Someone threatened to kill me on a train so I thought about life and stuff

CW: assault, threats of violence

Video version for those who prefer that:

Yesterday, someone threatened to kill me on a train. Straight up, I’m physically unharmed and am safe now.

I was on a busy train in Sydney on my way to see my partner. I was sitting in front of a woman who was making various racial and other demographical slurs at passengers of varying levels of disgustingness, bragging to herself about how she’d beat the fuck out of them if any of them got off at her stop. I half turned and said something to the effect of “That’s enough ma’am.” I don’t know if she heard me.

A short time later, she answered the phone and started telling whoever she was speaking to about how disgusting various other passengers on the train were for their race, weight, sexual preferences and other traits. I turned around and said “Ma’am, that’s not ok.”

She started screaming at me. She got very close to me and yelled in my ear that she hoped I was getting off at her stop, because she was going to “bash your fucking head in”. I’m no stranger to death threats – I get them all the time online and shouted at me across the street for my ethical/political views while doing advocacy or political outreach. This was the first time I’ve ever actually felt like it was a credible threat of violence. It’s different when you can feel their breath on your ear.

I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I kept my head half turned to her, keeping her in my peripheral vision and trying to mentally prepare to defend myself. I didn’t know what she was going to do. Maybe I should have walked off or tried to de-escalate, but it turns out that’s easier said than done when your fight or flight kicks in (I can thank my shit evolutionary wiring for that I guess). All I could do was sit there and hope it didn’t escalate beyond screaming.

This went on for about 5 minutes until she eventually got off at her stop, continuing to scream until she was out of ear shot.

There were about 25 other people in that train car within eyeshot. Not one of them said anything during this altercation. One passenger got off at the next stop and said “Good on you for standing up for yourself mate.”

“Thanks mate.” Was all I could bring myself to hoarsely say back.

I felt stiff and in shock until I got off at my stop, got in my partner’s car and started crying.

My first thought after the woman got off the train was probably something like anger or frustration. Not one person tried to intervene? To take my side? Barely a word after for trying to stand up to everyone? What would it have taken for them to do/say something? Would someone have done something if she started hitting me? If she pulled out a knife? Started stabbing me? I wish I could say I thought the answer to any of these questions was definitely yes.

After taking some time to think about it though, I don’t think I blame them. That was a fucking scary situation. I would guess it was a combination of some kind of bystander effect and people just not wanting to get involved out of concern for their own safety.

I’ve always had this view that a good person will do something if they see something. If you don’t intervene in violence, assault or harassment, you’re complicit or something. That one Gillette ad comes to mind (“Bro, not cool”). But if I’m being honest, I genuinely don’t know if I will anymore. I want to want to, but I don’t know if I want to. I like to think that I’m happy to make sacrifices to do the right thing, and I want to be the sort of person who intervenes in the face of injustice, but holy fuck that was scary.

I’ve been in several situations previously where I’ve noticed this level of bystander effect personally. First was on a bus which was stationary at a bus stop. I saw two men outside beating each other up. I quickly called the police and told them what was happening and where. No one else on the bus moved or even seemed to notice/care.

Second was also on a bus where a man was drunkenly leering and making sexist passes at women. I told him to stop, then informed the bus driver what was happening and to keep an eye on him as I got off. Again, no one else seemed to care. Yesterday was different because my own personal safety wasn’t threatened previously.

Most people share this view that we should cultivate a society where people will intervene when someone is getting screamed at or assaulted in public, but how many people would actually act on that? Sure, most of us probably think we would, but when actually put in that situation, how many people would?

Serious question, how the fuck do we expect to cultivate a culture of intervening in the face of this shit if no one actually does it in practice? This isn’t rhetorical. How? Is the only thing we’ve cultivated a society of people who shame those who do nothing but sit in shame and do nothing when their time comes? Or am I just post-shock overreacting to an outlier?

How can we actually get people to stand up for each other in public? Just telling people to do it and then pretend that it’s trivially easy is not the right approach, because it’s not easy. It’s really fucking hard. What if we actually educate people (from school to the workplace) on how to stand up for others and what to do? How to de-escalate and how to stay safe while doing the right thing?

My writing this might be perceived as a ‘look how brave and good I am’ attempt, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. But it’s not, and I don’t think I’m brave at all. I was fucking terrified, and I still am a little. If this happened again today, I might not say anything. Again, I want to want to, but I’m scared. What level of harassment or assault would it take for me to do something now? I don’t know.

They say talking about scary things helps, and writing is my favourite form of communication. It feels a little better to talk about this in a public space too. Thanks for hearing me out.

tl;dr Someone screamed at me for 5 minutes on a train and threatened to kill me for asking them to stop making racial slurs, but none of the other 25 passengers in my car did anything. We need to do better at not just shaming people for doing nothing to intervene in the face of harassment/assault but educate them on how to do it, because it’s not easy.

Edit – A friend convinced me to report the incident to the police, which I have (thank you).

Podcast recommendation – Self-Improvement and Research Ethics with Rob Wiblin and Spencer Greenberg

This was one of my favourite podcast episodes of all time. Not just in terms of the content (which was great), but also the quality of the conversation and how engaging it was. Both speakers were making their case, respectfully disagreeing where relevant, and even coming up with counterarguments for their own views. Well done Robert Wiblin and Spencer Greenberg, keep it up.

The main topics were on the best strategies for improving ourselves (a lot of science-based conversation in a field often with little science), the sorts of things humans value and why, and the shortcomings of research ethics. If you’ve never thought about any of these things, I strongly encourage you to listen.

For what it’s worth, I agreed with Rob Wiblin on the values argument (humans really only value avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure, and if they think they value something else they are tricking themselves or using it as a proxy for suffering/pleasure).

Why I’m Considering a Vasectomy (Change My Mind)

Here is my rationale for wanting a vasectomy. Change my mind!

If I don’t change my mind by the 1st of July, I’m booking my appointment. This is not a video about *why* I don’t want children.

This is a video about whether, as someone who doesn’t want kids, I should get a vasectomy. For the video on why I don’t want kids, see:…

For Matt Rota’s informative video on the process of getting a vasectomy, see:…


My sports climbing and fitness journey

If you’re reading this by email, please note the videos will not show up for you.

I started bouldering (indoor climbing without harness) 4 months ago. I’ve since been fascinated by the sport and have been having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I injured my right rotator cuff (a muscle/tendon group in the shoulder) and had to take a break for a few weeks. After some physiotherapy work including strengthening exercises, I started easing back in to climbing today. I was so excited that I wanted to share a little about my experience.

This is not quite my usual beat (science/ethics), but it’s something I’ve become passionate about, so I think it warrants a post.

One of the things that I think appeals to me most about bouldering is its similarity to the types of videogames I enjoy. In particular, it reminds me of a boss fight from MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft (for anyone familiar with it). It’s about going up against a specific climbing route (called a ‘problem’) and trying to complete it. There are some parts of the route which are harder than others, and you slowly improve the more times you attempt the problem. You get closer to the top, with the earlier parts eventually becoming easier to the point of triviality once you work out how to do them. Finally, you reach the top (called ‘sending the problem’!).

This feeling of slowly improving at a specific problem and completing it is incredibly satisfying for me, whether in a videogame or otherwise. There is something nice about a very clear set of goals with an easy way to tell whether you’re improving (see Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken for her take on how we can take these aspects from games and put them in real world situations like jobs, which is called ‘gamification’).

In addition to improving at bouldering in the technical sense, you also improve over time in terms of fitness and strength. To go back to the MMORPG example, improving these feels like acquiring better items and getting a higher level, while improving at the technical aspects feels like just getting more competent at the specific actions to take in the game.

Compare these two reactions from a boulderer sending a big problem after many attempts and a top World of Warcraft guild Complexity Limit being the first in the world to complete a new boss after many attempts (skip ahead to 12:10 and 13:00 respectively).

Speaking of the ‘better items and levels’ aspect of bouldering, I realised after I started climbing that I was very unfit. I went to the gym 4 times a week for around 6 months around 2018-2019, and stopped going almost entirely due to a lack of time and energy while I was running in the state and federal elections. When I stopped, I weighed around 76 kg. After almost two years of barely doing any strength training at all, I weighed 82 kg in October 2020.

I was pretty shocked. I was quite certain that most or all of the 6 kg I’d gained in that time was fat, not muscle. I also realised that I had come to not be very proud of my body. I wanted to change that. There was also the part of me that thought about how I was carrying an extra 6 kg I didn’t need to up the wall. Over the past 4 months, I have been exercising more including cardio and strength training, and eating less and more consciously. I’m back to 76 kg (I’m fairly confident that most of the 6 kg lost is fat, not muscle), and I couldn’t be happier. People who know me might be surprised I wanted to lose weight, as I’ve always been fairly slim. But my goal has simply been to cut away some excess fat and replace it with muscle.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed my mood has drastically improved recently. Whether that’s due to eating healthily, exercising more, a recent move to a new apartment or some other factor, I’m not sure. But whatever it was, I want to keep it up.

I want to talk a little about what I did to lose 6 kg, and some of the nutrition science I’ve learned recently. A lot of what I’ve learned is from a fitness Youtuber by the name of Jeremy Ethier, who I highly recommend. Their videos are science-based and well-researched, which is not something I can say for all fitness/health commentators today.

First and foremost, to lose fat you need a calorie (or joule for us metric folk) deficit. When you eat food, you are consuming calories, and when you do any activity (or even when you’re not), you’re burning calories. If you’re burning more energy than you’re consuming, you’ll ‘burn’ fat.

An interesting anecdote about losing fat – most people have no idea how the body actually disposes of fat, including many medical doctors. I certainly didn’t until recently. The chemical composition of human body fat is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms (e.g. oleate – C18H34O2). When you ‘burn fat’, your body is mostly converting it in to water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), most of which you end up breathing out. Some small amount of excess water may also leave the body through various bodily fluids, but most weight will leave the body during weight loss through the lungs. I confess I simplify the biology a little here.

Armed with the knowledge of how the body actually loses fat, we can better think about how to best achieve that. The basic premise is simple, but there is a lot of complexity, so I won’t even try to cover it. I can’t recommend the below video by Jeremy Ethier enough.

For me, it mostly came down to just jogging more and changing how I eat. I’ve almost entirely cut down on dessert and highly processed foods, e.g. faux meat. I want to stress that I don’t think there is anything especially bad about eating processed food such as faux meats. The problem is primarily that they usually have fewer nutrients and more calories. If you exercise more to compensate that, no big deal. But if you’re trying to lose fat, it can be best to avoid that.

To illustrate just how big a difference a small amount of certain foods can make to your fat weight, consider this. A serving of olive oil (~15 ml) has 508 kilojoules. To burn that energy by running at 10 km per hour would take around 8 minutes for someone my weight, or around 14 minutes at 8 km per hour. For someone trying to lose weight, it’s hard to see a teaspoon of olive oil as anything other than a setback.

My line of thinking recently has been to try and cut out inefficient calories. In other words, foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients. I’ve stopped cooking with oil (I use a splash of vegetable stock to fry with now), avoid desserts and processed food, and eat mostly whole foods. So far it seems to be going well. I’m probably getting more nutrients now than I ever have in my life.

Finally, a comment on various diets like intermittent fasting (e.g. only eating in a window of time such as 12 pm to 8 pm). There doesn’t seem to be any special science behind these. The most useful part of intermittent fasting seems to be that only eating in a certain window makes it easier to stick to a calorie deficit. It may also help you feel more full, again assisting with the calorie deficit. But based on my reading, there is no benefit of intermittent fasting over just a regular eating schedule if you are consuming the same number of calories and exercising the same amount. Having said that, some people may find it useful to help restrict calories and stay on a calorie deficit.

Non-humans as a second-class animal in the eyes of some vegans

I’ve noticed that even some vegans will often consider non-human animals as being worthy of different relevant moral consideration than human animals. They will be willing to make concessions about non-humans that they wouldn’t be willing to make for humans. Speciesism is so ingrained in us and our society/culture that even some people who fight for animal rights can be influenced by it.

There are some rights that I don’t think all animals should have. For example, I think only humans should be given the right to drive a car and to vote. But equal consideration in the right to not be exploited and the right to not suffer should be applied equally to all animals, humans included.

One example is relating to a vegan food company which packages (some of? all of?) it’s products in sheep’s wool. I saw at least one vegan defend, arguing that it’s a waste product and therefore is better than non-degradable plastic packaging. I would argue that if we wouldn’t accept the hair of a human taken against their will as being better than plastic, we shouldn’t accept the wool of a sheep taken against their will (let alone the fact that there are other biodegradable materials we can use).

Another example is around health. I know some vegans who will argue that if it turned out that consuming some animal products were necessary for optimal health (I don’t think it is, but IF), then people would be justified in doing so. I don’t think so, for the same reasons that I don’t think it would be justified to eat human babies (even if they were bred specifically for that purpose and had a good life!) if it meant being more optimally healthy.

Finally, I’ve seen vegans willing to make concessions to vote for a politician who has better human policies but doesn’t care about non-humans, but baulk at the thought of voting for a politician who has slightly worse human policies but cares about non-humans. Bernie Sanders vs Cory Booker is a prime recent example.

Given that human and non-human animals are all sentient and can experience suffering and pleasure, I’d argue that they should be treated similarly or the same in such situations.

tl;dr non-humans should not have the right to vote or to drive cars, but they should have the same right to be free of ANY exploitation and suffering as humans.

NB: As a utilitarian I don’t believe rights are an inherently valuable or tangible thing, but I think they’re a useful tool to maximise happiness and minimise suffering.