literature converge. They all require prolonged…

Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence

October 03, 2019

I recently learned about the distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence. The former sounds something like induction, thinking…

They Shall Not Grow Old

October 02, 2019

On the plane home I watched They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s documentary about World War I. Though the title was vaguely familiar…

Home

October 01, 2019

I’m ready for home, however humble. My siblings and I sang a song from childhood this weekend, a song itself about what is lost in…

Walking

September 30, 2019

In New York we’ve walked a lot: 7.34 miles, 8.03 miles, 10.12 miles, 11.43 miles. Not as much as we did on the Camino of course, and less…

Visions

September 29, 2019

I dream more under certain conditions. When I travel, when I sleep in, when it’s warm, my dreams seem to become more monumental. This…

Density

September 28, 2019

We’re still trying to work out what it is that separates the feeling of New York from cities like London, Paris, Chicago, Berlin. The…

New York

September 27, 2019

New York has all the energy I remember, but it’s hard to express exactly what this is, or how it’s perceived. There’s a hum throughout the…

Priorities

September 26, 2019

As I write this I’m on a flight to New York to see family, in particular my brother on his birthday. On the flight I listened to several…

Too Articulate

September 25, 2019

Not that I “talk too wise”, but that I write too much, and in too many places. I’ve just finished writing about Walter Kempowski’s All for…

Inarticulate

September 24, 2019

I’m uncharacteristically inarticulate today, and not my usual inexhaustible self. I’m writing about Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing, and…

Silence

September 23, 2019

The other day I wrote about noise. But in addition to the roar of the ever-louder city, the sound of silence has been growing stronger for…

Sedated

September 22, 2019

Does social vitality have a limit? Does vivacity strengthen, like a muscle, or is energy for socialising a finite resource? I’ve never liked…

Blood

September 21, 2019

As I said yesterday, I often wear earplugs or other hearing protection as I go about my daily business. I often leave them in during…

Clamour, Cacophony

September 20, 2019

Silence is hard to come by in Central London. When I’m reading or writing, I need at a minimum earplugs, if not the kind of over-the-ear…

A Meditation on Absence

September 19, 2019

Lately, as I’ve experimented more with meditation, I’ve begun doing a meditation on self-absence. This is not quite self-enquiry, which…

Chess and Stress

September 18, 2019

Apparently chess grandmasters are known to lose weight while playing chess. The sheer mental effort can burn 6,000 calories per day. I’ve…

Productivity

September 17, 2019

Today I’ve been thinking about an article my friend Vincent wrote a few years ago, called Productivity is Dangerous. I largely agree with…

Missed

September 17, 2019

I missed a day. Or rather, I wrote a post but it got too long, and I decided I needed to spend more time thinking it through. Tonight at…

Signals

September 15, 2019

Recently I have been thinking about whether or not it is helpful to think of brains in terms of signal processing. In short, the question is…

Inexhaustible

September 14, 2019

Lately I’ve been thinking about what the upper limit might be for writing, in terms of words written per day. A fast typist can type 10…

Types of Meditation

September 13, 2019

After I learned to concentrate, for several months I only did concentration meditation. It’s blissful and gives blessed relief from the…

Frequency

September 12, 2019

Last year I posted here daily for a month. It was a good experience. Seth Godin advises everyone to blog every day. Since I’m on a break…

On Feedback

August 12, 2019

Submission, or The Silence In the past few months, I’ve written my first fiction. In the past few weeks, I’ve let people read it for the…

I Grant You Ample Leave

July 22, 2019

I’m ahead of schedule on the novel, but today I did not hit my wordcount in the six hours I wrote. Here’s my progress so far. Since I have…

The Rewrite

July 11, 2019

New beginnings This week I’ve begun rewriting my manuscript. Although I’m six months into writing this novel, and though I wrote a zero…

It Rains on Our Love

June 29, 2019

This week I watched Bergman’s It Rains on Our Love (1946). It’s a twisting tale of a lowly, desperate pair who meet in a train station and…

Everything Static

June 21, 2019

If you're reading this, you're on my new blog...

GatsbyJS

June 13, 2019

Today I thought I’d try to learn GatsbyJS and see if I could turn this blog into a static site. I got Gatsby working in Docker, then tried…

Interstice

June 06, 2019

Today I’m thinking about the need for novelty and the need for security, which seem in humans in constant tension. I saw a literary agent…

On Nicomachean Ethics

May 23, 2019

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is an admirable attempt to define the good life. It is empirical and insightful, and seeks to answer…

Keeping Everything Moving, Everything Static

May 17, 2019

As a brief update I’m back from the Balkans, where I saw unseasonably touristy Croatia, snowy Montenegro, and beautiful Bosnia and…

A Passing Feeling

April 29, 2019

Let this be a placeholder for future thoughts on the topic of events and their contents, their planning, execution, and aftermath. What I…

A thoughtless week

April 22, 2019

I failed either to edit or to write as much as I would have liked this week, though I watched several films, read Vikram Seth’s The Golden…

Arizona

April 15, 2019

I’m writing from a hotel in Desert Ridge, Phoenix, AZ. I flew here on Friday to surprise my parents; I’m flying back to London today. I have…

A fond farewell to freedom

March 31, 2019

Nothing to say in particular this week. I’m dreading editing, even though every time I succeed in starting, I enter the flow state readily…

On Marriage

March 25, 2019

Today I “gave notice” of marriage, which in the UK requires a period of publicity, during which the public can raise legal objections. The…

On Fear

March 11, 2019

I am not a fearful person. Last year, I was ill enough that I thought I would die; I made my peace with it. This experience was useful. It…

36 Questions

February 18, 2019

Tonight a friend arranged a conversation dinner in which people were paired up (with friends of friends) to try the 36 Questions that Lead…

Goals for 2019

December 31, 2018

In a bit of holiday downtime, I’m planning what I’d like to do in 2019. Beeminder is having a New Year’s Resolution Survivor competition…

On choice

December 29, 2018

Lately I’ve been thinking about free will. This is in part thanks to Sam Harris, who has been examining the topic in his new Waking Up app…

On Getting Good

December 18, 2018

This weekend I finished Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Much of it rings true for me. Although it’s intended to motivate and to…

On Improvement

December 13, 2018

I recently read Derek Sivers’ Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. I can’t remember how I came across it, but the…

On Whether to Write

December 05, 2018

Last night we had our second meeting of the new discussions I’m holding, called Through a Glass Darkly. It went exceedingly well; I wrote at…

Dry November: Day 30

November 30, 2018

My final hours of sobriety; our revels now are starting. Tonight I’ve got a friend’s birthday followed by a Christmas party, and I fully…

Dry November: Day 29

November 29, 2018

On my penultimate dry day, I’m writing in an empty pub on Tottenham Court Road, where the staff knows me, as I used to work nearby. I’m in a…

Dry November: Day 28

November 28, 2018

Let me explain. This morning I attended a session on starting a business, kindly provided by St. Luke’s Community Centre. These sessions…

Dry November: Day 27

November 28, 2018

Tonight was my monthly book club. The discussion was on Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I enjoyed. The book takes a number of unexpected…

Dry November: Day 26

November 27, 2018

It’s late so I’ll not say much tonight. It was the first meeting of the Monday evening face-to-face intellectual conversations to which I’ve…

Dry November: Day 25

November 25, 2018

Yesterday evening, during an invigorating and exhilarating exploration of Kew Gardens with a dozen of London’s best and brightest, after…

Dry November: Day 24

November 25, 2018

A major realisation I’ve had this month, mentioned in passing in previous posts, is that even without beer, I adore pubs. This should not…

Dry November: Day 23

November 24, 2018

A week left of November and it’s been going well. I’ve done some interviews this week, with the cycles of anxiety, relief, and regret that…

Dry November: Day 22

November 22, 2018

I’m whelmed. Both over- and under-, the former by a slew of nascent endeavours, the latter by their fruit and lack thereof, by the talk…

Dry November: Day 21

November 21, 2018

On Tuesday I saw Jonathan Haidt speak at intelligence². Emily Maitlis moderated the discussion with Kehinde Andrews, Eleanor Penny, and…

Dry November: Day 20

November 21, 2018

Two-thirds of the way through the month. I spent the past three hours in a pub, conveniently one of the closest to my house, for an…

Dry November: Day 19

November 20, 2018

Tonight I saw Jonathan Haidt speak at intelligence². Although I quite liked the book he wrote with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the…

Dry November: Day 18

November 18, 2018

Our spiritual rapport pervaded the party, to support the commencement of a third, our host of honour. His citizenship was the culmination of…

Dry November: Day 17

November 17, 2018

I’m in the BFI bar, surrounded by booze. A family near me, or rather families, a gaggle, had gotten four pints for the price of two due to…

Dry November: Day 16

November 16, 2018

I’ve also begun Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word, which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It begins with an account of the dramatic…

Dry November: Day 15

November 15, 2018

Halfway there. It’s been a good few weeks and productive, though what to do next with my life is not yet clear. But one day at a time. Today…

Dry November: Day 14

November 14, 2018

After fourteen days dry, I’m feeling suspiciously fantastic. It would be churlish not to give credit to my sobriety, though my diet and…

Dry November: Day 13

November 13, 2018

Last night, after a day at the British Library, a doctor’s appointment, and a catch-up meal with a friend, I took two buses home. I could…

Dry November: Day 12

November 12, 2018

On Thursday night I went to a contemporary dance performance called MK Ultra at the Southbank Centre. Since then I’ve learned that this is…

Dry November: Day 11

November 11, 2018

After brunch we discussed the crisis of meaning in work, one recently mentioned in the Harvard Business Review, whose survey found that 9…

Dry November: Day 10

November 10, 2018

Yesterday, I went to a screening of a pretty remarkable documentary called General Magic. It premiered at Tribeca in July, and has not yet…

Dry November: Day 9

November 09, 2018

Another is that reflection involves the act of recollection, and memory itself seems to have an elegiac effect on my writing. It is not that…

Dry November: Day 8

November 08, 2018

I awoke today with a song from a decade-old album stuck in my head. A noteworthy album, for me at least, by Of Montreal, and memorably…

Dry November: Day 7

November 07, 2018

I dreamt I had a drink. I don’t mean that I dreamt of drinking; in the dream, it had been inadvertent, had already happened. In my fitful…

Dry November: Day 6

November 06, 2018

Last night I saw a dear friend from my teenage years, and her mother whom I had not seen since then. They had finished a ten day cruise…

Dry November: Day 5

November 05, 2018

Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that…

Dry November: Day 4

November 04, 2018

After waking late yesterday, I met the friend with whom I am undertaking Dry November. Because we’d not seen each other for ages, the…

Dry November: Day 3

November 03, 2018

Yesterday I took the easy way out. I don’t mean that I drank, for I’ve done several things to ensure that this way would be hard, telling…

Dry November: Day 2

November 02, 2018

Yesterday was the first real challenge, in a way. It came down to the social question, maybe one more unavoidable in London than in other…

Dry November: Day 1

November 01, 2018

A first stab at conversion