Imaginary Evidence

Does the fact that we can imagine something provide any evidence about it?

The practice of philosophy and some other disciplines ends with the use of the imagination as a source of argument. As soon as you leave the realms of imagination you are doing science, which is a discipline that begins by testing ideas by systematic observation (evidence), controlled experiment (evidence) and/or Bayesian reasoning (evidence). Or you’re doing natural history, which isn’t testing ideas but observing reality (evidence) in meticulous, systematic detail.

Science uses the imagination to motivate arguments, and to help us along the paths of reason by getting imperfect glimpses of the way ahead, which often lead us off the edge of a cliff we don’t carefully check the footing (evidence) every step of the way.

But evidence is hard and imagination is easy. Imaging often feels like we are learning something about reality outside our heads. But are we?

Is there any reason to believe we are?

Remember what evidence is: it is something that affects the plausibility of a statement.

And remember there is no such thing as “scientific” evidence, because that would imply there is also “non-scientific evidence”. There is only evidence. Science isn’t some special magic thing that takes place in world that’s separate from ordinary reality. It’s just something people do.

We always start with some idea of how plausible a thing is. “It just seems to me”, we say, “that dogs being able to talk is pretty reasonable.” We can give numbers to this: things that are really, really plausible are near 1.0 and things that are wildly implausible are near 0. We can never actually reach “true 1” or “true 0” because that would be imply a belief that could never by changed by any amount of evidence, and if it can’t be changed by evidence it can’t be reached by evidence.

And who would want to believe something without evidence? Can you imagine how stupid that would sound? “I don’t have any evidence for this, but I believe it and will never change my belief.” No one would say that! I can’t imagine it, so it can’t possibly be true. Or can it?

This is the thing about imagination: it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how plausible something actually is.

We update our beliefs using a simple ratio: the plausibility we should give an idea after we’ve seen some evidence is the plausibility we gave it before seeing the evidence, times the probability of the evidence if the belief is true, divided by the probability of the evidence occurring just randomly.

So if some evidence is really likely if a belief is true but really unlikely otherwise, the plausibility of our belief should go way up. We all start with different initial plausibilities, though, so some people (skeptics) will take a lot more evidence to be reasonably convinced of something than non-skeptics. This is right and good: plausibilities are subjective, probabilities are objective.

This creates an interesting question: does the fact that someone can or cannot imagine something constitute evidence for or against it?

The belief that “I can imagine X” makes X more plausible and “I can’t imagine X” makes X less plausible is extremely widespread. Entire fields of intellectual endeavour depend on it, particularly in philosophy.

This is a general question, and one that can be subject to empirical investigation. Take any statement that is known to be highly (im)plausible. Present naive subjects with the task of imagining that statement is true or not. See if there is any difference in their ability to imagine things depending on their consensus plausibility.

My bet is that if anything, what we can imagine easily is slightly anti-correlated with how the world most plausibly is. But what I imagine is not really relevant, until we have some evidence that what we imagine is evidence. Which we do not currently have.

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Australia’s Gun Control Laws Probably Worked

There’s an odd article in the Washington Post by Leah Libresco, formerly of 538, that says:

I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans. Mass shootings were too rare in Australia for their absence after the buyback program to be clear evidence of progress. And in both Australia and Britain, the gun restrictions had an ambiguous effect on other gun-related crimes or deaths.

The work referenced says:

Did Australia and Great Britain’s reforms prevent mass shootings? It’s hard to say, simply because mass shootings are relatively rare. In the post-buyback period, Great Britain has had one massacre with guns while Australia has had none. It’s hard to calculate how many would have been expected without a ban. Australia looks more successful in this regard, because it had more frequent mass shootings before the ban (averaging about two mass shootings every three years from 1979 to 1996.3) Mass shootings in Great Britain, prior to the ban, were rarer. Prior to 1996, there hadn’t been a widely covered mass shooting in Britain since 1987.

I don’t know Libresco’s background or education. Working for 538 suggests a basic competency, but the notion that “it’s hard to calculate how many would have been expected without a ban” is a frankly bizarre statement.

I’m a physicist who has worked in various areas of physics, medicine, and biology over the past 30 years. Working with biologists, in particular, has been an education in how to handle small datasets. If I had a dollar for every time a biologist has come to me and wanted to know if there is a significant difference between their control and experimental samples when they have one of each I could easily buy a coffee at Starbucks.

It’s not that hard to deal with such cases using prior information, and the Australian dataset on mass shootings is postively overflowing in comparison. The Great Wiki gives us dates and numbers dead for Australian mass shootings in the modern era:

# date, #killed (only 4 or more indiscriminate victims included)
#1984.75,7 # gang shootout => not indiscriminate
#1993.25,5 # ended in hostage incident => not indiscriminate

I have eliminated arson attacks, as gun control seems unlikely to have an effect on them, and applied the rule of thumb used by the US Congressional Research Service, which defines a “mass shooting” as: “one in which four or more people selected indiscriminately, not including the perpetrator, are killed, echoing the FBI definition of the term ‘mass murder’.”

There are many ways to turn this incredibly rich dataset into an estimate of the plausibility that the 1996 gun ban is responsible for the absence of mass shootings since 1996. The way I have chosen is to look at the distribution of intervals between mass shootings between 1971 and 1996. Generating a histogram with 1 year bins, the data look like this:

Intervals between mass shootings in Australia between 1971 and 1996

The exponential fit to the data is justified by the assumption that mass shootings are uncorrelated with each other and therefore described by a Poisson process, since the intervals between Poisson process events have an exponential distribution. The fit has a lifetime of 1.74505 years between shootings. The fit quality is quite good, with a reduced χ2 of less than 1.

But remember, all this is hard. So hard we have to use two whole lines of Python to estimate the probability that it has been more than 20 years since the last mass shooting in Australia just by random chance:

from numpy.random import exponential
print(sum([x > 20 for x in exponential(1.74505, 100000000)])/100000000.0)

I’m just doing something brutally simple here to make a point: it isn’t really that hard at all.

The result is that the probability is almost exactly 10-5–a one in a hundred thousand chance–that the current interval between mass shootings in Australia is due to chance alone.

It is reasonable to infer that the changes in gun laws had an effect, particularly because we as good Bayesians know that if you make something desirable easier to do, more people will do it.

Killing is desirable to a lot of people. The most common causes of murder in the US are relatively trivial interpersonal slights. We monkeys get angry, and when there is a machine that makes killing really, really easy near at hand we have a tendency to use it.

If guns didn’t make killing really, really easy they’d hardly be any use against criminals, so anyone who argues otherwise is saying there is not value in protecting gun ownership because they are kind of useless machines anyway.

Killing is desirable and easy access to guns makes it easier, so where there are more guns, there is more killing. Conversely, fewer guns, especially fewer guns of the right type, leads to less killing. It would be bizarre in the extreme if it were otherwise, and the data from Australia is fully consistent with these facts.

It may be there are other factors at work in Australia, but opponents of gun control will have to positively identify another cause for the extremely long interval between mass shootings that Australia has experienced since limiting access to firearms if they want to make the claim that gun control has not worked there.

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What To Do In the Event of an Atmospheric Nuclear Test by North Korea

Don’t panic.

The current range of North Korean missiles sufficient to reach North America, and given the rate of progress they will likely be able to hit almost anywhere in the world by the end of the year.

But the more likely scenario is an atmospheric test of an H-bomb over the Pacific Ocean. That would demonstrate Pyongyang’s power without giving anyone sufficient excuse to shoot back.

While the potential health consequences of such a test are not trivial, neither are they dire.

The Partial Test Ban Treaty banned atmospheric tests in the early 1960’s, but prior to that hundreds of atmospheric tests were carried out, often in the megaton range:

Between 1951 and 1958, the US conducted 166 atmospheric tests, the Soviet Union conducted 82, and Britain conducted.

Humanity and civilization survived hundreds of massive atmospheric tests sixty years ago. Humanity and civilization will survive a single much smaller North Korean atmospheric test today. The underground test North Korea performed this month was well below a megaton, although much larger than anything they have done previously.

That said, it is worth keeping a few things in mind. Fallout takes a long time to circle the Earth. There will be days to prepare in most places. Months in the southern hemisphere, insofar as any preparation there is warranted.

Most fallout is in the form of dust, much like volcanic ash. It spreads through the upper atmosphere and drifts gently down to Earth, raising the level of background radiation a small but measurable amount.

As with all radioactivity, the more intense sources tend to be short-live: radioactive particles are literally destroying themselves as they decay. The more time that passes, the less radioactive fallout becomes. Furthermore, fallout tends to wash out of the environment over time as well, 70% of it over oceans.

For people well away from the point of explosion, the risk from additional background radiation due to fallout will be very small. If you don’t worry about traveling to Denver, you shouldn’t worry too much about fallout, unless you are very close to the explosion.

There will be a lot of fear-mongering about particular isotopes, especially strontium. Iodine isotopes have lifetimes from a few hours to about two months. Strontium isotopes range from a day to two months. Both tend to bio-accumulate: strontium in bones and teeth, iodine in the thyroid. Pay attention to local health authorities and behave accordingly, but be aware that the acute risk is low.

By far the greatest risk of such a test is that someone will use it as an excuse to attack North Korea. This is generally the human response to violence and conflict, which is why escalation is almost never in anyone’s interests.

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How Gay Marriage Affected Me

Apparently Australia is having a “postal survey” on gay marriage, and I thought it might be interesting to give Australians a view of the subject from a Canadian perspective, because it has had a huge effect on my life here in Canada.

I am a straight, white, educated, professional, upper-middle-class male. I’m an entrepreneur who founded and ran a successful software and scientific consulting business for many years, which I was driven to do in part because the flexible lifestyle that came with it allowed me to spend a lot of time with my kids. Family is the most important thing to me, and I have sacrificed a great deal of wealth and time for the sake of it.

In 2005, two years after I founded my company, the Canadian federal government legalized gay marriage.

The effect was immediate and profound. Quite suddenly, and with no effort on my part, my gay friends could get married and live happily together in legally recognized life partnership. They could enjoy the same benefits as other couples, and make life decisions for each other in emergencies the way spouses do, because they were spouses. They gained an opportunity for greater happiness.

It was, and is, wonderful. There is more happiness in my world. Who has ever said (outside of some early Star Trek episode) that there is too much happiness? Who is opposed to the creation of more happiness when it is created without any downside but one?

When Canada instituted marriage equality, bigots predicted dire consequences. The age of consent was supposed to drop as pedophiles took over. It went up, from 14 to 16, just three years later. Beastiality and marriage to animals was supposed to become rampant. There has been one of those weird legal cases last year indicating that Canada’s beastility law was badly worded and needs to be re-written, but thus far I’ve not noticed any of my friends or neighbours getting married to goats.

People who hate, no matter what they hate, are all of the same kind. They are unhappy people. Angry people. People who have failed in some deeply human way, who have so disappointed themselves they have nothing to fall back on but hatred of people who are not like them.

I can only presume that people who oppose happiness are people of the same kind. Puritans. Failures. Rigidly hewing to some abstract ideology while ignoring the vast ocean of humanity they are part of.

That said, there is one genuine downside of marriage equality: divorce.

I’m sure my religious readers will be aware of where I am going with this. Jesus never said a single thing about homosexuals. He was quite clear about welcoming prostitutes and tax collectors into his circle, so we might guess he never thought the odd homosexual was much to talk about.

The topic that Jesus really did get hot on was divorce. Let’s look at the whole of Matthew 19:1-12:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Those are pretty harsh words, and cover a lot of ground.

First, there is some business about being made male and female. That’s odd, because we know empirically that sexuality is a lot more complex than that, and by the time we had read to the end we find there are also people born as eunuchs, who clearly don’t fit this nice gender binary. So obviously Jesus is not just talking about male and female here. If he was, verses 11 and 12 would make no sense at all. It may not be totally clear what he is talking about there, but it is fairly clear that a detailed technical description of reproductive biology is probably not something we should expect from someone who didn’t know the Earth moves around the sun or that most disease is caused by animals that are too small to see.

I could say a lot here about Biblical interpretation but that would be silly. The important part is about divorce: clearly Jesus says that divorce and remarriage is a mortal sin: adultery. Anyone reading this who is on their second or later marriage, or who approves of remarriage after a divorce for any reason other than sexual infidelity, has no business talking about gay people and marriage, if they claim to be basing their beliefs on Biblical foundations.

I’m a divorced man, and as far as I can see the only issue with marriage equality is that it also entails divorce equality. Our gay friends are as likely to get divorced as we are, and that’s too bad. Hopefully we will be there to support them when it happens.

But to anyone who opposes marriage equality on religious grounds: first you have to come through me. You have nothing to say to anyone who just wants legal recognition of their actual status as spouse until you’ve properly castigated me about my status as a divorced man, clearly in violation of divine statute.

Marriage equality has been wonderful for me: it has created joy in my life as couples who would have been otherwise doomed to second-class status have been given the same rights as the rest of us. I’m even a little bit envious, because I know some of those unions will last longer than mine. But it would be churlish and wrong to deny anyone the joy of marriage. There is no value in hate. Only love.

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August 2017 Sailing

Hilary and I were on the water for a couple of weeks in August, staring with a week around Lasqueti Island, which is starting to really become one of my go-to places in Georgia Strait. It’s far enough from civilization and the beaten track north to be relatively quiet, but just a short jump from Nanaimo or French Creek if marina facilities are needed. The kayaking is really good, and there are plenty of well-protected moorages.

The sail up was more of a motor, really. Which unfortunately happened a lot this trip. Smoke from wildfires created a grey haze most days for the first week. It was warm enough, but it would have been nice to see the sun more.

On shore there was a lot of interesting stuff. Big trees and deep forests in particular. None of it is really old growth, as these islands were all logged back in the day, and some areas were burned off by native peoples as a way of driving out game.

Along the shore of Bull Island Hilary spotted these dead arbutus trees the looked like some kind of mad creature attacking up the cliffs. They don’t show up brilliantly in this image, which was taken from a kayak with the camera in a waterproof bag, but hopefully it is sufficient to give at least an idea of what we were seeing.

We kayaked over to Jedidiah Island Marine Park one day, which is a very nice, isolated little place, although there were quite a few people camping on it around Home Bay.

We also spent a night moored in False Bay and tied up that afternoon at the public dock so we could wander around the island a bit. Like any small rural community there is very little tolerance for diversity, and a uniform dress code of appearance clearly being strictly enforced. Beards are being worn long this year, and bras are being worn elsewhere.

The public float was crowded and casually over-used. We tied up on the part designated for seaplanes (none landed while we were there) and someone else was in the spot the foot-ferry from French Creek moors, although they left well ahead of that boat arriving.

I had a coffee, as I rarely make it on board, and we wandered around a bit, but there was very little open, and what was didn’t have much of anything, including ice. Fortunately the new icebox on Murrelet keeps things nicely cold for a solid seven days.

False Bay itself is quite nice and sheltered, and had a diversity of boats, from modern cats to this much older model, which I’m sure would be very interesting to sail.

The second half of the trip was down through Nanaimo, where we stayed for a couple of days, and then past Dodd Narrows and some poking around the Gulf Islands, particularly Thetis.

The sky over Nanaimo was spectacular.

We spent a day on Gabriola, where we saw Malaspina Galleries and a few other things. I’ve not been over there since I was my teens, so it was fun, and a much more diverse crowd than Lasqueti.

While moored in Telegraph Harbour on Thetis we took the kayak, which I’m thinking of naming “Moppet” to go with the boat, which is named “Murrelet”, through the Cut between Thetis Penalaket, into Clam Bay. It was a nice afternoon of exploring, but like all our side expeditions it could have gone on for a great deal longer!

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Viewing a Solar Eclipse the Natural Way

There was a partial eclipse of the sun when I was living in California in the early 90’s, and I noticed that during it the sidewalk was covered with crescent-shaped spots of light. Palm trees were making natural pin-hole cameras: the long leaves high overhead had a lot of small gaps between them, and they were so far from the ground they counted as “small” by the standards of geometric optics.

Pin-hole cameras work by restricting the path light from any point on the surface of the sun can take to reach the viewing screen, which can be any flat surface, although a bit of white paper works best.

Pinhole camera geometry

Pinhole camera geometry

The sun spans about 1/4 of a degree of sky. To get a good image of it the pinhole needs to have a considerably smaller angular diameter than that when seen from the screen. So if the screen is 1 m away from the pinhole card, the pinhole has to be to be quite a bit less than 0.8 cm in diameter. So a hole that is a millimetre or so will work fine, and let a reasonable amount of light through.

I used a heavy card notebook back and punched a hole in it with drill bit I had lying around. A sharp knife would do just as well. Careful you don’t cut yourself!

Heavy card from back of notebook with 1/8″ hole in it.

The important thing is that the card doesn’t let any light through. The amount of light getting through a 2 mm hole means that the darker the shadow, the better.

In action, it is useful to have a small notebook or the like to cast the image onto. The notebook makes it easy to get the angle right. Projecting on the ground is OK, but unless the sun is near the zenith the angle will make the image elliptical, not round.

But what about the natural way?

All those round spots of light are images of the sun cast on the sidewalk by gaps between the leaves high above. They aren’t round because the gaps are round: the shape of the pin-hole doesn’t matter if it is far enough away. What matters is the shape of the sun, which is round. When the moon gets in the way, those spots of light will have a bite taken out of them.

It’s interesting to think that this evidence of geometric optics was around for tens of thousands of years before anyone noticed it, and in the three hundred years since we’ve learned everything from biochemistry to plate tectonics. It’s almost as if looking really carefully at the world can teach us about how it works. It certainly isn’t the case that we are smarter or in any way better people than our ancestors. We are just lucky to be alive now, when generations of people have been free to look closely at the world and report what they see, as opposed to what the ideological hegemony of the day insists they must be seeing.

The quality of images varies depending on how big the leaf-hole is and how far away it is. Northern trees don’t work quite as well as palms, but are good enough for going on with. If the hole is too big, the image will be bright, but blurry:

If the hole is too small, the image will be dim and likely crossed by branches or other obstructions:

But with a little trial and error, an image can be found that’s just right:

Happy viewing, and remember: never look at the sun with your naked eyes! You won’t feel any pain while doing it, but even a few seconds of viewing the sun directly will damage your eyes, and like a sunburn the damage will develop a while later, and you will go blind.

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Prevention vs Cure

There are people who believe that cancer is largely a preventable disease, and there are people like me.

I think cancer prevention is a worthy cause. In my time as a medical physicist I concluded that we were so good at radiotherapy already it would make more sense to put the money that was being spent on people like me and put it into anti-smoking campaigns. So I went back to pure physics after that, before getting involved in computer assisted surgery.

But smoking is uniquely terrible as a cause of cancer. Tobacco–a naturally occurring leaf, very slightly enhanced by selective breeding–is full of nasty stuff, and burning it to create even nastier combustion products and then sucking the whole lot into your lungs is not the best thing for your health. Among other things, tobacco is rich in potassium, and about 1% of potassium is a long-lived isotope that is left over from the supernova explosion that made the heavy elements that constitute the Earth and all that’s on it. So about 10% of cancers caused by smoking are due to naturally occurring radioactive potassium coming into contact with exquisitely radio-sensitive lung tissue.

Other causes of cancer are not so significant. The article linked above gives some absolute numbers on cancer prevention in the UK, but doesn’t give them as a fraction of all new cancer cases. When you look the numbers up, it turns out that those 57000 preventable cancers add up to about 16% of the 357,000 new cases that occur in the UK annually. Not a bad number, but a long way from a cure, too.

It may not make sense that we focus our resources on cures rather than prevention, but what makes sense has nothing to do with what’s best. There are at least three reasons to focus on cures rather than prevention:

  • A cure would be a cure. It would get rid of the damned disease for good. We are quite close to that, thanks to CRISPR technology and decades of work in fundamental biology.
  • While it is still debated, it appears likely that around half of all cancers are not preventable. That puts a definite floor under the lowest rate we can get from prevention programs.
  • Changing human behaviour is hard. The Soviets killed tens of millions. The Chinese communists tried hard to match that number. Christians and Muslims have been torturing and killing people for centuries without notably diminishing the number of sinners, heretics, and apostates. Governments have been engaged in a “war on drugs” for decades without reducing the rate of use below that seen in Portugal, which effectively decriminalized everything twenty years ago.

It’s easy to criticize research choices, but the arguments for pursuing prevention just aren’t that good compared to the arguments for pursuing a cure. Nor does citing a single case of a person with high radon levels add any credibility to the argument.

Arguments are about facts. Facts are distributions. An anecdote is not a fact, because it is not a distribution.

“This person who had high radon got cancer” tells us nothing about what caused her cancer. It could have been a cosmic ray, or other naturally occurring background radiation. It could have been something she ate. It could have been genes. It could have been bad luck. Singling out one risk factor and saying, “This must have been the cause” serves no good purpose. It does not establish this as a case of preventable cancer, because that can almost never be done. That’s the nature of statistical reasoning.

So while I think we should continue to pursue the major known causes of cancer–smoking and drinking, in particular–we should put the majority of our resources toward finding a cure. We’re very close now, and when the cure is found, it will benefit everyone, not just that half or so of the population whose cancers are preventable.

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Canyoning on Dominica

Hilary and I spent the New Year on the island of Dominica, a small island nation in the eastern Caribbean. On the 2nd of January we took a canyoning trip with Ti Nath Kanion. Nathalie, the proprietor and guide, did a great job. The trip was easy to arrange via e-mail, once I figured out what the email was. And despite some issues with the web form there was adequate communication to get the job done.

I didn’t ask, but base on the dreadlocks and “Lion of Judha” sticker on her SUV I’m guessing Nathalie is a Rastaferian, or something like it. Dominica is mostly Catholic, but there were plenty of Rastaferians in evidence, and I saw a handbill warning against the dangers of voodoo, so I assume there is a moderate amount of heterodoxy about. Nathalie is an energetic French woman in her forties. She has been doing this for many years, and seen the river reshape the canyon many times.

She was already taking two people on this trip, leaving no room in her vehicle for two more, so we followed her into the mountains in our rental Land Rover. This was my first experience with the inland mountain roads in Dominica and they make the coast road look like a superhighway. They are not much better than bad logging roads in BC, with even more extreme hills and switchbacks, and more frequent wash-outs and diversions. There are many places where it is a struggle to get up the hill (and around the corrner at the same time) and many other places where the downhill grade is roller-coaster steep. The landscapes were gorgeous but I mostly caught glimpses while keeping the car on the road.

There was a transient detour required by a garbage truck being slowly loaded while stopped square in the road, and if I hadn’t been able to follow Nathalie back to Roseau at the end of the trip I would still be driving in circles and into dead ends somewhere the mountains.

Canyoning is the enterprise of climbing down river canyons. The Ti Tou Gorge is “suitable for beginners”, apparently, although it was quite an experience regardless. The river was running moderately after being impassable due to heavy rains last week. It can apparently rise five meters in an hour, and there are very few emergency climb-ups to get away from the rising water. To be “true” canyoning, according to Nathalie, it should be impossible to escape without going through. It is no surprise Nathalie is also a caver, spending the late summer and fall of Dominica’s hurricane season as a cave guide in France.

Frigate birds are circling in the sky, over the sparkling blue water, as I write this sitting on the veranda of the public library in Roseau, Dominica’s capital.

The first rappel was relatively simple: a straight drop on the rock down to a deep pool that you could splash off the end of the rope into. Getting to it required a roped traverse over the river, which is only a few feet wide in most places when it is low. At the trailhead–where there is room for over half a dozen vehicles to park with no problem–we got geared up in thin wetsuits over our bathing suits, and then into sit harnesses.

All the gear is supplied except water shoes or similar. The hiking part of the trip is pretty lightweight, so water shoes will do fine. They must have a closed toe for protection, though.

Nathalie is very safety-conscious. The gear was in good shape, each sit harness had double carabiners on one metre pigtails, as well as a heavy descender that goes on last, after Nathalie has inspected your harness for snugness and correctness. There was also a good sturdy helmet for each of us. Nathalie had to work to get hers on over her dreadlocks.

Then the traverse to the first rappel, and down we go!

This was Hilary’s first time on a rope, and she did very well. I watched from the pool below as she descended, and then we swam together to the rocks on the downstream side as the other couple–youngsters from Birmingham–came down, followed by Nathalie herself, after looping the rope she could bring it down after.

For our descents, Nathalie kept the tail of the rope in her hand until we were half way down, so if we did slip she could catch us. Lower than half way that wasn’t possible, but then, the fall wouldn’t be so great, either.

Dominica has no helicopter, so if you fall and break something, be prepared for a difficult extraction and hope your fellow canyoners have strong backs. The waiver you sign at the start is quite thorough, and includes a bold statement at the end, “You acknowledge that the Government of Dominica is not responsible for anything.” Really.

The first rappel completed, we came to the first–and likely the highest–jump. Due to rains the previous week, the river had risen and fallen since Nathalie’s last trip. Therefore one of us had to rappel down and check for underwater obstacles–trees or rocks–that might have washed down to make the jump dangerous. The jump is over the falls and about four metres, leaping out past the white water at the bottom. Nathalie wants to see everyone do a shallow jump back into the pool we had just rappelled down into to ensure good, safe style, which in this case is legs together, knees relaxed and a bit bent, arms close to the body. The idea is to be ready for anything you might land on, and not have your arms sticking out to catch on anything like a tree branch that might be lurking on the periphery.

Hilary volunteered to rappel down and check the bottom, wearing swimmer’s goggles under her helmet for the purpose. After she had signaled the all clear I jumped, plunging into the deep water beyond the splash zone around the falls. Glorious.

The Birminghams jumped as well, and Nathalie came down more sedately, and we moved on down to the next section.

I can’t go through the descent section by section because it is all blurred together in my mind, one amazing experience after another. We free rappelled down a waterfall, which was an experience. Feet off the rock, water pounding on my head, unable to see up, down or sideways. You just keep on descending, keeping both hands on the rope, until clear of the fall and the rocky shelf below appears.

The views are ridiculous. I didn’t take a camera, and am not much of photographer in any case, but the deep rock cuts and twisting water falls and swirling pools are burned into my memory. There was one point on a free rappel when I drifted through three hundred sixty degrees in mid-air, taking in the fall and the rock and the jungle and the sky. It was incredible.

One fall has a deep hole at the bottom where the rock is being ground away. We had instructions not to descend into it, but land on the rock adjacent and clamber down, as the hole might contain rocks or trees. By its appearance it might well have been the lair of some monster of the river, which would rise up to consume all as we descended. Either that or beg for a pat on the nose and a cookie. It is a surreal landscape, and I expect surreal things to happen there.

Several of the jumps were into water only two meters deep or so, which Nathalie recommended we do in a “bombe”, which I would call a “cannonball”. That was an abundance of caution, as the water was plenty deep in all places. It never hurts to take care, though.

The river had changed since the last time she had traversed it, before the rains of the previous week. There was a large rock blocking one narrow passage that we had to scramble over. It had been rolled into place during the high water. There was also a fixed traverse rope that had worn to the point of replacement, so we paused while Nathalie swapped it with a new one she had brought along. Sailors and climbers use almost completely different knots, and although my climbing days are long behind me I recognized enough to know Nathalie was doing the job of tying things on properly.

The trip lasted almost three hours. There were pauses while the rest of the party descended, but it was pretty much continuous motion. The water was below body temperature and it did feel a little cold to some of the party after a couple of hours. I have an internal furnace that is set permanently to “High”, so it bothered me less, but the wetsuit was a definite comfort.

This is a lovely library, full of books. On a rack adjacent to me there is a tome called “The Wisdom of the Ancients” above a history of Berlin in 1945, beside a history of the Victorians, with a scattering of Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins and Elizabeth George in between. I want to be fourteen again and read them all, safe and secure in this sacred space, knowing they were opening up the greater world, but never guessing they would lead me to a place where I would rappel and swim and jump down a deep river gorge surrounded by tropical jungle with a woman who loves me.

There was one deep pool near the bottom of the gorge that had water dripping over the cliff-top far above. Streams of droplets fell lazily under the force of gravity through the almost still air, spreading out as they fell, taking well over a second to fall the thirty meters or so to the surface of the pool. They broke up as they fell, shedding mist that was wafted in all directions by the gentlest of breezes. And the lines of falling droplets wobbled under the influence of the turbulent rills they were born from, the squiggly pattern of the water across the rock being reproduced and amplified in the stream that fell. It was magical.

At the bottom, just past a fragile natural bridge of stone, we paused for a drink and a snack, and hiked about twenty minutes up a relatively easy path to get back to our starting point. While we were taking off our gear, before she even had her wetsuit off, Nathalie stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it up. This is possibly the most French thing I have ever seen.

Many things were wonderful about this trip to Dominica, including some truly fantastic skin diving where I saw an eagle ray, a fair-sized lobster, a puffer fish (unpuffed, and I did not disturb it) and more. But this trip down Ti Tou Gorge was easily the outdoor highlight of the trip, full of beauty and adventure. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who is is decent physical shape, not afraid of a jump or two (all the jumps are optional, but so much fun!) and willing to take a little reasonable risk for an unreasonably beautiful experience.

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2016 in Review

2016 was not a good year for a lot of people. Mine got better as it went on.

In the first part of the year a ten-year relationship came to an end, and for all the difficulties of that time I am going to remember one important thing: we both fought as hard as we could to save what we had, and when we reached the end of that part of our journey together we could both honestly say, “I gave it all I had.” That is no small thing, and may be the essence of love, even between two people who could not in the end bridge the gap between them. We remain friends, and that too is no small thing.

There were other adventures in the first half of the year in skiing, improv, sailing, and business that kept me insanely busy until the end of June. There were also some interesting interpersonal times in there, too.

In June I decided it was time to take the summer off of having a personal life, to say goodbye to all that and focus on just two things: sailing and musical improv. Which if you’d told me at the start of 2016 is what I’d be doing in the summer I would have laughed. Not so much the sailing–I was already looking for a new boat–but musical improv?

I got into musical improv in early 2016 because I had the opportunity, and I was afraid. Terrified, really. I’ve always been told I “can’t sing”. I had a non-singing part in a musical in high school, and the audition for the singing parts of that show is probably the last time sang alone in public. On top of that life-long fear, my hearing aides were wearing out, and I was having more and more trouble catching the sense of scenes in regular improv, so the thought of dipping my toe into musical improv–as a deaf man who “can’t sing” and who was dealing with some pretty significant social anxiety issues on top of that–was even more scary.

Going to Jennifer Pielak’s first musical improv happy jam makes it into the top ten scariest things I have ever done, including the time I had to deploy my reserve parachute because my main had opened as a tangled collection of brightly-coloured garbage flapping merrily above my head as I plunged toward the ground at lethal velocity.

The difference is that pulling the reserve rip chord in the lonely autumn sky is one of the most solitary things I’ve ever done, whereas opening my throat to sing the first time at that drop-in workshop I was surrounded by supportive, wonderful people. There were certainly stumbles all along the way, but from that very first happy jam I knew I wanted more. Musical improv combines two of my very favourite things: poetry and theatre. And it does it in all the right ways, grounding the theatre in authentic relationships and expressing the emotions through the poetry of song. All of it with amazing people.

2016 included three courses and countless drop-ins and mixers, plus extra coaching with a musical improv troupe I’m part of. And three improvised musical performances, as well as many songs on various stages with a wide variety of wonderful people. I took singing lessons over the summer–should have done that the first time I was told I can’t sing!–and plan to continue to focus on musical improv in the new year. Because joy.

So that was kind of unexpected. I got new hearing aides in the midst of it all, and a friend who hadn’t talked to me for a couple of months after I got them commented when we ran into each other again, “Your voice is different.” That’s what being able to hear yourself will do!

Then there was sailing, which started out with me falling on my (thankfully-wetsuit-covered) ass on a sea urchin and ended in finding love.

In late June I single-handed up the Sunshine Coast and over to Lasqueti Island, where I spent few days canoeing and snorkeling around the bays and rocks and reefs–and falling on my butt–and hiking on Jedidiah Island Marine Park. I needed to spend time alone.

“Murrelet”, the old Bayfield 29 I bought in January, proved to be a comfortable and easy sailer, although I had a fairly amusing adventure in anchoring in Smuggler’s Cove Marine Park on the second night out, which involved every imaginable global failure on my part while doing everything locally right. The good news is, through excellent seamanship I managed to avoid collisions with other vessels, while at the same time having everything else go wrong. It was an educational experience.

That trip was cut short by a call from my brother, saying our mother had had a stroke, and I ran under power for Nanaimo across the quiet sea, through the long summer dusk, as a gentle rain fell out of the iron-grey sky. I made it into hastily-arranged moorage just before dark, and saw Mom in hospital. Since then she has made a remarkable recovery, and I’m still betting she’ll outlive me. Old people, as Sir Terry Pratchett reminded us, have a lifetime to practice not dying. They’re really good at it.

The second trip was different. Much earlier in the year my friend Hilary and I had arranged to sail together through the Gulf Islands in August. We were briefly a couple many years ago, and have since made a lot of art together from poemed illustrations to goofy Dr Suess-style stories to experiments in illustrated web-serials. She lives in Montreal, and we see each other every year or so, and go sailing when we can.

We’ve sailed together before, but this was the first time in over ten years that we were both single, and there was something in the air between us. I’d been single for only a few months, though, and it took us by surprise, so we both simply enjoyed being with each other, and let it be. It was a great trip, despite running out of fuel off Saltspring Island and a very rough crossing of the Strait in a moderate North-West gale on the way home.

In early September she called me from Montreal and asked, ‘Why didn’t things work out between us?’ I could have answered in a few simple words, but I wasn’t sure they were true any more. So we talked. And we talked. And we talked.

In early October I said ‘I have to know’ and booked a ticket to Montreal. I flew out on the last weekend of October, and was there for a very few minutes before I realized this was probably who I was going to spend the rest of my life with.

It’s early days yet, but she’s turned in her resignation at work and she will be moving out to live with me early in the new year. I’ve found a place for us in Kits.

All of which surprised the hell out of me while at the same time seeming completely inevitable.

This year reminds me of a line from Steven Brust’s much-under-rated Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill: “I laughed. I cried. I fell down. It changed my life.”

That’s what this year has been like, from falling down while clambering over reefs off Lasqueti, to crying while breaking up, to laughing with Hilary. It changed my life.

2016 was the Year of Self-Acceptance. I have struggled with who I am versus who I’m “supposed to be” for a long time. Most people do. In 2016 I made a very fundamental choice to simply be who I am, and everything else followed from that.

At the end of last year I wrote:

The year to come? I dunno. I never know why I do what I do until I’ve done it, and I never know where I’m going ’til I get there, and then look back and see the inexorable logic of the decisions that determined my way. I have another book or two in the fermentation phase beyond the novel mentioned above. There’s one about god and there’s one about science and there’s something to do with iron, or coupled stochastically driven oscillators, or something, which is apparently why I upgraded my Mathematica license.

But I also said:

My life experience tells me that when I set my course and am clear about my objective, I get where I want to go.

In 2017 I have increasingly clear objectives, and am setting my course to pursue them. It is going to be the Year of Creation, or pursuing the new direction I have set myself. A few of my goals have to do with work, which I won’t talk about here, but which has been going fairly well and which is a necessary thing to enable the rest. The others involve business, sailing, music, improv, poetry, and writing. And joy. And love.

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An Individualist Humanist in a Tribal World

Stand on a beach some time, somewhere well up on dry land. Above the high water mark. Notice you don’t drown.

Then walk down toward the water. If the wind is blowing and the water is rough, there will be a boundary region that’s maybe a metre or more wide where the land is wet but the water isn’t really there.

The boundary, the edge, isn’t really very sharp. In fact, the very word “beach” was invented because there is no infinitely crisp line between land and water. The edge is so fuzzy that it was useful to invent a word for the breadth of it: beach.

Keep walking, and pretty quickly you’ll be swimming.

This is important. Reflect on it: you started off on dry land. You ended up in water over your head. This despite the complete lack of any infinitely sharp dividing line between the two.

Remember this the next time you hear someone say, “Where do you draw the line?” as if the difficulty in drawing a line between two things means there is no difference between them. It isn’t easy to draw the line between land and water, but most of us still have no problem not drowning when we’re on the right side of it.

The world is not given to us in sharp, crisply divided categories. Water and land overlap. Good and evil blur into each other. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between them. It means that the sharp edges we draw between them are somewhat arbitrary. They are constrained by reality but not determined by it: anyone who decided that the appropriate place to draw the edge between land and sea fell somewhere in Saskatchewan would be wrong. But different people might will draw the line in different places on the beach.

Each one of them, though, will likely have the sense that there is a line, and that it is a sharp line, a discontinuity between land and water. That is because there really is a discontinuity: the discontinuity of our attention. We choose to attend to one side of the line as “water” and the other side as “land”. Our attention has no mass, no energy, no momentum. It can move vast distances instantaneously. It can react to changes in the world without us even noticing.

All edges, all crisp, discontinuous, categorical distinctions, are the edges of our attention, imposed on the world by us, constrained by the underlying reality if they are to serve our purposes as knowing subjects.

Not everyone has the same purposes, though. Many people–most people–go out in the world each day with the intent to divide, to Other, to tribalize. They use the way they attend to the world to draw lines around groups of people, to create edges within the human population: this group is separated because of skin colour, that group is treated differently because of their Y chromosome or lack thereof, or the way their sexuality is presented. Tribalists have a desperate need to use their attention to draw edges between groups of people.

Tribalists disagree both on where to draw their edges and what the relationship between the tribes should be. Most tribalists identify themselves with the dominant tribe and attempt to impose both the edges they draw and the value judgements they make on the tribes they have created by doing so. To one group of tribalists “Christians” vs “non-Christians” is the dominant division. To another “Progressives” vs “Conservatives” is what matters. To another it is “Whites” vs “non-Whites” or “Women” vs “Men” or “Gay” vs “Straight” or “Vanilla” vs “Kinky”.

All tribes are created by the edges of the tribalist’s attention to human beings. The world is not given to us in sharp edges.

Tribalists insist that the edges of their attention have traced out the contours of something that is real and important to the world, although unlike edges that are more usefully constrained by reality, tribalist’s edges are all over the place. Tribalists always end up insisting that they have special perceptions and that the people they are busying Othering not only lack those perceptions but are permanently unable to experience them.

This is a good way to win arguments, apparently, that has worked for thousands of years: claim special privileges and perceptions for yourself and your tribe and then viciously attack anyone who suggests you’re just a power-hungry wanker with an axe to grind. It worked for the Church for many centuries, and in the 20th century secular wankers got in on the scam in a big way.

To a humanist–someone whose understanding of the world is informed by a deep belief that nothing human is alien to me, that no one’s experience is beyond my imagining–these claims of special perception by one tribe or another don’t even look self-consistent: they necessarily claim to have special knowledge of what the other tribe can or cannot have special knowledge of, but once you have granted that one tribe can know things others cannot, how can you possibly claim to know what another tribe knows? Tribalism is necessarily viciously hierarchical and anti-humanist, because the answer to that question is always, “My tribe is special, and I will kill/shame/attack/destroy you if you dare disagree.”

So not only are the edges tribalists draw mutually inconsistent they are not even self-consistent unless you grant one tribe or another the privileges of special perceptions that allow them to tell all the other tribes what they are or are not capable of perceiving. Tribalists always end up claiming special privileges for themselves because they can’t defend their preferred divisions of humanity by reference to any interesting constraints found in reality. To gain power for themselves and their tribe is the only use and purpose that tribalist’s edges have.

Tribalists–like all humans–are only able to keep five or ten things in mind at once, and so they necessarily insist on imposing on hundreds of millions or billions of people a small, stupid, simplistic set categories that has almost no explanatory power regarding anything of significance.

Unsurprisingly, there is a war of tribalisms going on today.

That these tribalists are fighting for different tribal divisions and privileging different tribes within their preferred scheme of tribal hatred does not make one group better than the other. They are all equally sad, at root. Lost children, ur-humans, huddled in their caves and denying the humanity of others.

I am an individualist humanist, or possibly a humanist individualist. That is not my nature: I am, like everyone else, heir to the tribal impulses that have divided humans from each other for as long as their have been humans.

But like any ordinarily decent person I do what I can to overcome those impulses. I don’t found political parties or university departments or think tanks or websites dedicated to Othering most of humanity for power and profit.

I don’t entirely despair of humanity, despite current events. We have come a long way since when our tribe was our family, or our village, or our county. We now have tribes that span the world, and anyone who isn’t a completely hate-filled husk of a human being is trivially capable of seeing that what supposedly divides us is far less than what actually unites us.

We are all humans, sharing the common vagaries of the human condition, and we are all individuals, each unique in our perspective and experiences.

Our uniqueness is part of our commonality. We each of us know what it is like to be alone in the world, the only one who sees through our eyes, who knows and feels what we feel. It is something we all share with every other human being on the planet, and the unfortunate people who would divide us into tribes based on irrelevancies necessarily try to erase all of that. As artists and as human beings we need to politely decline to do so.

This is important, because not only does tribalism make our lives smaller and poorer and uglier, attempting to divide humanity into tribes or to unite individuals into tribes always results in a mess, often the large economy-sized mess known as “war”. Tribalists today are working hard to make that happen, because war serves their end: by convincing arbitrarily created tribes to hate each other, the people of their own tribe will band together more tightly. That makes tribalists feel less alone, more powerful, and more loved.

Tribalists lack the intellectual capacity to feel at one with humanity–to make humanity their tribe–so they necessarily choose a smaller division as their own, and then foment hatred and division to solidify the feeling of security they get from that. Tribalists thrive on hate because for them, love of humanity isn’t enough. Without the contrast of another tribe to hate they cannot feel fully bonded with their own tribe.

Tribalists, like all humans, need love, and they sow hatred to help them feel that. If we love them regardless of their hate-mongering and divisiveness we may be able to get them thinking on a large enough scale that they can see themselves as simply “humans” rather than left or right, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian. Of course, there is a rather strong implication regarding both the rule of law and a certain level of social and economic equality in that. It’s unreasonable to talk about our common humanity if we aren’t serious about making sure everyone is fed and has a roof over their head and is reasonably secure in their person.

Tribalists need love. I’m going to do my best to remember that in the coming weeks and months and years, as more and more of my friends succumb to the powerful and natural tribalist impulse, and willfully contribute to the hatred and divisiveness that is currently encroaching on our world.

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