Top Novels of the 20th Century: the Internet’s Foxiest Guide Yet

If you want to skip all the rambly introduction stuff and just get to the list, scroll right on down to section 3.

1. Your brain on fiction

Believe it or not, reading fiction is a super beneficial activity, and doesn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserves.

It may come as no surprise that readers of fiction have superior vocabularies, but the magnitude of this effect is nonetheless striking. According to the massive data set at http://testyourvocab.com, frequent fiction readers can have vocabularies almost double that of non-readers:

Fiction also rewires the brain in more complex ways (much like juggling does). According to a pair of experiments published in PLOS ONE in 2013 Continue reading

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Pixar’s Inside Out: children’s films, moral psychology and neurospirituality

My mum likes to remind me how, as a little kid, I cried in the movie Bambi when Bambi’s mother gets killed by the hunter. Looking back, it feels like it may have been one of my most salient developmental moments. Bambi was a kid just like me, a massive mummy’s boy just like me, and I probably didn’t have much of a concept of death up until that point. Maybe Bambi was the very first time I realised that loved ones don’t stay with us forever.

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Shortly thereafter The Lion King came out, and because of my brother’s massive obsession, I was dragged to see it at the cinema three times. It’s hard to mount a compelling defence for staying home alone when you don’t even have armpit hair to back you up. For all my protesting though, the movie touched me deeply. I hated the dastardly Scar. I probably cried every single time I had to watch young Simba hopefully nudging the lifeless body of his father. (I recently re-watched The Lion King for the first time in over a decade, and I still cried when Mufasa died. Whatever. It’s sad!)

Seeing animals lose parents is distressing, and so is seeing evil triumph over good. These are very simple moral messages that anyone can relate to, even prepubescent kids. We’ll return to this point shortly.

Fast forward to 2015, and the latest children’s blockbuster is Pixar’s Inside Out. If you haven’t yet seen it yet, bookmark this page and go watch it ASAP. It received a rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, plus it’s Pixar so you already knew it would be good. Also, spoilers be coming.

The film follows the development of an American girl named Riley from birth until the age of 11. That sounds kind of dull, and it possibly would be if it weren’t for the twist: Riley is only a surrogate protagonist. The real action takes place inside her brain, where a bunch of anthropomorphised emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – caper and banter and ultimately control all of Riley’s thoughts via a “cognition” control panel.

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The gang at the control panel: Anger, Envy, Joy, Fear and Sadness

The film colourfully explores other aspects of Ripley’s cognition such as memory formation and loss, abstract reasoning and dreaming. The narrative is delightfully engaging, but the most significant aspect of Inside Out is an implicit message it carries which is both surprisingly scientifically accurate and spiritually profound, as well as representing a major advancement in the broad moral history of children’s films. Before we get to what it is –

The broad moral history of children’s films

There are many ways in which humans are socialised and morally wired during their developmental years. Obvious influences include school, parents and religious teachings. However, it’s possible to overlook the significant role played by stories, including those told in TV shows and movies. Humans are powerfully predisposed to respond to stories. This is why they are heavily exploited in marketing and may account for why one death can be a tragedy when a million is just a statistic. The stories told in movies, and their moral messages, may truly affect people’s long-term world views.

For example, I grew up on a diet of Bambi, Captain Planet and Pokemon. These days I’m a vegetarian environmentalist with a weird compulsion for collecting sets of things. Coincidence, or something more significant?

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Could they be any less subliminal?

If it’s true that children’s films can have a meaningful impact on moral development—and admittedly this is extremely difficult to demonstrate experimentally—then we might have more cause for optimism about the upcoming generation than we realise.

The popular children’s films of the past few decades (almost of them Disney) are extremely diverse in the situations and moral issues they address. Compare Sleeping Beauty with Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid with Aladdin, etc). For all their diversity though, a few underlying themes stand out to me as pretty much constant:

  1. There is a clear delineation between good and evil characters. There is never any doubt that Captain Hook, Ursula the Sea Witch and Jafar are baddies. They look evil and everything they do is evil. A motive isn’t necessarily needed for being a baddie; some characters just are that way.
  2. Old timey gender roles. This one is a bit obvious since movies are products of their times, but it bears consideration nonetheless. A heterosexual romance is almost always involved, it’s generally a male protagonist who saves the day, and it’s always happily and monogamously ever after.

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Along with a slew of other moral values such as individualism and self-reliance, these are the messages that the previous generations grew up hearing. And, these are the generations now controlling governments and institutions the world over: governments that base foreign policies on a concept of evil baddies, and institutions that fail to see the justice in marriage equality.

Something happened in the past decade though to take children’s film morality in a radically new direction, and that something is largely Pixar. Check out the following major releases:

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The issues explored in these films are so much more complex than those of 20th century Disney, it’s hard to overstate it. Compared to narratives based on good defeating evil and old timey gender roles, consider the messages these films might be sending:

WALL-E

Humans run the risk of rendering Earth uninhabitable, mindless consumption strips people of their humanity, artificially intelligence machines may one day possess every bit as much humanity as humans do—or conversely, they might enslave us through an innocuous mistake in their programming (see: the paper-clip maximiser and Wait But Why’s The AI Revolution)

Up

Even in the best case scenario of marriage and happily ever after, there will still be hardships such as miscarriages and death, if you’re not careful it’s possible to go your whole life neglecting to ever pursue your dreams, old people can also do interesting things, scientists tend to get tiresomely hung up on their life’s work

Frozen

Even loving healthy relationships can deteriorate because of personal burdens, there is such thing as moral ambiguity! (people can have reasons and experiences that lead them to destructive behaviour), there are also charismatic sociopaths to watch out for who can seem benign at first, girls can save the day just fine without the help of a prince

And now along comes Inside Out, taking things to a whole new level again by exploring one of the deepest moral and existential issues there is: neurospirituality.

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The neurospirituality of Inside Out

If you’ve never heard of neurospirituality before, it’s essentially an ever-expanding intersection of agreement between the radically unrelated fields of neuroscience and spirituality. It considers the neuroscientific basis of spiritual experiences such as meditation and contemplation of the Self. The term neurospirituality seems to have been coined in this 2005 journal article, which predictably and annoyingly is hidden behind a pay wall (but that’s a conversation for another day).

It turns out that neuroscience and spirituality are by no means as incompatible as one might assume. Both seek to understand human consciousness—that voice in our head that we call our “Self”. One discipline does it externally and experimentally, while the other does it internally and experientially. To find out what the neurospiritual view of Self is, there may be no easier and more enjoyable way than by watching Inside Out.

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Long-term memory: damn daunting when you see the scope of it

The film repeatedly cuts back and forth between Riley in the physical world, where she plays and interacts like any normal child, and the inside of her brain, where we see that her every thought and emotion is actually triggered by some anthropomorphised emotion pulling a lever or fiddling with a memory. All the emotions and other characters inside her brain have unique personalities and interests which frequently conflict and undermine each other.

Early in Riley’s life, Joy manages to hold sway over the other emotions and Riley’s infancy is consequently mostly happy. As Riley matures and things start to go wrong in the physical world though, emotions like Sadness and Anger wrest more time for themselves at the control panel of her consciousness. This directly directs Riley’s feelings and behaviours. In addition to all this, dream monsters and imaginary childhood friends get up to trouble in other parts on her brain, and mischievous maintenance workers in her long-term memory repeatedly trigger an annoying ad jingle, setting Riley to humming the jingle in the real world.

Let’s consider these plot devices from both the neuroscientific and spiritual angles.

The neuroscientific angle

The science in Inside Out is excellent, and was achieved by Pixar following in the footsteps of Interstellar and conferring with actual scientists in storyboarding the film. This is a practice we will hopefully see a lot more of in the near future.

Every day of Riley’s life, hundreds of memories form. When she goes to sleep at night, these memories are siphoned away and either stored in her labyrinthine long-term memory or discarded into a pit of forgetting. This accurately reflects the critical role that sleep plays in memory consolidation. Even memories that make it to Riley’s long-term memory aren’t safe indefinitely, as old ones that she stops caring about gradually fade to grey and get dumped, just as in a real brain. In one giggle-inducing moment, several containers of facts and opinions get knocked over and jumbled together, something we probably all do more often than we care to admit.

An interesting decision was to depict Riley’s emotions as gendered: Joy is female, Fear is male etc. While the producers surely couldn’t have known this at the time, a landmark brain imaging study just published found that “human brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females.” I.e. most people’s brains really are mishmashes of typically male and female parts, regardless of their biological sex. Whichever part of the brain is responsible for fear (and it may not be the amygdala after all), it’s now completely plausible that an 11 year-old girl could have a ‘male’ Fear character.

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Not all the brain’s workings in Inside Out are depicted entirely accurately. Perhaps most misleading is the portrayal of memories as self-contained and immutable¹, rather than conceptually linked and constantly being rewritten. But Inside Out fundamentally aims to be a fun children’s movie, and by that metric the science is superb.

For all its cute and clever explorations of cognitive processes, Inside Out‘s most profound message is this: there is no single ‘Self’ controlling Riley’s consciousness. There is no ‘Riley’ inside her own head, no character that could be described as her will or volition. Riley’s mind is a plurality. Thoughts, feelings and memories pop up because one of the characters in her brain decided unilaterally to make it happen. And this is exactly how neuroscience thinks the brain works.

Do you feel like a unified Self? If so, you might like to read about some experiments that have been conducted in patients with the two hemispheres of their brain severed, so-called “split-brain” patients. In these subjects, it appears that the two halves of their brain can process information independently, have separate desires, and even reach moral judgements differently. If this is how the brain works, which one is the real ‘you’? Or consider this Nature article, which concludes that “different mental processes are mediated by different brain regions, and there is nothing to suggest the existence of any central controller”. All of our minds are pluralities with no core Self to be found.

While this may seem an uncomfortable concept, what does spirituality have to say about the matter?

The spiritual angle

According to spiritual teachings stretching back 2500 years to the time of Buddha, the Self (that thing in your mind that feels like ‘you’) is an illusion. It is actually a stream of spontaneously arising thoughts and feelings that your mind clumps together and erroneously interprets as a unified persisting identity.

While the growing accessibility of scientific ideas to the general public has been a wonderful advancement for humanity, one distasteful side-effect has been New Agey spiritualists co-opting and misrepresenting these ideas. In the case of neurospirituality though it’s the other way around: science is co-opting a spiritual concept, or at least happily supporting it.

One of the three core tenets of Buddhism is No-Self, a believe which, as we’ve just seen, has been supported by the latest neuroscientific findings. As noted by Quartz, “Some scientific researchers have recently started to reference and draw on the Eastern religion [Buddism] in their work—and have come to accept theories that were first posited by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago.”

Think about that. Way before a single living human being had any clue that heliocentricity or DNA or neurons or sporks could be things—back before anyone even knew that the freaking planet was round—Buddha was relaxing under a tree pointing out a neuroscientific truth that it’s taken us until now to confirm.

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“No biggie, you’re welcome.”

(Interestingly, the other core tenets of Buddhism are Impermanence, which agrees eerily well with quantum mechanics and Suffering, perhaps better translated as “lack of lasting satisfactoriness”, which recapitulates the observed psychological phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill. Either Buddha landed some crazy lucky guesses, or there really must be something to meditation huh?)

So, with children’s cinema kicking off in 1937 with Snow White, which features a cheery outlook on what would today be deemed sexual assault, almost 80 years later we’ve arrived at Inside Out, which explores the profoundest neuroscientific and spiritual insights yet achieved by humankind.

The social significance

While this may be well and good, an obvious question is: will children even be able to understand it? The concept of an absence of Self is, after all, supremely unintuitive and difficult even for highly educated adults to grasp. Will children be able to draw the connection between Riley’s haphazardly emergent consciousness and their own?

One of the psychologists who advised the creators of Inside Out gives a touching example of just such a case:

“I got an email from a mom who took her highly functioning autistic boy to the movie, and seeing the movie was the first time that this young guy had insight into his emotional difficulty. He said: “Mom, I know I have anger, fear, and disgust, but I really struggle with sadness and joy—I don’t know where they are.” And she said it was their breakthrough moment.”

It would be fascinating to find out how many children interpreted the film so literally or found similar personal relevance in it. If you too have a child who has seen Inside Out, please leave a comment below about their response.

Finally, what would the ramifications be of a society that broadly understood and accepted the truth of No Self? Well, a lack of Self is very closely related to concepts such as determinism and there being no such thing as free will, so we may see an upsurge in these beliefs. While many people find such ideas superficially scary, public figures such as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have argued elegantly for why they needn’t be: Even if you were always destined to do every single thing that you do done, it still feels as though you’re in control. You can still act, plan, exercise compassion, learn etc. There’s no reason to resort to apathy or fatalism.

One likely policy shift in such a society would regard the criminal justice system. A lack of free will removes any rational justification for shaming or punishment, at least on moral grounds². The justice system could form policies based of pure pragmatism: how can we most effectively deter crime? Given the predispositions of this or that criminal cognitively, is rehabilitation and reintegrate into society possible? If so, how can it most effectively be achieved?

*       *       *

One children’s film won’t single-handedly launch a spiritual and cultural revolution. But shifts in values and world views can and do gradually occur with the changing moral zeitgeist. And with such excellent influences as WALL-E, Up, Frozen and Inside Out becoming increasingly commonplace (especially amongst little humans who are still compiling their moral frameworks), it’s hard not to get a tiny bit excited for the future of civilisation.

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¹In Inside Out the main emotion associated with a memory can change, but the details of the event seem to be kept constant

²This doesn’t mean punishments wouldn’t still be used, but that the rationalisation would be different, and likely also the execution. Punishment would only be seen as justified or useful insofar as it influenced future behaviours.

Can You See Us Now? – Naked People on Bikes (NSFW)

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Arriving in the park, it’s impossible to deny: that sure is a lot of cock.

I know, I know, it should technically be ‘a lot of cocks‘. But damn – the overwhelming impression from so many raw bodies is of an amount.

I soon realise there are quite a few women too. In fact, there are all sorts of bodies: slender, wobbly, pale, muscular, hairy, tattooed, tanned, sagging.

I’m on the scene at the Melbourne 2015 World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), surrounded by about 200 bikes and people in various stages of undress.

While Germans have been into “active nudity” since the early 1900s, the global naked cycling movement is relatively young, dating back to 2004 when events were organised concurrently in ten countries. Since then, the movement has grown to encompass over 70 cities across 20 countries and 6 continents.

So why naked cycling? And more importantly, isn’t it damn uncomfortable?

The comfortableness or lack thereof, I’m about to experience first hand. As for the reason, the WNBR website lists three core objectives:

  • To celebrate cycling and the human body
  • To demonstrate the vulnerability of cyclists on the road
  • To protest against oil dependency

So the people standing idly around me, with their pasty nether regions shining in the sun, are basically a pack of pro-sustainability cyclists, as well as a few hippies. A smattering of nudists have also snuck into the mix – people more or less supportive of the cause, but mostly just looking for an excuse to get naked in public.

It feels bizarre undressing in front of all these strangers. I came for the full experience though, so off everything comes.

I’m crouched down painting swirls on my arm when a French guy wanders over and introduces himself, his shaved penis dangling precariously close to my face. His name is Nicholas and he also came alone. It becomes clear that this isn’t his first rodeo. He’s telling me all about a bunch of nudist festivals he attends when he recognises Richard, a friend from his all-male naked hiking group. Richard, painted in rainbow stripes, waves hi.

The thing the strikes me is just how funny the human body actually is, especially with a little paint. A redheaded woman has her boobs painted to look like daisies. An older man has ringed his tackle with multi-coloured halos. Nipples everywhere are adorned with love hearts and stars and paw prints. A Peruvian guy has drawn eyes on his hairy butt cheeks to watch you while you ride behind him. It’s… different. Backs have become billboards for all sorts of slogans:

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Less gas, more ass baby.

A rotund naked man in a fluro vest and hardhat pulls out a bullhorn and calls the group to attention. It’s finally time to hit the streets.

We mount up and roll out. I can’t speak for people with lady parts, but what I discover is that it’s surprisingly comfortable! As WNBR explains in their FAQ:

Surprisingly, for both women and men, riding naked isn’t especially less comfortable than riding clothed. When riding with clothes on you’re often rubbing against the seams, so in some ways naked riding is comfier!

We come to a busy intersection and drivers go wild, honking and cheering. One of the cyclists has rigged a speaker to the back of their bike, and ’90s music breaks forth. People dance in their seats. The lights change and we continue past an elderly couple on a walk. They grin with scandalised delight, and the woman covers the man’s eyes.

We experience a quirk of modern human psychology: as we come upon unsuspecting pedestrians, time after time, their immediate response (after a moment’s gleeful shock) is to pull out their phone and start filming. We must have been filmed by hundreds, thousands of people throughout the day.

Word of our coming spreads rapidly over the airwaves, and pre-informed spectators start appearing en masse to watch and grin and film. At the Carlton gardens, they spill onto the street in swarms, waving and chittering and filming. Richard the nudist calls out to them repeatedly, “Get naked! Join us! Being naked is awesome!” I feel distinctly uneasy.

We turn onto Sydney Road, one of Melbourne’s most notorious sites for bike accidents. Alberto Paulon was recently killed here when a motorist opened their door without looking, knocking him into the path of an oncoming truck. This is the exact kind of accident that the WNBR hopes to eliminate.

We fall quiet and stop to bow our heads as we reach his memorial – a white bicycle surrounded by flowers and handwritten messages of grievance and solidarity. Compassionate words are spoken by one of the organisers, and we leave shortly after with a strange mingling of emotions.

Alberto Paulon’s memorial on Sydney Rd

World Naked Bike Ride is an annual event that happens all over the world – probably in your own city. It attracts people of all ages, nationalities and body shapes. I found it to be an overwhelmingly positive event: a day of spreading smiles, spicing up the days of innocent strangers, and showcasing the true diversity of the human form.

If the cause resonates, but you’re a bit shy about your jiggly bits, remember you don’t have to get naked. The tagline is “As Bare as You Dare”, and there were plenty of people who only dared shorts or underwear. It’s also a good idea to bring a friend for moral support. Despite how welcoming and respectful everyone was, it can be draining to spend hours naked amongst strangers.

And even if the cause doesn’t move you, still consider checking out the ride route on the day. After all, how often do you get to see a flock of naked humans?

The Lost Art of Hitch-hiking

Earlier this year I had the good fortune of scoring an offensively cheap flight anywhere in the world, at a time when my lab was closing for a month. I made the obvious choice for any financially challenged individual who’d read On the Road with a little too much enthusiasm. I jetted off to California to hitch-hike around and just, you know… see what would happen.

I ended up catching close to a dozen lifts and covering hundreds of miles. Here are some of the things I learnt about this ancient art form.


1. The First Time Feels Extremely Awkward. And Actually, Is This Even Legal?

“There’s no way you can wait by the road,” Neil told me with concern, adjusting his glasses.“You’ll absolutely get picked up by the Highway Patrol. You’ll have to get a lift at an on-ramp.” Neil was a 40-year old film studies tutor and part-time body builder. He was my couchsurfing host in Santa Barbara. At the time his generosity had baffled me. Looking back, it still does.

I had decided to go to to San Francisco to meet up with some old friends.

We said farewell and I trekked off. Eventually I found the on-ramp he had recommended, which came off a busy intersection. It was short and narrow, and had no emergency lane for cars to pull over. I grimaced, walked halfway up the ramp and hauled my pack over the outer barricade to wait behind it. Hundreds of cars driving through the intersection could see me there, smiling awkwardly with my silly thumb in the air. As car after car zoomed past, rejection blossomed in my heart. I prickled with embarrassment and anxiety. I was constantly expecting angry honks. Was this even legal? Would somebody call the police?

Thankfully, it was only about five minutes until a red-haired Scottish anthropology student pulled over. He tossed his skateboard off the passenger seat to make space and invited me to hop in.

So folks, stick with it. It gets easier each time, and pretty soon you’ll even be disregarding the “pedestrians prohibited” signs. As for the legality, I still have no idea.

Your attitude by the second or third wait

2. “The Good Thing About Hitch-hiking Is That the Assholes Drive Right on By”

Surely no truer words have been written about hitch-hiking than this quote of obscure origins (the best I could do was trace it back to a tweet from 2009).

The people who stopped to give me lifts – all of them complete strangers – are amongst the kindest I’ve ever met. An old hippie woman from Santa Maria rang her son to see if him or any of his friends were driving to San Francisco and could take me. A Chinese tourist invited me to stay with his family in their camper van overnight. A primary school teacher took me for freaking clam chowder with her son, and refused to let me pay anything. I was offered cheese and fruit and beer and weed. People drove miles out of their way to get me to where I was going. Everyone gave advice and helped explain their crazy country.

Hitch-hiking is also a doorway into humanity. You’ll meet people on the road, men and women, young and old, who you would simply never cross paths with in any other situation. I got a lift with an ex-Woodstock rocker cum CEO/evangelical Christian. I was picked up by a travelling circus performer in a van filled with fire sticks, costumes and a bird cage. I rode in a huge Corona delivery truck with a DJ from the Philippines. I met a biochemistry student my age – she’d just been robbed by a stripper in Tijuana and nearly arrested for peeing in an alley.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t meet a single asshole.


3. Other Hitch-hikers Are Your Enemies

The Scottish anthropology student was only going a few miles back to his college. He dropped me outside Isla Vista where, about two weeks later, Elliot Rodger would roll through the streets on his murderous rampage.

I walked to the nearest on-ramp. It was wide and almost deserted, save for a man in a dirty black dress shirt. He was sitting lackadaisically by the road with a sign that read simply, “NORTH.” The social convention in this situation was unclear to me, so I picked a spot to stand by myself. He came over and slumped down beside me.

The man was filthy and sullen. He told me he was a British programmer who’d spent the past eight months slumming around Mexico, designing venues’ websites in exchange for board and food. He said he’d been robbed in L.A. He had no plans for where he was going, and no idea where he was.

Cars passed every few minutes, but no one pulled over. It annoyed him that I kept putting my thumb in the air. “If they’re going to stop, they’ll stop,” he said from his ball on the ground. I gradually began to worry. It was hard enough to get picked up alone, but this guy was dead weight. He said he’d already been here a couple of hours. I couldn’t imagine anyone being saintly enough to stop for both of us, so I decided to bail.

I lied that I was going back to town to get a bus. I actually just wanted to find an on-ramp away from him. Somehow though, in the brief exchange, I accidentally convinced him it would be a good idea to walk to the next town, and with that he was off. I stayed at our spot, and ten minutes later a chubby grocery store manager was pulling over and opening the door for me.

Wisdom from the ‘60s suggested that guys would get picked up quicker if they had a lady with them, and ladies might feel safer having a guy with them. So with the possible exception of that symbiotic arrangement, avoid other hitch-hikers. It’s just like in evolution – competition is always greatest between members of the same species.


4. Get Your Strategy On

There’s no such thing as a free ride – even in hitch-hiking. Although there’s no money involved, you are actually paying with your services. You’re offering conversation and companionship to people who are bored or lonely or friendly. You’re providing a bit of juice for their altruism meter and a splash of spice for their lives. A lot of people have never picked up a hitch-hiker before, so you might even be offering them a new experience.

It’s a thin market though. This means that you’ve got to polish your product and put in the effort to sell it. Otherwise, you risk waiting around for hours like our British programmer friend.

There’s an excellent site called Hitchwiki which has a bunch of psychology and advice for hitch-hiking. I highly recommend checking it out before you hit the road. Some of the best tools in my experience were:

– Make eye contact with approaching drivers, and smile! You’ve only got a few seconds to make a connection, and not much can beat a smiling face.

– Wear light-coloured clothes. The association of light with Good and dark with Evil is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, and people act on irrational associations when they only have a second to think.

One driver also pointed out a practical side to clothing colour – light colours show off dirt. If your clothes are light-coloured and still clean, it’s much less likely that you’re a murdering alcoholic vagrant, and drivers will feel safer about you.

– Have your hands and arms visible and, if weather permits, wear short sleeves. This exploits the same hard-wired human instinct that smiling works on, the instinct to quickly infer the intentions of a stranger. In this case you’re displaying that you’re not armed, which is something drivers subconsciously check for.

– Bring a light book (no Gone with the Wind or anything by Dostoyevski). Not only will it keep you entertained during the dull spells when no cars are going past, but it will show that you are a civilised and learned individual, exactly the kind of person a driver would want for a conversant.

The jury is still out on whether a sign is a good idea. Some people swear by it, but one driver told me it deters her from stopping because of the strong association between cardboard signs and “panhandlers”.


5. People Who’ve Never Done It Will Try to Dissuade You

I was in Davis, sweating it out in the hot sun as I crossed a bridge over the freeway. A couple of figures slowly approached from the other side of the bridge, pushing mountain bikes up the slope. They had crisp white shirts, name tags – Jehovah’s Witnesses. With big smiles they bid me good day and asked what I was up to. I told them.

“Hitch-hiking?!” They were aghast. “Didn’t you hear the fifties ended?” The irony of their statement surprised me too much to reply.

This is the kind of response that I got from everybody though. “No one does it,” “I’d be so worried about getting murdered,” “It’s not the eighties anymore,” etc. Even some of the lift-givers were in awe of my ostensible bravery. The reason is that everybody has a hitch-hiking horror story, and everybody knows how dangerous hitch-hiking is. Or is it?

Unfortunately it’s difficult to say, because there’ve been no reliable studies conducted into the safety or prevalence of the practice. However, one biased source (take a pinch of salt) has looked at FBI data and calculated that your likelihood of being killed or raped while hitch-hiking is a whopping <drum roll>… 0.0000089%. Whether or not this is accurate, it does seem clear that you’re far more likely to die from falling over than being murdered on the road, and you’re overwhelmingly more likely to die in a common road accident.

It’s well established that humans are exceedingly bad at assessing risk. I have a hypothesis that riskiness is perceived most strongly when situations are outside of our control. Think of shark attacks, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks and hitch-hiker murders. Ironically, the things that are most likely to kill us are all partially or wholly within our control – see: road accidents, smoking and obesity.

So why did the noble art of hitch-hiking atrophy? Some plausible theories have been advanced. All I would add is a speculation that the idea of hitch-hiking being dangerous may have become a self-reinforcing cultural trope. As we all know, rock stars trash hotel rooms, scientists trigger zombie apocalypses, and hitch-hikers get murdered. As fear of hitch-hiking grew in the ’80s and ’90s and fewer and fewer people were doing it, there were fewer positive stories circulating amongst social circles, leaving only the rare grisly tales of attacks to be heard.

So I say to you: shun the naysayers. Yes you’re taking a risk, but you do that every time you leave your house. The risk involved in hitch-hiking is quite low, and the potential rewards massive. However…


6. Be More Prepared than I Was

The Pacific Ocean roared and crashed on the rocks below, and to my right mighty hills climbed steeply away. I was hiking along the deserted Highway 1, guided by the light of the thousands of stars twinkling overhead. I had fucked up.

Back in San Luis Obispo I had hopped into a camper van with the Chinese family mentioned earlier. They barely spoke any English. I soon figured out that the reason they’d picked me up was so I could share driving shifts. I felt pretty guilty when they discovered that I was Australian and not used to driving on the right-hand side of the road.

I had been figuring on getting a lift directly to San Francisco via the 101. They were taking the scenic coastal route though and planning to spend the night in Monterey. What the heck, I thought. It was an adventure, and the scenic route wasn’t too much further.

Four hours later the sun had set and some of the group had become worried about driving in the dark. After a complex debate in Mandarin which I understood nothing of, they pulled over at a tiny roadhouse in the middle of nowhere to spend the night. We shared dinner, and I declined the man’s invitation to share his tiny bed. You can only accept so much hospitality. I cheerfully headed off into the dark, assuming I’d flag someone down.

Almost two hours of later, only three northbound cars had passed by, and I was somewhat glad they hadn’t stopped. I looked so scary hiking alone out here in the middle of nowhere, surely only a murderer would’ve taken their chances with me.

Luckily, just when I was about to give up and sleep in the ditch by the road, I found a camping ground and got to spend the night on my towel under a tree. That should be a separate point: always know where you towel is. It was so cold by the ocean though that, even cocooned up in all the clothes I had, I was shivering and miserable within an hour. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, and I left the next morning with a much greater appreciation of how awful it must be to be homeless.

So, be prepared! There are lots of things I could’ve done better in retrospect. Starting early in the day is a big one. Obviously most people driving long distances get an early start, so if you wait til even midday, your chances of a nice long ride drop significantly.

Bring water. Bring a sleeping bag if there’s any chance of getting stranded. And if you’re somewhere unfamiliar, get a map! I relied solely on Google maps and 3G. This, combined with my crappy phone battery, ensured I had plenty of stop-offs at roadside McDonald’s to charge my phone and eat shameful, shameful, delicious $2 cheeseburgers.

7: Craigslist: Bringing Hitchhiking into the Twisted 21st Century

Or: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures.

While it’s not technically hitch-hiking, I feel this modern iteration of the ancient art form deserves addressing. Although rideshares are organised in advance, and the driver typically asks to split petrol costs, you’re still essentially riding with a stranger.

Toward the end of my trip I’d wound up in Portland and had two days to get to L.A. to catch my flight home. I weighed up the variables and decided that hitch-hiking was just too risky. I couldn’t afford to get stuck in some desolate stretch of wilderness again. Greyhound buses were an option, but they’re surprisingly expensive not to mention slow. So a friend suggested the dark third option: the rideshares section of Craigslist.

Craigslist is 100% anonymous, meaning it’s 100% dodgy. If you were a maniac who wanted to murder someone, I guarantee that you wouldn’t bother roaming the roads looking for one these days. You’d just stick a rideshare ad on Craigslist.

I posted a friendly ride request, remembering to include a photo of my smiling self and plenty of details. The clientele soon revealed its reliability as offers rolled in for wrong days and even different destinations to what I’d specified. Eventually though some guy got in touch and he at least had the basics straight.

As the planning conversation unfolded, the anonymous messenger revealed an increasingly creepy side. Things culminated in him suggesting we get a motel room together. Ahh, petrol money AND free gay sex. Ambitious, sir.

I abandoned that option and instead agreed to a ride with a girl about my age who said she was a friendly and seasoned hitch-hiker herself.

Seasoned she was. She had spent the last eight years of her life with no fixed address, endlessly criss-crossing the country with friends and strangers, going wherever life and the road took her. She had recently gotten out of jail in West Virginia for possession of weed. With her newfound freedom she had immediately driven to Oregon to get work at the weed harvest, then had headed up to Portland to break into the stripping scene (with great success).

I recognised the valuable life sample size that she represented. I asked, in all her time hitch-hiking, had she had any scary or bad experiences? Steering down the freeway with one hand, taking a puff of her joint, she considered for a moment. “There was this one truckie guy who made an inappropriate suggestion. I just said I wasn’t interested though, and he let it go.” So there you have it from the horse’s mouth. Hitch-hiking could even be nicer than public transport.

I ended up becoming Facebook friends and penpals with several of the colourful and crazy people whom I hitched lifts from. Honestly, it was one of the best parts of the entire trip. So I say to you, as long as you come prepared, and make sure you always know where your towel is, hitch-hiking could just be the highlight of your next unexpected journey.

Sin and Vice

I do not write fiction on this blog. I write autobiographical happenings. Here is another one.

*             *             *

I do not know any of the people around me; this is a cloak-and-dagger society. Entry at the door is dependent upon your ability to produce your six-digit number. We carry our number around on a plain white laminated card, a card with no other markings save a blue logo in the corner. The logo resembles three torsos being blown away. Oh, I know what blows us all here. I will probably never see any of these people again.

Surnames are anathema. We have our number. If someone must be called, it is by their first name and the month in which they were born only. Pseudonyms are welcome too. You’ll never really know who anyone is here. Unless of course, you were to see an acquaintance from the outside world. It could happen. After all, who are we? We are everyone, really. Students, young professionals, migrants, workers, the unemployed. Probably, some people you know very well come here.

Welcome to this clandestine Mecca of sin and vice: The Melbourne Sexual Health Centre.

Up an unassuming staircase nestled on Swanston Street you can find our lair. Maybe you will even join our ranks. Everyone is here for the same reason: to get tested/treated for sexually transmitted infections. As I glance around at my comrades, a thought hits me. This would be the ideal place for an accomplished swinger to pick up. After all, you can be pretty sure of two very crucial things about all the people here:

1. They’re sexually active
2. They’re responsible when it comes to monitoring their sexual health

What more invitation could you want?

But no, this isn’t happening at all. Something is wrong. A blanket of distance, suspicion, maybe even shame, is lying thick upon the whole place. Nobody makes eye contact, nobody is smiling. People play on their phones or read a book. We could just as easily be early-morning commuters as the liberated sexual adventurers that we presumably are.

But of course, I know the reason. Despite the reasonable bet that any given person here is sexually open, it’s also the one environment in which you can’t help but think “-and there’s a damn good chance that they have a venereal disease.” Is that cutie opposite you just here for a check-up, or because they’re oozing something from their nether regions?

So we sit and wait in our isolation.

Names ring out one after the other, as triage nurses and doctors poke their heads out of doorways and hallways to call in their next sample – Jason, born in December; Maple, born in April; Sigfried, born in July; Lucy, born in December. An efficient production line of genitalia being inspected, scrubbed clean and flung back out into the world to wreak further mischief. Help yourself to some condoms and lube before you go.

A man walks past carrying a clear plastic jar of his own steamy urine. Chlamydia test, probably. He’s clearly feeling awkward about carrying his urine past a bunch of strangers. I want to tell him: there’s no judgement here, hombre.

When you first arrive you have to sign in at a touch-screen computer using your 6-digit number, and there are some questions to answer. You then get to sit, wait, and watch other new people arriving up the stairs. You observe their body language and you can pretty much guess which question they’re up to.

A tall girl squints in concentration and counts off on her fingers. How many sexual partners have you had in the past year? Two dreadlocked traveller-types glance at each other. Have you ever had sex with someone overseas? A freckled red-haired guy sways his head side to side indecisively. Have you ever had male-to-male sex? An older gentleman glances around. Have you ever had sex with a sex worker?

I have some friends who also come here. Everyone’s got their own little system. For one of them, it’s a 6-monthly routine. For another, it’s every new sex partner. The nurses know her by name. You could argue that she’s wasting state-funded resources, but I guess it’s better than spraying Gonorrhoea around.

On this visit, I have to give blood because of a medical procedure I had while overseas. Oh that’s right, you can get Hepatitis C like that. Goody. But blood is satisfyingly high-info: they screen you for HIV and syphilis at the same time, which they’ll normally only do if you have symptoms or probable cause. I’m not deprived of peeing in a jar either, so who am I to complain?

You get to phone up in a week for your results.

Good luck not winning the reverse lotto, and I’ll leave you with a timeless reminder from the U.S. government:

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The Barang’s Guide to Cambodian Buddhism

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh you’ll  surely be struck by the monks wandering around in bright orange robes and the intricate colourful pagodas. Glorious Buddhism! However, beneath these overt displays of the religion, what’s not immediately clear is that this is not your standard version of Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. The world of the Khmer people is one that’s teeming with the spirits of the dead.

Like many South-East Asian countries, when Cambodia adopted Buddhism it didn’t signal a complete abandonment of earlier beliefs such as ancestor reverence and Hinduism. Rather, all these things were synthesised into a complex and sometimes ill-defined tapestry of folklore, spirituality and superstition. After discussions with a number of Khmer adults and children, I’ve compiled this quick guide to get you oriented.

1.   Much like in The Sixth Sense, there are ghosts all around us. While adults generally can’t see them, cats and dogs can. Babies can too, but for most people the ability atrophies during childhood. A few shaman-types who retain this ability can provide a link to the world of the dead.

2.   When you die you will turn into a ghost. In fact, so will every animal. Strangely also like in the Sixth Sense, <SPOILERS> initially you will not realise that you are dead. As a ghost, you will not have one of your index fingers, which presumably you don’t tend to notice right away.

3.   After seven days you will try to visit your family at home, and this is when the horrible truth will hit you. At this point, several different things can happen:

  • If you were a very good person in life you will be taken to Heaven, where Buddha lives. This essentially means achieving the traditional Buddhist aim of breaking free from the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering.
  • If you were an evil person in life you will be taken to Hell. Tortures include having to climb a tree covered in needles and being hung upside-down in a vat of boiling water. The duration of your stay in Hell and your specific punishment will depend on your sins. For example, if you said bad things a lot in life you will have your mouth stretched open to the point of agonising pain.
  • If you were really evil in life you will turn into a special giant ghost covered in blood that wanders the land in solitude. This is a particularly terrible and feared spirit, and may be taller than a house.
  • If you were neither particularly good nor particularly evil you will stay in between, lingering in the world for an unknown time.

Regardless of which of these fates awaits you, if you didn’t make it to Heaven then sooner or later you will be reborn as a human or some other animal and go through the cycle again.

4.   Ok, so that’s the destiny awaiting you in the afterlife. There are also several other ghosts and spirits swirling in the world:

  • Every piece of land that somebody owns has a guardian angel to protect it from bad spirits. These angels live in the colourfully painted concrete ghost houses you see on stilts outside many abodes and buildings. Offerings here keep the angel benevolent and motivated in its job.
  • Every house that gets built also gains a guardian spirit that lives in the house and protects it as a second line of defence, should the angel prove insufficient.
  • Very large old trees in forests are often inhabited by a tree spirit. If you are travelling in an unknown place and want to rest beneath such a tree or even pee there, it’s important to ask the spirit’s permission first. If you neglect to do this the spirit could make you sick or incite snakes/insects to come after you. If the tree is cut down the spirit will leave and look for a new tree, like any good hermit crab of the sea.
  • The ghosts of humans who drown in rivers are doomed to linger there and watch over the river. They can never leave and be reborn until another ghost takes their place. So be careful around rivers, or one of the drowned ghosts just may try to swap places with you.
  • If a mother dies during childbirth she will become a particularly chilling ghost. For the 7 days before she realises she’s dead, she will climb to the top of a tree and sing a wailing song of lamentation for her lost child.
  • The ghosts of children, however, have a happier fate. They are a playful lot and have the right to come and go where they please – even guardian angels and house spirits will not turn them away. Many households hang small red clothes and candy on their fences to make sure they are provided for. Now, remember how babies can see the spirit world? Well for this reason the children ghosts like to play with them. Sometimes though, they can accidentally scare the baby or exhaust it from playing for too long, and cause it to start crying. In this case it’s often just a matter of the Khmer mother telling the children ghosts “Ok, that’s enough for today” and they will leave, soon restoring the baby’s happiness.
  • A Chinese belief, which has spread to some of the cities in Cambodia, is that the children ghosts often pick a shop to live in. They alert the shop owner to their presence in a dream. If the shop owner then keeps them happy by buying occasional presents like candy and toys, the ghosts will induce lots of customers to come into the shop, often without quite knowing why they’ve come in. If the child ghosts are neglected though, business will be bad.

5.   People make offerings of rice at pagodas so that ghosts of family members will have something to eat. People pray for ghosts in order to accelerate their rebirth. People also offer small balls of rice for the baby and children ghosts.

6.   If you lied a lot during your life then your ghost will have a tiny mouth. This is why thin rice noodles are also brought to the pagoda – so the ghosts with tiny mouths can have something to eat.

7.   An important belief held by Cambodians in the countryside is that the living and the dead must never cohabit, lest ill events occur. For example, if the ghost of a deceased husband were to remain in the family house and was unable to move on from his living wife, he could accidentally cause her to become sick. There’s also the darker possibility of a ghost intentionally causing harm to its family, either because of some unresolved resentment, or become it wants to be united with their ghosts. This is one of the reasons the guardian house spirit and angel are so important: to keep out dead relatives. The family will go to the pagoda to make offerings to their ancestors, not do it in the home.

8.   Finally, one belief practised by Cambodians from the countryside is that it’s essential to protect the house from spirits during child birth. The midwife will draw an X on the door and hang something sharp there like a knife or pair of scissors, and all windows must be sealed. This gives the best protection from spirits for the mother and infant.

This is obviously a huge simplification of the immensely complex and varied Khmer belief system, but it’s not a bad starting point. If there are any important elements I’ve omitted or misrepresented, please let me know and I shall make amendments. See you around the streets!

Oh I Would Ride 500 Miles

 

Imagine you’re flying through the air, about to collide with the road at approximately 32km/hr. What do you feel in that moment? A flash of terror? Reflex preparedness? Fatalism?

The correct answer: not a whole lot of anything. You don’t have time to think about it.

You won’t remember the impact. Your brain skips straight ahead from that suspended instant in midair, then you’re on the ground and your instincts have kicked in: ignore your injuries, get off the road, drag your bike out of the way of traffic. Blood is running down your left forearm and one of your riding gloves is stained brown from clutching the elbow. It’s funny how no one in Hollywood seems to know just how quickly that sacred life fluid oxidises once outside the body.

You don’t really feel the pain yet; your mind is back in your apartment months ago, reliving a conversation you had with your housemate. You’d sworn you would never become one of those wanky east-siders who cycle around wearing Lycra and gloves. He advised you to at least reconsider the gloves, said you’d be grateful for it when you eventually came off. He was right.

Concentrate, stay in the moment.

The driver has gotten out and is explaining something about blind spots while a fierce old woman berates him. A couple of passers-by have rushed over and are asking if you’re ok; telling you to do things, telling you to get the driver’s details. Later on you will not remember their faces or even how many there were. It’s ok, it’s the shock. You realise you’re limping a bit. You try to inspect your elbow but it’s hard to judge with all the blood and the funny angle. It looks deep. The front bonnet of the car has popped off from the force of the crash, and you’re surprised to find you feel slightly proud.

The most realistic stories are the true ones.

It was about six months ago that I had my accident. Melbourne’s not the easiest city in which to be a cyclist. Numbers of riders have increased hugely over the past decade, but I still consider us pioneers of sorts, forging a path forward in a hostile environment for the good of future generations. This idea isn’t mere fancy- there’s a well-documented relationship between the number of cyclists in a city and the safety of cycling.

The theory is that as motorists become more accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, they get better at looking for them. This is something I can definitely believe. Some of my best-practised manoeuvres include swerving to avoid clueless pedestrians and slamming on the brakes when a driver suddenly turns left. I’m constantly awaiting the unexpectedly opened car door that will be the last thing I ever see. Amusing door-related epitaphs welcome.

It’s early 2009 and I’m in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Right now my home state is being torn apart by the worst bushfires in recently history, in which 173 people will ultimately die. But right now I know nothing of this; my mind is in the past, occupied with another tragedy of human life: Kanchanaburi is home to the infamous Death Railway, where over 100,000 prisoners of war died during the Second World War. Having visited the poignant bridge and war museum, I’ve hired a push-bike for the day in order to see the town and visit a memorial several kilometres away. I’m weaving happily amongst motorists and motorcyclists down the main road. Bikes are common enough here that people look for you, and consequently I feel safer than ever I did in Melbourne. If I were to come off, I’ve heard stories that maybe the locals would rush over and pour Coca-Cola on the wound since it’s the only sterile substance they have easy access to.

Back in Melbourne: twenty minutes after the crash everyone has left and I’m dazed in the city clutching my elbow, wondering helplessly where the nearest hospital is. I call my best friend, who was actually waiting to meet me, and tell them I won’t be able to make it. As I explain what’s happened, my voice breaks.

There’s a special type of distress that comes from having your body damaged. It’s separate from the physical pain, born instead from the terrible possibilities of the future. Will you ever recover from the wound? What will life be like if you can’t?

I can fully feel the pain in my elbow now, and sickening thoughts are swimming through my mind of punctured bursas and severed ligaments. Talking to my friend, these thoughts momentarily overcame me. Stop being a pansy I reprimand myself. This is nothing, you’re just in shock.

On the tram to Melbourne Hospital – the only place I can think to go – the other passengers stare uncomfortably at my bloodied arm. I feel somehow indecent. Someone lamely asks if I’m ok.

Endone is an amazing drug. It’s a semi-synthetic opioid related in structure to morphine and heroin, and like its cousins, it can cause addiction. I have a nurse acquaintance who was shocked to hear that the doctor had prescribed it to me for such relatively minor injuries.

I relive its sensations: the warm tingling all over my skin, the sleepy happiness, the slight spinning of the world. It was like burying the pain in my elbow and hip under a pile of fluffy blankets. One side effect however is that it inhibits memory formation.

I lost most of the week after the crash in a forgotten drugged haze, punctuated only by random scenes like mirages in a desert. At some point I was wandering through JB Hi-Fi, awed by the lights and sounds; I was swaying through the office and my supervisor was there telling me to go home and rest; one time I was rolling around on my bed, ecstatic from the feel of the sheets on my face, only dimly aware of people watching me from the doorway.

Oh thin green nurturing strip. Somewhere to call home. A conduit for our kind, a facade of safety. Oh how I’ve followed you and yearned for you.

It’s five hours before a surgeon finally sees me. I will never be able to repay the incredible friend who stayed with me that whole night and probably suffered worse than I did, having to helplessly watch me flinch with every pass of the needle through my skin. Weeks later my sister cut the crusty stitches out using a scalpel blade.

I’m also not sure if I can describe the boredom that builds over five hours with nothing to distract you, boredom that grows into frustration and boils over to rage. Rage toward the understaffed public health system, toward the pointless waste of life, and especially toward the unapologetic scumbag who hit me. Oh yes, of course you wanted to just call it even and go our separate ways.

In the days that followed I fantasised about my assailant, about vandalising his car, suing him. Anything. I didn’t want money, I wanted justice. Why was I in bed, useless, dull pain looming just below the surface, while he was still driving around, probably carefree, probably still a threat to my other friends on two wheels? I regularly obsessed over whether the accident might’ve been my fault, but the outraged old woman kept returning to my mind to reassure me that she’d seen it all and I was in the right. I tried calling the police, the TAC. Medical expenses and bike damage weren’t great enough to claim anything, and the policeman told me there is no penalty for negligently hitting a cyclist. I stewed.

In 2003, Pucher and Dijkstra found that American cyclists are 12 times more likely to have a lethal accident per kilometre travelled than car occupants. de Hartog et al (2010)  compared several costs and benefits of cycling, including physical exercise, air pollution exposure and the risk of accidents. They concluded that the benefits were the greater by an order of magnitude. This was further reinforced by Karl Ulrich, who calculated that each year of sustained cycling adds about 10.6 days to a person’s life due to the fitness benefits- even accounting for the extra risk of accident. If you do the sums assuming 1 hour of cycling per day, 5 days a week, then your time spent peddling roughly equals your longevity gain. That is, if you spend about 10.6 days riding in a year, you live on average about 10.6 days longer. So really, while you’re cycling you do not age.

To be a cyclist is to follow water. In most cities, lakes, rivers and coastlines are the only spaces that get set aside for our species to roll along in peace. Everywhere else is the noise and agitation of motor vehicles. So we learn to love water, to see parallels in the way we both smoothly flow along, and to finally get where Sebastian’s coming from in “Under the Sea”. It’s not pleasant to leave these havens and battle with uncaring traffic in order to infiltrate the city, but I shall continue to do so. The average life expectancy of a male in Australia is 79 years. I figure that if I ride steadily for the next 35 years of my life, that’s 35 x 10.6 = 371 extra days that I’ll get. So when I hit 80 (as I statistically expect to do!), I’m going to lean back in my rocking chair with my false teeth and my Alzheimer’s disease, foggily remember that bastard who drove into me, and have a chuckle about who’s still stan… rocking.