Wall of Silence

I shuffled uncomfortably. After an eight-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, my travel companion and I lumbered into another narrow-aisled AirAsia jet. We sat down to continue our round of euchre – we’d both won two games, but I was getting tired.
“Want a Mentos?” Eamonn offered me another of the sweet, fruit-flavoured drops that would become something of a recurring feature of our trip. He’d bought eight packets in Sydney before we left.
“Sure.”
He dealt the next hand and beat me with a joker, the right and left bowers, the ace and an off-suit queen. I mumbled something about stacking the deck.

Two hours into the flight, I reached into my bag for a jumper. Eamonn said he hoped I wasn’t seriously getting cold already.
Moments later, a stewardess in a loud, bright red uniform placed foil containers in front of us. Thirsty chicken and a slippery block of rice. Tucking my elbows in as the strawberry stewardess pushed the food cart haphazardly down the aisle, I unwrapped my plastic fork. The chicken shuffled uncomfortably. Eamonn eyed it suspiciously.
“Mentos?”

The pace trebled once we landed in Beijing. The first and most important thing we noticed when we landed was the air’s distinct putridity. The only other time I’ve been somewhere that produces a black effluence when you blow your nose is Bangkok, and this is significantly worse (note: as it turns out, Ulaanbaatar is categorically worse, by orders of magnitude). Although it was cold, just below freezing, a few jumpers were all we needed at that stage, filling us with false confidence. After semi-successfully haggling down a taxi fare, setting the tone for the remainder of our time in China, we retired to our dorm at 4am. At 7:30, we were showering and getting ready to collect our train tickets to Mongolia. Tiananmen Square was next.

The next morning, we went to a local place for breakfast, then caught the extremely efficient subway and slightly less efficient bus to a town close to the Great Wall. Two taxi drivers escorted us off the bus and began to argue about who would get our business. Eamonn and I shuffled uncomfortably as car doors were opened and slammed, fingers pointed and feathers ruffled. I could see in his eyes that Eamonn wanted to offer them a Mentos. One of the taxi drivers shouted at us, “thirty yuan each!”
Eamonn and I: “No, too much!” 30 yuan is about six dollars for a thirty-minute ride, which is good by most standards, but we were having too much fun with these characters. Besides, the receptionist at the hostel had said that the fee should be about 50 yuan between us and we were keen to practice our haggling.
“Ok, 30 yuan together!” Shouts one.
“No, no, I drive you, 30 yuan for both!”
“Fifteen each, yes?” We say to the one with the closest car.
“Yes, ok.”
We got into the car only for the door to be flung open and slammed a few more times. Our driver joined us after a few minutes, drove twenty metres down the road and stopped.
“He crazy! So far, long way. I think thirty each is better.”
“No no, wait a minute, you said thirty together!”
“No, I only say that because he say that, but really it’s too cheap.”
“But that’s why we got in your car!” I said, undoing my seatbelt and reaching for the door handle.

30 yuan later, we arrived at the entrance to visit the Great Wall of China. “Mentos?” Eamonn offered me the last one in the packet. I accepted gratefully and he held the empty paper and foil tube to his left eye, squinted into it, then looked back at me lugubriously. “Now I’ve only got six packets left”, he said sadly.

We climbed up to guard tower 10, then walked along the wall for a few hours.
From up high, the wall looks like the spine of a dragon sunning itself, draped over the mountains, slinking its way through the high cliffs and low valleys. After spending even a short time in Beijing, the first thing I noticed about being up on the wall is that it was palpably, serenely quiet. It was a little warmer than Beijing, around 10 degrees in the early afternoon, and the smell was less perceptible. You could still see the smog clinging tirelessly to the belly of the sky, and coke was still being flogged from the footpath up to the watchtowers, but otherwise the experience was regal and ancient, an aura preserved better than at other commodified antiquities like Angkor Wat. The wall is one of the most impressive built features I can remember ever seeing. We wondered who would bother attacking anybody capable of building the bloody thing (note: as we were progressing further north into the snowy hills of Mongolia and started to see yurts and nomads popping out of the blanket of white, we realised it was exactly these people who would bother to attack China).

Eamonn and I walked past a German couple whose son asked them why the wall was built. Eamonn and I looked at each other and whispered, “too many rabbits, in Choina.”

After the wall, we made our way back to the hostel and got caught up in Beijing peak hour. Unfortunately, we missed happy hour, though the beer is generally cheap and bad here. Surprise! I recommend accompanying Chinese beer with Mentos.

I’m sitting on the train across from Eamonn now, as I write this, about 300 kilometres from the Mongolian border. Of course, I won’t be able to post it until we reach Ulaanbaatar. The train is heated, and we’ve had to strip down to our baselayers. The carriage has four beds, comprised of two stacked pairs. It’s just the two of us in our cabin, though. We even have a power outlet to fight over! And we’re finally seeing snow outside for the first time.

After we got settled, we began our ninth game of euchre for the trip. After six tricks, I’m now up two points.

We’ve got some nice photos which I’ll post on Facebook as we go. That is, once we’re clear of the Great Firewall of China. After Google failed to yield any results, I discovered that other search engines exist. Did you know about this?

We’ll be in Mongolia for a few days from the 18th. I’ll write again from Russia.

Eamonn just won this game.
I’m shuffling uncomfortably.
“Mentos?”

Will2Live

Isaac Harmelin's photo.

Will has been feeding rough sleepers and the homeless, five days a week, for several years. Through his organisation, he has built up a rapport with many of his inner-city regulars who recognise his friendly, open, all-welcome attitude and characteristic cheeky banter.

Tonight, at the end of a huge effort to put on a special dinner-party style affair with mains, dessert, donated clothes and toiletries, a young gentleman gave an emotional musical performance in which he thanked Will for changing his life after being released from prison. Not only has this man turned his life around, but is now on the other side, volunteering for Will.

Boss, standing with Will, is the managing-director and is equally committed to doing what she can to make people’s lives a little easier. These people are the real deal, this is what it’s about. A small, non-profit organisation making a material difference.

In Will’s own words, “I was trying to think of a way to help people, and I was like, ‘I can’t really do anything’. But it doesn’t take a degree or a lot of experience to give someone a sandwich.” – and that’s the point. Deliberating gets you to a certain point, but it’s about actually rolling up your sleeves and doing something.

Donations are great and if you can help out I know it would be appreciated. Even better, an hour of your time each week will help enormously to ease Will and the team’s load and you just have to see what a smile, handshake and hot meal can mean to someone. These people are genuine heroes, and that’s from the people who they’re helping.

Support a team of heroes and chuck in a like on their page, a dollar in their pocket, or an hour of your time
https://www.facebook.com/will2livecharity/

University Scraps Walking Licence Scheme

Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence of the University of Sydney today announced the scrapping of special ‘zoning’ restrictions, which were to be applied throughout the inner-city Camperdown campus. The restrictions would apply to all students on campus, including those who are ambulant. Number-tiered and colour-coded pathways, which students are only permitted to access when they have the appropriate level of skill, experience and logbook hours, had been scheduled for construction over the summer holidays.

The plans came in the wake of escalating frustration with students who failed to walk around campus and to the local train and bus stations (such as Redfern and Central) quickly, efficiently and considerately.

Although secrecy shrouds the schematics for the proposed network, what is known is that the skybridge over City Road was to be coded Red due to the particular difficulty people seemed to have walking appropriately over it, and would be protected by sliding glass doors. Only fully-licensed walkers would be able to swipe onto the bridge, and everyone else would have to cross at the road. Eastern Avenue and Manning Road would have been coded Yellow due to the high amount of foot traffic being offset by quite generous path space. There would also have been two pedestrian crossings into campus, coded Green, which were to be supervised at peak periods for those who simply cannot learn to walk with basic consideration for others and who pose a safety risk for the entire city. Those people were to receive Union-subsidised fMRI scans and genome sequencing to get a better understanding of their absence of empathy.

New South Wales Police Force Commissioner Andrew Scipione issued a stern rebuke to USYD students who couldn’t stick to basic commuting decorum: “Approximately 70% of Sydney’s traffic congestion is caused by inner-city campus students not having the first clue about basic walking etiquette”, he said. “Things like sticking to the left to facilitate ease of overtake and not crossing the road while ogling hotties on Tinder should really be second nature to our next generation of leaders”. He added that if students are desperate to get their rocks off on the go, they should at least wait until they reach the traffic island before swiping right. “I mean, that’s what they’re there for”, he noted. Scipione praised the University for its initiative in tackling this issue after hearing about its investment in the startup company, Shouldn’t Be Necessary Walking SolutionsTM, in return for immediate construction and implementation of the pilot program.

The tactful solution was abandoned this week, however, due to concerns over the ableist nature of the system. Although each zone was also going to be clearly labelled in ascending order (Green, tier 3; Yellow, tier 2; Red, tier 1; Blue, tier 0) with a Braille plaque at the beginning of each walkway, and the Blue tier being restricted to those with specific mobility difficulty (temporary injury passes were also going to be issued), there was a febrile response from the differently-sighted lobby, who felt that it was unfair that chromonormative individuals were exposed to two very clear indicative stimuli. Less-than-able-to-see-colour individuals would be restricted to the number system, especially those with achromatopsia, unless they also learned Braille, which the lobby noted chromonorms could also hypothetically learn.

For those with only partial colour loss and colour confusion (dichromatic individuals), this could even lead to a sense of overwhelming panic if they found themselves under the grave misapprehension of having wandered onto the wrong tier, which was projected to swamp the Arts faculty’s already overloaded Special Consideration site and crash both of the University’s servers.

The two major parties’ minor unelected representatives have surprisingly responded with unprecedented bipartisanship on the issue. One member of the Young Liberals, who agreed to be interviewed under condition of anonymity, said he thought that the implementation of walking laws was long overdue: “I mean, if you need a license to drive on public roads, why shouldn’t you need a license to walk on public streets? Dickish behaviour shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere but the party room and legislative assembly.” We laughed, too. Young Labor stuck their erroneously-spelt noses in to remark that, “we shouldn’t be supporting sending people to refugee islands to be processed offshore. Instead, we should be investing in pedestrian refuge islands with Wi-Fi, counselling and docking stations.”

However, other campus groups were not as convivial to the revelations that NSWPF officers were originally set to patrol the new walkways during daylight hours, arresting those who failed to comply and charging them with a range of offenses from disorderly conduct, insight riot, affray, domestic terrorism, fail to be a productive member of society, sport shitty-looking man ban, and fail to indicate while overtaking, at the discretion of the individual officer. There was also concern that NSW Premier Mike Baird refused to rule out the acquisition of surveillance and Predator drones from the ADF to monitor and enforce compliance.

Before the plans were scrapped entirely, a concession was made by the University in response to the imperial ‘Cops Off Campus’ movement’s lambasting of the proposal to have the new system permanently operated by Highway Patrol officers, citing the fact that they were certain to be more useful elsewhere, probably. The University said that it had listened to the concerns of the community and would instead only employ the most laid back State Transit Officers on a rotational basis. The SRC, who could not reach a unanimous decision on the issue, decided instead to semi-ironically nickname the project Operation Stalin’s Laid Back Deathmarch and demanded travelators be installed for the bottom two tiers in order to reach a deal allowing the plans to go ahead. They also demanded chai latte stands at regular intervals and a ‘halfway station’ to prevent stress.

Young Liberals responded to the change in personnel, which had originally been a condition of their cooperation on the deal, by demanding fully-armed OSG officers and police snipers stationed on top of the New Law Annex and Chemistry buildings to prevent freeloading students from becoming dependent on their walkway entitlements.

The Socialist Alliance, viewing the new system as a fascist racket, responded by forming a petition asking red- and yellow-tier walkers to check their privilege and consider boycotting Israel for its involvement in manufacturing the off-label paint used to mark the pathways, which they claim was never made available in the Gaza Strip, although one university in the West Bank has considered investing in a Shouldn’t Be Necessary Walking SolutionsTM system themselves. A press statement out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s office suggests he is seriously concerned about the Alliance’s petition: “The Sydney University chapter of The Socialist Alliance is having a serious impact on Israeli business. They’re really making me rethink how I run things. Mossad are currently reviewing our options. I would like to reiterate our position of nuclear ambiguity and that I can neither confirm nor deny our ability to launch nuclear warheads proximal to Australia.” The Socialist Alliance is sending representatives to Hebron where the Yellow paint is sourced in order to conduct an external review over concerns that the West Bank mixture was sub-standard and likely to fade three months earlier than advertised, perpetuating the aggressive capitalistic planned obsolescence that is crippling the West Bank’s otherwise flourishing and prosperous economy.

Other than compulsory lessons in human decency, no other solutions to the walking plague have yet been put forward.

/Satire

Ex-PM Tony Abbott outed as deep-cover liberal

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been usurped as head quacker by Malcolm Turnbull, after incriminating interweb evidence surfaced exposing him as an anti-conservative mole.

During a press briefing outside parliament house, the former Prime Minister looked relaxed and jovial, evidently feeling the relief of breaking character after such a long stint.

When questioned, he explained that the charade had started as a simple prank while he was studying at USYD: “The boys and I were sloshed at Manning, and I started carrying on like a pork chop, saying that if I were a conservative leader I’d have all inbound boat arrivals scuttled before they crossed into the Exclusive Economic Zone.”

After a passing member of the Socialist Alliance overheard and called him a “fascist prick”, Tony came to the realisation that the best way to combat conservative politicians in Australia was to pretend to be one, and then unleash a torrent of unsalvageable faux pas and policy. It would be guaranteed to undermine the confidence in and authority of any conservative party.

“Going into ‘deep cover’ was a difficult decision”, the Rhodes Scholar said, “but I knew it was the best thing to do for Australia.” Chuckling, he added, “I mean, it was fairly easy to trick people into thinking I was completely batshit”.

Mr Abbott said that the high point of his career was the famous speech delivered by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in which she called him out on allegations of sexism and misogyny; “It was at that point I really felt I had struck a nerve with the people of Australia. It, uh, gave credibility to venture. It meant that I was really getting somewhere.”

Since then, however, Mr Abbott has experienced a number of setbacks, most notably the election of the Coalition into government. On the election, he commented, “I really didn’t anticipate this; it was quite shocking that not only had Australia taken my ideas seriously, but had actually liked them and voted for them”.

Abbott says he counteracted this by buying 58 new jet fighters valued at nearly $12-and-a-half billion. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program has been plagued with bugs from vulnerable fuel tanks posing in-flight fire risks to not necessarily being able to withstand a lightning strike. “Surely they won’t take me seriously after this”.

A reputable blog source claims that Abbott is planning on using his extended political career as a springboard into open-mic comedy.

More to come.

/Satire

How I Lost My Mother

Mum cultivated a distinguished taste in clothes, in humour, in music, in food, in friends and in children. I was first introduced to mum about 19 years ago. I will always remember her eminent cheek, a charming feature she got from me. Throughout chemo, sundry procedures and hospital visits, and spending most of my inheritance on medication (which was, frankly, inconsiderate), she insisted on wearing makeup, lipstick and donning her favourite straw hat. I never heard her complain about the vomiting; she was just pissed that her hair kept falling out.

A woman proud of her Kiwi heritage (when the all-blacks were winning), she arranged magnetic phrases on the fridge to remind me that “fush ‘n’ chups are a sweet as choice, bro”, and to “chuck another kumara in the chilly-bin”, whatever they might be. Her culinary prowess meant that she was a generous employer of expletives and profanity. Nightly, she asked how dinner was, and upon my ritual response of, “it’s your worst yet”, she would reflexively instruct me to “get fucked”. It was funny every night.

watch your profanity

Mum died in my arms about three months ago. If I’ve kept you this far, perhaps you’ll accompany me down the bleach-perfumed rabbit hole of self-indulgence and preachy pseudo-advice that will be the recounting of how I lost my mother.

The Anecdote
I’m sitting in the cubic, sterile coffin, one hand holding hers and the other brushing her hair. Her face is gaunt, her body emaciated. The medical staff tell me she’s so spaced out on hydromorphone that she isn’t aware of anything, which is initially comforting. A wet, rancid gurgling boils from her lungs as the powerful analgesics forcibly relax her throat. Her eyes are open and dry, and we occasionally use a dropper to moisten them, more for our comfort than hers. Her useless breaths become spaced by nearly twelve abrasive seconds before her lungs claw at the receding air, which is rapidly evaporating from the room.

The survivors are fighting over what’s left.

A choking sound ensues. As if she has suddenly become aware of the ugly wall-mounted arms rhythmically beating toward her, she looks into my eyes. She blinks twice. Her eyes plead with me. Two tears roll down her harassed, beautiful, pitted cheek. I’ve been lied to. The thought is intrusive, reactive.

She understands what’s happening.

The grimace she’s wearing is one of immense physical pain, apprehension, and profound sadness. She doesn’t want to die. Her body performs its final act of rebellion against her. She stops breathing in my arms. My gaze shifts to her limping neck until the thready pulse stops and she arrests. I don’t know if anyone else in the room has witnessed this seven-second aeon. I hope they haven’t. I wanted her to fall asleep and not wake up; I wanted it to be peaceful and easy. They try to assure me it was all just muscle spasms and the writhing of a deoxygenating nervous system. I know she wasn’t awake in the real sense. I know she didn’t feel anything. I know the blinking was reflexive.

Of course, none of that matters. The seven-second movie reel is branded on my brain. Irrationally, the most enduring memory I have of my mother is her dying savagely. Despite being surrounded by people, I feel alone.

As a point of observation, it really is like they’ve been unbuckled from their body, the cast strewn. I find a nurse and tell him that she’s passed away. He walks in, acknowledging the old, hideous face plastered to the wall as he crosses the threshold. I take a moment to wonder how many others that clock has overseen without sympathy or compassion. Or mercy. Then I remember that, in this case, it was merciful. Then I wonder whether that’s just something people say to make you feel better. Then I remember that clock metaphors are platitudinous and banal. Then I wonder if anyone will notice my redundant pleonasm.

After

For the first three weeks, I had dreams each night that I was finding out she died for the first time. I’d wake up and feel the same I did on the day. It never ‘hit’ me like people say. It sort of washed in like an advancing tide until I was submerged, trying to think or move but being dragged steadily towards the sand. It’s kind of like when you’re running from something in a dream, and the faster you try to run, the more adhesive the air around you becomes.

It’s bizarre, and people don’t seem to understand, but I’m fine. She’d been sick for years; there was plenty of time to brace, and it was her time. She had two sisters who died of breast cancer. Her mother died of breast cancer. I don’t know what her father died of, or when. I don’t know the names of any of my maternal family. In 2002, mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. Between then and 2012, her ovarian cancer diagnosis and undiscussed death sentence, she’d had smatterings of ill health here and there, intermingled with resistant depression and a couple of broken bones. It was never comfortable, but you sort of get used to it. But the poor woman wasn’t just in pain anymore, wasn’t just nauseated and terminally ill. Her body wasn’t just infected. Her skin didn’t hide her bones, and her rib cage and shoulder hurt me when I hugged her. She was literally starving.

And the disease and the drugs had eviscerated her mind, too. She would talk about cats that weren’t there, people coming into the room who didn’t exist. She even tried to have herself transferred out of palliative care to another hospice. I walked into the room on one occasion when she was clearly confused. She said, “I don’t think I’m getting any better, Zaccy”, as if she thought the purpose of coming to hospital was to be cured. Later the same day, she said, “I think I might be dying”.

Once or twice a day, I reflect that I can no longer remember what she was like when she wasn’t sick, and strings of molten glass convect to line my cheeks. The loneliness jumps on you sometimes. People will say things like, “you’re not alone, we’re all here for you.” In my case, this happens to be true; I have wonderful friends, including some of mum’s, and they are very forthcoming with phone calls and practical assistance. Dad, who lives on the south coast, calls every day and we visit each other when we can. I have a wonderful, supportive girlfriend. But again, none of that is relevant, because it’s not a loneliness that develops from lack of people or company. It’s a deep, more profound loneliness that derives from a loss of a safety net. A mother is a valuable commodity. A teacher, a fall-back. The only woman who is contractually obligated to love you indefinitely, with unwavering bias and affection. It’s like losing your queen in chess. You can still win the game, but it’s much more difficult and it just doesn’t play the same. The board is less symmetrical. It’s also a little less safe, and you have to learn to trust yourself more.

It’s at this point that I’d like to acknowledge how lucky I am to still have friends and a smattering of family who are always around. There are definitely people without any family and no income who are even younger than me. I can’t imagine the difficulty of that situation and my condolences extend to any of you reading this. Just keep fighting the good fight, keep making plans. The only thing getting me through each day at work, at uni, during the negotiations to secure a rental lease and meetings with lawyers and accountants is the just-distant-enough plan to go overseas by the end of the year, or maybe next. I want to take a year off and travel. I love Sydney, but I have to get out of here for a while. If you’re reading this because you relate to our story in some way, I encourage you to make a similar medium-term plan. Make it specific, make it happen. Having something to look forward to is a powerful motivator. Though, I can imagine eventually getting sick of only ever looking forward to things and not realising any of those anticipations. I suppose the best way to combat this is to complete the project then dream a new one. And just keep going.

Sometimes, when my phone nudges me, I still default to thinking it’s mum wondering when I’ll be home. Sometimes, I still get excited about telling her something funny that happened during the day. A few days ago I caught myself saying to a friend, “I’ll call my parents when I’m away.” I’ve found myself out with friends at markets a few times and thinking, “Mum would like that, I should grab it while I’m here.”

As anticipated, guilt begins to nuzzle into the chest and sit heavily in just such a spot as to cause occasional breathing difficulty. First, it’s the little things. Like wishing I’d taken the dog out more, or just done the stupid dishes, washed the car, vacuumed the hallway. Then it graduates to stuff that’s harder to deal with. I wish I hadn’t picked fights so much. She was sick, I should have just dropped it and left it alone. Nothing could possibly have been that important. I can’t even remember what the arguments were about anymore. On one occasion, we were arguing, and she raised her fists at me. Having gone through years of chemo and having bones showing through her paper skin, I knew she couldn’t really have hurt me. And besides, she had never hit me, not even once. But we were arguing, and I took her misdemeanour as an opportunity to win an argument. I grabbed her raised wrists to stop her striking and shouted at her not to threaten me like that again. She told me a few days later that I’d bruised her wrists. I nearly vomited. I cried. I didn’t grab her very hard but she was on anticoagulants for a deep-vein thrombosis she’d had as a result of chemo, which caused her to bruise easily.

I’m saying all this in a vain attempt to justify my behaviour to myself. Of course I shouldn’t have done it. How badly I wish I’d just let her threaten me, or just walked away. I don’t even know what we were fighting about. One tip: while they’re still alive, you’ll feel like you’ll have all the time in the world to make amends. You don’t. By the time they’re bedridden, you’ll feel selfish bringing up old shit to score some forgiveness points before they cark it. Don’t ever lie to yourself and expect you’ll be granted forgiveness from the dead. And don’t ever expect to be able to forgive yourself, either. People will tell you it helps with the healing process. It is definitely easier said, especially by people who don’t understand. People still argue, it’s normal, especially under stress. You don’t have to be a monk. But try to afford them special dispensation, if you get the chance.

Curiously, though, there is one occasion that stands out as causing the most guilt. While she was in the hospice, about a week before she died, I found her essentially catatonic, lying in bed. (Sometimes she did this and would switch back on when anything happened, like one time when she was sitting with her mouth agape, and I commented, “That’s a big yawn!” She laughed. The melody gilded my body.) The cricket was idly chirping through the suspended TV. I had always thought that she hated cricket, so I turned to her and asked if she’d like me to change the channel. She made a weird grunting noise, which I took for, “yes, please”. I changed over to Cops, or something equally educational that I knew she’d be a fan of, and lay on the bed with her. I found out from one of her friends later that she loved cricket. I think it’s a combination of knowing that on her deathbed I changed the channel to something I wanted, when she was probably lying there passively enjoying the cricket, as well as not knowing something it turns out she was very passionate about, but it’s the only part of writing this piece that’s made me cry. That incident brings me a profound sadness that I am neither articulate nor emotionally robust enough to describe.

People talk to me differently sometimes. They’ll tread on eggshells, tell me they’ll pray for me, and say things like, “that’s life” (which is true). All of it is meant with the most genuine of good intentions, but most people don’t really know what the right things to say are. They can’t be faulted, of course. Language is not a sufficient medium, with limited competition on the death aisle causing heavy saturation of those sentiments available. It wouldn’t be desirable for everyone to have experienced losing a parent young just so they know how to react.

But the tumble-dried tapestry of awkward salutations and condolences from insurance companies and utility providers is certainly, if nothing else, a source of amusement. The Commonwealth Bank sent me mum’s new credit card today, after her last one was cancelled due to non-payment. True story. At least they were generous enough to backdate the interest amount to the date of her death.

I’m not going to be the guy that gets beaten by this. At the moment, I’m failing about as many units as I’m passing at uni, but that’s the only concession I’m allowing myself. I guess I use mum as an excuse to myself, and to others, but honestly I could have gotten all of my assessments done last semester, I just wasted time. I’m going to restructure my degree, swap majors, knuckle down and keep trying. If it takes me another five years, I will finish this degree. I know mum wouldn’t want me to ‘quit and come back’ because it’ll never happen. The only excuse would be my overseas trip, and even then I’d only defer and not drop out. I’m going to keep reading, to keep writing.  It’s weird running a household, paying rent, having insurance on a car, working, studying. It’s new. I’m conscious of the fact that there will be some of you reading this that had to start doing all these things much younger than nineteen. I have no idea how. But then, we often think we can’t do something, until we have to. I view Henley’s poem Invictus as the paragon of triumph through adversity. Take control; you’re the captain, now.

captain

So that’s how I lost my mother. It’s not a flashy or particularly interesting story. In fact, frankly, it’s so unremarkable and ordinary that it was hardly worth writing about. With 8.2 million people dying of cancer in 2012, its ubiquity approaches banality. Except that she happened to be my mother. I suppose that for the fact of being so ordinary, there is some likelihood that a proportion of you reading this will be able to relate, and maybe take some comfort in the knowledge that it’s shit and lonely and basically going to be ok for most of us. And for the rest, there are places to go and people to talk to. Cancer Council’s a good start, depending on where you are. I hear Lifeline, Beyond Blue and others similar are good places to ask for help, though I’ve never done it myself.

We are living in a wonderful world in a wonderful time, and through our concerted efforts at sharing our common pain, success, injustices and stories, we can pursue methods of broadening societal empathy and curtailing individual and social ills like suicide and hate crimes. Tell your stories broadly, loudly and honestly. The beauty and confidence of written media is that if people aren’t interested, they won’t read it, and for those who are, at least you’ve made it available.

I hope this piece gifted you a giggle, maybe made you feel something, or at least provided troll fodder for your vicious and hateful online vitriol. I’d be happy to respond to as many comments as humanly possible, if any of you feel like asking questions or for advice.

Ƶac

Hipsters are destroying the world.

Hipsterism is no longer just an irritating fashion fad, it’s undermining staple foods and is intellectually inconsistent. So why is it so popular?

I hate hipsters.

Quinoa. We get it. NASA reckons it’s top shit, as far as astronaut fodder goes. But as one of Bolivia’s staple foods, it’s losing its nutritional power through reduced consumption. Consumption was reduced by a third while the global price trebled in five years. This has resulted in obvious income increases for Bolivian farmers, but a massive reduction in the accessibility of the crop to a population who have now had to revert to cheaper highly processed foods which have nothing near the level of nutrition supplied by their crops, which were domesticated locally thousands of years ago. Problems occur when farmers start excessively amplifying their quinoa production, putting stress on other crops and alpaca, which have to be moved or sold to make room for the quinoa. Due to increasing demand, supply has been sluggish to respond, increasing prices without any hint of plateau.

Kale is an interestingly similar case at home, although competition between Australian producers has led to a price reductions as demand in July last year sored to over 1 000 percent of what it was in 2013. Bruynen Farms, a Victorian producer of vegetables, including kale, told Landline that they had to stop growing red cabbage and leak because they need the space for kale. The narrowing base of production is a commonly understood narrative when any new product reaches a new and massive height in demand. Kale takes 10-14 weeks to grow, which is relatively quick. Despite this, the massive surge in demand has led even the Dutch seed producers to exhaust their supplies.

Quinoa and kale are only the tip of the iceberg (lettuce). Food is only a part of the spuriously new(ish), rebooted subculture known as Hipster. Hipsterism is also associated with ‘ironic’ t-shirts, supping obnoxiously conflated flavours of latte and wearing trendy, ‘unique’, unwashed clothing.

Cursory Wikipedia research (what? This is a blog, you weren’t expecting academic-standard sources, were you? And yes, I donned my deerstalker and monocle for the investigation, ironically assuming the characteristics of a hipster to really know my enemy) has revealed a number of enigmatic idiosyncrasies about the origins of the movement.

Conflating a number of probably-more-qualified-than-me authorities, I have discovered that hipsterism is associated with dirty clothes (mostly chinos and bow-ties), ‘man-buns’, gluten-free diets, facial hair, hemp and/or canvas everything and snooty-sounding foods (like quinoa and 3/4 caramel latte with 5-spice nonsense).

Ironically (get it?), the movement so hell-bent on individuality acquires intellectually inconsistent status by also associating with expensive mainstream consumer products, like iPhones and Macbooks (although I did hear about a scandal where a few batches of organic Apple products were found to contain gluten, causing a number of severe cases of absolutely no ill health effects whatsoever). Turns out, most hipsters are upper-middle class unemployed university students who are trying to cleave an individual identity for themselves by literally burning society to the ground and conforming to the same dress and consumer pressure as everyone else.

Mostly a pejorative term, few actually self-identify as hipster. However, unfortunately, after doing thorough and rigorous empirical research, I feel that I must now diagnose myself as a potential hipster-lite. I don’t regularly eat kale or quinoa, and I use a Windows computer. But I have an iPhone. I wear long ties and serious t-shits, but I also own two pairs of chinos. I don’t drink stupid-sounding coffee, but I do fancy me an almond chai-latte. I sport a trimmed and maintained five o’clock shadow at times other than five o’clock. Sometimes I can be a little too snarky.

And I often pretend I know what the word ‘ironic’ means when I actually don’t have a clue.

Well. That’s not how I anticipated this piece turning out.

Um.

Open Letter to the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network

This is a letter I wrote in 2013. I had only undertaken high school biology, so please feel free to correct any mistakes I’ve made in the comments. I never received any reply (surprise, surprise). If I were to write it today, I wouldn’t be so sheepish. For reference, the website can be found here: http://avn.org.au/.

Hopefully the infanticidal, disinformative woo-treadmill will run out of fairy capital soon

Dear AVN,

I have a couple of queries about some assertions being made on your site; my intention is not to ridicule you, simply to try to understand a few things better. I’m not a doctor so I don’t pretend to be well educated in this area. As a consumer who attempts to be informed, however, I would simply like to better understand a few of your positions as the reasoning is not readily clear to me. I am hoping you will be able to patch the holes for me.

Firstly, I noticed that your page has a link to “vaccine ingredients” which unfortunately I can’t view but I was wondering what it is about vaccine ingredients I should be worried about? I assume you don’t mean aluminium (there’s roughly 1000 times more in a single antacid tablet), thimersol (which has actually stopped being used in most vaccines but even if it was still there there’s more in breast milk and deep-sea fish/tuna than in vaccines). In addition the cumulative amount of formaldehyde that is acquired through complete vaccination is far lower than a child can expect through natural exposure throughout the course of day-to-day life. So which are the things I’ve missed that I need to be concerned about putting into my body?

Secondly, does your organisation cite and rely on Andrew Wakefield’s publication of his study in The Lancet on the MMR vaccine as scientific proof of autism despite his conflict of interest? Are you aware that he was developing his own vaccine and was being paid by a class action specifically to find the link? Or do you use a different study to make your assertion that MMR causes autism?

Thirdly, on your Vaccination Page under the subheading “Keep the following in mind”, point 7 states: “No vaccine can give you lifelong immunity – only natural infection can do this. So everyone who is vaccinated may, at some unknown point in the future, again be susceptible to the diseases they were vaccinated against.” I may be mistaken, but my understanding was that after natural infection, memory b and t cells are produced which are used to stimulate the production of cytotoxic t cells upon reinfection. Is this not exactly the same mechanism that occurs through vaccination? Why is it different when a dead/inactivated version of the same string of DNA is injected? Surely this can’t be referring to live/activated vaccinations as they are literally the same as the actual disease only weakened. Am I missing something?

Finally, the page “Make an informed vaccination choice” suggests that the site offers pros and cons about vaccinations, however I am having difficulty finding the listed pros. Your organisation may feel that there is absolutely no benefit from vaccination, however in the interest of balance I would still be interested in reading what they are.

In addition, I’m finding it difficult to access much of the information on your site. For instance, under the ‘Vaccination Information’ tab, many of the listed diseases return only a heading and no information on the disease or the vaccination. Am I misunderstanding how the site operates (is all this on a forum or something) or could it be my browser or is there no information there currently?

Thank you very much for your time,

Isaac

[Note: This has been edited slightly to clear up some grammatical errors that I’d made two years ago]

When you’re allowed to rebuke people

In this post, I’ll be discussing everyday conversations with grandparents, parents-in-law, friends and the friend potentials. This obviously doesn’t apply to professors and other career self-esteem tyrants.

Let me start by saying that provided you have no issue with breaking etiquette and being taken for an arsehole, you can argue and chastise about any topic you like, whenever you like.

This guide will help the rest of us to be more socially cohesive in our constructive criticism.

Examples:

1. I think my Grandma’s gone crazy

Q: My grandmother just said, “Go and fetch my watering can and water the garden. I don’t want the fairies to get dehydrated”. Should I link her to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and patronisingly tell her that “it’s ok, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies“?

A: Absolutely not. Your grandmother is always right. If she told you she keeps a one-horned one-eyed flying purple people eater and asked you to fetch some cat food for it (and also some for her cats), the correct response is, “Yes, grandma”.

2. Vaccinate?

Q: My girlfriend’s brother has just informed the whole family at the dinner table that echinacea is a wonder herb which cures everything from common colds to measles. Further, vaccines are basically just antifreeze and everyone knows antifreeze can give you a fever, so he does not plan to vaccinate his newborn baby against any diseases, including polio, measles or whooping cough. Should I tell him he’s a muppet?

A: Yes, yes you should. Very loudly. And if your girlfriend and her parents have a problem with you stating your objection, you can tell them to thank you for saving their grandchild/niece’s life. And then you should link him to my wonderfully short and punchy rundown of the simple refutations to some common anti-vax claims. Finally, you should make a mental note not to let this person babysit or Godfather your potential future children. Exercise your veto quickly.

3. Like, gluten or whatever

Q: My waitress reckons a gluten-free diet will help me reduce weight, fart less and cure my autism. Should I have a go at her?

A: The trendy, hipster gluten-free diet thing is actually a massive money maker. Not only did it earn $2.6 billion in 2012, it also elicits absolutely no benefit for the general population. So, she’s wrong. But in this case, she’s not actually hurting anyone. Not eating gluten won’t hurt you as much as not getting a vaccine, for example. Gluten-free diets are the only treatment for celiac disease. There is also very, very mild and poorly understood evidence for something called ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity‘, on which only three papers have ever been published and they all seem to contradict one another. In addition, they were not able to identify a cause, and many participants suffered other food sensitivities as well. If it exists, the highest current rate estimate for NCGS is about 6% of the population. In short, the gluten-free thing is a fad. Of course, there is no evidence that it cures autism, despite some goblin’s horrendous and counter-scientific claims that “the road to autism recovery starts with diet“. People will say anything for a buck. But basically, if they’re just misled about yet another fad diet that won’t do a bunch of harm (other than maybe issue false hope, which is pretty bad), let her have a whinge about gluten then pick up your sourdough on the way home.[Note: I will be writing a piece on this topic soon, as well as #hipsters]

4. Help! I just found out my best friend’s an Atheist/Christian/Jew/Muslim/ALP member/Some other category that is inherently divisive and different to me (read: wrong). Should I tell them how stupid they are and how clever I am?

You’ll be alright. Unless they’re about to stone their neighbour on the sabbath or try to implement fair and cost-effective domestic policy while maintaining a realistic lens through which to approach foreign affairs, keep it to yourself. If it comes up in conversation and they ask what you believe, then you can debate ’til the cows come home, but don’t go picking fights with mates. Just remember that they’re your friend, which is more important than them believing exactly what you do. If one of you wins, you both lose.

Writing more regularly is fun. I’ll try to keep posting as often as possible. Discussion, criticism and charming compliments all welcome!

Vaccinate your damn kids

Vaccination is demonstrably effective.

Study(1) after publication(2) has demonstrated that vaccines are effective in their basic function; stimulating an individual’s immune system to develop adaptive immunity to a given pathogen. In simple terms, this means that vaccines reduce the incidence of disease. And, of course, historical data demonstrates this(3)(4). As can be seen in the graphs(3,4), the implementation of vaccination corresponds to a rapid decrease in death and incidence of various diseases, and is supported by evidence of statistical significance (i.e. not simply a case of correlation being confused with causation).

Meta-analyses of some types of influenza vaccines have shown reduced effectiveness during some seasons, however, this is almost ubiquitously a result of the rapidly mutating nature of the influenza virus, and not the efficacy of the vaccines themselves. Individuals may still become ill after being vaccinated, as individual vaccination effectiveness is, of course, only approaching 100% (about 98% for measles, for example)(1). However, the absolute majority of individuals achieve functional immunity once immunised against most diseases, and it is this vast majority that, when coupled with high community vaccination rates, confers the additional benefits of herd immunity and the eventual eradication of disease.

The eradication of poliomyelitis in the Western world and smallpox globally is one of the greatest public health achievements to date. This came about through a disciplined vaccination schedule and years of research and dedication; the almost-total destruction of these diseases is testament to the efficacy of vaccination(5).

Vaccination is demonstrably effective in reducing the incidence and death rates associated with disease.

Vaccination is safe.
As a rule-of-thumb, no biological agent can ever be considered 100% safe, and all types of medicine have side-effects. However, the propensity of the evidence towards their safety is absolutely clear and except in a very limited number of exceptional cases, are almost always safe. I will demonstrate this assertion here, first discussing the ingredients in vaccines and then using the example of the autism controversy surrounding vaccination, specifically the MMR vaccine.

Ingredients
Some children (and adults) have medical conditions which cause them to be immunocompromised, or may have a specific allergy to an ingredient in a vaccine. These individuals should not be vaccinated; however, these individuals provide even more reason for others in the community to become vaccinated; immunocompromised children rely on the heard immunity of their immediate and extended community to prevent them from becoming ill.

Controversial ingredients include:

Thimerosal, what most anti-vaxxers claim as the origin of autism, is an organic mercury-based compound that consists of just under 50% ethyl mercury(6). Thimerosal is not in the MMR vaccine(9). It has been omitted from almost all vaccines since 1999(6), there is no evidence of it causing any adverse health effects with the exception of minor swelling and redness at the site of injection(6), and it has never been implicated in causing autism. It was used as a preservative, but the amount was so thoroughly insignificant that one’s risk of mercury bioaccumulation from the entire childhood vaccination schedule is nine-times less than a single tuna sandwich(7). And anyway, if it did cause autism, you’d expect autism to drop after it was taken out of vaccines. Which it didn’t.

Formaldehyde, also used as a preservative and to prevent runaway pathogen replication. 70-80 times more can be found in the human body by natural production than in a jab(8).

Aluminium Hydroxide is in such small quantities in vaccines that you can literally get 1000 times more of it from a single ant-acid tablet and is the most common metal in nature(7)[around 9:00]. Breastfeeding puts a child at greater risk(8).

MMR and Autism
The MMR vaccine does not cause autism. In fact, none do(7)(10)(11)(12)(13).
Time and time again, studies and meta-analyses have found no correlation between vaccination and autism. In 1998 Andrew Wakefield conducted an illegal test (it wasn’t even an experiment) on 8 children (which is a pitifully small sample), doctoring the evidence of those measurements, and presenting them to be published in the Lancet(12). The paper was later retracted and Wakefield lost his licence to practice medicine. Before looking for more evidence, frightened readers and the 24-hour news cycle regurgitated the hokum and established the current fear of vaccines. What the public didn’t know was that Wakefield had been hired to find evidence of the correlation for a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company responsible for the production of the vaccine; and Wakefield was developing his own vaccine which he wanted to force into the market as a competitor(12). Follow the money.

Failure to vaccinate elucidates measurable counter-benefits.

Decreasing vaccination rates have been implicated in the recent resurgence of measles(14). In fact, failure to vaccinate has caused hundreds of thousands of preventable cases; this interactive map is absolutely critical in examining the extent of diminished benefit due to failure to vaccinate(15). This topic will be explored more thoroughly in the following rounds, but the key factor here is that deaths which would otherwise have been prevented occurred. Diseases which should be relegated to the nightmares of history such as polio and measles are resurging. And all of this based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. This amounts to biological warfare, and those responsible for the anti-vaxxination movement, primarily the charlitain and corrupt Andrew Wakefield, should be held accountable for their heinous crimes against humanity.

The depths of moral turpitude and depravity of the anti-vaccination movement have demonstrated themselves to be limitless. It is up to us to fight superstition and pseduo-science with evidence and reason. If there were sufficient funding at our disposal, I would recommend taking the lot of them to The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity and mass infanticide.

(1) New England Journal of Medicine, Markowitz, L. (et. al), Immunisation of Six-Month-Old Infants[…]
accessible at: http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM199003013220903
(2) Journal of Infectious Diseases, Weindberg, G & Szilagyi, P, Vaccine Epidemiology: Efficacy, Effectiveness, and the Translational Research Roadmap, accessible at: http://jid.oxfordjournals.org/content/201/11/1607.full
(3) https://62e528761d0685343e1c-f3d1b99a743ffa4142d9d7f1978d9686.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/files/18060/area14mp/xvr3974g-1353996376.jpg
(4) http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/images/measles_incidence.gif
(5) http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/polio
(6) http://www.ncirs.edu.au/immunisation/fact-sheets/thiomersal-fact-sheet.pdf
(7) Go to 10:30:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLcOz4EKrxg
(8) http://www.chop.edu/service/vaccine-education-center/vaccine-safety/vaccine-ingredients/aluminum.html
(9) http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/B/excipient-table-2.pdf
(10) http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/topics.html
(11) http://www.immunize.org/catg.d/p4026.pdf
(12) http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/healthcare-triage-vaccines-and-autism/
(13) http://www.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/content/1FC63A2886238E6CCA2575BD001C80DC/$File/full-publication-myths-and-realities-5th-ed-2013.pdf
(14) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/21/europe-measles-outbreak-france_n_851911.html
(15) http://www.cfr.org/interactives/GH_Vaccine_Map/#map

Transcribed from a debate I had, which can be found here: http://www.debate.org/debates/Resolved-Vaccination-is-on-balance-both-safe-and-effective/1/

On #sydneysiege

This morning Sydney awoke to the devastating news that two innocent people had lost their lives, caught in an involuntary ideological skirmish and gutlessly used to satiate a degenerate’s reprobate agenda. Some number of others were injured, including a police officer, who has since been discharged from hospital.

Firstly, a reminder that we don’t know everything. Be careful what you believe and repeat. Words have weight, and while reposting ostensibly banal pieces may seem inconsequential, make sure you consider all the potential outcomes of viral content that will likely surface today.

Secondly, this is not a time for battle. The battle has already been fought, and won. Though there were tragic and unforgivable losses, perpetuating the sentiment of retaliation voiced by certain groups/leagues which have popped up on Facebook, Twitter and sundry Blogs is caustic and counter-productive. I, like many of you, know at least one person who was inside, and the natural response is to demand justice. But the person who committed this disgrace has been killed, and seeking informal ad-hoc justice elsewhere for this incident is wrong and intellectually dishonest. Whatever your opinion of Islam as a religion, don’t take one maniac’s behaviour as an excuse to conduct yourself in a violent way. That’s what he wanted, and we’re better than that. “To be good, it is not enough to be better than the worst” – Seneca.

Thirdly, unqualified, vehement thanks to the dedicated, vigilant and professional members of NSW Police Force, NSW Ambulance and the NSW Fire Bridge. In 2014 it is popular to condemn every police action as an act of brutality or unnecessarily violent. I’m sick of hearing the filth uttered by some individuals about police, especially online. I propose Emergency Services Week. If you see a Copper, Ambo or Firey, thank them. If it’s a Copper on beat, from any branch, I urge you to thank them for their service, professionalism and protection. If they’re allowed to, offer to shake their hand. NSWPF are no doubt the best in the world, and performed meticulously throughout the operation, especially after the rapid escalation. If you see an Ambo, thank them for providing you with the assurance that in an emergency, they have the training, care and skill to take care of you, give them a nod or a handshake, but certainly don’t set up tripods on the road in front of their ambulance so they have to dodge you while ferrying critically injured patients. That would be really stupid. See a Firey, same drill. Of course, many more people and organisations committed their time and efforts to help secure the safety of the victims and, in whatever small way, to assuage the anguish of tormented families. Thank you to Bill Shorten MP for adopting bipartisanship and pledging unanimous support to the Government at this time, bringing at least a little comfort in unanimity to the Australian public. Your leadership in opposition was deeply appreciated yesterday. Thank you to Tony Abbott for your calm speech which reassured us that the Government was on our side and was taking it carefully, as well as asking us to continue with life as normal and to listen to the advice of police. I’d also like to thank our other leaders, likeTanya Plibersek, Federal Member for Sydney, for really showing us how great it can be to have politicians. Nobody likes to admit it, but we need you, and you did our country and our city proud yesterday. Thank you.

Fourthly, and most importantly, to the victims and their families. We, as a nation, extend our love and support in whatever way we can. The next few months will likely be traumatic and difficult, with a combination of anxiety and stress, police interviews and undoubted media harassment, not to mention the social media frenzy that is already ensuing (and I am regrettably a part of). Remember that you are one of us, the people of Australia, and what that means and represents. Of course, I cannot know what you are going through and any sentiment I blindly express on Facebook has all the depth of a puddle, but it is genuine and you are in all of our thoughts.

With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
‪#‎sydneysiege‬