An App Too Far

Governments the world over have struggled to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, we’ve seen large-scale shutdowns of businesses, mask mandates on planes and in buildings, and social distancing and stay-at-home orders. But it is the Land Down Under — Australia — that has really pushed the envelope.

This week The Atlantic carried an eye-opening article about some of the governmental edicts that have been imposed in Australia–edicts so draconian that the article carries the provocative headline “Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty.” Consider this partial list of emergency decrees and requirements:

  • Australia has dramatically curtailed its citizens’ ability to leave the country. The article quotes a government website (which you can see here) that states: “Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.”
  • Travel between the six states that make up Australia also is restricted. You can access the governmental website that discloses the current restrictions, which include closing state borders, limiting ability to travel within a state, and mandatory quarantines, here.
  • States have imposed curfews, have banned anti-lockdown protests, and have used the military to disperse and arrest anti-lockdown protesters in Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, more than five million people have been in lockdown status for more than two months.

But the most draconian requirement of all is being tested and rolled out by the state of South Australia. It’s an app that the state would require its citizens to download, and the Atlantic article describes it as follows:

“People in South Australia will be forced to download an app that combines facial recognition and geolocation. The state will text them at random times, and thereafter they will have 15 minutes to take a picture of their face in the location where they are supposed to be. Should they fail, the local police department will be sent to follow up in person. ‘We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,’ Premier Steven Marshall explained. ‘I think every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app.’”

It’s a pretty amazing development when a democratic government claims the ability to unilaterally require citizens to download an app, respond to random government texts, and be required to respond within a specified time period with a personal photo showing they are in “the location where they are supposed to be” or receive a visit from the local police. It’s even more amazing that the head of that government actually thinks citizens should be proud that their state government is the leader in imposing that kind of extraordinary government intrusion. I’d like to think that no duly elected government in America would think that kind of action was anything other than an egregious overreach–but then, I would have thought the Aussies would never have done anything like that, too.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between preserving individual rights and liberties and dealing with public health issues. As The Atlantic article notes, Australia’s dramatic decrees can be cited as allowing it to achieve COVID-related death statistics that are far below those in the U.S. But Australia also shows how the balancing of health and rights can tip decidedly to one side, in a way that strikes at the core of freedoms that are a defining characteristic of democratic societies. Citizens of other countries should be looking at what has happened in Australia and asking themselves: “Was it worth it?” and “Could that happen here?”

Rake

Normally I hate TV shows about lawyers. In the typical American TV show about lawyers, I just can’t get beyond the unreality of the plots and the outlandish depictions of our legal procedures and activities. But I’ll make an exception for shows about British lawyers, or in the case of Rake, Australian lawyers. I figure that any legal settings where barristers are wearing horsehair wigs and gowns is so far outside my experience I can’t really object to the reality, or unreality, of any of the storylines or contrived courtroom drama.

And in fairness, Rake ends up not really being a show about law at all. Sure, Cleaver Greene–the “rake” of the title who is deftly played by Richard Roxburgh–has gone to law school and does his share of work in the courtroom, but the show is mostly about his train wreck of a life. We witness his countless bad decisions, his ego-centric interactions with his ex-wife, his ex-mistress, his son who has inherited some of Cleave’s tendencies, his friends, his steadfast paralegal/assistant, and his ever-changing dalliances, and we get to hear his often hilarious observations about life in general, all set against the backdrop of an Australian political and legal system that is amazingly corrupt and inept.

And if it sounds like the show is a slam on Australia, it doesn’t come off that way. Instead, Australia is presented as a kind of charming, friendly, out-of-the-way place where everyone knows everybody else and nobody takes anything too seriously. I’d like to pay a visit to Cleaver Greene’s Australia. It’s a place where a character whose life is going to hell can say, with perfect deadpan delivery, that everything is “tickety-boo” and you know exactly what he means even if you’ve never heard that phrase before. (“Tickety-boo” dates from the days of the British occupation of India and basically means “in good order.”)

As for the arc of the show, it becomes increasingly surreal as the seasons roll on. If you’re looking for realistic courtroom drama, even of the horsehair wig variety, you really should look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a show that will give you an interesting taste of the Land Down Under, a show that introduces you to Australian language and culture, a show that delivers some laugh out loud moments, and a show that recognizes it’s just a lighthearted frolic, you might enjoy watching Rake. We certainly did.

Another Killer From Australia

Recently scientists announced that they discovered a new species of snake that is native to Australia. And here’s a shocker:  the snake is a killer.

With the warm and fuzzy name of Kimberley Death Adder, the newly discovered species is considered to be one of the most venomous snakes in the world.  It lies in wait, camouflaged to blend in with its surroundings, until an unwary victim stumbles into its area, and then it strikes and bites with its deadly fangs.  Before an antivenom was developed and made available, it killed or paralyzed about half of its human victims.

It’s no surprise, really, that the Kimberley Death Adder is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.  In Australia, it’s par for the course.  Even though many Americans associate Australia with beer and charming accents, the world’s only country-continent is home to an extraordinary assortment of deadly creatures, ranging from man-eating Great White Sharks to killer crocodiles to venomous, paralyzing snails to huge birds with killer claws that can rip off an arm to loads of poisonous fish, jellyfish, and octopus species.  Even certain species of purportedly cuddly koalas can be deadly.  And, of course, Australia is well-represented on the top 10 deadly snake and top 10 venomous spider lists.  There’s a reason Crocodile Dundee carried around that huge knife.

Even though I’d probably be scared snotless the entire time I was there and would need to keep an eye out at all time for spiders, snakes, and dozens of other potential killers, I’d still like to visit Australia one day:  it just seems like the right thing to do.  I’ve wanted to check it out since Kish and I read In A Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson’s classic and hilarious book about his travels in Australia. Now there’s just one more creature waiting to knock me off when I finally make the long flight to the other side of the world.

The Blobfish Can’t Get No Respect

The blobfish is the Rodney Dangerfield of the animal kingdom — it just gets no respect.

The blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) is a deep-sea fish that lives off the coast of Australia.  The BBC reports that it has won a contest to be named the world’s ugliest creature and thereby became the official mascot of the Ugly Animal Protection Society.

There is no doubt that the humble blobfish is an exceptionally ugly thing.  It’s common name is totally accurate, and that doesn’t help.  It looks like a large, slimy phlegm wad, and it’s perpetually disgruntled expression even makes it resemble Rodney Dangerfield.  Not surprisingly, it’s not an edible fish.  Who would want to have one brought to them on a plate?

The Ugly Animal Protection Society makes a valid point.  It’s easy to gain public support for causes to preserve cute, cuddly, furry animals, but foul-looking, glum, gelatinous lumps are equally deserving of protection in order to maintain biodiversity.  And there is no doubt that the blobfish needs some preservation assistance, because deep-sea large-net fishing, in which the inedible blobfish is brought to the surface along with the rest of the catch, has left it on the verge of extinction.

The blobfish might not be eye candy, but a world without the blobfish — and other ill-favored critters — would be a less beautiful place.

MONA, MONA

Museums tend to be pretty stodgy places.  Now there’s a museum in Hobart, Australia that is shaking up the dusty museum world.

The Museum of Old and New Art, or MONA, breaks just about every rule we associate with museums.  Instead of an imposing marble structure, it’s housed in a curious building.  Rather than ascending broad steps, you descend several flights of stairs to get to the exhibit floors.  There are no labels or informational signs prepared by curators on the walls of the museum; visitors get an iPod crammed with information about the exhibits and are asked whether they “love” or “hate” each piece.  And the museum has an on-site brewery and vineyard, too.

MONA features eclectic pieces, such as “living” art consisting of fermenting fruit and agar and a piece that replicates a digestive tract and produces, at 2 p.m. daily, a stinky piece of artistic fecal matter.

I’m not sure why anyone would want to see a turd, no matter how artistically it was produced or presented — we get to see them often enough.  But the idea of shaking up the museum world, and presenting art in different settings, is a good one.  I don’t think I’d travel to Hobart, Australia to see MONA, but I’m still kind of glad it’s there.

Predicting The Extinction Of Religion

The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries.  The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person.  The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.  (Ireland?  Really?)

The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category.  As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.”  Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.

I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one.  To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply.  Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith.  If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.

Feral Cat Gangs Causing Havoc In Australia

According to newspaper accounts, residents of Moorooka, a suburb of Brisbane, Australia, are being terrorized by a gang of feral cats “the size of dogs.” Members of the cat gang are attacking pedestrians after darkness falls, clawing small, prissy dogs, hissing at passersby, and generally intimidating the beleaguered Aussies. And they are doing so with shocking impunity.

It sounds like a far-fetched scene from The Stand or some other Stephen King novel, but it isn’t — it is just a return to the natural order of things.  It is not surprising, really, that delinquent cats would form thuggish, bullying gangs.  Everyone knows that, deep down, cats despise humans.  When cats resort to their feral state, and are no longer dependent upon humans for Purina cat chow or canned salmon, they are bound to act out the superiority they clearly feel.  Right now, they are probably treating Moorooka like one vast litter box and scratching post, yowling at the moon, strutting in their leather jackets and riding their cat motorcycles into saloons.

I am sure that other citizens of Australia are deeply concerned that the cat gangs of Moorooka might spread throughout the Land Down Under — and then across the face of the globe.  And before you know it, every haughty, diffident Tabby, Morris and Whiskers is feeling that feral urge, ready to pounce on their human companions as they slumber and scratch their eyes out.  This menace must be stopped before it is too late!