Protect Semaphore Lakes

Over the August long weekend, three of my friends and I went to camp at Semaphore Lakes, a place in the backcountry north of Pemberton where you can camp among heather meadows. It is a beautiful place, but one that is reeling from how popular it is.

Locomotive and Tender Mountains reflected in a tarn

Locomotive and Tender from the campsite

The way to access it is from a pullout on a logging road. When we came there, there were 23 other cars. Since the pullout can only take three, the rest were all parallel parked along the edge of the road.

The camp itself is in the alpine, among a series of small lakes and tarns, with great views of the Railroad Group. There is little running water except upstream of the lakes, and many campers, including us, get their water from the lakes. Some campers also wash their dishes in the same water. The tarn we used to get water had soap suds floating in it. There was also some garbage we found that we took out. And that makes me think that the proportion of people who pack out their crap isn’t exactly 100% either. An outhouse would help make Semaphore Lakes less shitty, literally. The camping area is, as I mentioned, a heather meadow, so there is very little dead wood, and things grow very slowly. Yet people are camping on vegetation, and burning campfires. We did it too. There were a ton of mosquitoes and everyone around us was burning a campfire, so we said to hell with it. I know, we were wrong. But people are relatively law-abiding – and into passive aggressiveness! If there was a sign banning campfires, I bet there would be way less of them.

Semaphore Lakes camping area

One of the larger among the Semaphore Lakes

What it amounts to is the Semaphore Lakes are being “loved to death”. And I can only imagine that it will become more and more popular. I don’t know what to do about this more generally, but probably small steps like putting in an outhouse will alleviate some of the issues. But currently the area isn’t protected or cared for in any way as far as I know, and that’s just not a tenable solution.

There is a petition and accompanying website that I just saw on facebook to ask the BC government to turn Semaphore Lakes into a Provincial Park. I encourage you to sign it if you think it’s a good idea. Comments say that a conservation or recreational site designation may be other options to give the area some protection. I am not well versed in what is the best step forward. But I think some sort of protective step does need to be taken.

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The Cinematographer’s Apprentice

My first memory is of an illness. I am lying in a room with a political world map on the wall, and a big blue hot water bottle is being brought for me. My second memory is of moving. We are going by taxi from the grandparents’ house to a new place. I am proud of it being the first taxi trip where I don’t throw up. My third memory is of faking having a dream. I desperately want to be dreaming dreams, but I’ve never had one. If I could have dreams, it would show how grown up I am. I am deathly jealous of people who do get them. All I get with sleep is the faint feeling of lost time. Dreams sounds much better. But what are dreams, and what can you have dreams about? I had asked mom, and she named some things you might see in dreams: rainbows, horses, balls, that kind of thing. So I wake up, and I tell mom: mom, mom, I’ve had a dream! — What was the dream about? — It had a horse in it!

Looking back, I have to admit that I just don’t get it: what was the hurry? I am glad that my thinking makes no sense to current me, because this is a clear sign that something changed about me in the intervening years. And that’s very reassuring. It would be a shame if I had remained the same person for the last 29 or so years.

There is a narrative explanation appropriate to the first memory: “he was a sickly child”. There is a narrative explanation appropriate to the second memory: “his family moved around a lot”. Is there a narrative explanation appropriate to the third memory? I don’t know. I hope it isn’t “he was always a liar”. Is it “he was always into imagining things”? That doesn’t seem right to me, either. It’s only after I started having dreams for real that I became interested in how to translate them to waking life. It’s only after I started having dreams for real that I realized their power.

I have never been in a dream where I was bored. I have never been in a dream where I was sleepy. If you can recreate dreams, you can command your audience. That’s not necessarily a good thing. You also probably don’t hear “I was in North Korea and I was bored” very often. But within the context of time-limited entertainment, it’s worthwhile. terror for two hours isn’t like terror for the rest of your life. It’s actually an impressive achievement. And yet if you recount dreams, everyone gets bored pretty fast. And so trying to understand dreams, and trying to recreate them, rather than just recount them, is the interesting part.

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Zolltan arbitrates Great Man vs. Everyman

Why is this photo here?

Last time Zuuko came to visit me, he explained why he doesn’t have much to say for the blog anymore. He’s come to realize more and more that the world’s path depends on the specific actions, quirks and foibles of individuals. And what can you say about that? And what can you say about that on an anonymous WordPress blog? And what can you say that won’t get you kicked out of the corridors of power?

Whereas I think individuals, and specifically their character and their foibles don’t matter that much. Of course, a disagreement about this isn’t something new or silly. If you read Tolstoy explaining War and Peace at the end of War and Peace, you can see him struggling with this question in spite of himself. Napoleon he says disproves the Great Man idea, because despite his greatness he wasn’t able to overcome the historical tide. And yet Tsar Alexander proves it, because his temperament and cast of mind was exactly such that he was able to harness the historical tide. I am not alone in not finding this my favourite part of War and Peace. It doesn’t make much sense.

I could be a squish like I usually am on this blog, and say that both structural aspects and the behaviour of individuals is important. And this is surely true, but not very illuminating. Let’s try something else. B. told me about a Philip Tetlock book called “Superforecasting”. You can read Scott Alexander’s review here. And the main finding the book discusses seems to be that good forecasting ability beats insider information. That is, people who Tetlock identified as good forecasters did better than people who knew stuff about the people making decisions. In the end, the information you get in the corridors of power wasn’t worth much. Another thing that is indicative of structural aspects mattering more individual quirks is the work of Peter Turchin, some of which I’ve talked about before. I am really excited to get and read his and Nefedov’s book on secular cycles. I clearly haven’t read it yet, but the idea that civilizations follow specific patterns is not new, and now they are doing the work to bring in data that’s necessary to characterize these patterns. I think people can overestimate the importance of insider information because they’re excited by the fact that they’re getting it. Does it matter? Yes, it does. But it matters less, and in less predictable ways than you might think.

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Some Thoughts About Identities

There are our opinions, there are things that describe us as people, and then there are our identities. I think a large part of the modern social justice movement and reactions to it are about moving personal opinions and descriptions into the realm of identities. This has both positive and negative consequences.

Our identities are things that “identify” us and are important to us. In many cases, they are things that we feel strongly about ourselves, or have little power to change. For instance, race.  That’s a piece of our individual identity that we have no power to change. But even if it is something that we can change, identity is something that affects our actions more than just a belief. I’m reading “Life and Fate” now, and there is a character there who acts in a certain way when in a prison camp because he identifies as a staunch communist and wants to think of himself as a staunch communist. He knows that he needs to act in a given way to keep his identity intact. That’s more than just thinking that some action or another is a good idea.

I am also susceptible to this. While I was working in a research lab, I thought of myself as “a scientist”. That made me act in ways (double check data, avoid fudging numbers, be skeptical, research sources) that I think I would not have been as adamant about had I not considered those actions a part of my identity. That’s important.

But identities look different when it comes to arguments. First of all, arguing identities is itself a mistake. To argue with someone that their race is bad is mean and callous, for example, – but it’s also totally useless. You cannot, even in theory, convince someone in an identity argument, you can only insult them and make them angry. And thus making some belief, action or trait of yours a piece of your identity insulates that piece from attack to some extent. Since most people aren’t huge assholes [citation needed], they won’t attack your identity, whereas they may easily disagree with something you do, for example.

Therefore, making an identity can be useful for arguments, as well. I think, for example, the increase of people who identify as gay has helped gay people not only in organizing, but in “not having to constantly defend being gay.” However, if your identity is insulted, the damage is greater than if someone disagrees with something you do or think. It also makes you unable to see whether the person maybe has a point. This is why Paul Graham, for instance, advises to “keep your identity small“.

I don’t agree with this, for the above reason that identities are useful in the real world. But I think there is a negative to growing identities when it comes to arguments, and that is identity brinksmanship. Every disagreement is an attack when it is a disagreement that concerns your identity. And so expanding your identity keeps disagreements to a minimum. But makes every disagreement blow up. I don’t think that’s worthwhile.

So if I were to make a counter-proposal, I would say keep your identity large when acting, and small when arguing. To the extent that you can help it, of course.

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Elke dag gaat alles beter ook al gaat het niet zo goed

Reacting to the killings of Sterling and Castile and then the Dallas police sniper, Jon Chait writes to reassure us that the country is not falling apart at the seams, and in fact is slowly addressing the issue of mutual distrust between blacks and the police. Freddie de Boer responds that the situation is dire enough that progress of the type Chait talks about is insufficient. Both are playing exactly to type, but both have written good pieces. The main question to ask, I think, is not which vision is more true, because they can both be true at the same time. Chait says: things are slowly getting better. de Boer says: things are so far from good enough that the amount by which they are getting better, even if they are, is minuscule compared to what needs to be done. Therefore, to de Boer, whether things are getting better is completely irrelevant.

In fact, we can assume they are both right. The question we then have to ask is: which point of view is more effective. I think de Boer’s fear is that Chait’s conclusion encourages complacency and will lead to it. If things are getting better, why bother doing anything? Meanwhile Chait’s fear is that de Boer’s conclusion would lead to social breakdown. But my fear is that de Boer’s conclusions will lead to complacency. As Erik Olin Wright says in an essay in Jacobin that I think gets at a lot of how I think about politics, “smashing capitalism” seems like something we neither want to nor can do in today’s world. Things are getting better, but they’re nowhere near good enough shall be the rallying cry. In the specific case of police shootings of black people: we can try to make sure police stops aren’t used as a revenue source, we can ensure via social media that when there is an interaction with police, potential witnesses are alerted, among many, many other useful things. Maybe gun control can help. These things will not get rid of racism, or police racism. But if we hold ourselves to de Boer’s implied impossible standard that nothing that doesn’t bring the elimination of a problem is worth doing, then we’re stuck just sitting here.


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I come not to bury self-care but to praise it.

T. sent me this article recently, and I was greatly annoyed by it, even though I agreed with it, basically. The gist of the article is something that I think is completely correct: that self-care is good as a means, but is repugnant as a goal. At least, that’s how I interpret it. The cult of self care makes it sound like you can consume your way not only to bliss, but also to virtue. This is disgusting. At the same time, if you are wallowing in misery and self-neglect for the sake of not being self-indulgent, you are not actually helping anybody. Making sure you’re disorganized and miserable is a recipe for failure, regardless of the nobility of your goals. Thus, the column is excellent advice.

The problem is, people of a certain philosophical makeup don’t want to read advice (for the same reason they don’t want to do self-care). So, in order to get the message through, Laurie Penny dresses it up in trendy left-wing language of resistance to neoliberalism and surviving in late capitalism and radical acts. And maybe this helps it get through to some people, but at the cost of making many of the things it says untrue.

I get the point that in certain situations self-care can actually be an act of resistance against an unjust regime. If you don’t, think of the archetype of the person who is put in prison and takes meticulous care of their appearance to show they are unbowed. But we are, for the most part, not in that situation. Let me suggest that for the vast majority of the people reading that article, and for Laurie Penny, self care is not a radical act. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it! And it doesn’t mean the essential point of the article, as I see it, is wrong. It’s just that rhetorically, it’s awful. Laurie Penny says “the light in me is sometimes a government building on fire”. But she is not gonna go and set a government building on fire. And that’s not bad! I’m very happy Laurie Penny isn’t going around torching Parliament. And if thinking that self-care is a radical act helps sublimate that destructive urge into doing yoga, that’s probably for the good. But for goodness sake, I wish everyone would stop writing like this, endlessly ratcheting up the rhetorical stakes of doing exercise or eating a sandwich or watching a movie. Critical theory tropes and Marxist tropes have their places. Let me claim that those places are not the lifestyle section.

Here’s how I see it: you should want to make the world a better place. You should work towards that goal. Self-care by itself doesn’t help achieve that goal and doesn’t prevent it. But you need to be in a good enough state as a person to be able to do things, and so self-care can help get you there. That’s it. Full Stop.

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Who’s Afraid of Donald Trump (And Why?)

Recently I was at a fantastic wedding (how often do you hear that? Anyway, it was true) for a really good friend of mine and Zuuko’s. We had prepared a Jesus Christ Superstar-themed song tribute to the young couple, part of which involved this “This Jesus Must Die” verse:

We dare not leave our home in the Mission
And I hear Seattle is kind of a dump
But it’s by the border, a perfect position
If we have to flee from President Trump*

This joke went over very well (some people got it early!) which made me happy. But what really surprised me is the extent to which that’s not really 100% a joke for my Canadian friends living in the US. M (a coder at Google in the Bay Area), and M (a coder at Google in New York) and M (a coder at Facebook in Seattle) — who says I have an easily stereotypable friendgroup? — and several other friends expressed the need to get out of the US soon if Trump wins. And I can’t figure out why. Donald Trump is an idiot when it comes to international relations, and also seems to be quite the jerk. Him being president of the US would be really bad. But is it going to be any worse for a smart young white professionally employed Canadian living in the US than it is going to be for a smart young white professionally employed Canadian living in Canada? Like what do they think’s gonna happen? The US will not start deporting Canadians. It will be embarrassing that Trump is the president, sure, but is that it? Or are they afraid of riots? And if they are afraid of riots, doesn’t that mean that riots are an effective anti-Trump strategy?**

*(By the way, I wanted to share: the alternate version of that verse went

We dare not leave our home in the Mission
The mere thought of moving just fills me with dread
But how can we stay here? The rent keeps increasing
Let’s go to Seattle, raise the rent there instead.)

**I am in no way advocating riots. I think political violence is evil and should be avoided on moral grounds. But kind of like this post, I think whether it’s effective and whether it should be done are different questions. Here’s an argument by Matt Yglesias for riots being ineffective, by the way. It’s convincing to me, except that the anecdotal evidence above seems to go the other way.

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