History belongs to future generations

I disagree with the fundamental notion inherent to the supposed “right to be forgotten”, which is the presumption that the main and most important purpose of documenting world events is to depict your life history in an autobiographical sense. My conviction is that history belongs not to the subjects who it is about, but to the future generations who will need to use it to understand their own situations and solve their own problems. When we censor the future out of vanity or even out of compassion for errors long-atoned for, we may be denying something important to the future. We act as the benefactors of those in future generations by preserving what ordered and comprehensible information may eventually survive from our era, and we should distort it as little as possible. The world is so complex that events are impossible to understand while they are happening. The accounts and records we preserve are the clay which through careful work historians may later turn into bricks. We should not pre-judge what they should find important or what they ought to hear.

The trace we each leave on the broader world during our brief lives is important to other people, and the importance of them being well-informed to confront the unforeseeable but considerable challenges they confront outweighs our own interests as people to be remembered in as positive a light as possible, even if that requires omission and/or deception.


Prompt to ChatGPT:

Have people written about how life is like a river delta or the path of a particle through the detector in a particle accelerator lab – it spreads out in a triangle or cone as decisions are made and outcomes are determined


“The metaphor of a river delta or a particle’s path through a detector in a particle accelerator lab as a representation of the spread of possibilities and outcomes is a common concept in several fields, including philosophy, physics, and psychology.

In philosophy, this concept is often explored in discussions of determinism and free will, where the metaphor of a branching tree or river delta is used to describe the way in which the potential outcomes of a decision or event spread out in a tree-like structure, with each branch representing a possible future.

In physics, the concept of a particle’s path through a detector in a particle accelerator lab is often used to describe the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, where particles exist in a superposition of states until they are observed or measured, at which point they “collapse” into a specific state.

In psychology, the concept of a branching path is often used to describe the way in which life choices and experiences lead to different outcomes and potential paths, with each decision or experience leading to a different branching point in the individual’s life trajectory.

While there may not be a specific work that focuses solely on the metaphor of a river delta or particle path as a representation of the spread of possibilities and outcomes, these concepts are frequently explored and discussed in various fields and contexts.”

Thoughts on my PhD in 2022

Amid all the struggle with trying to get my dissertation done, I have frequently thought about the sunk cost fallacy: basically the idea that because you have invested a lot in something, you need to keep going. It’s called a fallacy because we can’t change the past and need to decide whether any undertaking is worthwhile at every moment in time. Just because you have devoted time, money, or resources to something in the past doesn’t mean you should continue to do so if the additional commitment needed isn’t justified by the outcome you get.

I probably didn’t get into a PhD program for a terribly good reason. I was never aspiring to be an academic, which is the one career where you actually need one (and arguably the only one where you wouldn’t be better off with the same number of years of job experience). I had determined that it would be impossible for me to stay in the federal government, condemned to helping implement disastrous climate change policies and prohibited under their view of professional ethics from engaging in the public conversation on how to get out of this mess. While trying to find a way out that would allow me to do something positive and meaningful on climate change, I applied for a slew of jobs and didn’t get interviewed for any. Then, with Rebeka applying to master’s programs, we came up with an idea to apply to the same places and hopefully end up studying at the same school. She went to Yale, I went to U of T, essentially for lack of better options at the time.

I think if I could send what I know now about how the PhD program has gone so far back in time to myself in 2011 or 2012, that version of me would choose to do something else. At the same time, I feel like these years have been some of the most important and productive in my life, albeit not particularly in the academic sense. One reason grad school was appealing was as a platform to do activist work that I wasn’t allowed to in government. While both helping establish and run Toronto350.org and the U of T divestment campaign involved a lot of suffering, frustration, despair, and heartache, they also made me learn a great deal about activism and clarify my own thinking about how to drive political change to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The chance to be part of the Massey College community, as a resident for three years and subsequently as a non-resident and alumnus, has undoubtedly been a major boon of these past ten years. People joke that “youth is wasted on the young” and in some ways the positives of being at university are wasted on those who haven’t been in the working world. All through my time at Massey, and through the PhD generally, I have felt fortunate for being able to appreciate the contrast between employment and education and the rich social and intellectual life at universities. If people ever ask me now about whether to do a PhD, I tell them that the only reason to do it is because you enjoy being in university so much that you are willing to sacrifice a great deal of lifetime income, career progression, and retirement security to have the chance to spend more time in school. I haven’t the slightest idea where the rest of my life will take me, but at least I did cherish and value my extended exposure to the scholarly environment, even though my actual PhD work was often frustrating and less rewarding. The photography I did at Massey has also undoubtedly been the most extensive and successful project I have undertaken in that craft.

The academic progression from undergrad to M.Phil to PhD is based on the idea that a high degree of academic success in the prior program demonstrates your suitability for the latter. At no stage does the application and acceptance program consider your personal and emotional maturity, and thus ability to endure in something as lonely and unforgiving as a PhD. In retrospect, I definitely didn’t have the emotional skills to thrive as a PhD student in 2012 — just as I didn’t have the emotional security and skills to make a real success of my M.Phil thesis in 2007. I didn’t have the self-assurance to push through the ego defence reflex to criticism of my work, and therefore I couldn’t really be helped to make it better. To a lesser degree I still don’t, which is doubtless part of why writing up has been so painful.

I don’t want to get into the details here, but I feel at this point that the most valuable thing that has happened to me during the PhD program has been the way exposure to the acute and intolerable suffering of others — and my powerlessness to intervene and stop it — has forced me to take responsibility for my own life as the only thing I can control. Again I don’t want to get into details, but there have been immature forms of self-destructive behaviour that exposure to that suffering has burned away for me, and I think that will endure for the rest of my life. Metaphorically, I feel like I will never need a tattoo because my scars are already all the permanent and individualized marking I need. As assessed by my present-day self, achieving that (though it was totally impossible to predict beforehand) is itself sufficient to justify everything that I have put into this doctorate.

There are still three big reasons I want to finish my dissertation and the program. I think that I have collected information and analysis which would be of value to both the academic and activist community, and it will get more credibility and attention as a successfully defended PhD thesis than as anything I publish independently or elsewhere. The only real benefit I could promise to my research participants is that they would get to see the results, so I feel an obligation to them to get this material out into the world. Even if I am totally wrong, I will hopefully give others something productive to argue against. Finally, even though it has taken ten years I feel like it will be a whole lot easier for the rest of my life to explain to potential employers how I had a long and difficult, but ultimately successful, experience in the PhD, as opposed to one that ended after so much time and effort with no degree. There may be elements of sunk cost fallacy in that, but it doesn’t seem irrational to me.

P.S. In another example of how hard it is to judge whether an outcome is good or bad at the time it happens, I am now glad that I wasn’t accepted to any of the top-tier US schools where I applied, though it felt a bitter blow then. With the Trump election and its terrifying consequences, I’m very hesitant about the idea of even visiting the US and glad that I spent these years building up knowledge and personal connections within Canada.


Having just helped my second flatmate move out, I am living alone for the first time in many years.

Before the sequence of flatmates here in the Annex, I lived at Massey College or with family in Toronto, or for a while in an apartment above a streetcar stop at College and Dovercourt with what would be the first of many flatmates who were also graduate students at U of T.

I had two places on my own in Ottawa while working as a civil servant: one on Booth Street within sight of the Environment Canada headquarters tower which I learned of based on a “to rent” sign in the window and where I signed a lease within minutes of seeing the place, having been pipped on a couple of other OK places by being the second or third to see it in the last few days or weeks. The other was the eco- co-op Beaver Barracks, which appealed to me largely based on their geoexchange heating and cooling system, which seemed a particularly sensible choice to me based on Ottawa’s severe climate in summer and winter.

Barring some time in Vancouver, I pretty much went straight from Oxford to Ottawa at the end of my M.Phil in 2007. In Oxford, my second year had been spent living with two fellow M.Phil in IR students who were encouraging and lively companions and who remain friends today, though infrequently-seen ones. Before that, I lived among probably a couple of hundred at Wadham College, where my graduate student room had a glass wall which faced inward into a two-story courtyard with everybody else’s small rooms facing in, the glass notably acoustically permissive.

Before that, it was alternating between my parents’ home in North Vancouver and two UBC residences: mostly Totem Park in my first and second year, and Fairview later. Fairview Crescent was a great concept for a residence, with multi-person units arranged along a pedestrian-only central street with a café. Late in my time as an undergraduate, I remember we would hold debate society executive meetings there, having grown up a bit out of beer and nachos at one of the places in the student union building.

It need not be a bad thing to be alone. I am grateful for the many forms of electronic communication I undertake with friends and family around the world, and it makes an enormous difference compared to being cut off from communication as well as direct personal contact.

I am giving every part of the place a deep and thorough cleaning. If nobody else is around and the place is dirty, there’s nobody else left to blame!

Margaret Atwood on TVO 2008-11-01

I had been looking for this poem for literally years when I came across a TVO recording where she recites it. Atwood’s an intoxicating speaker, but you’ll have to use your imagination unless you can also track the audio down somewhere:

“That grandfather clock that was too large for the shelf, so it stood 90 years on the floor
Was brought from the shop on the day that the grandfather was born and went
Tick tock; tick tock
90 years without slumbering
Tick tock; tick tock
His life’s seconds numbering, just like a heartbeat
But it stopped
Never to go again
When the
— I learned some memorable songs in grade three.”


out there

I have a friend for who, every night as I struggle to sleep, I make a point of issuing a hope or aspiration to the universe about: that they are safe and well, and that they will find what they need in life. I don’t believe that such wishes can have any effect on the world, but deliberately having those thoughts adds some hopefulness to the fear and sadness.

There will be good things ahead

Now that the darkest part of the year has passed, I’m hopeful we’ll see something like what my Uncle Robert described in an email to me last year:

It seems sometimes like things plod along, yielding neither joy nor sorrow; and then suddenly an unexpected series of events, meetings, or conversations; a surge of energy and clarity; or just a darn good night’s sleep, something shifts and the heart fills, the mind opens, and one gets the feeling of something like epiphany. I hope you are experiencing this as often as possible!

There’s much to fear and much that needs to be changed about the world, but the future will also hold wonderful surprises which we’re completely unable to foresee now. I’ve often thought about some of the saddest times in my life and the feelings I might have had then of simply not wanting to experience the future. With hindsight, I can see now that so many of the things which I would now regard as the most rewarding and significant of my life came after those darkest days, and they would have had their potential expunged in the hopelessness of those moments.

The future will bring joy and sorrow, and eventually death, and we should cultivate a feeling of gratitude for being able to experience any of it: each of our brains an impossibly complex and unlikely combination of atoms and higher-order structures — from monomers, precursors, and bare inorganic ions to proteins, DNA, cellular organelles, and organs — as with the sensory organs and neurons through which our experiences occur.

saganangst — fear of nuclear war, and particularly nuclear winter

We live under constant threat of sudden destruction via nuclear war. It wouldn’t take that many warheads falling on major cities to darken the atmosphere — making the consequences of even a regional exchange (or the payload of a single ‘boomer’ sub) global, and potentially a threat to the integrity of human civilization. The control systems carry a frightening risk of malfunction, particularly in a crisis when nuclear-armed forces may be out of communication with higher level command and at immediate risk of nuclear attack.

The only safe option is to disarm as a global community — spare everyone the costs of the nuclear arms complex, while greatly diminishing the total severity of potential wars.