Hiking the West Coast Trail

By Benjamin Massey · October 3rd, 2017 · 1 comment

I have a bad head for heights. Earlier this year, in the Sooke Potholes Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, I got to show it off spectacularly. On the second day of a backcountry backpack through an area with no official trails, I found myself walking atop the Sooke Flowline, an abandoned water main that once provided drinking water to the people of Victoria. This was intended; missing my turn was not, and with the trails obscure and sometimes unmarked I was lost in spite of my GPS. I didn’t worry at first; I knew the Flowline led to the highway, from which I could not be far, so I stuck to the route rather than bushwhack in an area of valleys and cliffs.

This was a mistake. The pipe soon turned from nicely winding along the ground to perilously perched increasingly high above the forest. Fewer people come this way (because it’s wrong), so the slippery moss growing atop the old concrete was becoming more hazardous. Where there was no moss it was only because a falling boulder had punched a hole in the pipe. It was uncomfortable but not actually dangerous, until suddenly it really, really was.

I don’t clearly remember the context. The ground had been getting further and further away, then it was gone. Replaced by cliffs and the Sooke River, with the pipe that had suddenly turned aquaduct crossing at a height of about a trillion miles. It was definitely far enough. There was no escape save across the concrete pipe, which was say four feet in diameter, slippery with moss, full of holes, and, as pipes tend to be, round. I was already tired from a long day, it had been wet, I of course had 40 pounds of camping stuff on my back, doing a pirouette to turn around with so little traction and absolutely fatal consequences for a slip seemed more dangerous than proceeding. But if I crossed that river I better find something good on the other side or I’d never find the courage to cross it again.

I did cross it, and I did find something good, and I got out and it was fine. But I learned a couple useful things. One, it’s not possible for me to be literally “scared shitless” because if it was I would know. Two, although I’m fine in mountains, steep boulder fields a kilometre and a half up, and suspension bridges, when hiking my fear of heights can still be an obstacle.

So that’s how I found myself hiking the West Coast Trail, 47 miles of beach and forest and up and down just north of my old friend the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, between the Vancouver Island communities of Port Renfrew and Bamfield. The West Coast Trail is famous for its beauty, its rugged remoteness, its immense popularity, and for its ladders. Dozens of ladders, all across the trail, up to a hundred feet high, climbing sheer cliffs, where one slip means certain death, in one of the rainiest climates in the world.

I might be an idiot. I got vertigo just from the Google Images search. But, with a week of vacation left in my pocket for 2017 and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail already under my belt in August, I browsed Parks Canada’s website just for fun and found that, almost unbelievably, this highly popular trail had one precious opening to depart from the Gordon River trailhead, by Port Renfrew, on September 16. So I booked it, and I went, and this is what it was like. This is 11,000 words long, and will mostly be of interest to friends and family, but might also have some tips if you are planning a trip yourself. (It certainly has one, a very big one that I could have used in your place.)

Just like last time, this is based off a diary written at the time, then cleaned up and tied together after the fact. All figures are from my GPS watch and should be considered both approximate and “as the Ben runs,” except for the distance remaining, which is approximated from Parks Canada’s official trail map based on the day’s campsite. Since the official kilometre markers don’t include things like getting up and down from your beachside campsite, nor potential detours, your hike will always be longer than the official distance. That said, my GPS is prone to occasional fake news and everybody’s path is different.

By the way, if you’re expecting photographic brilliance, I’m afraid it’s all cell phone photos for this post. Some of them suck, some of them don’t. You’ll find out why.


Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2017 · 2 comments

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a 47-kilometre back country backpacking trail, along the south coast of Vancouver Island between China Beach (west of Sooke) and Botanical Beach (a 45-minute walk south of Port Renfrew), paralleling British Columbia Highway 14.

No, you’re thinking of the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail is half-again as long, filled with vertiginous ladders, cable cars, and boat rides, and about ten times more famous. The Juan de Fuca Trail is the West Coast Trail’s misshapen bastard brother. You can do them both in one huge trip, connecting through Port Renfrew, but there’s no doubt who the alpha dog is.

I’ve never done the West Coast Trail. I have now done the Juan de Fuca Trail, and my choice was pure practicality: the three-day August long weekend was already coming, and I’d worked enough overtime to win a fourth. The recommended time to spend on Juan de Fuca is four days; for us ordinary Joes the West Coast Trail takes seven. So on Wednesday I was booking buses and a night in Victoria, on Thursday I was on the move, and on Friday I was hiking.

Naturally I had a trail guide. Published in 1998 and allegedly revised in 2008, Donald C. Mills’s Giant Cedars, White Sands paints an idyllic picture:

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail gives hikers the freedom to use the trail any time. They need not make reservations or pay for trail or ferry permits. The bridges, boardwalks, and suspension bridges are very safe. The Trail is forty-seven kilometers long and can be hiked in part, as a day hike, or hiked all at once, in four to six days. Whether you are a novice or an expert hiker, you will want to experience this new and challenging trail.

As a dissenting view, let us take VancouverElizabeth‘s review via TripAdvisor, from June 29 of this year:

Dangerous Trail.

Just hiked this trail. The trail is seriously degraded. There has been no upgrades in 20 years. At some parts the trail is poorly marked. There is a considerable amount of deep mud and the trail is steep, slippery and difficult to navigate. A challenging trail with many obstacles and many parts that are dangerous.

One star.

VancouverElizabeth’s is the truer analysis. The fine backcountry constructions have become at best worn, at worst ruins. Almost every staircase is missing at least one step, maybe half are only relics in the dirt. Even in a bone-dry summer the mud was unavoidable and thick, while erosion has made steep slopes worse and some flat parts risky. I didn’t find navigation difficult but there are open areas where I can see how one might, and there are opportunities to pass the last marker on a beach and wander into the wild until you run out of either land or patience. Slippery? Definitely, when I did it, despite the drought. It’s probably hard to get yourself killed, but easy to bust an ankle hours from highway and help. Oh, and this part of Vancouver Island is one of the world’s leading black bear habitats.

I disagree with VancouverElizabeth in two ways. First, there have been a few upgrades in twenty years. Over four days I saw nine wood planks that had obviously been replaced since the hardware was originally installed in the late 1990s. So there.

Second, and maybe I’m feeling generous because it was my first multi-day thruhike after a year of one- or two-night ins-and-outs, but it was better than one star. Dangerous, sure, tiring, in spots, but that’s part of the fun. And there were rewards. I wouldn’t leap up and down to call it “a world-class adventure hike” (in the words of Giant Cedars, White Sands) but I might do it again.

This diary is largely for myself, so I can look back years from now and say “oh yeah that was neat.” People making plans might find aspects useful, and I’ve provided statistics for each of my four days. But mostly, this is for buddies and family who want to read about what I’m doing. General interest is likely to be limited. That’s right, blogging it old-school.

There is no cell service or wifi so I wrote each entry in camp and put them together back home. So don’t think this is any sort of as-it-happens diary: they’re a day’s impressions cleaned up after the fact. I hiked westbound, from the China Beach trailhead to Port Renfrew, but the other direction is also popular.

Trigger warning: this post contains materials that may cause distress to readers sensitive to cheap wooden staircases falling apart in public parks. Please read on at your own risk. Emotional counsellors and psychiatric advise are available through the City of Toronto.


I won’t vote. Will you?

By Benjamin Massey · May 9th, 2017 · No comments

Happy election day, fellow British Columbians! Today Canada’s left-most province heads to the polls to determine whether the Liberals or the New Democrats will spend four years being hated by half the politically-passionate population for their greed, cynicism, and incompetence. (The Greens, who have a good chance of winning seats and none of forming government, get to be hated for denying power to whichever of the big two doesn’t win. Nobody said virtue was easy.)

Unless you are unhealthily partisan and in need of a holiday, the question of which party you should support is not important since they are all terrible. I know everybody always says all parties are terrible but seriously, in British Columbia they’re all terrible. Even the ones which get nine votes are terrible. Nothing good has come out of a British Columbia election since Amor De Cosmos.

So of course, the only thing every British Columbian who thinks about politics can agree on is that you should definitely vote for one of these losers.

Some of these calls come from those political obsessives who’ve spent the past thousand years filling your Facebook with campaign advertising and is convinced that anybody who stuck it out with him this long is sure to vote the right way. “Please, friends, remember to get out and vote today, the sooner to drag our enemies into the street and beat them to death with sacks of their ill-gotten loot.” Many of these people are likable in civilian life and will spend tonight getting either very sad drunk or very happy drunk, so a generous mind will view these with the same polite indulgence you give any friend whining about work problems you have no investment in.

But a second group believes that voting is a sacred duty which must be evangelized by advertisements and Twitter posts. For the past month British Columbians have been treated, at taxpayer expense, to the handsomely-made-up face of former hockey star Trevor Linden telling people “I vote.” Good for him. Linden is currently “president, hockey operations” at the Vancouver Canucks, who just finished 29th in a 30-team league. I am disinclined to take him as a role model.

Voting is never bad. That doesn’t make it an strict obligation. If you skip jury duty or dodge your taxes, other citizens must take up the burden; not so for the non-voter. If you do not vote, you most certainly may complain. If you do not use your vote, there is no reason to think you might lose it. (Not to Godwin myself, but turnout for the November 1932 Reichstag election that led to Hitler taking power was over 80% despite the previous election having been in July.) Even an election with low turnout amounts to a poll of the 50-some percent of the population that has the most interest in the result; pollsters get reasonable accuracy with samples one one-thousandth that size. It is impossible to imagine how more uninterested people being forced to cast ballots could make anything better.

My riding is contested only by a Liberal, a New Democrat, and a Green. No hopeless minor party candidate or independent trying to get his deposit back. Even as individuals the candidates are lousy: two generic pious-left-wing-big-government professional politicians and a Toronto-educated hippie who worked at the Pembina Institute. The thought of casting a ballot for one of those causes violent shaking and intermittent but energetic vomiting of blood.

Proponents of turnout truthiness would tell me to spoil my ballot. Write “DEEZ NUTS” across the paper as a protest against the province’s filth-spewing political machines! If enough of us did it, it could theoretically make a difference, as a tolerable candidate would see the massive DEEZ NUTS turnout and say “I’m sure I could win these guys over, even though all I know is that they think the Liberals, NDP, and Greens suck and have nothing better to do on a Tuesday.”

I am not aware of a case where this has worked. In the most recent French election, a relatively-colossal 11.5% of voters either spoiled their ballot or left it blank. This has been widely noted and covered in the press. It seems that choosing between Creepy Cuck and High-Heel Hitler provoked a great deal of discontent. However, honestly, we knew that already. Many other candidates tried to break through to the French presidency, they just failed in the first round. What do those spoiled ballots prove, “we would rather have voted for the guy we voted for earlier?” Cool.

Voting “none of the above” does not automatically lead to better options; how could it even theoretically, when reactionary me and my full-Communist neighbour would both go down as “spoiled or invalid?” Several new Canadian parties have formed in my lifetime and become successes, but none rose out of spoiled-ballot indignation.

Spoiling my ballot would spend my own time, that of everybody behind me in line, and that of our kind election volunteers, to achieve nothing. The only thing preventing a spoiled ballot from being the acme of narcissism is that the vote is secret, so I’d need a ballot selfie to show what a transgressive badass I am. Pulling an Australia and compelling me to vote would make my life and the lives of other well-meaning citizens worse for no gain. Admittedly this would be so in-character for British Columbia politics I’m amazed they haven’t already done it.

As to the idea of endorsing a hateful candidate to stick it to candidates I like even less, this is such a negative approach that its toxicity hurts everything it touches. A vote should be to support some ideal, not to oppose somebody else’s out of resentment. It encourages terrible parties that can count on a large “keep the bastards out!” vote to stay terrible, which British Columbians know something about, erodes the chance for new parties to make our politics less bad, and reduces democracy to spite.

If you have a dog in this fight, or you don’t really but still have an opinion strong enough to be worth the time and trouble, vote away. However you may spare the sanctimony for us non-voters, who are not invariably lazy freeloaders on your holy labour of democracy. We may have our reasons not to endorse any part of our province’s poisonous political pu-pu platter, and “because I have something better to do” is a valid one. If our candidates are so awful that their visions are less compelling than staying at work, don’t blame the victims for it.

Cracked backs change tacks in the hack

By Benjamin Massey · February 15th, 2017 · No comments

Curling is awesome. It belongs to the people in a way no other major sport does. And curling is major: its championships are broadcast, its stars get endorsement deals, its television ratings routinely outdraw soccer in Canada, it’s in the Olympics and a gold medal is realistic for more countries than, say, the men’s 100-metre sprint. The fact that it maintains its proletarian atmosphere in this day and age is nothing short of a miracle. It makes the sport entertaining even apart from the fun on the ice, and there’s plenty of that.

Next to no curlers make a living off the game; even touring pros are happy to turn a profit, and almost everybody holds down a job in the curling industry or with a sympathetic boss who doesn’t mind an employee telecommuting for most of the winter. Important tournaments, with cash prizes, take place in ordinary local clubs, staffed by volunteers with tickets priced within most means. The prestigious Canadian Open was most recently played in the 14,000-strong town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and the men’s Elite 10 will take place in the even smaller Cape Breton community of Port Hawkesbury. In these little clubs, the shouts and even conversations of the players ring through the rafters, and a joke much above a whisper will make hundreds of fans laugh. In a televised tournament the players, however humble, wear microphones, and audibly struggle to police themselves for obscenity. Curling may be the only professional sport with strict rituals about which athletes buy drinks. Where most athletes engage expensive public relations firms to make them look good on social media, curling has the legendary Glenn Howard’s daughter Carly retweeting photos and complaining about ice conditions. It is certainly the team sport where men’s and women’s teams draw the most equal amounts of fan attention, and female curlers became famous because they threw good rocks, not because of their looks or because it was politically correct1. Even mixed curling has a solid following, and a modified format with one man and one woman (“mixed doubles”) will be in the 2018 Olympics.

Find three friends of the same sex and you could be playing in the 2018 World Championships. All you need to do is join a curling club, enter your regional curling playdown, win, gain entry to your provincial championship, win again, qualify for the national championships, and win once more. Your costs are some cheap equipment, hotels (or camping; it’s been done), airfare once you reach the national stage, a few hundred bucks in fees, maybe ice time for practice if you’re feeling ambitious. Every year, every single year, there are teams at the Canadian championships who nobody has heard of, who came out of nowhere, who have only the most hastily-cobbled together sponsorship and who will beat one of the world’s best on national television. Then there’s the age factor: this year’s men’s Canadian championship features skips from 61-year-old Jim Nix of Nunavut to 25-year-old Brendan Bottcher of Alberta, with most of the field in their mid- to late 30s. For the sports fan sick of feeling old every time they turn on TSN, curling is the cure.

This year’s Canadian women’s championship, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, has seen favourites massacred by amateurs before it has even started. With the exception of the defending champion every team must qualify through its province. Jennifer Jones, who is only the 2014 Olympic gold medalist, lost in Manitoba. A deep Saskatchewan field fell victim to inexperienced Penny Barker. Nova Scotia favourite Jill Brothers was beaten by Mary Mattatall, an unknown sponsored by her family’s signage company. British Columbia was weak overall but the victory of veteran Marla Mallett, whose only previous moment in the spotlight was a surprise run eight years ago, was still a stunner. Of the ten top-ranked teams in the country only two will play for the national championship.

The best show was in Alberta. Venerable 41-year-old Heather Nedohin was called in to skip—make tactical decisions and play the vital last two shots every end—for the Shannon Kleibrink team, as the even-more-venerable 48-year-old Kleibrink had thrown her back out. Kleibrink, in a province featuring the young and world-class teams of Val Sweeting and Casey Scheidegger, was not expected to do much. Neither Nedohin nor Kleibrink curl “full-time.” Kleibrink has finished in the money at some modest tournaments in Alberta and British Columbia the past few years and is ranked surprisingly high but well behind the expected contenders. Nedohin “stepped back” from competitive play two years ago, giving up her professional-standard team to Manitoba transplant Chelsea Carey, and has contented herself with the same casual community events as thousands of her fellow curlers. When called upon Nedohin actually had to find a volunteer to cover her day job, as the Sherwood Park Curling Club she works at was in the middle of a major event.

That anonymous volunteer might be the biggest difference-maker of the 2017 curling season. Nedohin was perfect in the opening rounds of the Alberta provincials, including a win over former Prince Edward Island champion Geri-Lynn Ramsay, and cheered on the returning Kleibrink when the veterans twice beat Sweeting in the playoffs. The win sends Kleibrink, Nedohin, and their team of Lisa Eyamie, Sarah Wilkes, and Allison Thiessen2 to the Scotties in glamorous St. Catharines, Ontario. With Kleibrink’s back still a concern Nedohin will skip the occasional game at the national championships. It’s semi-common for teams at this level to rotate a player: usually a weaker rink swapping leads around every draw because they’re going to finish 1-9 anyway. But for skips to do it, and particularly two skips of such fame, is probably a first.

Five years ago Nedohin was a world-class curler in her own right, leading her team to the 2012 Canadian title by beating two World Champions (Jennifer Jones and Kelly Scott) in the playoffs after winning a difficult Alberta title against two Olympic medalists (Kleibrink and Cheryl Bernard). She also achieved unlooked-for immortality: after throwing an imperfect shot Nedohin rasped a frustrated “shitballs!” into her microphone, to the enduring delight of a national audience. These days she prefers “sugarballs” on Twitter, but we all know what she means.

Yet Nedohin is not highly-rated in hindsight, because she lost her World Championships semi-final to South Korean also-ran Kim Ji-sun, because she was only average trying to defend her Canadian title, and because she finished out of the playoffs at the 2013 Canadian Olympic trials: without doubt, the toughest curling tournament in the world. These are the standards we hold our curlers to. Kleibrink gets the same sort of disrespect. Ten years ago she won two Grand Slam tournaments, finished second to Jones at a Scotties, won the Canadian Curling Trials in 2005, and finished second twice more; she is the most successful woman in the Trials’ short history. But she never won the national title, never played at the Worlds, and, at the Turin Olympics, lost a semi-final to the world-class Swiss rink of Mirjam Ott, so off Kleibrink goes to the list of also-rans.

Of course the life of an athlete is sacrifice. Nedohin will miss the mixed doubles provincials this weekend in Camrose, which she would have formed an interesting team with her former-best-curler-alive husband David. But there might be a heck of a reward. As mentioned, this Scotties field is astonishingly uneven, and based off recent results Team Kleibrink/Nedohin may genuinely be a medal favourite. The only way to the trophy is if Ontario’s Rachel Homan self-destructs, but she’s by no means immune to that, and the Alberta fivesome ranks with the even-more-experienced Michelle Englot out of Manitoba, Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville, and defending champions Carey in the second tier. An upset to win the Canadian championship would only be a little more astonishing than the upsets that got them there, and then suddenly players who were supposedly done years ago would be getting free trips to China for the world championship.

Curling is awesome.

Snow way in heaven or hell

By Benjamin Massey · February 3rd, 2017 · No comments

It snows in Vancouver most years so how are we so terrible at it?

I’d call this town a “dumpster fire” but that carries an unfortunate implication of warmth. It took me something like two hours to make the thirty-minute trip to work this morning, but my co-workers didn’t mind since half of them couldn’t make it at all. The train was immobilized by the wrong type of snow, the buses were getting stuck, the queues were so long we went “oh to hell with that” and went for a walk through the flurries like we were proper Canadians instead of effete left-coasters. I’m hosting a couple visitors for the women’s soccer game, including the other 49.5 of 99 Friendship. She is from Montreal, and she was throwing shade at our transit system. How has it come to this?

Bitching is fun, but for catharsis I gotta really castrate some blameworthy fuckers.

You can’t hate someone for not stocking up more on “essential” equipment, because for 360 days of the year there’s nothing essential about it. As anybody in parts of the country with actual winters knows, no amount of money keeps a snowstorm from occasionally being a real pisser. In Vancouver I get not fitting snow tires when you’d need them twice, or trains freaking out for a bit, or the city not keeping a mechanized division of snowplows around and filling the Capilano reservoir with rock salt so, when the weather does the dirty, we get to work twenty minutes rather than two hours late. There’s a point, and in Vancouver it’s pretty early, where preparation is waste. This city burns enough cash without us encouraging them every time we get our umbrellas frosted.

Even some failings of intellect come with excuses. You don’t get much practice at driving in the snow so you won’t be very good at it, fine. Some people genuinely don’t seem to realize that they sell little brushes at 7-11 which you can use to sweep all that snow off your Porsche Cayenne’s windshield. It’s not something they’ve seen, it’s not a solution that’s occurred to them. But the carnage is usually limited to the initial orgy of destructiveness as the snow is falling; once a bit of plowing happens and guys in 30-year-old Miatas realize you won’t automatically do a powerslide if you take that left-hander above walking pace, we don’t wind up far above the usual Vancouver background noise of anarchy and uselessness. Heck, we had snow in December and the Canada Line kept ticking the whole time. In February we got unlucky but were back on our feet after an inconvenient but not indefinite horror show.

The lazy pricks who own homes in Vancouver can’t be arsed to shovel their sidewalks, and they are the worst people in the world. But this is not a Vancouver-only problem, though admittedly here those pricks are property owners and therefore by default multi-millionaires so hate has the delicious zest of envy. Anyway it’s not a chronic commute-lengthener for everyone, just a substantial commute-lengthener for the guys who slip on neutron star-dense ice and break their clavicles. Do what I do and stomp all over their lawns, it’s much safer that way. Besides, the ice wouldn’t be so bad if we were used to it, or we had serious winter temperatures that hung out at -15-odd instead of bouncing between barely freezing and barely thawing every day until the most effective way to get around town is a pair of skates.

So it’s not the City’s fault, particularly. And it’s not the people’s fault, much. It definitely isn’t my fault. Which leads us to the obvious culprit for why Vancouver turns a flurry into Captain Oates’s worst nightmare: God. Don’t worry, I’ll sort Him out. I may be some time.

Bullet points on loving science

By Benjamin Massey · January 31st, 2017 · No comments

  • What we call “science” is a thought process, not a sacrament. It is better understood as a verb than as a noun. It is seeing a question, coming up with an answer, running fair tests to see if the answer is accurate, and if it is not changing the answer and trying again. So knowledge evolves; it is Lamarckian, not Darwinian. This is the “scientific method,” which is the greatest idea any human minds have ever conceived.

  • There’s nothing about democracy or “consensus.” The idealized scientific question has one perfect answer, but questions and answers alike come from fallible humans. Mistakes are made, biases introduced. At any given time an excellent-seeming theory can be overthrown. This is how scientific progress happens, and when it does it must start with a small number of disciples trying to overturn consensus. Ideas that today seem ludicrously childish, like geocentrism or luminous æther, were believed in their time by people smarter than we are until the doubters won. Our great-grandchildren will say the same of some of our theories, and if we knew which ones were going to be wrong then we wouldn’t hold them in the first place.

    This is why scientific theories are so-called, and why the creationist who says “evolution is just a theory” is right in the wrong way. The word is a confession of imperfection and built-in doubt, not a tell that this idea is dodgier than any other. The possibility—even the certainty—of error, and willingness to correct it, is not so much “the foundation” as “the whole house.”

  • Therefore, saying that science can be “settled” is one of those route-one errors, like thinking Canada is a republic or Brideshead Revisited was by a woman, which reveals such a fundamental misunderstanding that the speaker should never be trusted on the subject again.

  • Yes, there are objective facts. Yes, some of them are as simple as “two and two make four.” But not many. Even real scientists can’t specialize in everything. Everybody gets most of his knowledge, not from dispassionate experiment, nor even from other people’s dispassionate experiments, but at best from a fourth person summarizing a third person’s examination of several experiments that were hopefully dispassionate. “Facts” treated with the infallibility of papal writ came to you by the telephone game, except you don’t know any of the players and half of them don’t really understand the words.

    Under the circumstances, a degree of humility is called for. If somebody interprets the world differently than you, it does not axiomatically follow that he is a more credulous and contemptible sheeple (sherson?). They are marching to a different drummer but you are both marching. The anti-vaccination Roosevelt-did-WTC the-moon-landing-was-faked-by-Jews type tends to better know the details and facts of his obsession than even a conscientious and informed citizen with the “correct” opinion, as you’ll find out in a hurry if you ever try to argue with one. This doesn’t mean they’re right. It does mean you should consider the health of your nice high horse.

  • Given these unavoidable limitations, automatically assuming that any interpretation of reality other than your own (or, as you might call it for brevity, an “alternative fact”) is trying to make two and two equal five reveals more doubts in the accuser than the accused.

  • With the above point in mind of course people lie, argue in bad faith, and act irrationally. Your deeply-held belief is not automatically wrong, and you should stick up for it. None of this, to the slightest degree, kneecaps your ability to argue.

    What matters is that the doubts built into the scientific method are not options to be ignored because you’re really really sure. They are the entire point: without the admitted possibility of error it becomes a less intellectual version of religion. It does not matter how angry you are. It does not matter what bastards they are. The doubt is the purpose.

    Further, it is possible that when somebody disagrees with you, even if you are definitely right, they are not being anti-scientific lunatics. You and your fellow-thinkers are not the only rational people. Even if you are a scientist in your specialist subject, your work is built on others’ and the odds are good there’s another scientist in the same specialist subject with a different opinion. Since you are actually some yahoo reading another yahoo’s blog with opinions on a billion varied subjects, saying your opponents must be committed to ignorance is galactic hubris. To claim a monopoly on truth is to claim the wisdom of God.

Homage to catatonia

By Benjamin Massey · January 28th, 2017 · 1 comment

The Americans had an election, meaning four more years of badly-microwaved Nineteen Eighty-Four metaphors. Colby Cosh just dealt with this (probably helping spur the Twitter reply that jogged this post), but the Donald can console himself knowing that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton got this treatment too. If you could persevere through enough Noam Chomsky, and I cannot, you could probably find examples going back to Lyndon Johnson. It’s an easy political trope because Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the only overtly political story whose plot every English-speaker broadly knows, in the same sense as Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. (Incidentally this is not because of its wisdom: plenty of anti-totalitarians had that. It’s because Nineteen Eighty-Four is, secretly, a very good novel.)

Orwell, who died seven sickly months after completing Nineteen Eighty-Four, never got to see it so mistreated. But he would have known how to deal with it if he had. His “Politics and the English Language” probably holds more insight per hundred words than any other work of English prose, and along with important political thoughts offers plenty of sound stylistic advice, the sort that takes conscious effort to apply and is therefore often ignored by people who should know better. One of his nemeses is the use of metaphors that are worthless for illustrating concepts but arise out of laziness. These are “dying metaphors;” he adds more under the heading of “pretentious diction” but his criticism of the former applies equally to the latter. How many of us actually know what makes a boot into a jackboot, and how few of us avoid the metaphor as a result?

This essay is more than seventy years old and most of those dying metaphors still hang on despite Orwell’s do-not-resuscitate order. Google any of them along with the word “Trump,” even Britishisms like “ring the changes,” and enjoy recent results from professional writers. Try it yourself. “Fishing in troubled waters,” which may actually be dead in most of the Anglosphere, appears only as a quote in a Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial but the writer likes it for the Trump campaign, so it counts. Perhaps it is a resurrected metaphor, breathing tubes shoved down its windpipe even as the doctors insist on its total brain death.

The entire essay could be aimed at modern political writing with a precision as far from Nostradamus as jackboots from tridents. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’;” bloody hell, that’s on the nose. “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Well, quite. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Apply that to whichever politician you hate most; it’s just as true for all of them.

Today, as in 1946, none of his critiques should offend your own politics. Orwell was a devout Socialist, with the capital “S,” for all his adult life, and his uninterest in the United States is infamous. It is impossible to imagine him having a millisecond for Donald Trump the celebrity/businessman, let alone Donald Trump the head of state1, but a Socialist who can be evenhanded with both Soviet Russia and Oswald Mosley would have been big enough to handle him. Orwell hated fascists enough to go to Spain and get shot through the throat by one, and by the way if you haven’t read Homage to Catalonia put your computer in the fridge and go do that. But he also had the maybe the most remarkable sense of perspective ever used in the service of literature, which is why he can survive, not only as a stylist but as a polemicist, decades after every man and every creed he inveigled against has turned to ash.

And so Nineteen Eighty-Four itself has become a dying metaphor. Big Brother in the novel is a specific kind of evil, but in your newspaper he’s anything vaguely authoritarian covering not only Trump and Obama but Google and Apple. Any metaphor that means so much really means very little. The fact that alt-rightists aren’t using Emmanuel Goldstein as a metaphor for controlled opposition must prove the book is no longer consciously mined for ideas but rather jabbed to out of reflex, the same as Orwell’s other bugbears. (What, incidentally, is a bugbear? Christ, sorry, George.) The number of people who use Nineteen Eighty-Four to make a contemporary political point and display fresh insight may actually be zero. There are writers who, perhaps, have the originality and the knowledge of Orwell to do it, but they also have the wisdom not to try.

If the rest of Orwell’s dying metaphors are any sign, this process will not get better in our lifetimes. Therefore Cosh is tilting at a windmill. Come to think of it, Don Quixote is 400 years old and that literary jousting metaphor is still dying. So Orwell isn’t special, but unlike Cervantes at least he left instructions on what to do with a metaphorical invalid.

The crooked setting things straight

By Benjamin Massey · November 16th, 2016 · No comments

Nearly every Western child must declare “when I’m grown up, I will have Cap’n Crunch in chocolate milk for every meal,” while our parents smile indulgently and force broccoli down our throats. Then we mature and discover that our parents were right: man cannot live on breakfast cereal alone (though in university he may, if he is me, give it a damned good try). But there is wide compensation, varying from single-malt or peach schnapps. Not convivial social drinking, loosening our tongues around friends and helping us hit on girls we’d normally have no shot with. I am referring to the oft-condemned, and just-as-oft-practiced, art of drinking alone.

Why do we drink alone? To get drunk. Hope this helps. But outside of the serious sodden-livers most soloists don’t get smashed off their faces and sing Abba songs on the balcony at 1 AM; at least, not often. We drink to relax, and to read or watch television or play video games or build Lego sets in an agreeably unusual state of consciousness. This is a habit as old as intoxicants; in these permissive days, your intoxicant doesn’t particularly have to be alcohol.

Done right you wake up fresh the next morning, get to work bang on time, and at the coffee counter you definitely say “I had a quiet night in” and not “I swallowed four flip throws, which are a little invention of my own that’s almost rummy egg nog but not quite, and plowed through a book that’s been half-finished for two weeks with fresh enthusiasm.” It is a private vice, and not entirely out of shame: there is nothing more horrible than the party where you have a case of liquor onboard but everyone else is as sober as the proverbial, and you rattle on about nothing much in the painful, ever-escalating, but inescapable realization that you have become The Bore. Nobody’s as much fun as company that’s about on your level booze-wise, and nobody’s worse than that which is way off either end.

At least, that’s how it once was. But today there is a deadly enemy which none of us can evade, and like a mole in the spy service it nestles in our pocket, our greatest ally until it betrays us horribly.

It is, of course, the humble smartphone. Almost all the world’s knowledge, and a majority of its population, is within the casual touch of our fingertips day or night, and once you’ve mastered the art of unlocking your phone in any state of being it doesn’t care whether you are of sound mind and body or you’re rolling around in the leaves with one shoe on.

In the old days you’d send painfully-predictively-typed messages to friends or exes from your Nokia soapbar and they’d politely pretend never to have seen them. This was an easy extension of the gentle forgiveness civilization has always extended to boozehounds. Then we got e-mails on our phone, and our peril grew, but typing an e-mail is something that takes a little thought, particularly when you only had ten buttons to do it with. It takes but a moment to realize “wait a minute, this isn’t the time for me to tell that co-worker what I think of him.” A failure in that regard was, quite rightly, taken as a sign you’d gone too far.

We didn’t know how good we had it. Now you have a couple hundred Facebook friends, maybe twice that number of Twitter followers who appreciate your remarks about hockey but don’t know you from Adam, however many Reddit users frequent your usual hangouts, and you’re watching that great Netflix documentary about Apollo 17, and they’re all right there, day or night, so close that you can reach out to them automatically, like a baby seeing its mother.

There are people with the self-control to stay off social media on evenings like this. At least, I know there must be, because there are people I’ve never noticed tweeting with a few well-chosen sheets to the wind and they definitely aren’t teetotal. But I am not one of those people, not every time, and come on, entre nous, neither are you.

How easy it is to check your Twitter. You’re only going to read, tap the notifications, maybe DM that person who knows you well enough not to be offended. But that documentary provoked an extremely profound thought and since you won’t remember it in the morning you’d best send it now. While you’re here, though, that really is a grossly ignorant political opinion. Leaving it uncorrected would be an offense against truth, and right now you’re seeing the truth more clearly than ever.

The fact that you’re suddenly having a wine-driven argument in the middle of the night with someone who, since he’s on the east coast and abnormally truculent, has probably got just as much fuel in him isn’t a saving grace. Because the “social” in “social media” is no lie, and all the other people reading are night owls, or working late, or reading in the middle of the day, or otherwise dead straight, and you just vivisected something with a clumsy passion you’d never feel if your head was on right. Worse, on this occasion you had the sensitivity not to go after anybody directly, you’re just outraged by the general mindset, and now everybody is reading, mumbling “oh god,” and discreetly turning that dreaded “Unfollow” button the other colour.

Okay, well, you’ve gotten the cocktail shaker back out and who gives a damn how many people want to read your 1,500-word essay in fifty 140-character increments anyway? But I mean, you do give a bit of a damn, don’t you? Everyone wants to be liked, and now you have statistical proof that you’re liked less than you were an hour ago. You are The Bore in the age of Big Data. Since you aren’t actually that drunk you’re not angry, just disappointed, like dad when he noticed his vodka had been replaced with water. Obnoxiously, however, disappointment is just as wordy an emotion as anger, and now you need to prove to the survivors that you’re all right really, and off you spiral, down the toilet.

It’s amazing how quickly this has become an old story.

What is to be done? There is, happily, an obvious solution: make your drink, carry it in one hand, your phone in the other, and bury that phone so deep in your sock drawer that even if you remember where you put it you won’t have the patience to get it. Alas, this is one of those things that everybody knows but is extraordinarily difficult to do. Some phones let you unlock them by swiping in fiddly geometric patterns that should theoretically be more difficult for the souse to crack, but frankly whoever thought that would work has never taken a drink in his life.

Perhaps the onus is on the sober, to see that person off his tether and think “ah, Stoli was on sale” with an indulgent smile. But it’s wholly unreasonable to go “just don’t get bored with me!” to the seven jillion Facebook users in the world. Shouting that to your boyfriend is bad enough; if you have to shout that to everyone you knew in high school you should probably sell the condo and take up permanent residence on the dépanneur steps.

When whisky came to Scotland they must have a problem like this. Ol’ Angus would return from a hard day delousing the laird’s sheep, start up a peat fire, distill some forty-rod, and without ever meaning to he’d be at the neighbouring peel tower, banging on the door and shouting “you’ll never guess what that bugger Cumberland’s done this time!” They adjusted, in time. Admittedly it took centuries of low-level warfare and a couple invasions, and led to a reputation as hard-drinking offense-taking fighting men that today’s pacifist, socialist SNP-voters haven’t lived down even a little bit, but they managed. So raise a glass, think with your hope of your wiser great-grandchildren, and call that newspaper editor a Nazi. As always, future generations will sort it out.

The passing of the poppy

By Benjamin Massey · November 9th, 2016 · 2 comments

For all that Canadians need to stretch their dollar just to pay rent these days, many of us each year still put a toonie in a box for a small, cheap disc of plastic and fabric. We do it to support those who fought, and remember those who died, for our and all future generations. It is a week of solemnity, when the airport-novel antics of professional controversialists and fear-mongers are put in perspective, when we reflect on our ancestors who looked true totalitarianism in the face and, with struggle and sacrifice, made the despots blink first. It is a time to honour the best of our civilization.

This is as close to solemnity as our secular society gets so, with irritating inevitability, poppy pressure can degrade from social to antisocial. As a symbol the poppy is often declared to be above politics, which is a sure sign that it is anything but. Particularly in Britain, where the Cookie Monster (yes, he) recently appeared on the BBC wearing a poppy. Most rightly considered this ridiculous, some didn’t, there was a fight. The Football Association has an annual battle with FIFA over whether its players may wear a poppy emblem on their uniforms during the Remembrance period. On the Irish island the poppy is a sectarian totem on account of the British Army’s role in the Troubles, though this is subsiding.

Canada’s irrationality is inconsequential by comparison. You can appear on television here without a poppy on your lapel, though a politician or a Peter Mansbridge would be ill-advised to. Tempests stay in teapots. This year’s controversy was Air Canada discouraging flight attendants from wearing poppies on duty for, literally, a few hours on Monday morning before cooler corporate heads had a coffee. This was a news story but not one you’d think people could get het up about: Air Canada reversed course before the ban even became public. Naturally some people got het up anyway, but they were mostly along the lines of “what can you expect from the bastards who lost my luggage fifteen years ago?” Not even The Rebel is revving up their boycott machine.

It takes more than a snub to get Canadians, if you will forgive an on-the-nose metaphor, up in arms. A couple years ago Vancouver saw a brief trend in white “peace poppies” among people who thought, or said they thought, the established Remembrance Day symbology glorified war. People got angry, for a while, until natural obscurity made the debate irrelevant. Some still wear them, and in the course of a Remembrance week you might just manage to see one. Even my alma mater‘s student newspaper, The Martlet, a pretty bolshie rag, has nothing but bad things to say about the white poppy. The installation of theft-proof poppy boxes in some towns, or the theft of Legion colours in others, are different tales but gain more attention than most thefts of flags or small change.

The ebbing of poppy sentiment is by comparison hardly news at all. The Royal Canadian Legion is, if not secretive, at least opaque about their receipts from the poppy drive, but branches who do release numbers tend to report decreases despite technology enabling donations by cell phone and an online Poppy Store. The Legion itself has struggled for years attracting (let alone integrating) the generation of new veterans who have an acknowledged claim to Legionary fellowship yet often prefer not to draw on it. In Ottawa and the big cities Remembrance Day ceremonies still go strong, but suburban and small-town parades are not what they once were.

It would be fun to blame those damned young people who hate our veterans and our history, but wrong. If anything, as respect for mental illness grows and literature becomes more accessible, the veteran’s near-unique traumas attract more sympathy today. One of the crowning infamies of the late Stephen Harper government, a government that successfully distributed a lot of contempt for a lot of people over a lot of years, was that they were reducing veterans’ services and betraying almost the only public trust you’d damned well expect the Conservatives to bear. They knew they’d blown it, too, and made a thousand promises to try and make up lost ground. They failed, but the Trudeau Liberals, despite intense youth popularity, are now feeling the heat for not redressing the balance quickly enough. On a rhetorical level, the shade of Nazi evil is still an easy go-to for every shoddy polemicist eager to rouse the people against his enemy. Then there’s the personal factor, the fact that we just had a war, and most of us know somebody who was in it, and in too many cases somebody who did not return.

The decline in Remembrance Day honours is no simple decline in remembrance, so what is it? Next to the Queen’s face on the money, the poppy and the Remembrance Day ceremony are the strongest cultural links Canada retains to the Old Commonwealth. Perhaps even stronger, for after all, when we pull out a $20 bill and accept our change, we are not taking a moment to acknowledge Her Majesty. Plenty of countries put the head of state on the money, but Remembrance Day is distinctly our own, in a large but antiquated sense of who “us” is.

The Americans do not wear the poppy. They escaped the bloodbaths of Ypres which brought it to prominence, and their memories linger more on the Second World War than the First. British emigres in that country have been known to run for the border and import a Canadian one. Yet even countries for whom there is one Great War and one Western Front have not joined us. The Germans, of course, lost, and that changes everything. French and Belgians know a thing or two about plants watered in sacrificial blood, and the poppy is a symbol they understand. But it is not worn. In France they wear the bleuet, a cornflower; in Belgium nothing at all.

They wear the poppy in Australia and New Zealand, though their most enduring Great War battlefield was not Belgium but Gallipoli, a name whose power in Anzac memory a Canadian can hardly comprehend, Dieppe to the power of Vimy Ridge. And local customs colour every aspect of this Commonwealth tradition, in exactly the way you’d expect: the British poppy is different from ours, the Australian and New Zealand poppies distinct from both and (less so) from each other. Even in lands like India and Hong Kong where the old Empire is long gone, it is by no means a forgotten symbol, though sometimes supplemented by, as an Indian example, the marigold.

No, the poppy is not above politics, not even here, where in addition to what it is designed for it cannot help but symbolize an order that’s dead or dying across the country. This symbolism did not come deliberately, and if any monarchist or pro-Commonwealth group tried to co-opt the poppy its members would be first in line with the tar and the feathers, but intent is never all that matters.

How old-fashioned, even to the friendly eye, it must all seem. A Remembrance Day service is probably the only occasion where an ordinary Canadian hears a public prayer, or sings “God Save the Queen,” or sees his local Canadian Forces unit on parade. In a Legion colour party the Red Ensign comes just behind the Maple Leaf, and it flies over our war memorials from Victoria to Vimy, but where else? Remembrance Day is about the past, the hint is in the name, but it is a past that, notwithstanding our universally-acknowledged, permanent duty to the honoured dead, many Canadians would sooner leave buried.

This is not a call for reform; oh God no. There are still those of us for whom the old flags and the old songs have power, and many are veterans, who have a veto. We will go on as we always have. But the act of memory does not rely on us. Even when the last poppy is laid on a cenotaph, and the last Legionnaires march past, and the last hymn is sung, that memory will remain. Very probably, in decades to come our new society will have a new way to honour it.

Think again on Britain, where the poppy has become such a public point of controversy: the British rage against the dying of the light, as they always have, and in Canada we let that good night come with, sometimes, a note of regret for parts of the day we miss. In each case it reflects a fundamental truth about each nation. This is the country we have chosen, and to rail against non-poppy wearers or to drum people up for ceremonies from the past is to treat a symptom, and ineffectively at that.


By Benjamin Massey · October 20th, 2016 · 1 comment

Gab ought to be right up my street. Think of it as Twitter without the censorship1. Those who were shocked when Twitter blocked an anti-Erdogan Turkish journalist within Turkey hadn’t been paying attention. In the name of combating “harassment” Twitter has been temporarily or permanently banning public figures, almost entirely of the anti-establishment right wing, for months. Not that this has done anything to win it friends among the sort of people who complain about that, since nothing ever does.

Unverifiable reports of “shadowbans,” where a user is not banned but has his tweets hidden or deprioritized on the streams of his followers, abound, most recently driving Dilbert cartoonist and magnificent eccentric Scott Adams to Gab. Unless some former Twitter developer goes public this borderline-conspiracy-theory will never be proven; this is the nature of shadowbanning, where ideally the user will never realize it’s happened. It is, however, undisputable that Twitter manipulates search results and trending topics, and they prioritize “important” tweets in your timeline already.

Judging by the multi-week wait for a Gab account2, there is a great cry for an alternative. Twitter’s last virtue is that everyone else uses it. Unless and until Gab becomes as universal as Twitter, those who cut the bird out entirely also cut themselves off from a huge number of friends and agreeable strangers. (Follow me on Gab!) That’s no reason not to join at all; I don’t know that I know anybody else with a Gab account, but the same applies to early Twitter adopters who created an account on a whim and now tweet twenty times a day.

Moreover, because Twitter censorship has primarily been directed at right-wing figures, those driven away will primarily be right-wing themselves. Twitter, by contrast, is especially on political occasions an enormous globalist echo chamber, to the point that thousands of young engaged social media gurus literally can’t believe it when the people disagree with them. This can be tiresome. It is more fun to argue politics with someone who doesn’t think you’re vaguely horrible or can’t really believe those things.

“Well done,” you may sneer. “You’ve traded a so-called left-wing echo chamber for a right-wing echo chamber.” To my alarm, yes, that is exactly what I’ve done.

It’s a problem of demographics. In the same way that condo boards primarily attract those who like board meetings and student councils those who want to make decisions for other people, Gab so far interests those who think Twitter is lefty paradise and are, probably unconsciously, making a righty paradise. It’s not so much that 90% of Gab would probably vote for Donald Trump, although they probably would, but it’s that that’s what they have in common. That’s what the “social” in “social media” consists of in this context.

Their version of “trending” lists its ten most “popular” posts for the past two days. As of this writing, all ten of today’s most popular posts are pro-Donald Trump. Only three of yesterday’s are, but six are either by or about the aforementioned Scott Adams and the last is a post about homeschooling that, while not specifically pro-Trump, would make you correctly guess that the user has “#MAGA” somewhere in her profile. This isn’t just bias from the recent American presidential debate; every day is the same. Trump, Trump, Trump, here and there a backpatting post about the openmindedness and courtesy of the #GabFam that won’t convince an outsider this is a vibrant, interesting community. In fact these posts are mostly courteous, though monotonous, and their authors must have other interests, but the community is set up to encourage a fixation on politics that is frankly diseased. I’ve had a Gab account for a week and haven’t written a thing on it.

What is there to say? Who wants to go on the Internet these days and argue about Donald Trump? Going “yeah right on he’s horrible!” or “yeah right on he’s going to make America great again!” to your political confrères is as high as that discourse can get in anything short of the pub. The great joy of social media is shooting the breeze with old friends, and making new friends as you discover common interests you never would have guessed at. It’s discussing the book you just read, shouting at the sports team that’s filled its britches again, learning something new you would otherwise have missed, swapping inside jokes, and connecting with individuals. Reciting personal pieties to fellow-travelers, though most of us do it, is really the least appetizing part of the experience. And that’s, quite literally, all Gab is.

As the episode of the Turkish journalists demonstrated, there is no reason why Twitter censorship should be a partisan issue. With anything of luck, Gab will someday reach critical mass and its interests will expand. In hope of that day, please do sign up. Until then, though, free speech isn’t much use without something to talk about.