SF Flag Design

So a little while back I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts — 99% Invisible — which focused on the study of vexillology, or the study of flags, with particular attention paid to vexillography, or the study of flag style and composition (though the former, being much more popular a term than the latter, sometimes also encompasses it). Later on the host of 99PI, Roman Mars, appeared on TED to present on the good, the bad, and the ugly of flag design. One of the flags particularly lambasted in both instances was that of San Francisco, which features a somewhat ornate phoenix rising out of flames placed above a ribbon on which is written the Spanish phrase “ORO EN PAZ FIERRO EN GUERRA”, or, in English: “GOLD IN PEACE IRON IN WAR”. Below this in striking blue sans serif are the words SAN FRANCISCO, and the whole deal is surrounded by a thick, warm, yellow border.


According to Ted Kaye, vexillologist and author of “Good Flag, Bad Flag“, there are five basic principles of good flag design:

1. Keep it simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
2. Use meaningful symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
3. Use 2-3 basic colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
4. No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.
5. Be distinctive or be related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

The SF flag, then has clearly too many colors (6, including white and black), has less than meaningful symbolism (yes, it’s burned and rebuilt, but so have plenty of cities. There’s also a rather large city called Phoenix, with a flag also featuring a phoenix, in a neighboring state), has too many lines on the bird, and features several words. Personally I don’t think the flag is too bad, but insofar as the above five principles are valid, there’s clearly room for improvement.

So living right next to the Bay Area and inspired by a friend who also took a crack, I attempted to redesign SF’s flag using what meager graphic design skills I have. My first order of business was to discard some of the rules, particularly the ones relating to colors and simplicity. I do like me my colors, especially for symbolic purposes, and while I get the appeal of minimalism, the more extreme sort touted by a few of the flags in Good Flag, Bad Flag is not quite to my liking. I’ve historically also always rather liked overdesigned, busy esthetics, as embodied in things like the steampunk genre or Ghibli’s interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle. I will note, though, I that I did manage to abide by one of the 99PI criteria for simplicity, that of drawing by hand your design on a (1″, 1.5″) rectangle:


So then I created this first flag design in photoshop, reproduced below from the header (with aspect ratio mirroring that of SF’s flag above):


The symbolism here is pretty obvious — in the foreground, there are two green hills, fairly common sights in the Bay Area:


at least when it’s not summertime:


Between these hills is the dark water of the Pacific Ocean, above which is seen a stylized representation of a segment of the Golden Gate Bridge, drawn in its characteristic International Orange color (though modified somewhat — see below). I chose the GGB because it seems to be SF’s most iconic and distinctive icon, as evidenced by the observation that, when I google imaged “San Francisco”, it was featured in most of the results:

(photocredit: Rich Niewiroski Jr.)

The sun shines overhead, and a palette of rainbows mirrors the hills at the base, echoing the Rainbow Flag and the long history of civil rights activism and inclusivity San Francisco is known for. Rainbows also bear some rich symbolism throughout myth and legend, feature strongly in one of my favorite childhood books, and have some loose connections to the computer industry, if you accept as “loose connection” the fact that microchips and glass prisms are both made of roughly the same stuff. Likewise — the sun! solar power! fiber optics! IDK! Take that, rules 2 and 5!

I’d tried initially to incorporate Holtom’s peace symbol


into the interplay between the sun and bridge but ultimately couldn’t make it work, though the general idea appears in another design I threw together:


and also a tad in its sister:


Other symbolism is easy to read into the flag (e.g. the green hills are not only green from grass, but from SF’s commitment to “green technology”), especially w.r.t. various angles, proportions, and so on, but the aforementioned are what I’d mainly intended.

The colors of the flag, meanwhile, were chosen using “International Orange” (F04A00), as a base, which I then tossed into this color calculator to find suitable complements/triads/tetrads/analogues. Unfortunately, the end result was far too vivid for my tastes:


So I ran the whole thing through one of Photoshop’s vintage filters to get the final results above (after tweaking a few of the individual colors slightly).

It’s also important to ensure that something like this is still decently distinguishable to individuals with color blindness, so I ran the flag through the color blindness simulator found here. Some of the adjacent colors are particularly hard to tell under certain forms of color blindness, but generally the differences in lightness and darkness throughout different parts of the flag make the whole thing fairly resolvable. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement (e.g. in increasing light/dark contrast between adjacent colors):

(click here for a larger, less compressed GIF)

Finally, I was curious as to how it might look in person, but lacking the dedication to actually print the thing out myself, I followed a guide I’d found online to ‘shop the flag onto a flagpole:


Overall this was a fun diversion and I’m glad to have played around with it! I’m certainly no vexillographer or graphic designer (hell, I thought Milwaukee’s flag to be decent…), but I’m still decently satisfied with what I turned up, accordance with Kaye’s rules or no.


Scavenger Hunt

In my previous post I mentioned that I’ve taken to writing short little poems for Kate in our time apart — here’s an example of one such (set of) poem(s), structured as a scavenger hunt with little gifts accompanying each subsequent poem-riddle-clue (e.g. some ILNP flakies and chromes, some UD lipsticks and glosses, some Belgian chocolates, etc.). I initially got the idea from the excellent Ailsa, who was also instrumental in wrapping and placing all the presents while I was away. I’m posting this here because in trying to look for ideas re: riddles corresponding to where to hide things, I came up pretty blank (with the exception of the mirror one which I modified from here), so maybe these will inspire someone else to do something similar (unfortunately, many involve inside jokes, though a few are generic. That last link has more ideas if you happen to have e.g. a birdcage, a blackboard, a bus terminal, etc. lying around).

So anyway, here were the clues (from a document I provided for Ailsa — the actual clues were written on cardstock with little drawings). I think Kate liked it!


Why hello my darling, we’ve made you a puzzle,
A dozen gifts total, small this’s and that’s.
It will be a while before we can nuzzle,
But know that I love you, the best of all cats.

With each gift a riddle, some might lead astray,
Each points to the next one, they aren’t that hard
Together I hope that they sadness allay,
So think on these words and turn over this card!


A tasty hot beverage to ward off the chill,
A soothing sensation when one’s throat is ill,
In flavors of pumpkin and autumn and mint,
I hope that this isn’t too easy a hint!


All glassy and silvered,
What a beautiful face,
If you look over yourself,
You will find this place.


Saving humanity is in a day’s play,
Railway planning I hear does well pay,
If monsters and witches take overly long,
Some colorful pictures will never go wrong.


A place for cold hands or eyedrops or wallet,
The thing it’s a part of would lack a decollete,
A large purple pouch might be absent elsewhere,
By putting this on you’re as warm as a bear!


A dollar is spent for water or air,
Of varying temperatures, but that’s only fair,
Small metal tubes work well for leg raises,
Asking for these often shocks and amazes.


A bald skinny man is frequently cold,
But he’s not [REDACTED] for he’s far too old,
A boy has a name but to say it is cheating,
Is he all tucked in? Is he overheating?


Messes are made,
And messes are cleaned,
By viscous green liquid,
A gift has been leaned.


A very shrill screeching when we try to cook,
The extra devices we hid in a nook,
For company close they have scarves and hats,
It’s quite dark in here, I hope there aren’t bats.


These probably help, but that’s far from known,
Their benefits are quite often overblown,
A placebo, however, can be helpful too,
Just swallow with water, and try not to chew.


Sometimes these have bubbles but often they’re flat,
Now and again they come in a cat,
Pinks, reds and whites, blegh this one is yucky,
Where’s my blackstone, that one is less sucky.


Many a spoon is found here that’s true,
And sometimes a fork, in mornings on cue,
But not made of metal, though hard things might be,
Look under the structure made out of a tree!


A product of G-ly and Ar-g am I,
In lending energy fatigue you deny,
It’s frugal to buy me in large total number,
Don’t take me at night or poor you might slumber.


This is the last gift, I’m sorry to say,
They had to end sometime, and not overwhelm,
I hope that my clues were all clear as day,
Though night had long fallen on your shingled realm,

I’ll talk to you soon, my dearest of Kates,
And count down the days until our next meeting,
Our lives will go on, we’ll pick up large weights,
The time we’re apart will be largely fleeting.

(Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Poetry Take One

In the past few months of physical separation from Kate I’ve taken to writing silly poems in cards and mailing them to her as tokens of my affection. The internet was out yesterday at the ARC and I couldn’t read random articles between sets, so I tried writing a different sort of poem. So BEHOLD! My first attempt at poetry since middle school that’s not part of a birthday card or something lovey-dovey. Shield your eyes lest my mad rhyming skills prove too sharp for your fleshy, tender sensibilities.


Climbing cliffs is easy, not doing so is hard

Harder still is closing up, always on your guard
Man is meant to struggle, to fight and overcome
Failing to do so might one day leave you numb

By man I mean humanity, but maybe that’s too small?
The flourishing of sentient life, all dancing in rainfall
To music that now few might hear, what strange sensations wait
In far off lands of time and space, the year three thousand eight

That’s optimistic though I say – we might before then die
What causes this calamity may bid us all to cry
When we see how it might have been prevented here and there
Through action and a bit of luck and less and less warfare

Yet luckily most other ills are far less permanent
They end in pain but typically the earth’s not terminant
Where upon losing all you have to show for it are aches
So go and fail, fail well and learn from your mistakes

You’re not alone to fight those foes though foes you need to show
You’re not an island nor a rock nor solitary crow
Some might think less (some might think more) but who cares what they think
The ones who care will help you through and after you’ll all drink

Such life affirming platitudes can help in times of need
But on the whole they do little when from your ass you bleed
At times the cure is easy — why, dewormers cost but pence
Most everyone would have them if people were not so dense

But if your poison’s not too rough and you’re not super poor
And self-determination is not exotic grandeur
Then do not fall and not get up, do not crawl to your cave
Or if you do then crawl back out – be noble and be brave

Go lift things up and put them down or crack open that book
Run very fast swim very slow enroll in a new MOOC
Ramble on over to that dance and look like such a boob
And when they laugh laugh along too embrace your inner rube

In so doing you will improve and weaknesses will fade
What once gave you great trouble will no longer you abrade
Indeed I feel that life is easy once you truly try
You’ll meet new failures with joy and despair you’ll defy

Grad School Admissions Criteria

Prospective graduate students will often ask what they should to do to feasibly maximize their chances of acceptance with respect to graduate school admissions, or what sorts of things admissions committees look for when deciding who to admit or reject, or what they should focus on in undergrad if they want to go to grad school. I’ve never served on such a committee and have no real experience or expertise making these sorts of decisions, but I am a grad student, and so have been through the process once myself. I’ve also read a fair number of posts similar to this one, observed several admissions cycles, played a small role in some faculty job searches, which are sorta similar, and spoken to other grad students about applications. Additionally, I’d already written the below in a comment to someone elsewhere and reckoned it easy enough to repost here. Feel free to comment with disagreement — this is all, just, like, my opinion, man.

If I had to rank admissions criteria for science PhDs in approximate order of importance (though see note below; also, this is most applicable to my my own field — evolutionary biology, with a focus on computational/statsy methods/theory — and so other fields may differ), I’d say:

  1. Someone going up to bat for you — i.e. your future PI, who you contacted with a “prospective graduate student” email several months ago (*see note at the end), and with whom you’ve had several involved conversations re: your research interests and compatibility (unless your school strictly does rotations in your first year, or something. Still, I think it’s a good idea to contact some plausible PIs and make your name known, as well as to vet them for your own purposes). Related: your undergrad PI was a super famous or well connected researcher and asked a favor of their friend at the institution receiving your app (and/or wrote you an absurdly glowing recommendation)
  2. Your measurable research output/history — i.e. what papers you’ve published, what conference talks/posters you’ve given, the contents of your GitHub profile, what kaggle competitions (or other competitions based directly on research/analysis performance) you’ve done well in, what REUs you’ve worked on, relevant projects from work, etc.
  3. Personal fit; aka in your interactions with your prospective grad school (e.g. if your school interviewed), were you an unfriendly asshole? I’ve seen some people get rejected despite having great academic credentials by being jerks to the admissions committee. Hell, not even jerks, just lacking social graces in informal contexts (e.g. talking too much about themselves and not inquiring as to the opinions of others). As a PhD student you’ll be junior colleague to your committee for 3-10 years, so don’t be unpleasant. Also relevant: letters of rec w/ respect to how nice you are to work with or whether others should best keep away
  4. Generic research ability that can’t be attested to by the above. Also relevant: letters of rec w/ respect to how studious or hardworking you are in classes or in research projects, even if they didn’t produce any measurable output (if you were observed to be a diligent researcher and this was commented upon, it could still count for something)
  5. Awards and honors you’ve received (though depending on the award, this can potentially catapult you to the top of the YES pile; e.g., if you bring in a really prestigious or selective fellowship that comes with lotsa $$$, it can make you much more desirable, both because it helps to pay your way, so you represent a lesser gamble, and because of its signaling potential — you’ve already been evaluated and approved by others in the recent past)
  6. Grades and GRE scores — they can break you if you’re middling in the above (i.e. you don’t exceed expectations w/ respect to the other criteria and have a
  7. Unpublished or unevaluated projects, essays, coursework, etc. Personal Statements can go here too if you’re really good at selling yourself beyond your own actual merits. Some places request additional writing samples, or if you did some big analysis for a blog or something that can go here too, I’d say
  8. Prestige of your undergraduate institution/letter of rec writers. Study at a fancy institution with fancy researchers? That’ll help, but isn’t hugely independently of other factors IMO
  9. Your level of interest in whatever field you’re going into as measured by stuff like outreach, club participation, etc. Have you volunteered a few hundred hours at your local wildlife rehab center and are now shooting to become a wildlife research ecologist? Super!
  10. Other ECs that are not related but evince good character traits or are interesting; e.g. on the CV I submitted I had an “other” section where I mentioned multilingual fluency, my decent outdoors/travel experience (and leading/coordinating lotsa outdoorsy group trips), which was relevant because my field (paleoanthropology) tends to involve lotsa fieldwork in foreign countries. Something similar could also apply to fields like ecology, geology, zoology, botany, archaeology, etc. Ideally whatever you include would be relate well to research ability, but you can still aim to take advantage of halo effects by pretending to be a really nifty person
  11. Hardships, diversity, etc. though I’m not too sure how important this is, implicitly or explicitly. It probably varies a lot. This would largely come out in your personal statement, I’d imagine

That said, a lot of these are heavily interrelated. If you go to a school really strong in your major, you’ll probably have a better advisor, do more interesting and productive research projects, and get fancier awards, which will all serve to better entice a prospective PI to go up to bat for you. And the above are more my take on “how much of the variation in admissions decisions is attributable to variation in each criterion” than a ranking of “importance” per se (e.g. if you’re a superstar researcher with tons of high impact pubs, dozens of awards, a perfect GPA/GRE, etc., but when you go visit the school you’re mean to everybody, you won’t get in. But typically people aren’t mean, so it’s relatively not as impactful. Likewise, I think pretty much everyone’ll have a solid personal statement, so unless yours is AMAZING or AWFUL it won’t make much of a difference one way or another — it’s a measure with low ability to discriminate). And as mentioned, these are just my superficial impressions and should not be taken as gospel. What’s relevant and important might vary a lot person-to-person, committee-to-committee, program-to-program, dept-to-dept, and institution-to-institution.

I also think GRE/GPA are more important when applying to external fellowships, like the NSF-GRF, DOE SCGF/CSGF, FORD, Hertz, NDSEG, SMART, PDSOROS, GEM, etc. etc. etc., since the people evaluating those need to make snappier decisions.

(header image source)

*this is something that should get your foot in the door and ideally escalate to a dozen or so emails, visit (esp. if the program doesn’t interview), or skype conversation where you can signal genuine interest and basic competence. Their general form should, I think, look something like:

Hi Dr. Whoever,

I saw on your website that you were looking for new students (or, if I looked and didn’t see that, wanted to inquire as to whether you were accepting PhD students at this time).

I’m a 4th year undergrad/M.S. student/clown/industry employee at [your institution or company] with interests in [fields that they work in] and [methods that they work on]. Specifically, I’m fascinated by the prospect of [decent project description that will complement their own work]. I’ve done a bit of [relevant stuff], which I published/presented on in the nebulous recent past. Your work in [their paper] and [their other paper] brushes up against this, especially [something that shows that you actually read and mostly understood their papers].

I’m interested in applying to [their institution and program] and would love to have the opportunity to chat with you about the possibility of us working together. I’ve attached my [super fabulous] CV below, if you’re interested.

[your name]

Don’t ramble on too long, since your audience is doubtless very busy, but include enough information to pique their interest and attention.

Who Am I?

Who Am I? A Brief Meditation and Summary of my Personal Identity and Values

Disclaimer: I’m totally talking out my ass for most of this and have no expertise whatsoever in psychology, sociology, human behavioral ecology, ethics, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, neuroscience, or any other relevant fields. What follows is just my own oversimplified, rambling conjecture. As it’s written for an audience of one (i.e. myself, as a short reflection), I’d like to apologize for its queer mix of colloquialism and utterly unnecessary jargon. I also touch upon topics that may be uncomfortable to some and am, as usual, exceedingly open about my own thoughts and feelings, many of which are like to be horribly misguided and bigoted and awful, so reader beware – if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon this, there’s probably little of value or interest for you here. That said, I’d be happy to discuss anything I’ve written, and welcome any correction of mistakes I’ve made.

Also, I’ve yet to master the art of navigating multiple drafts in WordPress, so I just publish things straightaway. If you’re reading this, it means this post still needs editing and expansion.

My own muddled, misbegotten, folksy views on personal identity hold that many people seem very concerned with identifying and describing who or what they are. They mull deeply over matters of their own individuality and experience a strong sense of belonging when they come upon the descriptors that adequately capture their innermost selves, that truly target what they really “feel like” deep down. Some people, upon finding a sufficiently applicable label, proceed to wrap their entire identities around that kernel of being and belonging, even to the extent of interpreting the whole world through its lens (though I guess you do need a lense of some sort).

This, in turn, structures their behavior, because they feel the need to adhere to the entire complex of traits that empirically co-occurs with whatever ones brought them to the label in the first place (even the ones that don’t “naturally” covary). This behavioral modification could be from repeat or biased exposure to others with those traits, peer pressure, some conscious internal self-modifying mechanism, or something else (do note that traits here can refer to anything, more or less, from hair color to taste in fashion or music to nationality to sports team allegiance to religious or political leaning to programming language preference to temperament to gender expression to ethnicity).

They are also tidily demarcated from other groups, providing them with a community they can aid and that can aid them, as well as an opposing group to rally against. The trait complex can, to some extent, be a natural division in trait-space – whatever intrinsic, underlying qualities determine one trait can partially determine an ostensibly distinct trait, leading to structure in the variation expressed throughout the space. Similarly, there might be trade-offs leading to inverse associations between different traits. On the other hand, there might be artificial, self-reinforcing divisions in trait-space created by society and the groups that comprise it. Individuals who don’t fall into pre-existing clusters are molded into them if they wish to extract community-benefits.

And not all behavioral or ideological traits have equal fitness on the marketplace of ideas. Some – especially those in pre-existing and popular complexes – are better able to “replicate”, leading to something like a “correlated selection of memes” in a disruptive/diversifying fashion, typically along “natural” axes of variation (though this covariance structure can itself change easily enough). This leads to the self-reinforcement of clusters or “meme-plexes” (as an aside, I’ve never been too fond of the “meme” framework, but it can occasionally be useful in discussions like this).

This isn’t bad, per se – communities can foster cooperation that creates wholes greater than the sums of their parts. They can push you to be the best self you can be if your own values and desires, but not your current behaviors or attributes, align with those of the community. Finding holes to stuff your pigeons in can free up precious mental resources you can devote to more interesting or important pursuits. People who feel ostracized or “other’ed” from their “birth” communities can benefit tremendously from finding a group of likeminded peers — it must be quite the relief to discover that you are not alone in your eccentricities, that there are other out there like you who not only accept that you like or are something, but like or are that thing themselves. “Knowing” who you are can empower you to “become” who you are and push you along towards self-transcendence and self-actualization.

For example, if you internalize that you are a good, diligent, honest researcher, you might me more driven to do good research, and if you openly claim honesty, you’ll be held more accountable for your mis-directions and lies. And who doesn’t like to reassure themselves that they Know Who They Really Are, and what easier way to do that than by giving yourself some easily repeated names? I can certainly understand that (much of my early teens were devoted to “living authentically”, which largely entailed trying to pinpoint on which sides of any number of debates I fell and what terms I could use as a shorthand descriptor for my beliefs). Also, the common categories by which humanity subdivides itself might also match up with people’s internal sense of being perfectly, in which case why wouldn’t you identify as a member of that category?

On the whole, however, I think that people’s tendency to keep their identities “large” can often be harmful and restricting, especially when it’s forced explicitly or implicitly upon others. When people reify observed divisions in traitspace into essential groupings (and those observations are, of course, sampled non-randomly – participation in any group inherently introduces bias), they unfairly bin others who do not or do not wish to fit into those groups. This causes tension and difficulty for non-fitting individuals, who are typically already marginalized over their (oftentimes) minority status.

Even individuals who integrate nicely into foreordained categories are limited in their ability to grow beyond them. If some quirk of development pushes people outside the cubbies they’ve formed for themselves (or they hear a particularly convincing argument for a position alternative to their own, or they’re unconvinced they’ve correctly identified themselves and wish to experiment, etc.), strict allegiance to labels will prevent them from properly exploring traitspace and finding their own, personally ideal (at the time) maxima. But I emphatically support anyone and everyone to be or identify as whoever or whatever they want, so long as few enough pockets are picked and legs broken (and this extends from more mainstream groups like, I dunno, Chicago Bears fans, to less mainstream groups, like LGBT Bears, to even less mainstream groups, like bear otherkin – more power to all of ‘em!).

Given my above thoughts, I’ve found that I don’t personally identify with terribly much, or at least not along the axes that people most commonly use to structure their identities. I am who I am, and there it generally stops. In terms of gender, for example, I don’t have any powerful internal sense of masculinity or manliness, which I guess would place me under the genderqueer umbrella (as “agender”) if it were sufficiently rainy (or potentially “cis-by-default”). I think in practice my “gender expression” conforms to societal expectation in many respects because 1) it’s the path of least resistance, and going too against the grain would require more effort for too little reward than not, beyond, IDK, the occasional bout of flamboyance and wearing skirts and makeup and arranging flowers or w/e and 2) I like to engender certain outwardly expressed virtues in myself that are traditionally “masculine” or manifest as “masculine” gender performance, such as strength, durability, power, ambition, etc., which modify my appearance in “masculine” ways (e.g. building muscle). My preferred traditionally “feminine” virtues like gentleness, gracefulness, warmth, etc., meanwhile, are less likely to manifest themselves externally, and so would be less obvious to some outside observer.

That said, I imagine that if I woke up tomorrow to see my body transformed into one expressing the suite of primary and secondary female sex characteristics, I think the overwhelming majority of my concerns would be logistical (e.g. now I need new clothes, securing gov’t ID will be tricky, I hope Kate still finds me attractive, etc.) and not intrinsic (woe is me, this is not who I truly am!). I might experience some amount of dysphoria, who knows (I can’t quite draw upon any comparable experience — the closest might involve rapid weight loss/gain during bulks/trips, where I’ve gained upwards of 50 lbs in nine months and lost 35 in two, and that didn’t really bother me any, outside of mild frustration in the latter case at watching my gains slip away. I do recall feeling more “corporeal” going from 140 lbs -> 200 lbs, though, in the sense of being less affected by wind or crowds, but that seems more a response to external stimuli than any shift in my self-ID). Currently, I do see my body as something of a meat puppet, a tool to be used and cared for that I might do neat things. It’s not really me, but it’s also not really not me – it’s just there, and I have experience operating it in a fairly seamless manner, as a trained surgeon might find a scalpel to act an extension of her will and herself.

I think this is partly attributable to my steady childhood diet of sci-fi and fantasy, where people would routinely transform into (or already be) sapient trees or living mountains or whatever. If I were made much smaller, I might lament my loss of strength or ability, though perhaps the positional nature of that sort of thing would soon reassert itself and return me to normalcy. I currently have some minor dissatisfaction with my body, in that I’m not a 10ft tall, planet-busting Bruce Banner, perhaps with the proportions of Robert Timms, glowing with an eerie internal light and capable of advanced displays of power in flagrant violation of all known physical law, but there’s little to be done there. And even if I were to take such a form, I’d still lament my disability relative to some higher possible state of being.

I’d also say I bristle a bit whenever gender is invoked to impose some standard of behavior upon myself, e.g. of the form “real men: drink vodka/play football/eat meat/never back down from a fight, thereby failing at basic conflict resolution/etc.” You can’t tell me what to do! I do what I want! Incidentally, there’s a bit of a double standard here — I don’t care so much about being told to veer left instead of right to enter one locker room over another, but since that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg it might not be as comparable (not to trivialize those with gender dysphoria who feel genuine distress over being forced to use the wrong room).

Similarly, I don’t really “identify” as heterosexual or whatever, in the sense that it’s some intrinsic part of who I really am. I’m heterosexual mostly in that it’s the easier to be heterosexual in today’s sociopolitical climate than any alternative – but it’s not to me any more person-defining than my preference for sorbet flavor. If tomorrow I were to awake with no sexual desire for the “human female” form, I’d certainly be very distraught, but largely because it would pose a rather large challenge to my marriage, which has a large and important sexual component. Otherwise, I could well “identify” as pansexual (or bisexual, to be more restrictive), though I think I’m predominantly gynephilic, in that I’m usually stronger and more often attracted to “female bodies” (e.g. you might frame it as my having, say, a mild-moderate boob fetish, or something)

I’m not really sexually attracted to particular “gender identities” in themselves, but rather to particular morphological traits and personality characteristics, some of which covary with gender/femininity and many of which do not, but can certainly be attracted to male (or androgynous/non-binary) ones as well (though I’m typically more picky there – where I might find, oh, 30% of women attractive, I’d only find 5% of men attractive, or something. I’m also broadly interested in siring children, so reproductive compatibility is at least somewhat important). Ignoring “practical” issues, I’d say my taste in clothing (tending towards a lumbersexual/workwear/Americana/19thCenturyExplorerNaturalist aesthetic currently, probably as a reflection of my general outdoorsiness, with a general fondness for shades of blue. Though I have been exploring the varieties of streetwear lately) to be nearer my core self than my gender or sexuality, which is to say not very. Indeed, though I have a lot of fun with things like biology (as a scientific discipline), hiking, etc., I feel some discomfort referring to myself as a “biologist” or a “hiker”, even though I’ve spent many thousands of hours in the pursuit of each. I’d sooner say it’s something I do for fun and profit than some integral part of “who I really am”.

Of course, it’s awfully convenient for me that I fall into one of the most privileged (sizeable) groups of individuals ever to occur on earth – I’m lucky enough to be a citizen of an incredibly rich, post-industrial nation with excellent healthcare and social services, where many diseases that plagued past populations have been locally eradicated/immunized against. I rarely went hungry or sick as a child, with generally ample access to food, clean water, shelter, lead-free paint, etc., and have trivial access to more-than-adequate nutritional resources now. I was raised by a loving mother whose care gave me enough freedom to learn and explore, to express myself creatively, to seek out problems that challenged and stimulated me. I was able to pursue (and am still pursuing) an education from some of the finest teachers ever – really the top echelon in all of history, given the shoulders on which they stand – along with having “limitless” access to learning opportunities technologically.

I’m able-bodied, have pretty solid access to the typical suite of human senses, and barring a few old injuries can participate in athletic activities as well as if not better than most, with no large outward physical “disfigurements”, psychiatric disorders, or cognitive disabilities. I’m as yet in the springtime of my youth, especially given overly optimistic prognoses of the rate of growth in life-extension technologies. I’ve decent financial stability and have largely avoided contact with crime, drugs, war, and other interpersonal sources of danger by virtue of rarely living in true poverty (by American standards – by global or historical standards I’ve never even brushed up against it). I’ve had many excellent friends, relationships, and companions. What ancestry I’m aware of is full of smart, hardworking, talented, and capable individuals, so insofar as basic quantitative genetic theory and observation hold, I have something of a leg up there (incidentally, I’ve never been much for distinguishing between different resources one is born into — there’s a tendency to praise “naturally gifted” individuals who bootstrap their way into success, for whom understanding comes easily, while condemning equally successful, but less gifted individuals who arrived suckling silver spoons, but to me both seem equally “lucky”. Indeed, I’m not much for this whole “entitlement” thing — a person is responsible for neither G nor E, and since that’s all there is, responsibility itself dissolves. I’d sooner focus elsewhere).

And I’m a tall, white, straight, English-speaking, virile, right-handed, credentialed male of European heritage (though Russians are near the bottom of the barrel there, e.g. in their portrayals in American media. But it is helpful for late-night strolls…), or at least enough of one to reap the benefits those all provide beyond what I’ve listed above.

And finally, I’m a human, and not some other sort of organism more subject to suffering and less capable of steering the course of its own destiny and flourishing (and of course here one might object and say that if I were an earthworm or dolphin or something I’d not really be “me”! But if “I” resulted from some other role of the fertilization roulette, or were born to different circumstances or parents, or were born to identical ones but subject to a different collection of chance events, “I” wouldn’t be either. So I only mean that last point insofar as the experiences of nonhumans are comparable to my own — more on this a bit later). And of course these axes are all context-and-goal-dependent: I’d rather be a snowshoe hare if naked outside in the Canadian winter, I’d rather be >30 years of age if trying to run for U.S. Senate, I’d rather not have any friends, close companions, or so forth if living in a gritty, dystopian novel struggling against a tyrannical despot fond of kidnapping and torture as a means of persuasion. These varied axes can also interact in strange and mysterious ways (i.e. it’s not all additive).

So in all this it’s easy for me to say, sure, none of those things really define who I really am, they don’t really shape my identity, don’t be too quick to ingratiate yourself with some community, etc., as I sit atop my mountain of privilege. Throughout my life I’ve also always been a highly introverted sort, easily able to entertain myself and forming friendships and bonds on an individual basis, rather than to whole social groups. But I can easily see how a less privileged individual would be pushed to “fit in” just to function (in a manner perhaps analogous to declaring gang allegiance upon entry to prison), and so can recognize my own freedom from selection pressures that might have, on some alternate earth, forced me into having a much stronger sense of personal identity. I could also just be spectacularly lacking in introspective ability, and the whole “I don’t feel any special affinity towards masculinity, I’m just me!” thing is just what it’s like to be a cis-man in a cis-normative society, or something.


But all that said, what or who do I identify as? Have I relinquished all worldly attachment, choosing instead to float through the void of perfect liberty and non-self? Of course not. I think the innermost core of my being is a reflection of my values, or my preferences regarding how the world develops and the directions in which I endeavor to push it. In other words, my “ethical beliefs”. Though that’s a tricky phrase to use because “metaethically” I tend to strongly favor anti-realism, relativism, subjectivism, etc. I’m not sure as to the extent these beliefs can be said to be “discovered” or “created” or “chosen”, in some existential sense — a large part of me feels as if I’m just trying to describe what I already value (values which have been shaped by chance factors as well as those that have evolved both culturally and genetically), but another part recognizes the general malleability of my own preferences and how I might steer my future ones in different directions (though this steering is directed by other preferences, including my “preference” to act in a way consistent with those values I explicitly claim as my own).

So I’ll usually (informally) conceptualize morality as an inference problem and categorize moral beliefs and values by analogy to model averaging, where I have some internal set of functions over possible futures, ones take as input those futures and output their desirability (or utility), weighted according to some larger plausible distribution of models (whose exact workings might be described by some set of parameters unknown to me, but which seem to fluctuate slightly through time). In other words, I have some internal set of values, ordained by birth or development, IDK, it doesn’t matter. I’m interested in identifying these values that I might better fulfill them, just as my ability to recognize and identify my hunger allows me to take steps to satisfy it, rather than plodding about in intestinal discomfort (“satisfy hunger” is itself a sort of preference, though most of its weight is instrumental — given a genie, I might choose to never need for nourishment again, and lacking a genie I almost only seek to satisfy my hunger insofar as it lets me keep on living to do other things). I might take as observations my own moral intuitions about certain actions, or how I feel after performing them, or my agreement for or against different arguments for various ethical theories. Each ethical theory, then, can be thought of as a model (again, a function over futures that outputs the degrees to which my preferences or values are satisfied), and “observations” can be made to change the degree to which I support or strive to abide by one model or another.

These “models” sometimes agree and sometimes disagree — I am large, I contain multitudes. They are also wrong, in the sense that all models are wrong, but they are useful in guiding my actions in a way that helps to maximize the satisfaction of my values. In a similar way, being able to pinpoint my hunger as a craving for a particular sort of food lets me better extract value from what I eat. Though to clarify, I mean that all models are wrong in a descriptive sense. If we’re talking globally or prescriptively, I tend to lean non-cognitivist, so it’s something of a category error to label different ethics as wrong in the same way we might models.

And so, roughly speaking, the plurality of my values, the chunk that receives the most weight, can be described by something like nepotism, where I seek to satisfy the collective preferences of those close to me: my family and friends (e.g. see my blog post on “love” for more details – those closest to me are, essentially, “utility monsters”, ha). Much of these collapse to my other values, since the people that are close to me value things similar to what I value (and if they care about me, there arises an infinite reflection sort of thing which ultimately sums to some finite amount). I’d say that this block of my preferences accounts for, oh, ~35% of the total weight, and the people it targets constitute a sort of loose and scattered “in-group” defined purely in their relation to me. Occasionally I see people argue that this is all just confusion and mistake, that we’re deep down all selfish in a way that isn’t tautological (the pain of shame being far greater than the pain of painful death, say), but they’re wrong (a more extensive critique will have to find a different essay to ramble on in).

Having such an inner in-group also lets me more intuitively understand how others can care so much more for their in-groups than their out-groups. When a person overwhelmingly values, say, a citizen of their country than that of another, my immediate reaction is one of confusion, because how strange is that!? Who cares about where you were born geographically?? But then I realize that I care for family members many orders of magnitude more than I do for strangers (as measured by, say, how much money I’d be willing to spend at the margin to save their lives, or more precisely, since even all my investments liquidated don’t amount to much, how many decades or centuries of debt I’d be willing to take on to help them). Hell, I’ve spent almost as much money to improve my dog’s quality of life as would cost to buy decades of human QALYs/DALYs in low-income countries, which I’m sure would be quite baffling to the outside observer. And much of it’s the product of total chance! So it’s not too surprising to me that someone would happily exchange, say, ten foreign lives for a domestic one if they place the latter in their “in-group”, and therefore in a narrower circle of moral concern, even though I myself would certainly not.

My next largest block of values can be described by something like “preference utilitarianism”, which takes up perhaps ~30% of the total weight. Just as I “love” my in-group, so too do I love everyone, and thereby hope to satisfy their preferences to the best of my ability (so long as it doesn’t cost too much with respect to satisfying my other values). Inclusion in the group of “everyone” is largely an empirical question and depends on how well different plausible entities can be said to have preferences in a similar sense that I myself have preferences (i.e. placing everyone in a sort of “outer” in-group, to the exclusion of things that lack proper preferences). A necessary component of this could be something like “subjective experience” (more-so than “self-awareness”, since too many things have the latter, depending on your criteria — e.g. a fridge, a flashlight, a for-loop — but probably not the former, and if someone has the former but not the latter I’d still care about it).

Unfortunately, “subjective experience”, despite many valiant attempts to define it, remains to me total gobbledygook, but it has the rough shape and taste of something I’d be interested in. It also trespasses on questions of metaphysics (particularly ontology), which I’ve found largely bullshit-y (e.g. the goofy-ass determinism/indeterminism/compatibilism debates) since my initial readings in them during high school (though if pressed, I’d say that, in principle, I lean towards idealism, but in application and practice tend towards physicalism, reductionism, and it-doesn’t-really-matter-ism). I definitely don’t understand nearly enough about intelligence or philosophy or thought to definitively say which “algorithmic” preference-like-things I care about more than others, and the whole mess is mired in uncertainty, especially since I only have access to the outward expression of beings’ preferences according to their observed behaviors (and even then just the most superficial of glimpses!).

On the one hand, I can be reasonably sure that stuff like individual photons, rocks, and bacteria aren’t “meaningfully” conscious or sentient or capable of desire, and reasonably sure that I am (though not entirely sure – it’s certainly possible that I am not, or that I do not think, which you might well suspect having read this far). Other people and animals with more sophisticated sorts of behaviors and brains (e.g. mammals, fish, birds, etc.) are closer to me on that scale, and stuff like flowers, mushrooms, current-day computers, and slime molds are closer to rocks and bacteria. “Simpler” animals (neurologically) like insects, bivalves, and echinoderms are somewhere in the middle (and I reckon the more sessile ones greater resemble plants than pigs, generally).

The scale on which I’m judging these things is better thought of as continuous than discrete, too (i.e. moral worth is not binary, but falls along a spectrum), with some fat-tailed distribution describing my uncertainty regarding the moral value of each class of entities. So to sum, I want to satisfy the preferences, whatever those are, of the entities who have them, whatever those are, averaged over my uncertainty. A lot of terribly flawed criteria can be used to determine all this in practice (e.g. “can it communicate using symbolic language?”, “does it express an avoidance response to noxious stimuli?”, “does it have a certain sort of brain architecture?”, “is it more closely related to modern humans than to other taxa of interest?”, “is it capable of self-identification, be it using a dot and a mirror, some smelly cotton and a nose, or whatever your sensory system of choice?”), some of which are easier to apply than others (representing parameter uncertainty, in contrast to the model uncertainty inherent to choosing or averaging over different criteria).

Given this uncertainty and some rather fancy multiplication of decimals, I try not to do the best I can given the information available to me (e.g. I might be, say, 17% certain that chickens have moral value worth thinking about, and 83% certain that they do not, but I still avoid incentivizing the torture and killing of chickens in the same way I’d avoid imposing Russian roulette with a six-shooter on an entity I’m 99% certain has moral value). I favor preference utilitarianism over, say, hedonistic utilitarianism in that I only care about involuntary suffering – if someone wants to suffer voluntarily (say, by pushed themselves to do something hard), I wouldn’t want to stop them (nor would I want to be stopped myself). To these ends, I try to engage with and donate to worthwhile charities some portion of my earnings — not very much now, maybe a twentieth to a tenth or so, but certainly more once I’m better established. Here and in some of my other writings one might find loose connections to the “effective altruism” community, but I wouldn’t say I really number among them either, though I’ve popped in and out of their periphery for the last half decade and some. They’re mostly ok.

The next chunk of my values, constituting perhaps ~25% of the total weight, can be well encapsulated by something like hedonism, egoism, the cultivation of my own virtues, and the pursuit of my own personal eudaimonia. I want to be happy, to experience pleasure and avoid pain and suffering, to become strong and capable and kind, and to pursue my hobbies and interests. A full quarter of my values are devoted to me (me me!), and a solid fraction (more than a quarter) of my resources are devoted to ensuring that I can travel, hike, play, read, exercise, socialize, learn, etc. This is done both for instrumental reasons (“please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others”), but also for terminal ones – I do like being happy. To some extent, though, I feel that U(θ) doesn’t care that much about my happiness or sadness in and of itself, in that there are many contexts where I wouldn’t wish to be more happy or less sad ceteris paribus, but rather sculpt the external conditions responsible for that happiness and sadness. If, say, a loved one dies, it feels only right and proper that I should feel sad, and I wouldn’t wish to press a button to lessen my suffering even if it nothing else (e.g. commitment to future actions) were to change. Sometimes, I might also even take a sort of masochistic pleasure from my own discomfort, though insofar as that’s just from confirmation that I’ve truly challenged myself I do not know.

Sometimes people try to reconcile their revealed preferences in this regard with their stated preferences of being totally devoted to the universal, egalitarian betterment of others — i.e. they claim the pursuit of their own pleasure to be purely instrumental. That’s always seemed awfully convenient to me, especially when their behavior scarcely differs from self-described (partial) egoists.

I also want to be virtuous and the sort of person who does virtuous things, both (and mostly) because I want to wield those virtues to accomplish things as they relate to my other values, but also because I think being courageous, compassionate, honest, friendly, powerful, enduring, tenacious, diligent, funny, perceptive, and so on would be really neat. It should also be noted that while my values do conflict occasionally (e.g. I get more hedonic pleasure out of a raspberry bush than I do donating its market value to effective charities), they are often pretty well aligned (e.g. I experience plenty of muditā when helping others). Some part of my values are also self-perpetuating, in that I want to prevent them from drifting too far and in particular directions. Meta-ethically, I don’t really distinguish between a preference for chocolate ice-cream (over vanilla ice-cream) and a preference for joyous screams (over painful screams), but I’d certainly not want the later values to flip where I’d care little if the former ones did.


I run into stumbling blocks here, however, when it comes to speculative scenarios involving teleporters, resurrection from backup, etc. I’m tied to the physical substrate from which my conscious experience emerges, and would refrain from killing myself if, say, I knew a nearly exact duplicate were to take my place some time later (though see further below). I would, however, be much more inclined to do a piece-by-piece mind upload such as that entailed by the Moravec procedure, where neuron-by-neuron, over some sufficiently long period of time, my consciousness, normally implemented in and emergent from gooey organic tissues, is transferred into some digital, electronic technology (after all, I’m no carbon chauvinist, I don’t think there’s anything special about biomolecules like proteins or lipids or nucleic acids or anything). Perhaps digital Nik, more aware of his own transience, would feel greater freedom in the face of a copy-destroy-reconstruct machine, but organic Nik sees it as a bringer of death (and new life, OFC). I‘m just not nearly certain enough that copies are meaningfully “me” to risk biological death, but my intuitions don’t balk nearly as much in the case of procedures like that of Moravec. Perhaps the question’s even arbitrary, and you can just as well imagine agents who value their “particular” configuration of matter as well as those who value only the pattern that configuration represents, or those who value both, or those who value neither. All that said, in some hypothetical sci-fi universe I’d be totally in favor of creating “back-ups” before performing risky activities, if only because a lot of what I value — as the preceding paragraphs hopefully illustrate — doesn’t have much to do with me, personally, and the backups could fulfill those goals just as well in the event of my untimely demise (I’d also be in favor of just creating more of me, but that’s a separate discussion). But I wouldn’t regard hedonic joy experienced by Nik-2 to be the same as that experienced by Nik-prime, though I probably would care about Nik-2’s affairs more than I might some random person’s (if only in the expectation of symmetrical reciprocation ;D).

Some other questions that have helped me probe my intuitions in this matter:

  • Someone you deeply care for is scanned and reassembled while sleeping dreamlessly (or under anesthesia, or whatever). Two of them lie side by side before you. Do you kill one without regret? Is it harder to kill one than it is to kill an extremely high fidelity video game model of one?
  • You say goodnight to your romantic partner of choice and go to sleep beside them. While you both sleep, someone sneaks into your bedroom and painlessly kills them. You wake up to see the intruder standing over their lifeless body. You are angry and upset. The intruder says “it’s all good dude, I scanned them before killing them! Here’s their saved brainstate (or whatever)”. Do you laugh it off? And maybe kick the intruder out for playing such a hilarious practical joke?
  • Unbeknownst to you, you were copied yesterday and your copy has since slept a dreamless sleep (or is still saved somewhere and hasn’t been created yet). Are you more comfortable with killing yourself then and there and being reformed from the save-state, or taking a 24-hour amnestic?
  • Is the badness of death continuous or discrete? Presume you’re entirely, 100% OK with the perfect fidelity copying thing. Now wiggle some of the atoms around. Are you still 100% on board? Wiggle some more atoms. Change your favorite flavor of ice-cream to rum raisin, but leave everything else intact. Make your colon half an inch longer. Tuvan throat singing is now overwhelmingly your favorite sort of music. Etc. Still ok with it? Those things aren’t really integral to your identity, are they? Or is the death of the “original”, instead of being a neutral act, now 5% as bad as death sans “copy”? Now approach the process of copying from the other direction — instead of having a perfect copy, you find out that “Sam” exists. Sam’s your distant kin, and they sorta like the same things you do. They’re willing to step into your shoes, bed your partner(s), take over your job, etc. when you get vaporized. Are you now slightly reassured at the prospect of death?
  • How certain am I of the meaninglessness of “non”-death-with-copying-and-replacement? As in, identify the number, p equals what? Am I 99% certain? That still leaves 1% chance you die meaningfully (and there’s still uncertainty about that probability estimate, captured perhaps with hyperparameters). How great a benefit do I have to receive to gamble on that uncertainty?
  • If you don’t think the speed with which Theseus’ Ship is rebuilt does not matter, consider that you also grow and develop and change your mind in varied ways? Are you impartial between me changing your mind over several hours via deep conversation vs. changing your mind instantaneously via my mind-changer-beam? Let’s say you don’t have a choice in either scenario — I’ve tied you to a chair and you’ll talk with me whether you want to or not.
    People also change throughout their lives. Are you ok with your current preferences, thoughts, values, etc. being instantaneously switched to whatever they’d be 40 years from now? Many of them are shaped by somewhat random environmental factors, but it’s still you, right? Identity would have been continuous over that interval.

Anyway, what are we at, 90%? The remaining 10% of the weight I’d devote to something like aesthetics or unspecified moral intuitions, as well as the rest of misc. ethics out there, like various natural rights theories. Ultimately, I see morality and valuation as a descriptive (and not a prescriptive) endeavor (hence my aforementioned “metaethics”, with caveats). That’s to say that the abstracted descriptions above might not adequately capture what I really desire, but I’m pretty sure they do on the whole. Still, they might lead me to some repulsive conclusions, and a regular diet of bullets results in some pretty gnarly dental wear. So I think of this as a sort of fudge factor, where if I really don’t like something, I can incorporate a sort of meta-meta uncertainty to avoid doing it. But not too much, otherwise what’s the point?

This comes most into play when thinking through stupid thought experiments – if a dozen sadists really, really want to torture a single victim (who understandably doesn’t want to be tortured), and they’re the only things in the universe, and the preference arithmetic says to let them go ahead, I still lean heavily towards “fuck ‘em”. This isn’t to say that I’d walk away from Omelas or anything (though there, I’ve always wondered what possible good walking does for the kid – remaining in the society and seeking to understand and modify the mechanism by which it functions seems to be the obviously better answer, far superior to shielding your eyes and washing your hands in the name of personal purity), but that sometimes I’ll cast caution to the wind (or act extra cautiously, depending on how much you agree with me) depending on the circumstance and context.

As already mentioned, since the core of my identity is wrapped up in my preferences, and the majority of those pertain to entities external to myself, I find myself in the somewhat fortuitous position of not fearing death as much as I otherwise might. So long as I am survived by the executors of my will and there are sentient beings left to flourish somewhere or else, those parts of my identity live on, despite their actual progenitor — the fleshy, cranial meatbag perched atop my spine — no longer existing. This applies especially well to those I particularly care for, who might be sheltered under my nepotistic umbrella.  And if some copy of me goes on to fulfill my various wants, all the better, for even if its pleasures are not my pleasures, its victories might still be my victories. I’m fairly partial to sentiments like that expressed by Woody Allen, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” But I can see something to immortality after death, too.


Hiking Recommendations Near Davis

Kate and I do a fair amount of hiking within a few hours’ drive from Davis — you can find us and the pup hitting the trails almost every Saturday. We’ve done scores upon scores of hikes in the area and found that there’s a decent variety to choose from, with trails meandering through great fields of wildflowers, across rolling green hills, by icy granite mountains dotted with alpine lakes, along beaches beside hundreds of elk and a couple whales splashing in the distance, within fairytale forests of giant redwoods, and everything in between.

Unfortunately, Davis’ location in the Central Valley means that many of the best hikes are 1-2 hours’ drive away; the immediate area is mostly hot, flat farmland, so hiking is tricky without a car. In any case, every so often somebody asks us for recommendations on where to hike, so we’ve put together this document detailing some of our favorite trails. I’ll expand upon this post periodically when I have the time and inclination. Dogs are generally allowed unless otherwise noted, but try to find out explicitly in case I’m wrong or regulations have changed (though people — including park rangers lol — don’t seem to care much regardless). Also, most of the below pictures are ones we’ve taken, but my file management sucks so sometimes I can’t find the appropriate shots, and in those cases I’ve pulled a few photos from google and noted their sources. Finally, some of the panoramas might be hard to make much of, since WordPress resizes photos, but you can open them individually in a separate tab to better see them.



We like to use alltrails.com and everytrail.com to scout out hikes; they have a user friendly interface. We’ve also used the book “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Sacramento” to find closer trails (although IIRC it’s 60mi as the crow flies, so not all of them are especially close).

Super close to or within Davis:

Arboretum walk: a pleasant stroll along the river, though depending on the season it might be more of a putting green. Pretty shady, but unless you go in the early morning or late night it’s more of a 3-season hike. Since it parallels much of campus, there are lots of bathrooms (and occasional stores) along the way. A favorite Sunday morning walk for me, Kate, and the pup after grabbing coffee and treats downtown.IMG_2792_nofilter.jpg

Green Belt: a series of parks, lawns, and bike/footpaths linking many of the green spaces within Davis. Also plenty of pools, tennis courts, skate parks, a dog park, etc. scattered throughout. Several fruit trees (e.g. citrus, persimmon, fig, and pomegranate) grow in the park, but be careful not to fall!


Putah Creek Reserve: Not a bad place to walk when you want a change of pace from the Arboretum and Greenbelt, at least for being a

Close to Davis (1/2 hour drive):

Lake Berryessa Homestead/Blue Ridge Trail: A fun, pumpy loop hike with good views of the lake. Can get a bit crowded on the weekends and hot in the summers. Side trails (e.g. to Annie’s peak) offer good ways to extend the hike past the otherwise short ~5 mi. IMG_2996.JPGIMG_2983.JPG

5bftscaIMG_2994.JPGImage result for lake berryessa hiking trails(last picture not mine)

Ways away from Davis (1 hour drive)

South Fork American River: There’s a solid network of trails here that can be linked up to form a 20+ mile loop (and if you’re feeling especially restless you can walk to Folsom Lake and back!), many of which roughly parallel the American river. Away from the river it’s pretty warm, but there’s a decent cooling effect when you’re right beside it.  Plenty of wildflowers bloom here in the spring. Cronan Ranch, the set of some old movie, is a particularly neat place to visit.
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Wendell T. Robie Trail: Getting here was a little tricky — you need to go up a windy, high-pothole-density dirt road. The trail itself, however, is quite nice — after a few switchbacks, you walk on a trail cut into the side of a ridgeline, with great views of the valley and river below. The pictures that follow don’t really do it much justice. When we went, there were a handful of dogs running around, presumably belonging to people that live nearby (they were friendly and healthy-looking). One of them walked with us on the full ~10-15 miles of our hike. I’d avoid here during tick season, though — when we returned with the pup at a later date, there were tons of them off the sides of the trail.

Hidden Falls Regional Park: Another close-ish trail network totaling a few dozen miles, Hidden Falls has waterfalls, rivers, trees, and hills aplenty. Pretty popular, but once you get a few miles from the parking lot the crowds die down. 
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– Cache Creek Regional Park: The hikes we do most often here include chaining together a series of trails in the High Bridge network, which generally involves rolling green hills with happy little lakes dotted here and there, and the Blue Ridge Trail, which is a gradual 8mi out and back up to Fiske Peak with good views of the surrounding area. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can continue on past Fiske Peak for another dozen plus miles to loop back to the trailhead, though the trail’s super overgrown in parts and will tear up your pants and shins (and arms). It’s also very deserted — rarely have we ever seen anyone else on the trails, especially at High Bridge. Our favorite trip up the Blue Ridge Trail involved lots of fog, so if it’s rainy in Davis I recommend a daytrip out!hiking (36).jpg2016-04-02 11.54.08.jpghiking (188).jpg2016-01-16 12.32.47.jpg

Redwood Regional ParkOne of our favorite go-to parks, this place is perfect for 3.5 season hiking (hot at summer’s peak, but otherwise very pleasant). Fairly close to Davis, with dozens of miles of trails (and the Chabot Space and Science Center), you can easily find lush, secluded portions of trail closed in on all sides by towering (but not giant) redwoods. There’s a good variety of hiking here, too, and within a dozen miles you can go from a dark, flat forest to pumpy ascents to open, grassy ridgeline. During peak season there’s a ~$5 fee to get to the main parking lot, but you can easily park nearby and walk in (it also links up to a bunch of other parks). 

wc9a5c2s5vozakarbiy4evtzImage result(last few images not mine! But taken from the second link above, here, and here. Dunno where all my RRP photos went…)

Briones Regional Park: Another favorite go-to, with (you guessed it!) a network of trails stretching into the dozens of miles. In the wet season, it looks like the Shire, with beautiful rolling green hills, little lakes, and tons of cows. In the dry season, it looks like Mordor, and everything’s hot, dry, dead. I recommend the wet season over the dry season. Lots of variety here, we usually shoot to get up onto the ridges for some roller-coaster-y hiking with great views.

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Farther Still (1.5 hour drive)

Steven’s Trail (North Fork of the American River): You’ve done the South Fork of the American River, now try the North Fork! A nice, 9mi-ish rocky hike that stays in the mountains initially (great views!) but eventually meanders down to parallel the river. When we picnicked by the river there were thousands of butterflies everywhere — quite pretty!

Berryessa Peak Trail (BPT) A 15 mile hike on the “other side” of Lake Berryessa, walking this you’ll travel up some grassy hills to a ridge, at which point grassland and forest will transition to desert scrub. Gorgeous in the spring time, the last 3ish miles of the out get kind of rough as the trail is poorly maintained. (Especially) after rainfall and in the evenings, California newt come out in droves — we’ve seen literally hundreds of them across a stretch of a few miles. They’re incredibly cute, but also incredibly stupid, and will lazily plod along if you get near (if they even react at all). You might think, how can this be? Orange on green, slow little things — easy pickings? Not quite — they secrete an extremely potent neurotoxin from their skin that’ll kill the shit out of you if you come into contact (and especially ingest) even a small amount. So don’t take their complacency as invitation to touch them, at least if you don’t desire a rather unpleasant death.  Luckily, they’re easy to avoid (aposematism ftw!), and the hike really is quite pretty! And to be honest, you see them on plenty of other CA hikes, too (see map in most recent link), it’s just hereabouts (in our experience) that they’re found in such quantities.2016-01-23 16.29.38.jpg2016-01-23 15.16.08.jpg2016-01-23 12.36.21-1.jpg2016-01-23 14.25.54.jpg2016-01-23 14.53.47.jpg2016-01-23 16.06.14 HDR.jpg

North Table Mountain Wildlife Area — Home to gorgeous grasslands and waterfalls (esp. Ravine and Phantom Falls), this is the spring hike to do if you wish to see billions upon billions of wildflowers. Quite popular near the start among picnickers and kite-flyers, the crowds thin as you go. Often there are some people at an information kiosk with maps near the parking lot. There’s no real distinct trail to follow here for much of the route, so you’ll usually find yourself walking across big, grassy fields following your compass or other hikers. When we went, the pup’s feet got somewhat torn up, and the next morning they had swelled to 2X their normal size, so either the ground is really rough or he’s allergic to pollen or something. In any case, this probably isn’t a hike to do barefoot, and if you want to bring your dog (which many do!) I’d consider bringing also little booties. Lots of cows a-grazing everywhere, too!


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Mt. Diablo: A fun, pumpy hike and trail system with a visitor center (and restrooms, parking lot, running water, etc.) at the top. Great views of the surroundings towns and hills and nearby Briones, too! You can easily link together a dozen+ miles of trail from the top to the bottom. Think Briones, but a bit more dElevation. Not dog friendly, unfortunately, so leave the pooch at home.hiking (49).jpg2016-02-06 13.34.32.jpg2016-02-06 16.47.22.jpg2016-02-06 13.06.42.jpg

Jenkinson Lake Loop Trail: On the way to Tahoe, this is our go-to if the Sierras are too snowy or smokey for hiking and we have to turn around. Lovely weather year round, this is a fairly mile 8-mi loop around a pretty, calm lake through forests and along the shore. A short side-trail takes you to a nice waterfall, too. The trail also meanders through lots of campgrounds, so there’s good in-season accessibility to bathrooms and water-refills. We’ve gone kayaking in the lake, as well, which was pretty fun!2016-05-28 12.08.09.jpg2016-04-30 14.30.11-1.jpg(waterfall photo taken from here)

2 hour drive — Now you’re getting somewhere!

Point Reyes: A pretty cape with lotsa hiking and great ocean views. We’ve done a few hikes here, and our favorite so far is ~10mi Tomales Point trail and nearby McClures Beach, which takes you out to the tip of Point Reyes as you walk beside scores upon scores of Tule elk. Occasionally whales can be spotted off in the water, too. On the way back, McClures beach offers a nice spot to splash around and watch the sunset.  Technically not dog-friendly, though. There’s lots of other hiking in the area, too, and a lighthouse you can visit. Check out the map at the above link!

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Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve: I’ve been to a lot of parks featuring giant Redwoods in CA (e.g. John Muir, Calaveras, Mariposa Grove, etc.), and so far I think this has been my favorite. The valley floor is straight out of a fairytale, especially around twilight, and there are many miles of hiking in the surrounding hills. Also, the trees are really big, and the neighborhoods in the area super quaint!

nh727x4hiking (3).jpghiking (16).png(last picture taken from here; I don’t have too many pics from the valley floor/grove, since my camera at the time didn’t do too well under low-light conditions)

Lake Tahoe/Sierras: There are lots of hikes to consider here, but they’re all generally full of icy, granite peaks and cool, blue lakes. I’ll talk about a few of our favorites independently.

Mt. Tallac – A great, pumpy hike with sprawling views of the surrounding El Dorado area. At ~9mi round trip and >3000ft of elevation gain, it’s not too steep, but expect to work up a sweat. You’re also in the sun a lot and the ground is pretty rough, so protect your skin and feet (and make your dog wear booties or musher’s secret or something). Do note though that the peak is at around ~10k ft above sea level and Davis is around 50 feet above sea level, so doing this as a day trip might be a little rough if you’re susceptible to elevation sickness.hiking (88).jpg

Cascade Falls: A short trail followed by some lazy, off trail scrambling, this is a great side trip when visiting the Desolation Wilderness (see below).

Horsetail Falls: A really tall waterfall, quaint little streams, and granite granite granite. Reminded me a bit of Yosemite in places. Trails aren’t super well marked, but everything is open enough that you can easily find your way if lost. Not super long, but you can wander around a fair bit and push further into the El Dorado wilderness if you wish to extend your stay.hiking (43).jpghiking (117).jpglclqpe4opwjza8wrcdv

Desolation Wilderness – There are lots of great hikes here, but we usually visit Eagle lake, Granite lake, and Maggie’s peak. Parking by Emerald Bay can be pretty tricky if you don’t come super early.This is also where “Cascade Falls” (see above) is found. Winters are pretty snowy! 
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Echo Lakes: Fairly flat but picturesque hike along lower and upper Echo lake. Pretty popular, and you pass by a lot of lakehouses in the early stretch. Cold in the winter, but warms up well in the summer.2016-06-04 15.30.38.winter.jpgIMG_3235.JPGIMG_3393.JPGIMG_3496.JPG

Mt. Tamalpais State Park: Lotsa rolling green hills and forests, but this time they come with nice ocean views. Our favorite hikes here so far have been the 7mi Matt-Davis Trail, which we’ll often link up to others trails in the area (e.g. the Coastal Trail) to extend our stay. Exploring the broader watershed has also been nice. Get to your trailheads early, as parking spots fill up fast.The ladder
(picture stolen from link above, as well as from here and here)hiking (26).jpghiking (170).jpg

Cataract Falls: So this is technically in Mt. Tam SP (see above), but I found some photos so it gets its own entry. This is a hike that’s best to do after a heavy rain, as the falls can be lackluster during the dry season. You can, as ever, link it up with other hikes in the Mt. Tam trail network.hiking (85).jpghiking (95).jpg

Euchre Bar trail: Short but pumpy hike on the North Fork of the American River. Lots of mosquitos in the summer, but there’s a really nice swimming hole at the bottom.

Hunter Trail in the El Dorado National Forest: There’s been a fair bit of fire damage to this trail recently, but this was still a really nice hike along a cliffside paralleling a river with tons of interesting creek crossings and waterfalls. Reviews online say it’s really poorly maintained and overgrown, but it was fine when we passed through. Total hike is up to 20mi in length, out-and-back. The many water features provide plenty of opportunities to cool off with a dip!2016-03-24 14.47.02 HDR.jpg3.jpg2016-03-24 13.24.17.jpg2016-03-24 13.44.10-1.jpg2016-03-24 13.41.04.jpg

3 hour+ drive:
Yosemite (and the Sierras): Little enough needs to be said about the Yosemite (and surround areas), so just go there when you get the chance!2014-08-26 15.29.54.jpg2014-08-27 09.50.21.jpg2014-08-030.jpgIMG_0857.JPG


Speed Hiking

Recently Kate and I visited Vancouver, B.C., and went on a number of different hikes.


One of these was the “Grouse Grind”, a short (<2 mi) but pumpy (2800 ft) walk up to the top of Grouse Mountain along a very well-manicured trail/footpath/staircase.


At the top, there was a nice lodge complete with bathrooms, cafes, restaurants, gift shops, and a gondola that can take you down to the bottom for $10 (photocredit).


There was also a sprawling amusement-park-thing with a bird show, a couple of grizzlies, a wind turbine with lookout station, totem poles, ranger talks, helicopter tours, a lumberjack show, and various other attractions. When it’s cold, they switch over to ski lifts and wintersports.

One particularly interesting feature of hike was the community-wide competitiveness it’s fostered (and pushes on you all over the place lol). At the bottom and top there are electronic timers you clock in and out of via an RFID card. These record how long it took you to walk/jog up (alternatively, it looks like the phone app can record your time with GPS), and the best runs of the year are displayed alongside recent completion times on TVs at the top. From what I could tell, people routinely try to set personal and global PRs on this hike, and there are yearly competitions both for speed up in a single run and most runs in a day (photocredit).


I’d have loved something like this growing up. [WARNING: NARCISSISTIC BRAGGING AHEAD] In high school, speed hiking and trail running where my “sports” – my junior and senior years, I hiked maybe ~50 miles a week (usually 5-10 on weeknights and 20-30 on weekends), much of it focused on pushing myself to achieve better times. The two “popular hike” PRs I most remember setting were 11ish minutes up the 1.2mi/1300ft Echo Canyon Trail – 14ish to get down – and 31ish to hike up the 3mi/2900ft Siphon Draw Trail. A preoccupation with speed was not without drawbacks, however – I remember one hike up Flatiron where I leapt up into a sharply jutting rock, spilling what, at the time, seemed like a huge amount of blood and probably sustaining a mild concussion (the scar still adorns my forehead). When I got to college I toned the hiking down a bit, going out every weekend and only *some* weeknights – I did a ~5 mile loop around Radnor Lake well over a hundred times, I reckon, and did all “60 hikes within 60 miles” of Nashville at least twice (though several I did dozens of times). I certainly got slower (gaining 50 lbs’ll do that!) but could still maintain a solid pace – on the Appalachian Trail the Summer after my 1st year, I averaged a respectable ~20 miles a day for about a month and a half (including neroes/zeroes)(photocredit).


To digress further, one of my favorite college “ha, gotcha!” speed-hiking moments was on the Routeburn Track in New Zealand. I’d been making my way through the Great Walks and wanted to do the Routeburn, only it didn’t allow stealth camping, you had to book huts way in advance, and the spots were too expensive regardless. So I decided to do the whole trail all in one day (to avoid having to overnight on it), and hike a good few miles onto the Caples track, and do that and the Greenstone track over two more days before hitching over to Milford Sound to meet friends. Needless to say, my first day on the trail was gorgeous but long (I ended it around midnight after starting to hike at 9AM, giving me a 25-30 mi total for Day 1), so I was booking it. About 5 miles in to the Routeburn I reached a hut and decided to have some breakfast (of champions, naturally, a couple of my many PB&J sandwiches, with extra PB; photocredit).


Halfway through my second sandwich, two boisterous hippie trailrunner bros arrive, their shirtless, lean torsos glistening as they removed their small camelbacks and began to chat up fellow hikers. One thing was quickly made clear – they’d been and would be zooming up the mountain at breakneck speeds. Finishing my food, I packed my things and returned to the trail. Glancing back a few minutes later, I noticed that trail bros had also rejoined the trail and were jogging half a km behind me. Since I’d already been moving with a sense of urgency, I kicked up my own pace a bit and stayed ahead of them for the next 7 miles (every so often confirming that they’re still running behind me). I like to imagine that they were puzzled by the dude with huge backpack ahead of them, but odds are they never noticed. Still, the thought tickled me pink as I struggled for breath speed-walking rapidly uphill.


Anyway, what does all this masturbatory reminiscence have to do with the Grouse Grind? It might just be my massive, narcissistic ego talking, but I’m pretty sure I’d do *really well* in competition for the fastest time (and perhaps in the distance competition, too). The current course record is a smidge under 24 minutes, which gives a per-mile pace of just over 13 minutes. I feel that’s totally in line with my old PRs up Camelback and Flatiron, and those hikes have worse footing, too, so in doing them I needed to concentrate more on foot placement. “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster” would let me pump out an ascent without worrying nearly as much about twisting an ankle. For the record, Kate and I walked up in a fairly casual, if rather sweaty 40-something minutes (the only time I had to use my mouth to breathe was after speaking a particularly long sentence. Though our ascent did unofficially put Kate in the top ten women’s times for this year!), and I’m pretty sure I could get in the low-mid 30s right now with a bit of effort. With some training to return to the hiking shape of my teens? A time in the low-twenties wouldn’t seem too far out of reach (photocredit).