Adventures on the east coast of USA

I went to the east coast of USA for the first time a few weeks ago. The trip started off very well. I bought a magazine from the book store at the airport, and the chap said “Enjoy your flight”, to which I responded, “Thanks, you too.” I then boarded and showed the flight attendant at the entrance of the plane my ticket so they could check it. Apparently this isn’t a thing in USA, because the flight attendant and I just had a staring contest for a few seconds before I awkwardly lowered my ticket and walked towards my seat.

“Enjoy your flight.”
“Thanks you too.”
This was a good read, which makes up for the awkward exchange.

First stop was DC, which was pretty neat. Since my existing views of the city were formed by a combination of House of Cards, The West Wing and Miss Sloane, it’s fair to say that it was a little different.

When I was walking from the train station to my hostel, a man came up behind me and asked, “Are you going to the vegan conference?” I was kind of surprised, so I just said yes without thinking. “Oh cool, me too.” he said. I asked how he knew I was going. For a brief moment, I wondered if I was famous, but he just pointed the the vegan sticker on my luggage.

Anyway, turns out I was going to the conference, I just had no idea what he was talking about at the time (sorry!). It was the Green Festival Expo, with a combination of environmental and vegan stalls and presentations. I spent the afternoon there and got to try some of Quorns’ new vegan food line up, as well as meet some people from the Humane Party and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, one of whom happened to be an effective altruist. He was very excited when I told him I used to work with Effective Altruism Australia.

The one downside of the conference was, as is seeming more and more common, the general disdain towards GMO food and blind positivity towards organic food. To avoid sounding like I’m repeating myself, I’ll just refer you to here for my feelings on this. In short and simplistically, it’s not backed by science.

One evening at the hostel, I was sitting in the common area working on my laptop (covered with vegan stickers), when a woman sitting next to me told me she liked them. “I’m vegan too.” she said. I’m pretty late to the ‘put stickers with messages on things you own’ party, and I always assumed it was mostly to try and convince others of the message, but now I’m wondering (from my anecdotal data) whether there’s more value in signalling what you’re interested in to other people, and meeting people with similar interests.

Strangely enough, you can’t see Capitol Hill from every point of the city.

I was lucky enough to get a tour of Capitol Hill (which you can do by contacting your local congressperson or senator). I saw a Trump supporter at Capitol Hill (I could tell because they were wearing a ‘Make America great again’ hat and a Trump t-shirt), bringing the number of Trump supporters I’ve knowingly seen in person up to two.

I also enjoyed the never-ending selection of museums, almost all of which were free. I especially recommend the National Museum of American History and the Newseum (which was around $20 – it was worth it, but there are many free alternatives which are good).

The first dog to drive across America and his car and hooman.

I made some friends and went looking for politicians and staffers in local bars known to be politician hangouts like Bistro Bis, but failed. Until I left DC I was still holding some hopes for discussing socialism with Bernie Sanders over a stout.

No Sanders, Underwoods or Spaceys in sight.

In Philadelphia I stayed with my cousin, who moved to America 15 years ago for work, met and married an American then never came back. He took me mountain biking, and only told me that he once snapped his collar bone after I agreed. While rolling down those rocky paths and swearing in Australian I was very grateful that my university’s health and travel insurance included leisure travel.

The post-survival selfie.

I didn’t get around to exploring many of the classic tourist sites in New York as I was at the Reducetarian Summit for most of my time there, but I did get to sample some of the fine Manhattan vegan foods (see below for a compilation of bomb vegan food I found on my trip) and not so fine bars.

I had a pretty interesting experience at one very small bar I went to with my friend. It was very dark and underground, with a single bartender and about 10 patrons. My friend gave me some money to buy us a drink then went to the bathroom. I ordered him a beer and got a coke for myself. “I don’t serve that kind of thing here.”

“Oh, I’ll just get a water then.” He gets me the beer and water, then says something to the effect of “If it gets busy tonight, I’ll have to ask you to leave if you don’t order anything.” I was pretty surprised but he looked deadpan serious so I just said ok. When my friend got back, I told him what happened and he agreed that was kind of strange. The bartender must have overheard because he comes back and says “If you’re going to make me sound like a dick to your friend at least tell him the full story.” “I thought I did.” “You left out half of it.” “Which part?” “Where I made it clear I was joking.”

It can’t have been that clear. He said I didn’t understand hospitality and had probably never worked the industry. I told him I did for several years, unless the Australian hospitality industry was totally different to US. He backtracked a bit and became the nicest guy ever. Weird. I told another friend later and they said that happens sometimes in Manhattan.

Vegan Philly cheese steak from Hip City Veg in DC.
Vegan Burrata from some place in DC.
Another vegan Philly cheese steak from Wiz Kid in Philadelphia. Even my non-vegan cousin agreed this was pretty good. “I could tell its not steak, but not that its not meat.”
Plant-based sushi from Beyond Sushi in Manhattan. So good! My non-vegan friend who dislikes new foods tried one then asked for more.

Cube of Truth vegan outreach & Reducetarian Summit

On Friday I had the pleasure of joining some Los Angeles activists in a Cube of Truth at Hollywood, on the walk of fame. I’ve participated in similar outreach events in Sydney, Australia, and was somewhat surprised to note that the responses at each location were quite similar. If you’re not familiar with a Cube of Truth, the video below has some footage from one in Sydney. Essentially, we show people footage of animal farming, and talk to them about it.

I spoke to half a dozen vegetarians (a pretty high proportion of those I spoke to, maybe 30%?) who had no idea about the treatment of animals in the dairy and egg industries. Some people saw the footage and just couldn’t believe that it was happening in their own country.

Cube of Truth in Hollywood.

Of course, we capped off the night with some delicious vegan food at Doomies. Do check it out if you haven’t been yet!

A vegan leaf and twig burger.
Some of the local animal activists I met on Friday.

I’m travelling to DC, Philadelphia and New York from 12-22 May, so do hit me up if you’re around. From 20-21 May I’ll be attending the Reducetarian Summit in New York, where I’ll be interviewing my next podcast guest, Tobias Leenaert, also known as the Vegan Strategist. If you’re in New York and are interested in animal advocacy, I recommend you check it out.

In case you haven’t heard about the reducetarian approach, it’s the argument that encouraging people to reduce their meat or animal product consumption might be more effective at reducing animal suffering, at least in the short term, than encouraging people to go vegan.

I’m relatively on the fence about this. I’m a utilitarian so am totally open to altering the message to something not completely vegan if indeed (we believe) it will most reduce suffering over the course of the universe. However, I still have reservations about the reducetarian approach, and am not necessarily convinced that it is the best choice.

Despite that, I still do think that even people who don’t support the reducetarian approach should come to this conference and be a part of the conversation.

I wrote a book review on the Reducetarian Approach (also available in podcast format), in which I also cover some of my reservations.

Los Angeles – first experiences

So I’ve arrived in Los Angeles. It’s a big, smoggy city, but I’m on the northernmost end just in the southwest shadow of Mt San Antonio, where the smog is less noticeable. My first day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is tomorrow, but I just want to share a few observations I’ve found amusing so far.

  • Taxi drivers get confused if you try and sit in the front seat. My driver had his lunch on the front seat, and as I patiently waited for him to move it, he just stared at me and eventually said, you don’t want to sit in the back sir? Back seat it was.
  • I gave the same taxi driver a note slightly larger than the fare, and was going to tell him he could keep it all as a tip, but he pocketed it before I could say it was a tip.
  • Coffee here is more expensive, bigger, hotter (I burned my tongue) and tastes slightly worse. Even a small coffee at JPL is larger than a large in Australia. The rumours were true!
  • I saw a SpaceX rocket stage casually standing upright near the airport. As they do.
  • “Pardon me, baked goods?” Is an acceptable way of asking saying “Hey mate, where’s your bread?”
  • No one here knows what a kettle is. I asked one lady if she had a kettle, and she looked a bit confused, then asked if I meant a coffee maker. I said, no, that thing that boils water. She asked why I don’t use a pot on the stove. Fair point…
Me: Huh USA doesn’t seem that different so far. Also me: $6 US for a soy coffee!?

Small rant about the otherwise perfect flight. I ordered a vegan meal and double checked with the airline several days before, and even went so far as to confirm the ingredients. I was given a pasta with cheese for lunch. I said, excuse me, I think this has cheese, I ordered the vegan meal? They said, oh, sorry, this is listed as vegan, let me see what I can find. He came back and said, try this one sir. It was an identical cheese pasta.

A very similar thing happened with a friend of mine on the same airline (United Airlines), and she said she complained until they gave her a voucher for several hundred dollars, which is what I intend to do. All I can say is, if you fly United (or anyone) and the same thing happens, complain and get a voucher until the only sound business plan is to get their shit together.

Thank you sir, your visa has been approved

Yesterday, I got my US visa for a one year visiting researcher position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and what a process it was! I’ve organised my own visa before for a trip to Nepal, but the US consulate was so exceedingly different from the Nepali consulate that I felt like I had to write about it.

Nepali consulate

Small, one story building, no security guards, two visible staff. Walk in, hand over documentation, get asked a few questions, get visa, walk out.

US consulate (some details omitted for security purposes)

Walk in, get told you can’t take photos, get told to turn my phone off, get asked to wait in the pre-line, get moved to the main line 5 minutes after my appointment time, get documents checked, go through security clearance, go up to another floor, go through another security check, talk to someone at a booth through a glass window, talk to someone else, get directed to another window to pay, get directed back to the second guy, get visa, walk back to elevator, go back down 50 odd floors, go back through security, exit, fist pump.

Basically, this feels like a taste of USA as much as the laid-back Nepali consulate felt like a taste of Nepal. I’ve heard a few horror stories of both US and non-US citizens trying to enter the country, especially post-Trump administration, but part of me suspects that I’m much less likely to run into any issues than it seems.

Has anyone got any recent US travel tales they’d like to share?

March to Close All Slaughterhouses

I just got home from the March to Close All Slaughterhouses and a Cube of Truth in Sydney, check out the footage below!

This was the first time I’ve ever taken part in either of these styles of events for animal advocacy. I’ve done some tabling and leafleting before, but this was a lot of fun to be a part of. Walking in the middle of several hundred people march and demanding the same thing you want is a great feeling.

This event was run in most major Australian cities, and was run for a simple reason – to let people know that we want an end to the use of animals and their excretions as food. This cruel practice has gone on too long. The march went through the CBD and parklands, and ended up in front of the New South Wales parliament building.

A Cube of Truth was also run after the march in the middle of a busy mall. To explain exactly what this entails is hard, so I recommend watching the video above. But put simply, we display footage of Australian factory farms and slaughterhouses and talk to people to educate them on what animals experience, and the impact of something so harmless-seeming as eating animals.

It was interesting to see people’s different reactions to the footage. I saw everything from tears to laughter. One lady put her sunglasses on to hide her tears from her daughter. Another mother tried to pull her young (7?) daughter away, but she insisted on staying and watching. A father stopped and pointed out the footage to his son. One gentleman walked past yelling “Bring me sausages!”

I had a few good chats with people who stopped to watch. One man asked me “Where was this footage taken, China?” He seemed to almost fall over when I told him it was in Australia. He said that he had already mostly stopped eating meat and I gave him some information and tips for going vegan.

Of course, as an effective altruist, I had to have a think about how effective both of these events were, as well as the impact of my marginal involvement. Not an easy endeavour by any means, but it’s worth at least thinking about it. I’m well aware that ideas which sound great can actually make things worse.

First the events as a whole – I think the march has the potential to show people that the treatment of animals is an important issue to a growing number of Australians. Hopefully the government payed attention, though I think it would have been much more effective with more people. Considering there are over 8,000 people in the Sydney Vegan Club Facebook page, I was staggered that only about 200 people turned up. I get that people have work, families and other stuff on. But one thing that frustrates me is how willing people are to share and like pictures of food on vegan Facebook pages, but (it seems to me) rarely get involved in outreach and advocacy.

The Cube of Truth got footage into the forefront of people’s minds for at least a few seconds. From reactions and conversations, it seems obvious that most people just have no idea what the life of a food animal really is like. I don’t blame them, I didn’t either until shortly becoming vegetarian 5 years ago. I struggle to see how this awareness-raising could be a bad thing. The one minor worry I do have is that this might cause people to reinforce their beliefs about animals being capable of experiencing pain (which is definitely possible), but this seems unlikely. If I had to put a number on it, I would estimate that 30+ people said they’d consider veganism as a result of the Cube.

My marginal impact was probably low. By this I mean, if I hadn’t gone to either of these events, I don’t think more animals would suffer. For me, the value was in meeting people, refreshing my dedication to the cause of reducing suffering, and practising my outreach skills. I’m a strong believer in spending time with the people you want to be like. If you want to help animals and make a difference, you should hang out with people who feel the same. And when it’s so easy to make a huge difference in their lives (don’t forget that $1 donated to the right place can spare dozens of animals from suffering!) why wouldn’t you?

Blog – USA, Trump and CEO no more

Hey readers! Since I’m heading to USA for 1 year for my research (more on that later!) I’m trialing a different theme. I want to mix my essay/research-like posts with general updates, observations and thoughts about my travels and life that I find interesting. Bear with me and please do let me know of any aspects you like or dislike.

I’m pretty lucky in that I have a fair bit of flexibility in my PhD research, and I spend time thinking about things like asteroid impact risk and the implications of space colonisation. My main focus, however, is on understanding the geomechanical properties of asteroids and other planetary bodies, and developing geophysical techniques to do so. So far this has involved a lot of literature review, and a bit of lab work.

My opportunity to work in USA for one year initially came up in late 2015, a few months before I started my PhD. I was at the 2nd Off-Earth Mining Forum at the University of New South Wales chatting with my future supervisor, when he introduced me to an American.

Michael, this is Rene. Rene is the deputy director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Oh, I have to go, bye!

Suddenly I was standing there sweating in front of a senior figure of JPL, which is the CalTech-run arm of NASA.

So Michael, tell me about your research.” He seemed oblivious to my nerves.

Well I’m starting my PhD next year and will be looking at asteroid structure for mining and asteroid mitigation purposes.

That’s great! We have some people at JPL working on that sort of thing. You should come and visit at some point.

Oh, that sounds like a good idea, I’ll be there.” Inside me was freaking out. Visit NASA? Outside me was somehow cool as a cucumber.

Many months later I got a co-supervisor who worked at JPL, and eventually that lead to their offer to spend up to 12 months there and use their equipment, including a parabolic jet. Don’t tell NASA I hate flying…

I was set to arrive in USA on the 19th of March, when my co-supervisor at JPL broke the bad news. “Because of the new administration, your visa might be delayed for up to 3 weeks from now. There have been some changes.”

Call it hyperbole, but in a roundabout sort of way, Trump may have delayed my trip (*shakes fist*). But in under a month, I’ll be living in sunny Pasadena, California, in the north of Los Angeles.

I’m also stepping down as CEO of Effective Altruism Australia, a position I’ve held since August 2016. I want to talk a little bit more about my experience and what I’ve learned, but I’ll cover that in a later post, stay tuned.