I went to my dad’s house recently and helped him move some logs, getting ready for winter. The physical distancing restrictions had just started and we kept a couple of metres apart, one of us loading the wheelbarrow and the other unstacking.
DON’T THINK DATA PRIVACY IS A BIG DEAL? Here’s a lesson from history. Before World War II, the Netherlands established a record of religion in Amsterdam, which the Nazis later used to round up people of Jewish faith, street address by street address.
“It led to the death of many of those people,” says former High Court justice Michael Kirby, who heard this story while in Europe in the 1970s as the chair of an OECD expert group drafting new privacy guidelines. “This had taught them how information was not neutral, information was sometimes sensitive, and sometimes literally a matter of life and death.”
Spurred on by its dark past, Europe has often led the world on privacy reform. The first national data protection laws, for example, were enacted in Scandinavia.
Now they’re doing it again. This week the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force, which Kirby says is likely to inspire more stringent privacy regulations in other countries.
It’s the wake-up call Australia needs. Legal experts interviewed by The Saturday Paper say our own privacy regulation is weak, inconsistent, riddled with exemptions, and failing to keep up with technological advances. They claim our two major parties have left us exposed because they’re too cowardly to stand up to vested media interests, especially News Corp.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as Witless protection.
THE CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA DATA SCANDAL has all the elements of a viral Facebook post: Trump, “honey trap” sex workers, fake news, secret recordings and dirty tricks to steal elections. The only difference is that Facebook doesn’t want you to share this story.
As revelations continued this week into how a survey app harvested data from 50 million Facebook users to boost Donald Trump’s election campaign, Facebook is fast losing friends. Governments are floating regulations that could curb advertising revenue, investors have wiped off more than $US75 billion of the company’s value, and indignant users are threatening to #DeleteFacebook. Angry emojis abound.
But for social media marketers and insiders familiar with using Facebook advertising for political campaigns, a more common response is the verbal shrug “meh”. Almost every aspect of the scandal was previously reported or was a predictable outcome of Facebook’s business model. So why did outrage boil over this time?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 31 March 2018 as Facebook, unmasked.
PAUSE THE RACE – it’s time for a detour. There’s so much more to cycling than men with plucked drumstick calves pedalling up French hillsides, their backsides bobbing for the cameras. The bicycle is a technological marvel that completely transformed human societies in the past, and is now an essential tool for a cleaner and healthier future. Let’s take a look.
IT’S 5PM ON A FRIDAY after a week of 40-degree days in Melbourne, and commuters are lined up at platforms on Flinders Street Station, desperate to get home.
But something’s wrong – all the departure screens are blank. Commuters check their smartphones, craning sunburnt necks. Train tracks have buckled, carriage airconditioners have conked out, and now a bushfire threatens transmission lines to the east, the city’s umbilical link with Latrobe Valley power stations. As blackouts cascade across the suburbs, Twitter bristles with the hashtag #Meltbourne. More than half a million people are stranded.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 9 December 2017 as Hot in the cities.
WARNING: This article refers to dangerous misinformation.
It’s 6 o’clock on a wintry Melbourne evening and I’ve just received the venue address for a “secret screening” of the anti-vaccination film Vaxxed. I walk into a long, narrow room in Hawthorn Arts Centre with a table of books at the back. One children’s book, Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, tells of a girl who isn’t vaccinated but avoids the disease because she eats lots of raw food and boosts her immune system with positive thoughts.
I don’t have kids, and I’m here purely out of curiosity. In the morning’s press, a doctor described it as one of the most dangerous films he’d ever come across. In the month that followed, health ministers would slam it in the media, one of the film’s producers would be banned from the country, and a complementary medicine GP who attended this screening would be under investigation for helping anti-jab parents avoid vaccinations. How could a 90-minute movie be such a threat to public health?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 2 September 2017 as League of vaccinations.
AT A PLUSH LOUNGE IN MELBOURNE’S SOFITEL HOTEL, the data guru behind Donald Trump’s election campaign is pitching his company to Australian political operatives.
Dressed in jeans, a thin check shirt and a brown suit jacket, Matthew Oczkowski, head of product at Cambridge Analytica, looks tired as he speaks with a couple of men huddled around a small black table. Two days ago he was in Sydney. Today he’s in Melbourne, presenting at a $600-a-ticket big data conference. Tomorrow he’ll be in Canberra, giving a spiel to senior Liberal Party figures.
Expectations are high. After the utter failure of traditional polling to predict the outcome of the United States election, Republican pollster Frank Luntz declared, “There are no longer any experts except Cambridge Analytica. They were Trump’s digital team who figured out how to win.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 22 April 2017 as Data based.
WHEN THE THREAT OF CLIMATE CHANGE from greenhouse gas pollution was brought to the attention of United States president Lyndon Johnson in 1965, his scientific advisers didn’t recommend solving the problem by cutting emissions. They recommended littering the sea with floating glitter. Lots and lots of glitter.
The temperature rise could be offset, wrote the environmental pollution panel of the president’s science advisory committee, “by raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the Earth”. This could be brought about, they informed the president, “by spreading very small reflecting particles over large oceanic areas”. And it would be cheap, relatively speaking – about $500 million a year.
Sounds crazy? The scientists were serious … and rather prescient. More than 50 years later, similar ideas to cool the planet are being considered to alleviate the symptoms of runaway climate change.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 18 March 2017 as Particles of faith.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW about the energy sources of the future, ask the man who’s been there: Arnie. Last December, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the time-travelling Terminator turned “Governator” of California for two terms, posted a Facebook rant explaining why he was on a crusade for clean energy. “I don’t want to be like the last horse and buggy salesman who was holding out as cars took over the roads,” he wrote, beneath a photo of gleaming solar panels. “I don’t want to be the last investor in Blockbuster as Netflix emerged. That’s exactly what is going to happen to fossil fuels.”
California, where Arnie ran the show from 2003-2011, now sources more than a quarter of its energy from wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric dams. The state is also home to Silicon Valley, a hotspot for disruptive innovations. For anyone seeped in start-up culture, where stagnation is death and you’re only an app away from overturning a legacy industry, renewable energy looks like the next big thing – Electricity 2.0.
Toxic, poisonous, deadly – in the last few years, sugar has attracted some less-than-sweet commentary both here and overseas. But Australia remains one of the world’s biggest sugar exporters. Greg Foyster heads north to discover what effect, if any, the recent controversy is having on the industry.
BRIAN COURTICE COMES from a long line of cane growers. His grandfather started cutting cane in 1910 and farming it in 1922. Two of his grandfather’s brothers formed the Sugar Workers Union in Bundaberg and organised a canecutters’ strike in 1911. Brian’s father, also a cane grower, was a member of the board for the local sugar mill.
For three generations the Courtice men have lived and worked at Sunnyside, a nearly 50-hectare farm in the Woongarra region southeast of Bundaberg. And for almost all of those days, sugar has been a mainstay of life. Now 64, Courtice remembers school holidays spent cutting green cane in the fields. In the mornings he’d put a mound of sugar on his cornflakes, and three sugars in his tea.
But Courtice doesn’t put sugar in his tea anymore. Sitting on his front veranda and nursing a mug of Bushells sweetened only with honey, he explains that as he got older he became increasingly concerned about the relationship between sugar consumption and dental cavities. Courtice has the weathered skin of a farmer – his hands are tanned and calloused, with crescents of dirt under the fingernails – but his teeth have suffered worse deterioration. “I’ve got a mouth full of fillings from when I was a kid from using too much sugar,” he says.
Heatwaves have killed more Australians than any other form of natural disaster. Although there are now signs extreme weather patterns are being taken more seriously, is enough being done – or will more vulnerable people die?
SUFFERING THROUGH A scorching summer’s day is, quite literally, an act of patriotism. Last year, a group of academics from Macquarie University published a study examining extreme heat (meaning unusually hot weather for that location) in Australia from 1844 to 2010. They discovered that more people had died from the heat on 27 January than any other date, and suggested this was probably due to the aftermath of boozy Australia Day barbecues in the sun.
It says a lot about Australians’ attitude to hot weather. At the peak of summer, Australians gather in the sun, cook over coals, and then drink diuretic beverages, pissing away every last drop of deference to the climate.
On the 35th anniversary of Australia’s first forest protest, Greg Foyster re-examines the so-called ‘fight for the forests’, and asks if the old image of greenies versus loggers is still relevant.
THE BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO shows two uniformed policemen dragging a male protester down a dirt track. His clothes are filthy and tattered, his hair matted in long dreadlocks. This is the first public image of Australia’s first forest blockade, which erupted over plans to log remnant rainforest at Terania Creek, a quick Kombi ride from the hippy enclave of Nimbin in northeast New South Wales.
The photo occupied the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 18 August 1979, which happened to be the 13th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. The parallels were obvious, and 10 days later they were made explicit in the paper’s first big feature article on the blockade. “It was like Vietnam,” wrote journalist Craig McGregor. “Dense green jungle, choppers in the sky, men with guns shouting into walkie-talkies, a bulldozer smashing through trees, people being carried off…”
The battle lines were clearly drawn: ‘straight’ versus counter-culture, developers versus conservationists, old versus young, loggers versus greenies. Thirty-five years later the issue is still portrayed in the same militaristic terms – as a dramatic clash between timber workers and environmentalists in the bush.
PERCHED ON A BABY SEAT at the back of an extra-long “ute” bicycle, Woody Ulman Jones scans the roadside greenery for edible treats. Up ahead, he sees a wild loquat tree and shouts, “More, more, more!” His mother Meg Ulman slowly applies the brakes, and the bike comes to a stop. It’s snack time.
Although only eighteen months old, Woody is already playing a role in putting food on the table. “Woody is an amazing forager,” says Meg. “While we’re pedalling with our heads down, he’s our chief spotter.”
Woody is the most recent addition to Artist as Family, a five-mammal artistic troupe that includes the primate hunter-gardeners Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman, their young cubs Zephyr and Woody, and their trusty canine companion Zero the Jack Russell. Since November 2013 this motley crew has pedalled and picnicked their way up Australia’s east coast, riding more than 2000 kilometres from their home in Daylesford, Victoria, to northern New South Wales, gathering material for a new book called Free Food.
SIXTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Bill McKenzie stands in the corridor on the eighth floor of the government housing complex where he lives, pointing accusingly at a thermometer fastened to the wall. He explains that at 4pm on January 17, as Melbourne sweltered through one of south-east Australia’s worst heatwaves, the thermometer read 43 degrees — hotter than it was outside.
LAST YEAR, my partner and I imagined setting up our dream home. We’d just returned from cycling 6500 kilometres up the east coast of Australia exploring simpler ways of living, and we fantasised about a bush block with a rustic cottage and vegie patch – our very own organic outpost in the hills. After ogling property porn online, we conceded that even the cheapest land in remotest Tasmania was beyond our meagre budget. But I still clung to my mental blueprint, picturing wooden floorboards, an antique Aga stove and compressed-earth walls.
THE FIRST TIME my partner, Sophie Chishkovsky, suggested cycling up the east coast of Australia, I thought she was crazy. “That’s impossible!” I said. I was an inner-city yuppie, and my only daily physical activity was a 5km bike ride from home to work, after which I sat at a desk for 10 hours. I was part man, part adjustable office chair. How would I cope with pedalling thousands of kilometres?
The bigger question, of course, was why do it in the first place? I was on the cusp of my thirties and had started to think more seriously about settling down, but the idea of committing to a mortgage in the suburbs, and the decades of full-time work required to pay it off, filled me with dread. I wanted to explore some other options – not just the obvious ones – before embarking on the next phase.
WE COULDN’T have chosen a worse time to ride. It’s been raining all day, there are floods in the state’s north-east, it’s nearly peak hour and the rapidly darkening sky is threatening to unleash another torrent. Yet we’re about to enter four lanes of traffic on Dandenong Road in Malvern East, following a route on which our guide, Lachlan Toose, has come off his bike five times in two years (when we first met, he held up his elbow to show the result of a recent run-in with a delivery van door. “Just scabs,” he said. “To be expected”). Now we’re on a tour of his collisions, a 12-kilometre journey from Orrong Road, Balaclava, where he works as a primary school teacher, to his home near Warrigal Road in Camberwell. Toose speeds up on his blue Giant racing bike, mud flicking from the back tyre onto his T-shirt. Up ahead, the Dandenong Road intersection is a lagoon of shallow puddles. Toose rarely sees cyclists out this far from the relative safety of the inner city and, apparently, neither do drivers: shortly after we cross Dandenong Road, a silver Holden hatchback swerves in front of him to reverse park. Toose says it’s comonplace: a driver cuts him off once every three weeks, someone opens a car door on him – an illegal act – once every few months, and he receives verbal abuse fortnightly, with the usual insult an unimaginative but revealing, “Get a car!”
THE ADVERTISING INDUSTRY can sell just about anything. Whether promoting the slave trade in the eighteenth century, peddling quack medicines in the nineteenth or flogging cigarettes to impressionable youth in the twentieth, advertisers have persuaded the public to consume an astonishing variety of unethical, ineffective and sometimes deadly products. But there is one thing the advertising industry has always had trouble selling – itself.
In 2011, I wrote 33 profiles of inspiring Melburnians for The Melbourne Magazine. This is my favourite.
ANJ BARKER’S right hand does a lot of things. In the mornings, it grips the rail attached to her bed, helping her get up. During the day, it controls the joystick of her wheelchair. At awards ceremonies and high schools, it presses palms with people inspired by her story. But at the moment, Anj Barker’s right hand, which lies at the end of her only fully functioning limb, is giving us the finger. The gesture is not meant to offend, but to communicate. Brutally bashed by her ex-boyfriend at 16, Anj suffered substantial brain injuries and for years couldn’t speak. But she could move her right hand, so she developed a characteristically cheeky sign language: thumbs up meant yes, flipping the bird meant no — or that she was in severe pain.
A LEADING medical expert has claimed the privatisation of drug company CSL contributed to the rationing of benzylpenicillin, an important antibiotic for public health.
Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases specialist at the Australian National University in Canberra, told Crikey the supply of important antibiotics should not be entrusted to a single for-profit company.
IN ONE SMOOTH MOVEMENT, the recycling truck empties five tonnes of plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, newspapers, aluminium cans and steel tins into a heap on the concrete. Amid the faint smell of supermarket dumpsters and the sound of shattering stubbies, a grotty yellow Caterpillar loader shoves the pile onto a towering six-metre-high garbage dune.
We’re at the Visy Materials Recovery Facility in Heidelberg, the first point of call for empty Coke cans and crusty pizza boxes from some 400,000 households, most of them in the inner north-east.
“MAJNUN,” they call. “Majnun! Majnun! Majnun!” The word, meaning ‘crazy’ in Arabic, comes from The Story of Layla and Majnun, an Islamic folktale about a young man sent mad with love. If ‘crazy’ is another way of saying ‘unusual’, then Maile fits the description. For the young Australian is standing in a car park wearing a bright red dress and holding a tray of baklava swaddled in wrapping paper. Today is her 22nd birthday: to celebrate, she’s hosting a party in an immigration detention centre. Majnun Maile, indeed.
IN THE RECREATION ROOM at Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne there are four computer terminals. Teenage asylum seekers, dressed in tracksuit pants and jumpers, sit in front of screens browsing Facebook. But for these boys, the social networking site is more than just a place for sharing gossip and posting flattering profile portraits — it is an essential link to the outside world.
YESTERDAY three asylum seekers at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows sewed their lips together and posted the photos on Facebook in a protest at their continued detention.
YOU know an animal is in serious trouble when you start counting its habitat trees individually. David Blair, a member of the Australian National University team monitoring the federally endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, stands on a dirt track in gumboots and a green vest, pointing out old grey eucalypts one by one. “Probably 14,” he says when he’s finished counting.