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The secret underground city the US tried to bomb out of existence

How long you’ve been in Laos will decide how you react to Viengxay’s landscape. To new arrivals, bungalows nestled between towering misty limestone peaks will constitute an achingly beautiful sight but to the acclimatised, this is just more Northern Laos. And that’s the point. Viengxay was a secret underground city used by the Lao Communist Party (Pathet Lao) between 1964-73, to provide shelter from Yankee bombs, allowing the upper echelons here to conduct a revolution and win a civil war. At it

The costs of becoming a digital nomad

I am speaking with Zackery Bertram from a sound-insulated booth in the co-living co-working space Alt_ChiangMai. Through the padded door is a sleek shared office of flatpack desks and chairs, empty for the weekend but for a few diligent digital nomads affixed to their screens. Outside is a sunny Saturday in Thailand’s second largest city, although seasonal burning in the surrounding mountains placed yesterday’s air quality among the world’s worst 10 cities, between Kathmandu and Krasnoyarsk. De

'Don't expect to live inside a brochure': The reality of my life as a digital nomad

Throughout my twenties I binged: working, saving hard while living in a dingy share house then cashing out for a big trip. From a career perspective it was reckless. While often I would be accepted back to the same job when I returned, I was too risky to promote. In my thirties I needed a more sustainable model. Once upon a time these were mythical creatures who had escaped the gravitational force of conventional employment: they lived a purely remote lifestyle, logging in from hotel rooms, c

Travelling a Chinese 'Belt and Road' railway through South-East Asia

Singapore to Luang Prabang by train became possible only in December 2021 as the world was peeking out from lockdown. Part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, the Laos to China railway, one of three planned branches, the others through Myanmar and Vietnam, will one day converge on Bangkok. For passengers this closes a chain that more-or-less connects Singapore along four thousand kilometres of metre gauge track to the Chinese network. More-or-less because the purist will take exception to the

SEA’s electric vehicles v the state

The announcement, made last month, must have felt like deja vu. As part of its election commitments, the Andrews government promised it would revive the historic State Electricity Commission. Aligned with Labor’s “Just Transition” policies, the proposal involves vast renewable projects that will create 21st-century jobs for the economically depressed Latrobe Valley, a region struggling with its post-coal identity. The timing was uncanny, too. It was similarly close to the 2018 state election th

Nigel Farage, the pornographer and their weird Australian tour

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. The right-wing, anti-immigration politician who led the Brexit campaign in Britain is currently touring Australia. Nigel Farage has become increasingly irrelevant in British politics, so why is he commanding speaking fees and being given a hero's welcome by Sky News presenters and One Nation politicians? It could be a cynical money grabbing exercise, a play for political influence in Australia, or both. Today, journalist Kurt Johnson, on the

What is Nigel Farage doing in Australia?

As the crumpled suits from the day’s trade shows trundle out into a wet evening, the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre prepares for An Entertaining Evening with Nigel Farage. In the foyer, a crowd of three distinct groups builds: most numerous are the white-haired retirees, dressed up for a night in town; then there are the keyboard trolls, all young males, dishevelled, eyes darting; finally, figures dressed like Fox News anchors, well-coiffed in chintzy glamour, shaking hands and kiss

Bulldozing trust: when the big build back tramples on communities and wildlife

It was shovels at the ready as Australia plotted recovery from the economic ravages wrought by the pandemic. Buildings, roads, ports, dams. But hasty decision making is leading to long-term regrets among some affected communities. Kurt Johnson hones in on one example. Demolition of office buildings and the clearing of 1253 trees has begun for a 418-home “family friendly community” in Sydney’s West Pennant Hills. A black wall more than two metres high has been erected right up to the kerb. It bl

The Shooters Party's fractured fight for the Murray–Darling

The first Helen Dalton knew about it was the empty seats. She saw them on the parliamentary feed and instantly knew the members of her own party had decided to abstain from a vote on water rights, which she had campaigned on since she was elected. “And I just thought, ‘No, I’m not going to play games with these people,’ ” the now-independent member for Murray says. “So that’s when I decided to leave the party.” Dalton entered the New South Wales upper house in 2019, as a member of the Shooters,

A loud slap for Putin's mates, but are Australian sanctions a paper tiger?

As Russia scales the heights of brutality in its war against Ukraine, sanctions against its wealthy freebooters are an easy step in international lawfare. But such idealism can founder against the wall of worldwide corporate (mis)governance, writes Kurt Johnson. On March 18 the Australian government added Viktor Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Consolidated List of individuals facing targeted sanctions. That the federal government waited so long led

Sydney region’s last healthy koala population threatened by development

Greater Sydney’s only disease-free and growing koala population is under threat by the construction of a housing estate in its habitat without promised safeguards in place, scientists warn. Earthworks for the first of a two-stage 5000-home development between the Nepean and Georges rivers near Campbelltown, by Lendlease, began in January after being approved in 2019. The plans for the two-stage development, known as Figtree Hill and Mt Gilead, included koala underpasses and corridors of a speci

Fog of War: how Australian taxpayers enriched Putin's fracking mate

At long last, the Australian government has added one of Putin’s claque to the sanctions list, Origin’s fracking partner in the Beetaloo Basin. And dirty dealings in a dirty industry don’t end there. The case highlights the massive government outlay required for otherwise uneconomic projects, writes Kurt Johnson. It’s worth asking exactly why the Australian government dithered until today to sanction oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. This associate of Vladimir Putin, owner of world’s largest collecti

Ukraine neighbours try to carry on with ‘surreal’ lives

Over the border, the war is close enough for Tim Tiraspol to hear. Every day it begins “at 5am like clockwork” with bombs and Ukrainian anti-aircraft guns. He has been working for 15 years as a tour guide in the breakaway state of Transnistria, which despite having its own currency and passports, is considered by most countries as simply part of Moldova. Life has become “surreal like a Disney cartoon,” says Tiraspol who also works as local liaison for foreign journalists and takes his work nam

The Soviet past isn’t dead. It’s not even past

In Ukraine, one question looms above all: how will it end? In major Russian cities, protesters have bravely taken to the streets in defiance of armed police. People power has a special tradition in Russia, not only in the Bolshevik revolution but the Soviet collapse and, in its wake, the foiled coup to reestablish the Soviet Union -- all were swayed by those on Russian city streets. Putin’s approval rating was a solid 71% in independent Levada-Center polls, as troops were building up on the bor

Could a skills shortage stall the renewable energy revolution?

Industry insiders are warning that Australia will struggle to meet the demand for both specialised and generalised skills to drive the post-Covid renewable energy transformation, especially those skills needed to develop the states’ regional Renewable Energy Zones. With an estimated $66 billion to be invested in renewable energy over the next 10 to 15 years, and a further $27 billion in rooftop solar and battery storage, the money and the ambition for a revolution are there, yet the risk of bei

Green dreams: Managing the transition from rust to renewables

It’s not easy finding a hotel room in Port Augusta these days, and it’s not because of tourists or grey nomads. After striking out with a number of motels I finally found one with a mobile number on a post-it note stuck to the dusty front-door. Frank, the proprietor, tells me he’s got one room left that he saves for regulars, but to do that he had to unblock it from the booking system. “You probably thought you were just gonna waltz in here and get a room, no sweat,” he suggests. “But you’d be s

Good taste and food security: How Sundrop used solar to bring tomatoes to the desert

The first thing you see on approach to Sundrop Farms is the 127m tall central solar power tower rising up from the desert floor. Lit like a beacon, it is illuminated by the radiance of 12.5 hectares of mirrors reflecting the sun on to its collector. For some 300 days a year it shines on the tomato farm near Port Augusta at the northern end of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, and the very idea of growing tomatoes in red dirt that supports little more than saltbush borders seems an act of defiance

“One hell of a blast”: How the Latrobe Valley is wrestling with transition

On May 6, at 11 am, Dredger 9, the last dredger from the Latrobe Valley’s Hazelwood mine, was demolished by a controlled explosion. As the massive 35 metre high, 1565 tonne superstructure slumped into its own dust, the sound of the explosion rang through the valley. “It was one hell of a blast,” said local resident Ian Martin, whose house shook 27 kilometres away. In the more guarded cadence of international business, Engie, the mine’s French owner, conceded the demolition “signals the end of a

Australia missing out on EVs

The SEA Electric vehicle factory, announced on the eve of the 2018 Victorian state election, was supposed to mark a turning point for the Latrobe Valley. For decades, the valley had had some of the highest unemployment levels in the state. The factory was slated to provide 500 jobs in the region, which just a year earlier had weathered the closure of the Hazelwood Power Station. “Our announcement today,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said at the time, “is all about making sure the Latrobe Va

Food insecurity: could Australia really run out of food?

While debate around Australia's food security continues to rage, one thing is clear: water policy and food security are inextricably linked. Chris Brooks -- a farmer, grain speculator and former chief of Australian operations at mining company Glencore -- is adamant Australia’s east coast will run out of wheat by September. As most Australian mills are in the eastern states, this would have a severe impact: another shortage of flour, pasta, bread and other wheat-based staples in supermarkets.
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Book Reviews

‘Time is money’: How can you avoid burnout when we’re all on the clock?

During lockdown time lost its shape. While beards sprouted beneath masks and seasons changed with more swagger against the diminished traffic, the weeks ran together. In response, I engineered a schedule that in sheer cruelty would have made Mark Wahlberg’s 3am starts reasonable. A cacophony of pre-dawn alarms from devices kept beyond reach, push-ups, cold showers, meditation and a creative writing regimen all before the day’s paid labour began. Then one day I could not get up. In Jenny Odell’s

Misunderstood hero: This magical book will help you see mushrooms anew

If we ever get out of this environmental mess, it won’t be thanks to ego-driven men with projects and messiah complexes visible from space. It will be the quiet oddballs on their hands and knees rooting around in the underbrush that help us slow down and see the ancient wisdom around our feet. People such as Alison Pouliot, author of Underground Lovers: Encounters with Fungi, her third book on mushrooms. This is one of a slew of recent books looking to set the record straight on mushrooms. Fungi

When a great journalist turns her scrupulous eye on herself

I began reading Janet Malcolm as did many a budding non-fiction writer with The Journalist and the Murderer. It was an affront to my cherished ideal that contributing to the record was inherently noble. To Malcolm, the journalist is half traitor, half parasite. They seduce their subject, leech their story then publish it as their own. What about when the author is the subject? “If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call me

This ‘heroic’ book offers some hope for our future

The problem with climate change is the hot air. A belief, once widespread, was that rational discussion, awareness-raising and political debate were levers that could be pulled to correct an errant course. Today, heave though we might, these levers seem only to vent steam. Here, Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope by Joëlle Gergis has a special role to play. Gergis is one of hundreds of scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assessmen

Provocative essays that belong next to those of Clive James

In the introduction to his new essay collection, Provocations, Jeff Sparrow states he feels “tremendously isolated” as a socialist writer in a country as anti-intellectual as we. Like most Australian greats, Sparrow rejects the “persona of ocker larrikinism” that mainstream writers adopt to avoid accusations of elitism. He also admits that he reads and the breadth of references he cites is difficult to find elsewhere in Australian writing. By page three, we have heard from Aurelius, Orwell, Ned

Challenging essays that divert from the ideological rails

In the introduction to his new essay collection, Provocations, Jeff Sparrow states he feels “tremendously isolated” as a socialist writer in a country as anti-intellectual as we. Like most Australian greats, Sparrow rejects the “persona of ocker larrikinism” that mainstream writers adopt to avoid accusations of elitism. He also admits that he reads and the breadth of references he cites is difficult to find elsewhere in Australian writing. By page three, we have heard from Aurelius, Orwell, Ned

Of Marsupials and Men

Any history of Australian wildlife at a time of catastrophic decline is important. Too often the plight of these creatures is obscured by the very statistics used to represent them, such as the three billion impacted by the 2019-20 bushfires. Each generation normalises their experiences of wildlife but between generations the drop has been precipitous. Alistair Paton’s Of Marsupials and Men recounts the history of European colonists and the native fauna they struggled to comprehend. It begins w

‘At first, I was cautious’: Can a short book answer the world’s biggest questions?

Remember the “why” game? Most children discover it during their intensive questioning phase. They ask “why is something as it is?” You answer only to be instantly asked “why?” again. That’s basically it. After a few rounds it has veered into an existential nightmare for you, while the child has long-since stopped listening and is there only to ride the sadistic thrill at your facial rictus as you plumb the void for meaning. To maximise your chances of survival, come armed with something such as

Should We Fall to Ruin

Gallipoli’s power to sustain the culture wars is probably the only thing preventing the Pacific theatre from becoming Australia’s most important wartime legend. The Pacific resonates deeply with the present, as an ascendant Asian power expands south to the same islands contested in World War II and reawakens latent anxieties of separation from powerful but preoccupied allies. Should We Fall to Ruin by Harrison Christian – the story of the colonial outpost of Rabaul on Papua New Guinean island Ne

Computers never lie? Sadly, we trust too much in the magic of tech

It’s a lot further than you think, but it has already started. The singularity is the moment AI will improve itself at a rate faster than we can. From here it will unleash incomprehensible brilliance that could devastate humankind. Or so the movies say. For the time being, we are living in an ordinary world of ordinary problems that AI has the opportunity to fix or make worse. Firmly in the experimentation phase, innovation is ripe with unintended consequences. Mark Zuckerberg’s former motto, “m

Six decades on, why are these Australian nuclear tests still shrouded in secrecy?

While on research, I visited the Polygon, an area in remote north-eastern Kazakhstan where the USSR conducted hundreds of nuclear tests. It was late summer and the battered earth was carpeted in wildflowers. The situation in our rump-sprung four-wheel drive had become tense. Our guide, a former Soviet nuclear physicist, baulked at a question asking whether the Polygon had been evacuated of Kazakh tribespeople before testing had begun. Incensed, he turned to me: “You are from Australia, no? Why d

The Shortest History of India

How does a writer condense 5000 years of Indian history into a single short book without losing themselves in what they’re omitting? India is a fluid tessellation of ethnicities and languages that shift through the blooming of religions, the clash of empires and the sweep of invasions. Even the geography is hard to define, with edges that have grown and shrunk. Borders with three neighbours are still in dispute. John Zubrzycki has boldly taken this task on in The Shortest History of India. The

Kurt Johnson reviews ‘Crimes against Nature: Capitalism and global heating’ by Jeff Sparrow

There is a debate as long-running as climate change itself: can capitalism, with its demand for endless growth, be sustained on a planet with finite bounds and limited resources? Freemarketeers say yes. For them, the issue is not capitalism per se but an economic model that does not factor in the true cost of emissions. As a result, we the people and the planet are subsidising industries that pollute for free. The counterargument is based on simple intuition: How on earth can capitalism, the uns

The two new books you should read to help understand Russia’s mindset

In a recent article, Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, claims that armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a rebuke to humanity’s greatest claim: that progress is possible. The crisis signals a return to the “jungle” where might is right, a posture thought obsolete at the end of the Cold War. Not so. The former Soviet neighbours, together with China and Hong Kong or China and Taiwan, reveal that the contest between power and progress continues and is bound by ideological roots. Two “big

The Ethical Investor

Once I had a fiction that comforted me in these apocalyptic times: regular people are mostly goodies while the baddies are the corporations that are killing the planet. As an Australian with superannuation and a bank account, it turns out I am invested in all sorts of businesses – some good, others not. How confronting to discover that the baddies are me. In The Ethical Investor, Nicole Haddow – author of Smashed Avocado, a book on property investing – takes a hard look at her money and what it

Something fishy going on, say books on piscine plundering

Learning the true cost of an animal ending up on one’s plate is often a recipe to stop eating it. That most meat eaters (including myself) are happy to grab the clingfilm wrapped product off the supermarket shelf but would be physically ill to tour an abattoir is an enduring hypocrisy. So where were all the “pescatarians” or “flexitarians” five years ago? Many were eating meat. Animal rights and climate change have people thinking about their diet. And of course, new awarenesses open up new mark

Kurt Johnson reviews 'Just Money: Misadventures in the great Australian debt trap' by Royce Kurmelovs

The middle class has always been the target audience for the ever-optimistic, benign phrasing of Australia’s economic prospects. It is for them that there runs a vein of exceptionalism that believes no matter what the numbers say, the nation is immune to the dangerous excesses of the American brand of capitalism. This extends to debt. Despite the widely touted fact that we have among the highest levels of household debt in the developed world, we assume that any downturn will be temporary – the

A blueprint for Australia and the brightest of futures

All sound a bit utopian? Well this is just part of the vision set out by Professor Ross Garnaut in Reset: Restoring Australia After the Pandemic Recession. Rural towns, once on the brink of collapse, have blossomed with highly paid, skilled jobs in manufacturing and engineering. On the land, farms sequester carbon to trade with Europe and the US in the form of international offsets. In cities, a tax revolution stimulates innovation and has yielded a rich start-up culture. Full employment means
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Digital/Radio: After the Smoke Clears

Click to visit After the Smoke Clears

After the Smoke Clears investigates how an Australian town transitions from coal to renewables.

Out Now: The Red Wake (Random House)

Kurt Johnson's extensive journey through contemporary Russia and its old satellites is a vivid portrait of how the ghost of that order still haunts the present. But it is also underpinned by a strong family tale, his grandparents having fled communist Czechoslovakia, part of the story taking place in the family's substantial old summer house with the Kafka-esque name, the Castle. He visits the last existing gulag and the ex-KGB headquarters in Moscow. The writing ... has an evocative immediacy, is historically informed and nuanced, ideologically alert and alive to Western narratives and Russian revisionist nostalgia.

Steven Carroll, The Age