Whose agenda are you devoted to?

I have never seen George Monbiot’s bettered as career advice, though it will not lead to an easy life. For instance:

What the corporate or institutional world wants you to do is the opposite of what you want to do. It wants a reliable tool, someone who can think, but not for herself: who can think instead for the institution. You can do what you believe only if that belief happens to coincide with the aims of the corporation, not just once, but consistently, across the years


How many times have I heard students about to start work for a corporation claim that they will spend just two or three years earning the money they need, then leave and pursue the career of their choice? How many times have I caught up with those people several years later, to discover that they have acquired a lifestyle, a car and a mortgage to match their salary, and that their initial ideals have faded to the haziest of memories, which they now dismiss as a post-adolescent fantasy? How many times have I watched free people give up their freedom?

What he cheers for and takes satisfaction from is inspiring too:

Most countries have a number of small alternative papers and broadcasters, run voluntarily by people making their living by other means: part time jobs, grants or social security. These are, on the whole, people of tremendous courage and determination, who have placed their beliefs ahead of their comforts. To work with them can be a privilege and inspiration, for the simple reason that they – and, by implication, you – are free while others are not. All the money, all the prestige in the world will never make up for the loss of your freedom.

Autonomy, not authority, is the only way to escape the many traps of the status quo.

Halfway through life

Tomorrow I am turning forty, which feels like the best guess for the halfway point of my life.

In the last couple of years — and especially recent months — I have been feeling incredibly isolated and rejected, as though I have no or hardly any active social relationships.

Perhaps we over-estimate the importance of birthdays around when they are happening. I had been struggling lately to recall what happened on many of mine, so I went back to my paper calendar records for a sense of history:

  • In 2007, I had been in Ottawa for about three months after finishing my M.Phil and moving there for work. For my 24th birthday I had a dinner at the Ceylonta restaurant. I don’t specifically remember who was there, though some digging in electronic archives would probably produce invitation emails and/or a photo or two of the event.
  • In 2008, it was drinks at The Manx pub.
  • In 2009, I visited my family in Vermont and they gave me a birthday dinner before a hike in the snow.
  • In 2010, I travelled back to Ottawa after a Toronto visit.
  • For my 28th (“champagne”) birthday, I got my GRE scores and celebrated getting older with my cousins and some friends.
  • In 2012, I had started at Massey College and was kindly invited for dinner in the residence of John Fraser, head of the college.
  • 2013 was dinner at Big Sushi with a friend, where we sketched out a plot outline for a Massey College film noir which was never made but fun to think about.
  • In 2014, the day began with cold pizza, an environmental decision-making class and a workshop on choosing a supervisory committee. That night, I had a party at my friend Tristan’s co-op house.
  • For my 32nd birthday, I did a 3D printing course at the Toronto Reference Library and had dinner at Banjara with a friend.
  • In 2016, it was lunch at Massey and dinner with the same friend, before a call with my brother Sasha.
  • For 2017, it was dinner at Pomegranate with a different friend.
  • I taught tutorials before a butter chicken lunch with another friend in 2018, followed by a dinner with an aunt and uncle, cousins, and my girlfriend.
  • 2019 was a U of T Climate Strike and divestment teach-in, followed by dinner with a different friend.
  • For 2020, I attended the annual lecture of Toronto’s Sherlockian society and held a Zoom call with friends.
  • The plan for 2021 was a winter walk on the Toronto Islands, though only one brave soul undertook the six hour walk through slush with me. Then I had dinner with friends at home and some family video calls.
  • Last year, I visited Seeker’s Books; attended the book launch for John Fraser’s account of the death of the queen; had a dinner of chili, de-alcoholized champage, blueberry pie, and vanilla ice cream at home with my girlfriend; and spoke on the phone with family and with Andrea and Mehrzad in Ottawa.

As with weddings, I think fictitious depictions of birthdays, and especially ‘landmark’ birthdays like 40, has given me some false expectations about how grand, popular, and enjoyable such events are meant to be. I think that feeling of not measuring up is now enmeshed with my deep and long-running feelings of anxiety and isolation over the last few years. It feels like the pandemic provoked everyone to draw back into smaller social circles, remain less in social contact, and generally be harder to recruit into any group activity. My sense of isolation and worry is no doubt heightened by my long, difficult, and not-yet-successful post-PhD job search.

Somehow I feel like my climate journey has ended up with me in basically the most isolated possible position. The world is full of people who just want to keep the fossil fuel party going. If you question that, you can find community among activists, but you will never fully belong if you don’t accept the analysis and prescriptions of their anti-capitalist and intersectional account of the crisis. For people seized with the need for drastic action on where we get our energy — but also skeptical about using climate change to justify a utopian project of global political and economic transformation — it is easy to end up with a sense of being a minority of one with little social connection to anyone. You get all the social and psychological penalties of being a committed critic of the status quo, but not the solidarity and community that comes from adopting a pan-progressive interpretation of the crisis and strategy.

My environmentalism has also inhibited social ties because of my avoidance of long-distance travel. I never went back to the UK after finishing my M.Phil, and so never retained active long-term relationships with the people who I met there. Likewise, my connections with people in Vancouver have thinned out and fallen away one by one over years and years of trying to stay in touch exclusively through telecommunications. I get a complex and weird mixture of feelings when I think about how avoiding travel has had such costs, especially since my example has not influenced anyone, and in the face of my conviction that focusing on individual emissions is the wrong approach to solving a crisis that can only be addressed at the societal level. It is a difficult irony to recognize that if I had not been avoiding travel for the sake of GHG pollution, I would probably be in a better position in terms of career and networks to make a meaningful contribution to limiting the harm that climate change will do.

For at least a year or two now, I have been hoping that we would soon turn a corner and start reverting to something more like social life before the pandemic. These hopes have been consistently disappointed. I feel like everyone is being ground down and eroded by all the worries and fears in the world, and one result of that damage has been losing the will, energy, or inclination to maintain and develop the social ties which often do the most to make life bearable. (And Joyous!) (And an Insane Unmissable Inexplicable One-off Gift – personally I plan to live for glory and to ride this bronco to the last buck)

One of the painful paradoxes of all this is knowing that expressing these feelings of pain and isolation tends to lead to even less social contact. It’s a simple enough matter of psychology that people seek out situations filled with positive emotions and pursue ways of repeating them. Contrarily, experiences characterized by painful and difficult emotions — however justified — conjure a desire to get away and avoid such situations in the future. It’s a bit like how people who already have good jobs are appealing to employers in a way those currently without work aren’t, or how being perceived as successful and desirable in romance and relationships makes you more appealing to prospective partners, while a perception that someone is undesirable to others often tees us up to consider them undesirable ourselves.

I don’t mean to mis- or over-state things, or to suggest that I am not grateful and have not had an extraordinarily fortunate life. I have always been lucky and have received a huge amount of care and kindness in my life to this point. Awareness of those thoughts never leaves me, as despondent as I may get at times about my current situation and as fearful as I have become about the future of the world.

Not travelling has led to a lot of sad, solitary holidays: especially Christmas eve nights spent alone. While the sadness of those occassions was acute, it was also tempered with a broader awareness that I did have the sort of friends who I could call up and get an answer from, and was a part of communities of shared effort. The short-term alone now stacked atop long-term alone makes it harder to keep that sense of perspective. Two of my most important relationships are also going through trials which I will not describe, but which have added profoundly to the sense of being alone in the world or at least widely socially rejected. Being done with school now also adds to the fear, since I know that school is generally the best context for finding adult friendships.

Thinking about forty as the likely halfway point of my life has made the lead-up to this birthday a time of considerable reflection about my life up to this point, coupled with imagination about what the future will involve. I don’t have a neat closer for this post. In part, that reflects my awareness of all the contradictions clashing in my mind — between feeling aware and grateful for a very fortunate life, but also feeling fairly desperate about the present and future — between being devoted to the movement for environmental protection, but feeling that my work and thinking has estranged me from people more than it has connected me to them, including in terms of being able to work together effectively on solutions — between awareness of the psychological importance of hope, but also the dangers of self-deception and complacency when we assume things will work out well in spite of the evidence and trends to the contrary.

Life is an unearned gift, but it is also hard and indeed cruel. Indeed, my philosophy in the last few years has developed to see that cruelty as central: you never get as much of anything good as you hope or expect, and every nice experience which you can pleasantly imagine being repeated many times in the future is liable to be unilaterally cut off without warning. The implication I take from that is to focus on gratitude for what has happened and on doing the very best I can at everything I do. I work hard to avoid the feeling that, for whatever I am doing, the present effort is just the first in a long string of future repeats. No repeats are guaranteed, so I try to do my very best at everything I do. In addition to making life feel vital, important, and meaningful, this approach actually reduces stress and planning anxiety since it lets me skip the question of how fully to commit myself to things. When the model is that you do your best at everything you attempt, from a hike to a piece of scholarly writing to a friendly interaction with someone else, at least then when the good things in life come to an unexpected end you don’t feel the regret that if only you had known how brief and fragile those situations and relationships were going to prove, you would have tried harder and made the most of things.

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.