Monday, January 29, 2018

Cairns and Port Douglas in three efficient days

I'm a scuba diver and wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef while it's still there, it's been a childhood dream of mine to hold koalas, and I had like 4-5 days to kill between weekend appointments with people, so I headed up to the northeast to Port Douglas. I stayed at the Port Douglas Motel which was kitschy, cheap, centrally located, and great.

First, heads up. I feel like this is really not well publicized, but although this is a tropical part of Australia, you cannot really safely go swimming in the ocean, or even 100% safely hang out on the beach near bush or near the water particularly at dusk or dawn because (1) there are saltwater crocodiles and (2) all of the summer is "stinger season" in which you can get stung by all sorts of animals.

What are marine stingers?
Stingers are potentially lethal jellyfish that typically inhabit the waters off northern Australia. The most feared is the box jellyfish or Chironex fleckeri. Distinguished by its large box-like bell and trailing tentacles, the box jellyfish is responsible for about 80 confirmed fatalities in Australia since records began in 1883. The jellyfish's bell grows up to 30cm in diameter and extrudes about 60 tentacles, each measuring up to three metres in length. The Irukandji jellyfish, by comparison, is a pint-sized predator with a transparent bell measuring just 12 to 20mm and four small tentacles. There are numerous Irukandji species and two recorded deaths.

I literally only found out about any of this as I was take a shuttle from the airport in Cairns up to Port Douglas. By the way, I really recommend staying in Port Douglas, which is a charming tourist town, rather than Cairns which feels a little like not a place for tourists at all. My shuttle driver was talking to some locals about the two most recent crocodile deaths from the past 6 months -- an older woman who took a wrong turn while on a walk around her retirement home and a German young woman who was know to like to skinny dip.  For the elderly woman, apparently the family of the deceased pleaded with authorities to not kill the animal. Let's not make this a tragedy of two deaths instead of one!

Day one I checked in with my dive company for the next day then rented a bike and went to the Wildlife Habitat, which is a little small and a little kitschy, but also sketchy in all of the right ways like holding koalas and other animals and feeding various animals in a little bit of a free for all. I biked back to the motel via Four Mile Beach (pictured above). The sand is so packed, you can just bike on the beach itself, and probably safer with the crocodiles. At the Port Douglas end of Four Mile Beach, there's a little hill you can climb up to an ok lookout.

Day 2 I did a three dive tour to the outer reef using the ABC Dive Company, which seemed the most reputable and the smallest groups? The trip was nice, there was a shark apparently that I didn't see. I did see a lot of great coral, rays, an eel, a ton of little jellyfish. Basically it really did look like Finding Nemo, which I didn't expect for some reason. I think I had forgotten that Finding Nemo takes place at the Great Barrier Reef, so of course all of the same fish would be there.

Day 3 was not good. I had heard that the other great thing to see is the rainforest. Now this is like my third or fourth (fifth?) time doing tours of the rainforest, including the heart of the Amazon as well as other places in central and south America. I've done a ton of jungle tours and safaris and this one not only sort of sucked, it felt like I was trapped, which made me super grumpy. Daintree Discovery Tours. It was so bad that I was all set to post a bad review of it online, but then I started reading other one star reviews with my same complaints (basically just driving around in a car all day doing nothing of interest or no value added from the tour), and the response from the company was mainly to address the complaint that people had that they could have done the trip much cheaper themselves. The company responded by saying it would actually be around as expensive to do it yourself. But really, I just sort of wish I hadn't done it at all. My general impression was that either Daintree is not that cool of a rainforest to see, or no tour company has been able to highlight its charms well. It's sad, because apparently it is the oldest rainforest in the world? There were interesting things to see, I guess, but like 1-3 hours worth of interesting. Also, same notes as my post on Sydney about the service industry being a little lackluster in Australia. It felt like there was a lot of phoning it in going on.

Day 4 I did this Kurunda package that was pretty good, something like this in which you're basically just shuttled around on a bus from attraction to attraction. There seems to be no difference in the tour operators, so just choose the cheapest one that includes the little destinations you want to see, e.g. yes or no on the butterfly sanctuary. Rainforestation is worth seeing, so is the train and the skyrail. I had this terrible customer service encounter with a skyrail person who was yelling at people. I almost lost it for a second, and it reminded me that I'm for whatever reason most likely to lose my temper while traveling.

I did learn something interesting on the rainforest tour. Mangrove trees (pictured above) can grow in salt, but salt is still poison to them. They adapted a special root system that keeps most of the salt out, but salt still gets in. To keep the rest of the tree alive, the three designates a "sacrificial leaf". It puts all of the toxic salt in that leaf until it is full and then the leaf drops off. The leaf turns yellow.

I thought about how James Fallon has argued that sociopaths exist in society to essentially take care of the "dirty work" that is necessary and unavoidable in our society, work that give normal people PTSD if they had to deal it themselves. Kevin Dutton has made a similar argument about sociopaths being great soldiers, surgeons, and spies, I believe. Anyway, thanks to all of you sacrificial leaves out there taking one for the team!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Tasmania in two days

A funny thing about planning for Australia trip was reading the TripAdvisor forums? People would say things like, how long should I spend in Tasmania, and the response would be like 4-6 weeks is necessary to see everything. Ok, I understand that Tasmanians have a lot of pride about their homeland. And Australians apparently love to be sarcastic? And they also like to have a laugh at others' expense? I have a hard time picking up on sarcasm, but these forums would also just be filled with what I imagined to just be pure misinformation. It made me wonder, who is writing this stuff? I have never visited a place whose TripAdvisor forums were so full of essentially trolls. What is up with that, Tasmanians.

The first couple days I spent at a private residence with my new friend A and her friends. Things I learned are that for some reason it's very easy to get sunburned in Tasmania. Also, we eat freshly slaughtered pigs. Also, eggs always go on toast and get eaten with a knife and fork. Also, the local legal system and local governments seem super corrupt?

There are legitimately road signs warning you to not run over Tasmanian devils, and apparently they are getting close to critically endangered because they're all dying of a contagious mouth cancer that they spread because they're always locking lips and exchanging saliva when they fight. The tumors get so big that the devil actually starves to death.

After hanging out with locals a couple days chatting and getting to know each other, I spent most of my time in Hobart staying in the Argyle Accommodation house, which is patterned after an old boarding house and itself is in a historic building. It's super cheap, nice, and I liked the boarding house vibe, especially since I was up to history on this leg of the trip. The first day in town I went to the Museum of Old and New Art, which is essentially carved three stories into the rock and features extensive collections related to sex and death and sex/death. I recommend taking the ferry, which is a lovely trip up the river.

I also really recommend the Pennicott tours of the Tasman Peninsula, especially if sea cliffs are your jam, like they are with me. You can add on a tour of the Port Arthur prison site. Maybe some of you are more familiar with Australian/UK history than I am, and you can correct any falsehoods I make in the comments or skip what I'm about to say. Australia was a prison colony, I think that's pretty common knowledge. The Industrial Revolution upended the British economy and people who were able to make a decent living in agriculture suddenly found themselves without a marketable skillset. The prisons started swelling and the British first started putting the overflow in beached old ships called "hulks", which apparently were fetid rotting masses of humanity piled on top of each other. But this is how society treats its undesirables. Think Les Miserables and hard labor for stealing food to feed your family. After a few scandals, the British needed somewhere else to send their unwashed masses, so they started forcibly "transporting" them to Australia. If you are familiar with the story of Sweeny Todd, you know that he was fortunate enough to escape and get back to England, although most people who were transported spent the rest of their life away from their homeland and friends and family. Men had it rough, ok, but women prisoners were like forcibly raped the whole time and blamed for being sluts and getting extended prison sentences because of it.

But where do you send the truly badees? They chose the island of Tasmania as a prison within a prison for the hard cases, specifically the isolated end of the Tasman Peninsula at Port Arthur. At its heyday, they guarded against escape by literally setting up a string of angry dogs about every five feet across the most narrow stretch of land connecting the Peninsula.

At various points in the history of the prison, prison conditions were ok and not so ok. The worst was when prison reformers decided that physical punishments only made criminals more hardened, so the key was to go after them psychologically. I'm not 100% sure how he is involved, but utilitarian wunderkind Jeremy Bentham is credited as the origins of these ideas (also invented the prison design the Panopticon.)

What they got up to, then, is the "separate system" or model prison in which all prisoners are kept in isolation of each other. When they go anywhere outside their cell, they wear masks. They exercise in little individual one person yards for a short period, all alone (see photo below). Everything they do is done alone. Even when they go to church, there are walls separating each little seat so they cannot see their fellow man. One thing I read suggested that this came in part from I believe Calvinist beliefs that when bad men associated with other bad men, they got worse, so the key to their rehabilitation was making sure that they were kept apart. The result was a huge spike in the number of insane convicts, such that they had to build an actual asylum right next to the separate prison.  You can see the separate prison and the asylum has been converted into a little cafe.

This was my second prison tour on my little travels (the first, Alcatraz, I'll come back around to that), but this one I took more personally. I was astounded by the hubris of the people handling the welfare of these people. I was a little disgusted with how callously society treated them. These men and women were allegedly wrongdoers, but what was done to them seemed in every case so much worse than what they did. In the prisons were little stories of the prisoners. One was Leonard Hand, sentenced to 15 years after attempted sodomy. He was later punished inside for using pages from a bible to communicate with another prisoner named James White in a way that was characterized as being "of an abominable and disgusting character". After he was sent to the separate prison, his mind deteriorated until he became "childish and silly". He died aged 24, socially undesirable.

There were many other prisoners whose seemed clear victims of circumstance. And then there were others whose personality traits I recognized as being sociopathic, even in the brief descriptions. For instance, Henry Laing, a skilled surveyer who caught the eye of the Governer's wife, Lady Jane Franklin. Lady Franklin described Laing as "a very handsome man . . . who has the disease of picking and stealing and seems to labour under (an) absolute ability to do otherwise". But as I was reading this and other descriptions of my sociopathic brothers and sisters I wondered, aren't they also victims of circumstances?

When you ask the question of who was this prison meant to serve, the answer if clear in its histories -- it was meant to isolate people whom society would rather ignore away from the normal people that did not want to have to deal with them in person or even think of them anymore. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sydney in two efficient days

One thing that surprised me in planning my two week trip to Australia is how little detailed information there seemed to be about workable itineraries. I also wanted to post here a little about my trip, so people can see what I'm getting up to on these travels and understand why I want to meet them and a little about what it might be like to meet me this way. So I created a separate page/tab at the top where I will link all of these travel posts for people who are interested in these areas and/or hearing my goings on. If you're not interested, you can probably just skip these posts?

I flew New Zealand Air (very nice flight attendants, and apparently John Travolta can still sell luxury goods there). 

I got into Sydney in the morning. I found out right away that the reservation for two nights at the Megaboom Hotel was for the wrong days, starting the day preceding, and there was no availability for my actual days. The front desk person was not only not helpful, she was antagonistic and tried to thwart every attempt I made with whomever my booking provider (Expedia?) was to resolve my issue. She wouldn't let me extend, wouldn't let me cancel the reservation, and wouldn't refund me anything. Ok. It wasn't until the end of a 40 minute debate that she conceded that she could put me on a waiting list to extend my stay and ask her manager about a partial refund. 

I noticed arguing with the customer to be a common thing in Australia. I guess it's because there's not really a tipping economy? And there is a high minimum wage. The incentive therefore is not to please a customer, but to avoid losing one's job. So when I asked for anything that wasn't apparently completely standard, I often got pushback and even antagonism. Maybe it was my sociopathy shining through and rubbing people the wrong way, but I chatted with some of my new Australian friends about it and they seemed to confirm the trend of lack of customer service.

It was nicely located, though, and I walked around my neighborhood to the lovely Queen Victoria Building, the Town Hall, and then a little bit of Darling Harbor.  

My new sociopathically minded friend (diagnosed ASPD). S came to meet me at my hotel for a day walking from Bondi (Bond - eye) beach to Coogee, a beautiful walk with many great sea cliffs (sea cliffs are my jam, as I had told S when he was planning the day).  As the Uber driver suggested, we kept walking into the cemetery area and even beyond. There are salt water pools filled by the ocean that people swim laps in. Beautiful, truly, and I'm used to beach beauty. 

Bondi is a hotspot, all these jacked up dudes (apparently many of them from steroids, per new friend S) strutting around scantily clad. There are surfers, but not many. Most people seemed to be out for fun, which emphasis on fun is apparently an Australian cultural thing. S and our Uber driver got in a bit of a fight for verbal dominance to explain to me how the Sydney lockout laws have killed certain once vital neighborhoods because Australians want to be able to drink freely and flow freely from establishment to establishment until dawn. Very similar to the Brazilian mentality, and S was a little surprised when I told him that having last calls for alcohol at 2:00 a.m. is very common in the U.S. But apparently random acts of violence are common (as new friend and fellow Australian M told me when I met him in San Francisco, more on that later). M thinks it's because there are no guns but people still need to blow off steam or demonstrate aggression to other people, so bar fights are not unusual.

After Bondi, S showers in the very good public facilities they had there and we head to the hip and gay-ish neighborhood of Newtown to meet some of his friends for drinks.

Day 2. My new friend J was up the evening prior holiday partying Australian style, so I had the morning and early afternoon to kill. I started in the neighborhood known as the Rocks, a 12 minute walk from my hotel. The Rocks is the oldest neighborhood in Sydney, with tons of history about the very first attempts at colonization and has this very great app with audio tour and augmented reality functionality that will show you what the neighborhood used to look like at various time periods using old illustrations or photos -- Walking the Rocks. It took me about an hour or two to go through the neighborhood/tour audio.

Larrikin Culture
While in the Rocks, I learned about Australian larrikin culture.  It's an Australian specific word defined as: "a boisterous, often badly behaved young man. a person with apparent disregard for convention" or as Wikipedia has it "a person who acts with apparent disregard for social or political conventions". *cough sociopath* It was initially used to describe the street gangs that frequented the Rocks (e.g. the Rocks Push) in the 19th century and was derogatory. The street gangs, no joke, dressed in gang specific dandyish outfits with the male larrikins distinguishable by their high heels and pointy boots and the women (donahs) wearing huge colorful hats. The fact of being associated as a Larrikin was often an excuse to bring the full force of the law down upon your head:

The Queen must surely be proud of such herioc men as the Police and Irish soldiers as It takes eight or eleven of the biggest mud crushers in Melbourne to take one poor little half starved larrakin to a watch house. — Ned Kelly in the Jerilderie Letter, 1879.[10]

(Also, is Dawn Fraser, famed Australian swimmer and described as having a "larrikin" streak a sociopath?)

I walked the 10 minutes from the Rocks to the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb, which was fun and beautiful, but also super expensive? And again, same thing applies re customer service here -- it took forever to get our gear on because we just had one person helping us, there was a ton of stopping on the bridge but no tour information on the buildings or the skyline or anything above just the very most basics, the photos they took were all sort of horrible, like they're not using any good technology or filters or figuring our good angles or anything. I noticed this a lot with Australian tours or activities, just ok being a little mediocre and a passable image of the thing it is supposed to be, like a sad looking amusement park cheeseburger. Because this bridge climb could have been much cooler.

New friend J met me at Bridge Climb because I was running late and she was running early. We walked together back through the Rocks to the Sydney Opera House, didn't take a tour because the guy said they sort of suck (true?), but took a ton of photos from every angle. The best angle is landside, the furthest corner from the bridge on the high point. Make sure that you take a ton here because people keep walking in front of the camera.

The best photo I got, though, was on the Manly Fast Ferry. Very cool trip, because it's basically a tour of the harbor. The fast ferry is just the right speed, and our boat was filled with drunk people wearing santa costumes for a planned pub crawl. Once off at the ferry, walk directly away from the ferry building with everyone else across the narrow isthmus to the actual beach.

Manly is fun, but also there is a lovely walk to Shelly Beach, which has one lovely restaurant, but stops serving food after lunch. There are a few little lookout hikes, spend some time exploring the hill overlooking Shelly Beach.

When we came back into Sydney, we walked through the Botanical Gardens on our way back to my old hotel, swinging by St. Mary's Cathedral, then grabbed my bags and went to my new hotel in Surry Hills, also a hip neighborhood, grabbed a bite to eat, made out, went to sleep. Surry Hills, by the way, is the home of female mob boss Kate Leigh.

So I stumbled upon the history of razor gang wars in Sydney in the 20's. The reason they're called razor gangs is that they banned handguns in Sydney in the beginning of the 20th century, so they'd go around razoring each other up for their share of the cocaine, sly-grog (speakeasy), and prostitution trade. The two main mob bosses were both female for some reason, Kate Leigh, and Tilly Devine, and they were arch rivals. From what I've read, Kate would do some of her own enforcing, killing at least two men and often getting in fist fights with people (sociopath maybe?), although most of the time she hired thugs to do her dirty work. Tilly Devine was also known to be a potentially lethal woman, although for whatever reason I feel like Tilly is more a victim of her terrible circumstances (forced into prostitution as a pre-teen). Maybe it's the fact that Tilly always seemed to have a chip on her shoulder about being more glamorous than most upper class people? Also the main cop going after them was also a woman! Liillian Armfield. This is like a television show begging to be made (not a smallish budget Australian television show, which already has been made, but more like an HBO miniseries). Thank you Australia for providing us the source material for the all female cast biopic about razor wielding mobsters that we deserve.

Next morning I took a bath and watched tv, then took the Airport Train back to the aiport (great and fast, btw, and you can buy single tickets). The rest of the traveling I did was by Uber for convenience and efficiency, although Sydney's public transit is supposed to be great.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Humans of New York Sociopath

A friend sent me a photo of this Humans of New York post where the featured New Yorker self-identifies as a sociopath. It was recently posted with a fresh and ongoing comments section, if people feel like following along or contributing to what has become a debate on various topics.

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