Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again

Of all the laws of economics, the law of unintended consequences is probably the most self-explanatory: ‘that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended’. Whilst it is applied mostly to government regulations and legislation, the rest of the world knows this law simply as ‘when shit goes wrong for all the right reasons’.

Just a few examples:

Stranger Danger

Remember that movie ‘Kindergarten Cop’, where the primary school kiddies played an instrumental role in stopping the baddie, the ‘stranger’? Although crime rates these days can’t be any worse than they were in the previous centuries, our fears of ‘The Stranger’ are. Hence the strict childhood instructions: ‘don’t talk to strangers’.

But strangers can be helpful, and like that other saying they dish out in high school to make you more sociable: ‘Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.’ When an 11-year-old Utah boy scout went missing in rugged terrain, he stayed lost for four days, hiding from strangers whom he had been taught ‘not to talk to’, predictably some of whom were search volunteers or other hikers who would’ve been able to help him.

Car accidents

Regulations in the 1960s to improve safety design inside cars (internal airbags, safety belts, padded dashboards) actually resulted in higher rates of car accidents. Why? Because the costs of crashing (bodily injury) had decreased, people could therefore afford to drive more recklessly.

Carbon leakage.

Countries that want to slow down global warming by reducing carbons emissions must impose a carbon price or tax on businesses as well as invest in renewable energy. While this is a positive step forward for the environment, in the short-term it certainly increases the costs of doing business. An unintended consequence is that businesses will move their production operations overseas, to countries that don’t wish to act on climate change and hence don’t have taxes on pollution. The outcome is that the economy of the environmentally responsible country is worse off and carbons emissions is not necessarily any lesser, albeit burning through a different part of the ozone layer (still not a good reason to avoid target commitments and the carbon tax though.)

Economists argue that perhaps that these consequences can actually often be anticipated, assuming that people act rationally and events therefore unfold in a rational manner. Through the lens of economics, rational behaviour is classified as that which best maximises self-interest, by only taking actions that yield higher benefit relative to cost. Emotional benefits and costs are entirely separate.

But today I want to bring to your attention a piece of legislation called the Castle Doctrine*.

Pretend for a moment that you are a U.S. lawmaker in the state of Montana. The chances of an ordinary citizen becoming a victim of violent crime is 1 in 367. You have a grand plan to protect these citizens by empowering them to protect themselves. To do this, you vote to pass a bill that allows citizens to use deadly force against unlawful intruders to their homes, without fear of later persecution. The homeowner must of course have reasonable evidence of danger to his or her life. You go home satisfied that your work has made America a safer place (oh, and your campaign sponsorship is most likely being funded by the gun lobbying industry.)

What do you think will happen?

Well ideally, and I’m sure the U.S. lawmaker is an idealist; potential criminals would be deterred from committing violent crime as the consequences could be fatal. After all, thieves too must weigh up the costs and benefits before each robbery. Assuming they act on the greed motive and not out of personal vindictiveness, the benefit will be his/her profit gained, and the cost will be his/her chances of being caught, and the punishment if s/he is caught.

A-ha. But what if the citizen starts thinking: ‘Well, I probably only have a 50/50 chance of being killed if an intruder enters my home. But since I don’t have to worry about going to jail if I shoot, and I still have a 50 percent chance of danger, I’d best shoot anyway.’ In economic terms, here you see the costs of resorting to deadly self-defense have dropped: these being arrest, imprisonment or even the death penalty (yes, that too exists in Montana still.)

Regrettably it seems that here in Montana the law of unintended consequences is the winner of the day (and the gun companies! Don’t forget the gun companies). It isn’t that the concern of legal repercussions would stop anyone from resorting to whatever means of self-defense they possess in a truly dire life-or-death situation. The point is that because of this added guarantee, anyone who owns a gun or other deadly weapon of force will much more likely take a risk on a situation that could’ve turned out to be harmless after all, or at least non-deadly.

An increased liberalness to use force can turn easily into careless, senseless violence, justified by ‘I thought he was gunna kill me, legit I swear.’ It could turn into a licence to kill.

While writing this post gives me a chance to roll my eyes and say sardonically ‘only in America’, the following question begs attention: if this sort of behavior is so rational, then why do policy makers get it wrong time and again?

Any intervention in an umbrella system, particularly social action with a specific purpose, can often fail to take into account the complexity of the human race – and so misjudge the reactions. What is rational at any given point in time may not be too obvious until after the fact. For example, when we are offered incentives that change the balance between relative benefit and cost, (such as a guarantee against persecution) it makes sense that we might come down on a different decision. University of Melbourne lecturer Mike Pottenger writes concisely and pithily about the unintended consequences of perverse incentives.

What do I mean by the complexity of our choices? We could be swayed by our emotions and feelings (definitely not rational). Conflicts of interest (e.g. money vs. health) might drive us to choose one over the other, and depending on which one the policy aims to target, this might be considered as an unintended consequence. We could end up valuing short-term interests over long-term gains (the opposite to delayed gratification, which is what you’re meant to train your dog). Really, we’re all just animals responding to reward incentives, wagging our tails to the promise of a juicy bone.

Much of politics is trial and error – just when we think we’ve got the answer, someone with too much testosterone will fuck up abuse your Castle Doctrine, or some smartass will find a way to pervert the rules. (When the Bangkok police force made offenders wear tartan armbands they were treated as badges of honour, so they changed it a Hello Kitty armband instead.) Maybe what the law of unintended consequences really does is teach us humility: to remind us that we can’t ever have our own way with the universe. Human complexity has a way of defying rationality, and has its own rules to keep.

*Castle Doctrine: based on the saying ‘a man’s home is his castle’, the notion of inviolable rights within your own home. Even if one man’s right to self-defense might deprive another man’s right to live.

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Trust in the Hoodie: the Morality of Clothes

Even though it’s part of our ordinary routine, we know that our choices in dressing each morning can be significant. Shirt-and-tie attire is essential for just about any professional job interview. The wrong shoes can get you barred from a nightclub.

But when do the clothes we put on our back become an agent of distrust and crime? For Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager who was shot in the street by a neighbourhood watch captain in February, the answer is this: when you’re wearing a hoodie.

But you say: of course it isn’t as simple as that. You can’t blame the guilt of an overzealous, racist patrol guard on a jumper for godssake. Perhaps not, but judging from public reactions in the months following the tragedy, Martin brought to our attention that many others identify with the discomfort generated by this single article of clothing.

As attorney and talk-show host Geraldo Rivera explains:

People look at you and what’s the instant association? It’s those crime scene surveillance tapes. Every time you see someone stickin’ up a 7-11, the kid’s wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie.

What we see in the media also reinforces this psychology – who was even a little surprised that the primary suspect for ABC employee Jill Meagher’s rape and murder was known everywhere as the ‘man in blue hoodie’?

This is ironic of course because the hoodie is supposed to defy association. Walking down the street wrapped in a hoodie you can enjoy a little extra anonymity (or just warmth). The trade-off is that you risk being labeled as an anti-social troublemaker. By choosing to cover part of your head, you cannot be identified from the back. Your face has become hooded, so it follows that your character also becomes slightly shadier to a stranger’s eye. But can we apply this rationale to other articles of clothing?

In particular, I’m talking about the inherent suspiciousness of the hijab (women’s headscarf), and let’s not even get started on the burqa. That Muslims everywhere are, at this current moment in time, unfortunately associated with al-Qaeda extremists and terrorism only adds to the general untrustworthiness of the religious garment. An Anglo schoolgirl experimented with wearing the hijab for a few hours, and the reaction she got was astoundingly negative.

You have to step back for a moment and remember that this is just a piece of fabric. It doesn’t contain any dark magic and it’s not a weapon of mass destruction. But thanks to our basic psychology with some help from reflexive social associations, the trust bank is severely anaemic.

Let’s first explore the psychology of trust. Intuitively, we distrust those who cover their faces. This isn’t so hard to understand. Our faces are our most honest feature: eyes are a window to the soul, facial muscles give away the lie, and blushing means you’re embarrassed. More importantly, your face is the most seen, and therefore the most identifiable part of you.

So trusting someone clearly depends a lot on how well you can identify him/her. How about their reputation? Well, studies show that the known reputation of someone might not matter as much as you’d think. Researchers from Darmouth University found that people are more likely to trust someone whose face ‘is generally perceived as trustworthy, even when they are given negative information about this person’s reputation’. I know what you’re thinking: what is a ‘trustworthy’ face and where can I buy one? Who even knew there was such a standard of measure? I can only guess that bigger eyes and upwardly curved lips constitute trustworthy faces, while highly arched eyebrows and a bigger mouth (for bullshitting) do not.

It’s hard not to feel depressed about the findings of these studies, or ‘trust games’ as they call it. Not only are we really freaking dumb (or just shallow) when it comes to trusting strangers , but we might just have been born with a shifty face and it’s really not my fault officer!

Similar experiments have tried harder to identify exactly what features we are most predisposed to trust. The results from the University of Aberdeen suggest that we are more inclined to trust those who resemble us physically. Um, who invited Narcissus to the party? Participants’ level of trust increased by almost 25 percent towards faces digitally tweaked in a way that increased resemblance to their own appearances – in other words, the sibling you never had.

This hypothesis works – if you trust yourself.

After all, all this dabbling in psychological games is only useful if we can respond appropriately to what our subconscious is telling us. Distrust is but an instinct, the inner roar of the primitive beast within that cares only for survival. Pinky promises and contracts signed in blood mean nothing if you, in your heart of hearts, don’t feel the trust.

Luckily we have experts around the world who make up special terms to help us to understand. Distrust serves a valuable risk-gauge function if we listen to it properly. By that, I mean that we must learn to separate dysfunctional distrust from functional distrust. It is rational to maintain a certain level of distrust towards unfamiliar people and situations in order to protect us from harm. Even when acquaintanceship has been formed, nay, even in intimacy, it would be wise to not throw out your own sense of criticality. This is based on the assumption that all rational beings act in self-interest, and that these interests change reactively and over time. A modicum of distrust now stops you from spilling tears over faults of misjudgment later.

On the other hand, obviously there is such a thing as too much, and distrust isn’t something you want to have too much of. If this is you though, you’re probably being set back by dysfunctional distrust. The danger of this? Well, it’s the induced hostility and paranoia of dysfunctional distrust that leads to hypervigilance and the deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin.

So are you damned if you do, damned if you don’t? I have no simple answers for you. Trust and judgment clearly go hand in hand, yet the consequences of each can sometimes be irreversible. But in most cases with some luck, humility and forward thinking you’ll be able to bounce right back. Hopefully this post has made you question whether you really can trust your neighbor, stranger, brother, or indeed yourself. I hope you can – hoodie wearer or not.

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For Chris:

Most of my friends post-2009 might not know this about me, but when I was 9 years old I was diagnosed with an autoimmune blood disorder. Recently my haematologist asked me to contribute my own story to a support forum for patients, and I thought I’d share it here as well. Vive les sciences!

I’ve lived exactly half of my life with ITP – but if ITP were a person, these days it would be a familiar, though not exactly friendly acquaintance to me, rather than the strange, alien sounding blood condition it seemed when we first met (at the age of 9 I could hardly spell the word ‘idiopathic’).

ITP, or its full designation idiopathic thrombocytopenia purpura gives an idea of what the blood disorder means to those who have it – thrombocytopenia means a deficiency of platelets in the blood. This causes bleeding into the tissues, bruising, and slow blood clotting after injury. Purpura indicates a rash of purple spots on the skin caused by internal bleeding from small blood vessels. Idiopathic simply means unknown cause, which leaves doctors and patients chewing over murky avenues of treatment such as platelet transfusion, steroids, bone marrow examinations and the like. With a few lucky exceptions, most courses of treatment yield short-term results at best and are utterly redundant at worst.

Whilst a healthy platelet count is in the range of 150,000 to 450,000 per microlitre of blood (150-450 shorthand), at the time of diagnosis mine was low by all counts at around 20,000 (20). Although the figure would fluctuate over the years – from a worrying low of 6,000 (6) to 40,000 (40), on a normal day it sits dependably in the 20,000-30,000 (20-30) range.

These days ITP isn’t a big part of my life at all, I don’t think about it once a week or even once a month. By all accounts, it’s an invisible friend. I’m only reminded of it when I trip and fall on my butt or take a tumble down the stairs, and the costs of my clumsiness stay for longer than they should.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, my parents and I worried endlessly about bruises, wounds, and tooth extractions. My specialist at the time at the Children’s talked about splenectomies, blood transfusions and steroids. This all made her, the hospital and the blood disorder a whole lot scarier. I stopped playing sport and stayed home from school on heavy days when I had my period. I learned to identify and avoid risky situations.

But I think the biggest price I had to pay for having less platelets than everybody else was not being able to fly. My specialist had explicitly warned us against taking me overseas: with a low platelet count of 10-20, the high air pressure of flying by plane could cause rupture to blood vessels in the brain, and in a worst case scenario this could be fatal. And so it was that I spent most of my early teens dreaming about flying when I sat in the classroom or before falling asleep at night. Even if I hadn’t wanted to travel the world to begin with, the reality that I could not made me want it a million times more. We could only go interstate – when my whole Year 6 grade went to Canberra on camp, my parents drove me there and back separately from the cohort. The trip took sixteen hours in total, eight times longer than that of my classmates. Isn’t flight great?

I’d think about Hong Kong, Paris, New York, London compulsively with not just a hint of adolescent romance – everything I read and heard convinced me that any place was better than Melbourne, my forced home (I now know better). I was addicted to stories told by travellers and expatriates. I learnt French, Japanese, Arabic and my parents’ native Chinese, anything that could give me a glimpse into life outside of the places I knew. In hindsight I think that maybe this whole period gave me the first inklings of what my future career aspirations would be – I later finally identified this as journalism.

I would wonder: if nothing changed and I didn’t get any better, would I have to be confined to a career in Australia without international prospects? Would I never get to go anywhere in the world? It got to the point where not a day went by without me thinking about flying. I prayed for miracle leaps in my blood count, and wore ‘lucky jewellery’ to monthly blood tests. I’ll tell you another little (embarrassing) secret: after watching the pop psychology movie The Secret that preaches the law of attraction, I tried hard to imagine the sensation of flying; of looking down from the window of a plane onto a city of night lights, following the rules of desire, ask, believe, receive. But who knows – in the end I did get what I wanted, though not exactly in the way I’d thought!

In 2009, I was passed onto another specialist at the Children’s. By this time, I’d spent six years in and out of the haematology ward, and not much had changed – at the last appointment with my old specialist she urged my parents to seriously consider surgical removal of my spleen, a risky and non-guaranteed cure for ITP. When I met Chris, it was a whole different story. By then medical research had progressed significantly, and some doctors took a far more liberal approach to treating ITP than the conservative approach we had been used to. Chris was definitely of the more recent camp. He had a Let’s-wait approach.

Let’s wait and see how your body develops and whether the platelets might improve with it (he thought they would).

Let’s wait and see what happens before we take your spleen out, or pump you with steroids (and we did).

Chris told me to play sport again, and most importantly – he told me to hop on a plane without a moment’s hesitation. To this end, I always thought this verdict was a little anticlimactic after all those years of waiting, but I was so happy I DIDN’T CARE. His optimism was fresh and overwhelming – and set me free.

I remember calling my dad’s sister in Hong Kong to tell her I was coming and crying from happiness. At the time of booking my Christmas trip, I hadn’t been anywhere for seven years. Since then, I’ve studied abroad in Japan, have a trip to Europe lined up for next year and might even be going to India in January, fingers crossed. Between my specialist, my parents and I, we’ve removed most of the obstacles stopping me from living like a regular teenager. Anxiety is probably the biggest one: I don’t panic nearly as much when I fall over – ‘let’s wait and see’ – and three more people have been sleeping easier at night for the last three years.

For more stories like mine, check out this page.

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Why Raising Awareness is Easier Yet Harder Than Ever

While tutoring a student I was recently asked this question: What are the limitations of non-governmental organisations? (VCE Global Politics, hit me up! Need cash, and not ashamed that I’m whoring out my blog for flagrant self-promotion). Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are the advocacy grassroots movements that link ordinary citizens and politicians of different countries together in joint effort for the greater good of the world. One would like to think that they are one of the global actors least bound by red tape and conflict of interests.

While NGOs’ main objectives are to raise awareness on any issue under the sun: world peace and security (Amnesty International), environmental conservation and animal rights (Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund), development in Third World countries (MMI, SIFE), they also enact some kick-ass change in public policy. By raising awareness, NGOs push the responsibility onto people like you and me to put pressure on our governments to do the right thing. How easy is it to raise awareness exactly? Social media has obviously played its part. Distributing consumer guides, fundraising, protest rallies, election sabotage are all well-known techniques for raising awareness. For the global women’s movement, International Women’s Day, “Activity on International Women’s Day has skyrocketed over the last five years due to the rise of social media…Our [Twitter] community with around 10,000 followers is phenomenal for sharing videos, information and news as it happens. Offline large scale women’s rallies have become even larger through the use of social media.” 

But when activists and lobby groups speak of raising awareness it always seems to me as if awareness is a giant, sleeping dragon that has to be roused, something that is detached and simply not at the fore of our daily concerns. In a sense it’s true – this is where their limitations hit the brick wall, so to speak. Idealistically, NGOs are tapping into a universal desire in all of us to contribute to the bettering of the world we live in. We want to be included, and we want to make a difference. But are we our own enemies where it matters?

In a dawn of social media where the sun never sets on the empire of the internet, our attention span is but a rainbow. Which means, it’s capable of incredible shades and distance, but very, very short-lived. We’re all shallow wellsprings of instant information and mercurial curiosity that flashes from story to story. Our brains are besieged from all directions – overstimulated and occupied with Facebook this, Twitter that, status updates, photos, comments, ‘Likes’, other people’s news. Which can of course be good or bad depending on what objective you’re trying to achieve.

New communications technologies have made raising awareness infinitely easier than it was in the past, but paradoxically now it’s even harder to hold onto the attention once it’s earned. There are more topics vying for our interest than ever. Scientists estimate that we have on average 60,000 thoughts a day – but 95-98% of them are the same recurring thoughts. Basic logic tells us that it would be extremely difficult to find space in our hearts and brains for all of these, while taking on new and equally pressing concerns at the same time.

Remember Kony 2012? Thanks to producer Jason Russel’s 93 million view video Invisible Children‘s campaign escalated quickly, yes, but it also de-escalated just as fast. People no longer postulate passionately about the Ugandan warlord’s crimes against humanity – there’s other stuff to care about now. But should this make activists throw up their pamphlets and posters in despair? No – unlike before the campaign, now there’s an established base that can be mobilised, meaning that people’s interests can still be tapped into and open for future engagement. The dragon is simply napping with one eye closed.

Regular updates to prod it awake every so often are crucial – like academic, romantic, sporting interests, it’s best to progress with consistent milestones in mind. NGOs should disseminate information slowly and steadily to its members and the wider public. Availability heuristic, a strategy of probability is what you call that phenomenon where frequent exposure to an issue makes the issue seem more common and important. A normal example: repeated exposure to violent crime by mainstream media readies us to think that criminals are on the rampage. In Germany, while there has been a real 41% decline in murder, respondents instead assumed a 27% increase based on misrepresentation in the popular media.

In the case of NGOs, while it’s true that people often avoid volunteers on the side of the road, the point to make is that at least it gets into our heads that: Hey, this issue is big, it’s in my face, maybe I should take a look at it further down the track. It’s all to do with priming us for potential interest.

So to keep a long answer short, the very tool that advances NGOs’ quest to raise awareness has, in a larger sense, diminished our human power to stay aware. Historically we’ve come a long way. But if only we could delete some of the online clutter at the forefront of our minds, then the jobs of NGOs would be made much easier.

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Beauty Beneath a Burqa

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the idea of hidden beauty. More specifically, how people in the Middle East define feminine beauty. To be honest, all this wondering has had me in quite a fix, especially since even we in the west grapple with what makes someone beautiful, or how that differs from the popular media portrayal of beauty. Everyone’s heard of the age-old expression that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. At most, this surmises that the perception of beauty is deeply subjective and varies from person to person. But what if, quite literally, beauty is hidden from the eye? I ask you to envisage beauty when you’ve never seen it before. Beauty that’s not obvious. It doesn’t grab you by the balls and make you look at it. Heck, it’s not even visible. At least, not visible in the way we know it.

Underneath a burqa that covers the female body from head to toe with slots or semi-transparent mesh netting for the eyes, personal expression has to take on a different dimension. Or shall we say, what one says or how one moves becomes the direct channel of personality and character. How would you like to be judged for what you have to say, and for that only? Not by how fat you are, how pretty you are, or how feminine you are. Aussie-turned-Muslim mother Umm Zainab says: “People have to take you for who you are, not for your body or your beauty. You’re taken for who you are.” But for the rest of us, how much stock of our identity do we take from dressing ourselves, beautifying ourselves, and tweaking our appearances? How much individualism would we stand to lose? It’s hard to imagine that some girls have never had to worry about these things.

In a place where beauty is associated not with what one sees, but with what one doesn’t see, or smells, or catches a glimpse of, I’m guessing that the imagination would have to work overtime to fill in those blanks. Emma Watson once said, ‘the less you reveal, the more people can wonder.’ To think of beauty as a construct of the imagination, assembled piece by piece from a phantom limb, a bold gesture here, lowered eyelashes there or a fierce voice, takes genuine interest that goes beneath the skin. By marrying desire with imagination, I’m sure there’s something to be said about patriarchal objectification here, but then again what culture of feminine beauty doesn’t – eastern or western.

Freedom VS Oppression. To many raised in the west, having to cover up any non-sensitive part of the body because a group of men or the Koran tells you to, is a no-brainer form of female oppression, and the burqa is the symbol of that oppression. Australian-born former Malaysian princess Jacqueline Pascarl reveals during her royal studies of Islam that the burqa is a religious sartorial requirement because ‘women are culturally condemned to the role of seductress and are considered untrustworthy, immoral humans, driven to tempt men and bring down the bastions of male self-control’. Many argue that it is a personal choice, an individual right that pledges devotion to their god and prophet. But perhaps the question of freedom and oppression is much simpler for most burqa-donning Muslim women. Fatima, 23, describes it as ’empowering’ and says: ‘When you’re walking down the street and walking past a group of men or boys and you know they’re staring at you, you can do whatever you want, I can just make faces at them.’

To end this simply, we are different – beauty is different. One that asks for substance deeper than just looks shouldn’t be ridiculed. After all, our girls are the ones with the highest rates of eating and anxiety disorders, depression and suicide rates. (And would it destroy everything I’ve written here to throw in this meme?)

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“I’m not smarter than you, I’m more knowledgeable than you, and that’s only because I’m older than you. Parents are always more knowledgeable than their children, and children are always smarter than their parents.”

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Dear Oskar

Conversations That Don’t Matter: Dissecting Small Talk

Imagine this. You’ve just gotten home from working nine hours straight inside the sweaty dungeon of a fast food restaurant, and immediately thrown yourself at your computer screen, attempting to soak in lectures and notes until well past 3am. You fall out of bed at 7am, stumbling to the station in a somatic haze, wishing you had a third tap in the bathroom for coffee. You spot the final remaining seat on the train, and make a beeline for it. But not so fast – your friend from way-back-in-high-school-who-you-never-talked-to-except-on-train-rides appears in your line of vision. You divert for a  second, Hi-it’s-been-so-long, and try to assess whether time lapsed in greeting has been long enough to abandon the encounter yet. You realise that both of you are too polite to take the one seat left. You end up making small talk standing up, on four hours sleep, for forty minutes straight. Your eyelids hate your mouth.*

This is an outstanding instance of when I vehemently commiserate with Jean-Paul Sartre that ‘Other people is hell‘ and silently wish for Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. Small talk is the arch-nemesis of the tired commuter who just wants to stare blankly out the window for those forty minutes. Born of cultural expectation, it is the unwanted scourge that interrupts meditative musings for the morning and near drives me into self-inflicted hermitude. That most skilful of arts requiring immense personal willpower and next-to-zero concentration, can leave you drained of conversational energy and convinced that all of humanity is a dreary, insufferable wasteland littered with workplace tales, annoying neighbours, and all the trivial details of everyday existence. Incremental, seemingly useful information but not quite entertaining or anecdotal. But on the other hand, it can keep you up to date with the minutiae of every single person’s life that you know, and lets you off the hook when you’re experiencing an extended brain fart. It is excruciating yet easy, gives us so much information about a person yet tells us nothing.

So why the love-hate relationship with small talk? Why the Herculean effort, the trauma, the briefly intoxicating delight of light-hearted wordplay? Well, to the average sociable human, small talk straddles that awkward line of familiarity. It asks you to define the halfway point between not knowing someone at all and knowing someone really well. And this is something that is increasingly difficult to distinguish, as Facebook flattens our friendship strata into two categories: Friend or Unfriend. That you’re even entering into Small Talk Territory is a good sign that the Small Talkee in question is important enough to not ignore (if you could get away with it), yet clearly not important enough for Big Talk.

The seasoned Small Talker approaches topics with mindless strategy, often unknowingly under the indoctrination of far-reaching social mores. Small talk topics like work, study, the weather, and recent injuries are perfect generators of lukewarm enthusiasm, and provide for ample conversational ground to cover the next time you have the misfortune to coincidentally meet. Topics of depth, controversy or taboo are not welcome. I like to imagine the ancient native bumping into his wife’s friend while fishing for carp by the stream, and having to listen and respond to her unwitty banter until his family’s dinner is caught. Poor man would probably rather impale himself with his own spear.

Once all topics of discussion have been exhausted, the imagination curve either transmits frenetic activity, where you go on to have the most wacky/deep and meaningful conversation ever, or it crashes. The greatest difficulty to gauge in such situations is whether the other person is as plagued by the hatred and discomfort of small talk (sometimes I worry that there are actually people who only ever have conversations that comprise of this). Telling signs are avoidance of eye contact, hasty excuses to leave and lastly, a complete breakdown of syntactical accuracy.

The severity of boredom unsurprisingly varies according to condition. Small talk in times of peace differs dramatically from small talk during personal crisis. In the lull of contentment – emotions are neither peaking nor plummeting – we really have to reach inwards to pull out the stuff of conversation, keep the ball in their field, and meanwhile our tongues dry up like reptile skin in the desert. Entertainment level: -5000.

In desperation, I like to turn to food, my trusty last resort.

A: My boyfriend took me to this really classy restaurant last night. We had baked shrimp with lemon-garlic butter sauce and braised salmon, overlooking the Sydney Harbour.

C: Oh, wow. That sounds real romantic. And I do love well-done fish. (I wish I had a boyfriend. Should I tell her about my microwave dinner last night?)

A: Yeah, fish is really so delicious. It’s the source of life. The um, fountain of life. (Thumb-twiddling)

C: Fish! Hurhurhur…fish is good very so. It…makes much PROTEIN!!! (nervous laughter)

A: I like toothpaste. Do you like toothpaste? (Complete break down)

It’s when we seek refuge from our own mundane captivity, only to be descended upon by more banality personified on the train ride home or at a Christmas party, that makes you decide: No. I’ve had quite enough of small talk. From now on, to the next person I see, I’m going to start talking about three-legged anteaters and Why Gandhi Was Killed and hummus dip. To hell with talking for the sake of talking.

*True story.

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Homelessness Part II: the Argument for Gambling

After I mused over the connection between homelessness and consciousness here, it cropped up again in one of my father’s recent experiences. This time, it’s tied dangerously close to another social problem, gambling. Now as with all Dad anecdotes, this is probably best to consume with a grain of salt.

A woman had approached him for money outside our local shopping centre, a surprisingly common sight even in the fairly comfortable middle-class eastern suburbs. He had asked her what she needed the money for, wary that she might use it to support alcohol, drug or gambling habits. ‘I need a lift somewhere,’ she explained, looking suspicious of being questioned – probably unusual since most don’t bother to stop and engage with street side beggars. As Dad has a policy of not giving money directly because of the above reasons, he offered to give her a lift to wherever she needed to go. As any sane lady alone would do, she declined the offer, hedging that her friend was coming to pick her up. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said instead, ‘I need the money for food’.

Dad went inside the shopping centre and came out with some lunch – she asked specifically for a sandwich, not plain bread – hoping that would be enough to keep her from having to beg for the next few hours. But as she swallowed down the food, the woman resumed her activities, turning to other passersby in hope of their generosity. Not for food or transport though, presumably.

However, rather than passing this incident off as ingratitude or ingenuity of need to further warn us off against compassion for the homeless, Dad used the opportunity to drill into me the vice of gambling (though it could as easily be for the need of basic necessities, or drug and alcohol abuse). Begging practices to preserve an income from gambling might seem far-fetched, but not any less so than the desperation warranted to fund expensive addictions.

‘Don’t gamble,’ Dad intoned in his Confucius voice, ‘and don’t make friends who gamble.’ I note the impossibility of his second caution, but keep listening. ‘It makes you lie to borrow money from friends. Oldest friends. That new Packer casino in Sydney? It gonna ruin lives, I tell you. And when you go bankrupt, and lose hope, you know how many people kill themselves? It wrecks families. Makes children into orphans. Just don’t, Christine.’

In a spur of father-to-daughter wisdom-transferral I promise then and there never to gamble (though I can’t quite bring myself to cut off my friendships). It’s not just a momentary revelation either, I genuinely do believe gambling belongs in the Axis of Evil and if the industry absolutely must exist, it should at least be government-owned, but more about that another time.

I am more bothered however by the cognitive dissonance that starts clanging inside my head. Many of my close friends pay an obligatory trip to the casino on most weekends, and just last week I had to console a work friend about losing eighty dollars on pokies that her pension-receiving grandma had given her (and celebrate when she won it back). Sure, gambling is bad in the extremes, but surely even recreationally, it can’t be as one-dimensional as Dad puts it.

Let’s look at life outside the casino. Everything we do asks us to strike a balance between risk and reward. We take a gamble on time when we choose to sleep in an extra five minutes, a gamble on life every time we jaywalk, or go rollerblading without knee guards on (badass). Investment banking is gambling made legal and financially crucial to our economy. Yes, institutionalised gambling is risk bubble-wrapped in risk, a house of cards assembled on the pier of a notoriously windy bay. But gambling itself isn’t evil, just as risk isn’t either. Its mathematical probabilities of reward are abysmally dubious, but wouldn’t you say gambling is just an extension of normal human activity? At most, it takes the instinctive judgments of fight-or-flight, risk versus reward, and amplifies them grossly in favour of fight and risk. But our psychology is who we are, and choosing risk can pay off in opportunities for advancement that would’ve otherwise flown by in waste.

Most obviously, what does gambling teach you? It teaches you that whatever is risked can and (often) will be lost. It teaches you to deal with that loss, whether by spending more money on drinks, or by laughing it off with mates. Money shouldn’t be treated as the elixir of life. Nothing is as important as life. When you gamble, you might lose your money, but at least it’s a reminder that you can win it back. Enjoy this, because it is one of the only things that can be won back from where the lost things are.

Like life itself, everything in it is fleeting. Nothing belongs to us eternally. So maybe it’s best we learn to let go of things like money. It’s not a part of you; it should be allowed to come and go. Take a chance. (But be smart about it, please.) After all, look what happened when you made him promise ‘never let go, Jack. NEVER LET GO!!’

This wasn’t meant to be a post semi-endorsing gambling. If anything, I still stand by my solemn word to Dad, and would only ever set foot in a casino to laugh at my fortune-less friends. But to the rest of you more budget well-endowed, risk-taking daredevils, whisper a prayer to the gods of Vegas and embrace the unpredictable. Bon chance!

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