Learning from the Master of Happiness

Credit: Jan Michael (via Flickr).

Only one person on the planet could draw a crowd of fourteen thousand in Perth, Western Australia, to listen to nothing but a two-hour long speech
on happiness. That person is Tenzin Gyatso, the 14thDalai Lama, exiled leader of Tibet.

The speech was essentially a long ramble – and I say that not in a pejorative way but because ramble is what the Dalai Lama does. And it works – he says whatever comes into his head, flowing seamlessly from one topic to the next. It’s unorganised and probably even impromptu, but he keeps the audience in rapture throughout.

The topic of this particular conversation (I call it that because the audience asked questions at the end) was on ‘Spirituality in the Modern World’.

He covered everything from the weaknesses of pride and the strengths of compassion, to the downfalls of capitalism and the potential positives of socialism, to the overwhelming need to use peaceful solutions to solve global conflicts wherever possible. One of the quotes I remember vividly was: “The 20th century was the century of war. Let’s make the 21st century the century of peace.”

There’s a reason why everyone sits up and takes notice when the Dalai Lama has something to say. To me, he’s simply the wisest person I’ve ever come across. I’ve never read any of his writings or heard him say anything that I can genuinely and with conviction disagree with. And when I do initially feel as though I don’t share the same opinion, I usually come to the conclusion later that I just don’t know enough to have a valid view on the subject – whatever it is.

It seems to me he really does have the answer to everything, even if the answer is not having an answer at all.

For example, one lady in the audience said:

“My seven year old asked me this question and I didn’t know the answer – but I said I knew the man to ask… Your Holiness, if God created Jesus and the Earth, who created God?”

Admittedly a nonsensical question to an atheist like myself. But the Dalai Lama had a great answer:

“Sometimes it is best not to try to go beyond our human capacity [for thought]… Science and reason cannot be used to explain the existence of God. They also cannot be used to disprove the existence of God. Sometimes it is better for these things to remain a mystery.”

I think even an atheist can appreciate sentiments like these.

One of my favourite things about the Dalai Lama is his humility, and the way he doesn’t try to force his ideas on people or proclaim them as the ‘truth’, like other self-help authors I’ve read.

Also in contrast to a lot of the quick-fix happiness solutions floating around, the Dalai Lama admits that achieving happiness, or at least more happiness in our lives, is genuinely difficult and can take many months of disciplined training. I love this assertion – it’s so much more realistic than the idea that enlightenment is so close within our grasp and we just have to unlock some kind of secret to reach it. To me that’s utter bullshit.

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Free stuff! For me, not for you, sorry

Once a year my local council collects and disposes of everyone’s household junk. For two or three days prior, the roadside is strewn with a hodgepodge of all things deemed too old, too broken and just too damn ugly.

It’s high time for the indiscriminate. We scavenge the wastes like hungry sharks, picking off weak and injured kitchen cabinets, coffee tables and ‘vintage’ wardrobes. It’s first come first serve, and the offerings don’t last long with so many of us circling the streets.

If I was in a less cynical mood I might make a kinder zoological comparison. Perhaps we are more like the bower bird, fastidiously furnishing our homes only with the objects that suit our taste. Some bower birds decorate their nests with pretty blue flowers; others are minimalists, opting instead for small balls of dung.

Bower bird nest, with litter taking the place of flowers.

Anyway, enough yibber yabber – I’ll get to the point. My girlfriend moved house recently (we’re not living together yet) and she has very little furniture. The junk collection couldn’t have come at a better time.

Checkout the stuff we found on the street. As you can see, it has all made its way into her new home.

Both chair and desk were bound for the landfill. Only thing wrong with the chair is missing wheels.

The padlock looks weird, I know.

Bar a small chip in the corner, this baby could've come straight from IKEA.

Desk and chair from the roadside. Not the computer, unfortunately.

Outdoor table in this indoor ex-shopfront part of the house.

Self-explanatory shelves.

When I’m standing on the street, struggling to cram a wardrobe into my tiny Ford Laser, cars streaming by, I admit I’m a little embarrassed. I sense the critical stares. “Pfft, what’s he doing? There’s an IKEA, like, down the road...” But the embarrassment is short-lived. Inside I’m proud of the fact that I’m getting my girlfriend a free queen-size bed – and all it needs is a few new bolts. Plus I’m doing something beneficial for the environment – however microscopic – by reducing the need for new production.

So, what dead and discarded treasures have you found on the street, or anywhere else, and brought back to life?

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Letter from a favourite author

Today I discovered a letter in my mailbox from one of my favourite authors. It feels strange to say that…

Sure, it was only a short reply to say thanks for my full page of sycophantic drivel – but hey, I’m not complaining. It means so much to know that he took the time to personally reply. And I honestly didn’t have that much hope of hearing back… I mean, he must be busy with his next masterpiece, right?

Letter from a favourite author.

And the best part about it is that he sounds as genuinely appreciative of my letter as I am of his.

So, which of your idols/heroes/whatevers have you written to? And more importantly, which have been kind enough to reply?

Posted in Other things, Writing | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Rubik’s cube: Why almost anyone can solve it

Not as difficult as it looks. (By cbuckley, Wikimedia Commons).

Everytime I’ve shown off my Rubik’s cube skills, I’ve managed to elicit some pretty astonished responses. I can solve it — without fail — in less than two minutes.

For anybody who’s taken the time to learn a little about Rubik’s cubes, you’ll know that this feat is far from remarkable. For many of the other people, the cube seems like some sort of magical enigma reserved only for the exceptionally gifted and the mathematical geniuses.

This post is directed at you guys. I want to dispell some of the cube’s mystery and maybe encourage you to pick one up yourselves.

Firstly, I’m absolutely not any sort of mathematical genius. I’m quick with my timetables and can calculate everyday sums like grocery shopping pretty well, but that’s all. A strong background in mathematics is not necessary for solving the cube.

Here are the attributes that I think are important. All you need are 1, 2, and 3, and either 4 or 5, and I’m certain you could solve it.

  1. A decent memory and ability to recognise patterns.
  2. Finger dexterity beyond that of a toddler.
  3. A day or so when you seriously have nothing better to do than sit down with a Rubik’s cube and watch Youtube video tutorials.
  4. An interest in puzzles and challenging your brain.
  5. An unusually strong desire/insecurity to showcase your hidden intelligence to friends and family.

Here’s the thing most people don’t realise: there are very methodical, logical, and memorable ways to solve a Rubik’s cube. Only few truly gifted people have the ability to simply look at a scrambled cube and immediately understand everything they need to do to set it right (and some of these people can solve it in under 10 seconds).

Most beginners, including myself, use a particular method that tackles the cube layer-by-layer. Don’t worry, I’m not about to explain the whole process — just a general gist. The method is broken down into logical steps — each step involving, say, four turns of the cube. (With a ‘turn’ being something like: ‘turn the left side of the cube clockwise’).

So from starting out with a completely scrambled cube — colours all higgledy piggledy — each layer starts to gradually come together. And all of a sudden you’re one or two turns away from that ever-so-satisfying perfectly organised cube.

It’s not as complicated as you would think, but do expect to spend at least a few hours memorising all the steps (in the simplest method, you need to learn eight different steps, or algorithms). And the best way to do it? Youtube. There are excellent tutorials available for free that take you through the entire process.

This isn’t a post to explain how to solve the Rubik’s cube, just to let you know that it really doesn’t take a genius. Have a go for yourself!

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How to pay for Australia’s floods? Cut money from climate abatement, decides PM

It is certainly difficult to attribute a specific natural disaster to climate change. But if you’ve chosen to side with the 95% of climate scientists who believe that the Earth’s climate is changing and that we are mainly responsible, then you probably know that one predicted consequence is an increase in the intensity of natural disasters. (At least that’s what the people who have spent their careers studying the Earth’s climate say – you know, the people whose opinions actually count in this sort of debate.)

The devastating floods in Queensland and Victoria should be a wake up call. Ocean surface temperatures around much of our coasts are 2-3° C warmer than this time last year, and that means more evaporation and more rain. But rather than taking this into account and saying, “Maybe we better prepare for more devastation by combating climate change,” PM Julia Gillard is doing the polar opposite.

An article in today’s West Australian outlines the government’s plans to pay for the massive clean-up bill – something like $5.6 billion

$1.8b is to come from a controversial tax levy that amounts to about $5 a week for someone making $100,000 a year. Sounds pretty reasonable, I think. Checkout where some of the other money is coming from:

  • Abolish Green Car Innovation Fund ($234m)
  • Reduce Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships ($250m)
  • Reduce Solar Flagships ($250m)
  • Cap solar hot water rebate scheme ($160m)
  • Not proceed with the second stage of Green Start ($129m)
  • Cap LPG vehicle conversion scheme ($96m)
  • Reduce Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute ($55m)

The list goes on.

It’s an unbelievably short-sighted plan. It’s like paying to care for AIDS sufferers by cutting back on condom supplies. It’s like covering a black-eye with makeup and saying everything will be OK.

There are such logical alternatives. Where are the extra levies on the industries responsible for emitting so much carbon dioxide in the first place? The mining and manufacturing industries? The people that can afford to pay.

Please, Julia, stop trying to please the big businesses and start looking a little further into Australia’s future.

Posted in Climate Change, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Milk your travel insurance in Cambodia

Some travel advice: if you’re in a place like Cambodia, you have travel insurance, and suddenly you need to go to the hospital, TELL YOUR DRIVER that you want to go to the best, most expensive hospital in town. You poured your savings into travel insurance – you damn well better use it.

Just make sure you get receipts – the insurance companies will obviously do anything legally possible to reject a claim. I only hope they can’t cheat you for choosing decent medical care over a dingy, unsterile hospital room. That’s not quite the sort of place where I ended up, but I would’ve been much better off asking for the good hospital down the road, instead of the one ‘famous for being cheap’, as I later learnt from my driver. (He only thought he was doing me a favour). Anyway, what follows is a sort of diary entry of my hospital trip.

 (I’m doing a lot of bitching here but in all honesty, the hospital facilities were far superior to what I expected, and the doctors and nurses were truly very kind.)

Probably better conditions than I make it out.

I woke to mild pains in my stomach and weakness throughout my body, but nothing too serious. Ready for breakfast, I gathered my touristy shit and was about to head out the door, when suddenly I felt dizzy and faint, and told my girlfriend I’d have to rest for a little while. Eventually I staggered my way down the two flights of stairs to the restaurant. A few steps before the bottom, the dizziness came back, more intense than before and getting worse.

There are some fragments of time here I can’t recall and so I assume I blacked out. But I wobbled closer to the tables, towards a blue blur that I hoped was my Amy’s top. An intense welling of pressure was building up in my head and I flopped into the chair opposite Amy breathing heavily. ‘I can’t see or hear anything’, I mumbled, but my senses were returning. Amy told me to rest my head on the table while she rustled a tuk tuk and suddenly we were zooming along the streets of Siem Reap to a hospital.

The doctors and nurses spoke no English, so I explained what happenned with the help of my semi-english speaking tuk tuk driver. They were quick to set me up in the V.I.P. room (important here synonymous with white) with an intravenous glucose solution that would drip into my arm for the next five hours. They injected medicine into my bum for diarrhea that I didn’t really have.

The day dragged by uneventfully (other than more injections), and when I’d absorbed the entire solution it was time to leave. Walking down to the hospital entrance, I blacked out again – the exact same as in the morning. Which, if we were able to communicate it well enough, would mean the medicine and the hospital stay had done absolutely nothing for what I assume now was just severe dehydration.

If I had been somewhere a little more well established, the doctors may have spoken better english and I could’ve properly explained how I felt. They might have given me a meal to raise my blood sugar levels instead of telling my girlfriend to buy bread for me down the street. They might have given me some water, instead of relying on the slow-dripping glucose solution to rehydrate me.

You might be thinking I’m exaggerating my illness and bitching excessively about the service. You’re probably right. But I’m just trying to make the point that Cambodia is the type of place where it would be wise to look after your health. In case there really is something seriously wrong with you, you better be in a hospital that can treat you effectively. If you bought travel insurance, I say milk it for all it’s worth.

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Grammar riddle that has little to do with Kanye West

Certain phrasings I come across from time to time make me stumble for half a second and re-read them. One of these is the consecutive repetition of a word, for example, “Before yesterday I had had doubts about bothering with this blog.” Even though it’s perfectly grammatical, it just seems so strange to lay those hads side by side.

But I discovered a riddle at increasebrainpower.com with more consecutive repetitions of the word that than even Kanye West could manage in his song Stronger (“Now that that that that don’t kill me, could only make me stronger…”). And hot damn, girrl, this one was grammatically correct, too.

Now that that that that don't kill me. (From Wikimedia commons.)

See if you can solve this grammar riddle by inserting the correct punctuation:

I said that that that that that man wrote should’ve been underlined.

Don’t scroll down yet. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.

You’ll feel better if you solve it for yourself.

No, I said don’t scroll down!

OK, fine – here’s the solution.

I said that, “That ‘that’ that that man wrote should’ve been underlined.”

If that doesn’t make any sense to you, you can click here for a detailed explanation.

But I think I managed to top the riddle with an extra ‘that’:

I never said that ‘that’; that ‘that’ that that man wrote should’ve been underlined.

I’m always surprised by the infinite possibilities of the English language… Have a go at creating something just as strange – something to raise a grammar Nazi’s eyebrows. I’d love to see the results!

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Koh Chang: Thailand’s miniature Bali

Koh Chang is getting me down and I’m turning into a more cynical bastard every day. Cynical towards tourists just like myself. But I dunno, it just seems like this island is the exact opposite of what I was hoping for: a party-ground for drunken westerners. Doesn’t anyone appreciate some fucking peace and quiet any more? That’s how the place is advertised (‘escape to a quiet island paradise blah blah blah’), but it’s more like a miniature Bali, just with a higher proportion of Europeans compared to Australians. Sure, people do come here to ‘escape’. But what are they all escaping to? Just another place where absolutely everything seems to revolve around money, felling the forest to pack more of us in, building cheap bungalows that are disguised to look more natural than they actually are – fake fake fake, everything’s covered in a fascade to make us feel like we are actually somewhere untouched and free from western influence, but that’s far from the case.

Having, like, the time of my life with not a glass but a BUCKET of alcohol. Isn't Koh Chang just awesome?

Yes, I realise how stupidly hypocritical this is. Who’s to blame except people just like me? I dunno, maybe the government? Apparently – and this is of course according to that holy bible of travel, the Lonely Planet – there is a government plan to expand and develop the tourism infrastructure on the island. All about money money money. Why can’t they limit the amount of destruction to the native vegetation? How long is the message of environmentalism going to take to reach countries like Thailand? But I guess this sort of destruction still happens in Australia and every other developed country. Jesus, I should stop writing, I’m just in a shitty mood with no actual coherent message to get across. Sitting in a hot sweaty internet cafe surrounded by other tourists doesn’t inspire the creativity in me. Would’ve been a good idea to get a netbook, so I can write in peace back at the backpackers. Not that even our room is peaceful, with the FUCKING DRUM AND BASS BLARING UNTIL 2AM!

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Mobile accommodation in Vietnam: sleeper buses

I’m half-sitting, half-lying in the back of a ‘sleeper bus’. I hadn’t heard of them until a few days ago, and hadn’t seen the inside of one until about twenty minutes ago. This one in particular is travelling from the megalopolis of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Nha Trang, a large beachside town 10 hours drive north.

Sleeping tight.

What can I tell you about sleeper buses based on my limited experience? They’re regular buses that have been fitted out with ‘beds’ that are actually more like seats with excessive leg room, and that can recline to almost horizontal (depending on the leg length of the person sitting behind). Their major appeal to tourists seems to be that, if you’re taking a long enough trip, you can sleep through the entire night and hence save on accommodation. Plus you don’t waste a day of your holiday jiggling around on a bus only to rock up at guesthouse late at night and have to immediately flop into bed anyway.

The whole premise relies on the fact that you actually will be able to get sleep, obviously. This is very much a matter of luck; different seats have slightly more room than others, and that makes a hell of a lot of difference to comfort. I’m quite confident that my girlfriend and I were given the worst two seats on the bus. Since they’ve managed to cram about forty beds in here by laying them out in two tiers, there’s only half a foot between the top of my head and the underside of the bed above me. So it’s a little claustrophobic.

View from the back.

Our seats are especially uncomfortable because we’re at the very back of the bus, meaning there are five tiny beds aligned parallel to one another. There is a gap of about 3mm between the edge of my shoulders and the seats on either side. And for some unknown reason, there are reading lights above every one of the beds except those at the very back. Same goes for air con. In an attempt to provide some sort of air flow, makeshift fans have been drilled into the ceiling above. They don’t actually work, of course. Despite all of this, I’m still sort of comfortable. If I stop writing this I may actually manage to get some sleep.

(And for anyone wondering the cost of a ten hour night bus ride from Saigon to Nha Trang – the chances of that are astronomical, I know – it was 180,000 Vietnamese dong each. That’s about US $9, thanks to the delicious current exchange rate.)

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The ‘War is Over’ Festival in Thailand

 
The Bridge Over the River Kwai in itself isn’t captivating; the story behind it is.

In the second world war, the Japanese army ordered allied prisoners to build the Thai-Burma Railway. It was intended to supply their soldiers fighting in Burma with ammunition, and would be thousands of kilometres shorter than the alternative sea route. Over 20,000 POWs were worked to death, not to mention over 100,000 Malay, Indonesian and other Asian slaves. Today, the most notable remnant of the railway is the Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by a movie of the same name. Towards the end of the war, British RAF fighters bombed a large section of it, but the destroyed spans were later rebuilt and it has subsequently become a major tourist attraction, flooding the nearby town of Kanchanaburi with business.

Morbid depictions of slavery on the Thai-Burma railway.

Once a year, the Thai government celebrates the end of the war with a festival: ‘The War is Over’. Amy and I were lucky to catch the first night of this week-long celebration:

I’m back in ‘Noble Night Guesthouse’ after an eventful night that ended abruptly at the Bridge on the River Kwai. Amy and I caught one of those popular side-cart motocycles northward to the bridge and, struggling to find a decent menu close to all the fanfare, we veered into the quieter side of town and found a restaurant with about forty tables and ourselves as the only customers. The serenity was a welcome contrast to the crowds just a few minutes walk back toward the bridge.

Dinner it itself was pleasant enough, but uneventful – the most interesting part of the evening happened when we had made our way back into the crowds and, quickly scoffing ice-creams like the overindulgent westerners that we are, found ourselves at the very front of a growing audience that had surrounded a DJ. Ten mic-checks later and the performance was underway.

Beat-boxer extraordinaire. Didn't quite capture the atmosphere with this shot...

Exploding into an impressive beat-box routine, he moved cockily around the stage, wooing the crowd with vocals that sounded remarkably like artificial drum and keyboard tracks. Everyone had smiles on their faces and clapped when he prompted us with a small gesture of his hand. Three hundred or so onlookers under the spell of a skinny Asian dressed entirely in white, with stupid white sunglasses to match – a trade-off between practicality and style that reflects one of the popstars he started to impersonate: Lady Gaga.

Now would be a good time to note that, in this audience of three hundred or so, Amy and I were, quite conspicuously, the only white people. The DJ capitalised on this early in his performance, drawing the crowd’s attention to us by shaking our hands and welcoming us to Thailand in mid-performance. He made jokes in Thai that were clearly at our expense. The embarassment culminated when he plucked Amy from the safety of the masses and dragged her on stage. Just picture it: a tiny, hesitant, 19 year old white girl – the focus of the attention of three hundred Thais. I felt her nervousness and my heart raced. He asked a couple of questions – easy ones to answer with little opportunity for embarrassment.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Amy.”

Simple enough. The crowd laughed as he asked Amy to free herself of the excess bodily baggage that hallmarks a white tourist in Thailand: water bottle, camera, small handbag. Now the DJ made a slightly more challenging request, involving Amy in an improvised tune.

“Say with me, like, 1, 2, 3, 4,” he shouts the numbers to a beat, then:

Kan!”

Amy shouts “Kan!

Then, in unexpected rapid succession, he says “Chanaburi!”

Amy falters. Of course, he had simply connected parts of the town’s name together to form the whole Kanchanaburi. Amy struggles with the unfamiliar, disconnected syllables and stutters a nervous, “Kan… Kan… a buri?” The DJ, acting quickly, resorts to something easier for Amy to shout into the mic: Thailand. The shout echoes rhythmically as he fiddles with the buttoms on his machine and turns a single word into a catchy electronic tune. Meanwhile, he switches sunglasses and hands a pair to Amy, both of which suddenly light up around the edges in tacky Thai style. The lights signal the start of improvised dancing. I think to myself, “Thank fuck he didn’t choose me.”

Amy follows his gestures, which gradually become more wild with the building intensity of the beat. Amy does well to follow, letting herself go and dancing freely in front of a mass of foreign strangers. I’m impressed. The crowd, too, show their appreciation at the end of the performance with loud clapping and smiles.

And this leads me to where I began: the abrupt end to the night. After the performance we escaped from the stage and the crowd as quickly as possible to save ourselves from further public humiliation. We retreated to a quiet bar, downed some incredibly alcoholic cocktails and made our way back to the floating raft where we sleep. I began writing this as tipsy and foggy-minded; I conclude equally as foggy-minded but slightly more sober. Amy just turned over so now I better read this to her.

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