Jordan Peterson on psychology

As a lecturer, the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson is quite something. Yesterday, Tristan showed me videos of a couple of his lectures. One of them – The Necessity of Virtue – is available online.

One thing I found striking about the talks (which are mostly about psychology and ethics) is just how much we know about the brain, and how much we can reduce seemingly complex human behaviours and experiences to be predictable operation of certain brain structures. I had not previously realized the full importance of the hypothalamus. In one particularly grim example, Peterson explains that a cat stripped of almost all of its brain, but left with a spinal cord and a hypothalamus, will still behave much like an ordinary cat, except that it will be unusually likely to explore and unable to mate (if male).

What humanity is learning about the brain (which seems to produce the mind) seems likely to have considerable importance both for understanding the world in important ways and for deciding how to act in it. I will be adding Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief to my reading list, and may even be able to finagle a way to audit one of his courses if I do move to Toronto.

2010 happenings

Some of my more notable 2010 undertakings and experiences:

  • The end of the Low Carbon Cross Country Trip
  • Two new jobs
  • The transition from beardedness to beardlessness
  • Time with Emily
  • More than 12,000 photos taken
  • Photojournalism and documentary photography course taken
  • Several Montreal and Toronto visits (one wedding included)
  • Collarbone breaking and partial healing
  • Improved health
  • BuryCoal launched
  • Visits from some friends not frequently seen
  • A solid number of books read
  • Several concerts attended
  • Camping with Rosa
  • New York with Kai
  • Multiple Vermont visits, Christmas included
  • Blogging out loud
  • Dozens of cans of kidney beans eaten
  • Many kilometres by Greyhound
  • A departure from my current home, nearly completed

The priority for 2011? Find a job in Toronto and move there.

Hamilton to Albany

The voyage from Hamilton, Ontario to Albany, New York is about 550km. At 3:30am, I caught a cab to the Hamilton GO train, in order to begin the journey.

Normally, the border is the most challenging part, crossing in a Greyhound bus. Either you get stuck in a substantial queue of other buses and need to wait hours to even get to the checkpoint or someone on your bus strikes a border agent as suspicious and they hold up the entire vehicle for hours. This time, however, the border went smoothly.

The trouble began in Buffalo. There, the bus driver decided to wait for the next Greyhound from Toronto to arrive, so that they could consolidate passengers and save some money. This meant sitting motionless in Buffalo for an hour beyond our scheduled departure time. As a result, I got to Syracuse 15 minutes too late to catch my connecting bus. The next bus, they told me, was at 5:00pm, arriving around 8:00pm.

In what I thought was an act of cleverness, I checked with the attached Amtrak station and found they they had a train leaving around 3:15pm. It was originally scheduled to be an 11:00am train, but they were confident it would actually arrive around three and arrive in Albany about two hours later. The train did arrive at about 3:40pm, and only sat around about twenty minutes before starting. Somehow, however, it managed to take about five hours to traverse the 250km to Albany. Part of the delay arose because the train had no heat and everybody was shivering in their outerwear. To correct that, they spent half an hour replacing one of the power cars. Nonetheless, the journey took about twice as long as advertised, even ignoring that delay.

As a consequence of all this, my uncle and cousin ended up waiting for me for hours in Albany, in order to drive me to Bennington. At the end of eighteen hours of continuous travel, I was particularly glad to see them and to have their help and company for the last stage of the voyage.

In the future, I will try to stick with the more straightforward Ottawa-Montreal-Albany route, rather than the seemingly more problematic Ottawa-Toronto-Albany route, with Hamilton thrown in as an enjoyable side-journey.

I have to be somewhere

I don’t think there has been any point in my life when I had open-ended time to myself. That is to say, a period where I could have gone and done anything without eventually violating somebody’s expectation that I would be in a particular place at a particular time.

As a child, nobody is in a position to determine the shape of their life (those who are forced to do so early are forced early into adulthood). In high school and university, there are breaks with defined endings. While working, I have applied for and received defined periods of vacation. I accepted a university position before finishing high school, accepted a grad school position before finishing my undergraduate degree, and accepted a job before finishing grad school. Now, I expect to accept a new job before reaching the defined endpoint of my current one. My calendars – literal or figurative – have always included a “first day at X” entry, somewhere out in the future.

I suppose the logical opposite of all that structure is the life of the aimless wanderer: the protagonist from On The Road or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to lacking obligations to appear at such-a-place and such-a-time, such characters tend to be unencumbered by burdensome possessions. Making the transition from one of those states to the other – in either direction – seems daunting. Both transitions highlight the limits of human freedom. Going from an unscheduled life to one filled with obligations involves accepting the restrictions that the expectations and actions of other place upon each of us, as individuals. The universe simply will not provide for us to do whatever we wish indefinitely. More grimly, the transition from structure to an open-ended existence seems inevitably bound to the idea of mortality, and the certainty that there will be a definite end to freedom as some unknown time in the future. Being cast into that expanse, without the benefit of near-term signposts to distract from the dire conclusion, seems likely to be frightening and macabre. Perhaps that perspective shows how I am more concerned about risk than excited about opportunity.

All told, certainty is a valuable thing. Similarly, if one wishes to influence the world, it seems promising when there are expectations about where one will be in the future, and what one will be doing. Still, it could be an interesting experience to face the unknown span of all of one’s remaining life without seeing significant set markers.


During the next eight months, I will be moving twice. First, to the Beaver Barracks, in Ottawa. Then, to Toronto.

When I went to Oxford, I brought only a suitcase and a suit bag with me. When I returned, I had those plus two big cardboard boxes I mailed. I anticipate the move to Toronto involving a bit more baggage, but not enormously more. As such, between now and July, I will be selling or giving away most of my bulky possessions.

If you are in need to low-quality furniture, you might want to consider dropping me a line. I will need most of it for a few months yet, but it is never too early to express your interest in something. My free stuff listing is also likely to pick up new items in the next while.

Toronto climate jobs

Does anybody know of any climate-related jobs in Toronto?

All of these sectors are potentially of interest: government (federal, provincial, municipal), academia, non-profits, and the private sector.

I am interested in work in a wide variety of sectors including:

  • The federal, provincial, and municipal governments
  • Non-governmental organizations
  • Academia
  • and the private sector.

Feel free to email me at rather than post comments here.

Monbiot speaking in Toronto

On November 28th, British journalist George Monbiot will be giving a talk in Toronto: “Countdown to Copenhagen: Who in Canada is Killing the International Climate Treaty?” The event is partially sponsored by DeSmogBlog.

Monbiot is a good writer and strong climate change campaigner. I suggest those in Toronto consider attending. I once saw him speak at Oxford’s Environmental Change Insitute. I also reviewed his book on climate change.

Date: Saturday, November 28th
Time: 2:00 to 4:00pm

Location: J.J.R. MacLeod Auditorium, Medical Sciences Building, University of Toronto
1 King’s College Circle, Toronto

Admission: suggested donation of $10-$25. Nobody will be turned away for lack of funds.

Seating is limited; come early to guarantee a seat.

The ROM and evolution

Kensington Avenue sign

Wandering through Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is an enjoyable way both to experience the diversity of life and appreciate the degree to which its history has come to be comprehensible for human beings. From the grand displays of ancient bones to the more abstract explanations of taxonomy and evolutionary history, the place is a monument to the scientific understanding of the world. Given the power of that discourse – derived from the exceedingly high level of evidence provided by physical remains, genetics, and the study of living creatures – it makes it all the more astonishing that anybody out there believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that all the creatures on it were created simultaneously, and that evolution is not a powerful ongoing process that explains our biological origins.

Over and above matters of scientific understanding, the story told by the ROM is also enormously more compelling than the story of creation by an omnipotent god. The latter may have fireworks, but the former has a lot more power and beauty. It makes the creation story look like a bad Hollywood film that happens to star someone famous: the Waterworld of theories.

Spring in Toronto

Muppet in distress

This weekend, I am visiting Toronto, which always induces comparisons with Ottawa in which the capital city comes off looking badly. I like subways and shops that are open past 6:00pm. If this dire economy can provide space in Toronto for someone with no particular interest in private enterprise, perhaps I will find a way to relocate myself here over the course of the next few years.

Also, one quality for which Toronto should be praised is the availability of Gingerbons spicy and sweet ginger candy. They taste like a fantastic amalgamation of ginger and honey, and I have only ever seen them in a bulk food store on Bloor Street, a couple of blocks east of Jane.

Now, off for a late, greasy diner breakfast.