The Null Device

2019/12/5

Even before the summer arrived in Australia, large swathes of the country are already on fire. The images coming in from Sydney of the city immersed in a soupy brown haze, the sun a baleful orange circle, a dusting of ash covering everything and every second person wearing a white PM2.5 mask, look like something out of dystopian fiction. Meteorologists are predicting that this situation may continue through the summer, quite possibly becoming the “new normal”; throat-searing brown smoke being a feature of Sydney as much as diesel smogs are of London. Meanwhile, Australia is doubling down on fossil fuels, with the conservatives charging ahead, passing laws to prevent energy companies from divesting from coal, and Labor (who got so thoroughly thrashed in the last election that they still don't know what year it is) joining in.

Officially, in Australia, the bushfires have nothing to do with climate change, if that even is actually a thing, which there is just no way of knowing. The bush has always burned, there have always been heatwaves, also something about 4000-year sunspot cycles and/or there being no wookiees on Endor. Which is not to say that climate change denial is official Australian orthodoxy; by now, it's more of a paralytic agnosticism. It's not known as a fact, for example, that the idea of “climate change” is a Cultural Marxist plot to destroy the foundations of Western civilisation. That's one of the many possibilities; it could also, for example, be aliens, or Bigfoot. Or, for that matter, the whole crazy idea could be true.

The mainstream consensus would probably read somewhat like this: we have no idea what's causing the bushfires, or even if they are out of the ordinary. While some on the left say that it's global warming and coal (and, by definition, in Australia, people who hold that climate change is true and coal mining is irresponsible would be “the left”; much like how, according to the Murdoch press, the Australian inner cities and university campuses are full of “Marxists”, most of whom in reality wouldn't know historical materialism from a halal snack pack), other people may say it is the Lord punishing us for gay marriage/Womens' AFL/turning away from traditional values/shops being open on the Sabbath or something. (And note that this sentiment is attributed to “other people”; not “God-botherers”, “crazies” or “outer-suburban snake-handling pentecostal churches comprising the local Liberal Party branch”, but just other people; suburban battlers and daggy dads with MMM stickers on their Holdens; the Quiet Australians).

Or it could be just the way it has always been. Which, going forward, may become the official line. There is no global warming; it has always been like this. Just as there have always been 40° 45° 50° heatwaves, the Summer Smoke has always been a mildly annoying yet quintessentially Australian feature of life, like the intrepid blowflies. Don't listen to stories of clear-skied summers with maximum temperatures rarely touching the mid-40s, they will warn; much like tales of a vibrantly colourful Great Barrier Reef teeming with exotic fish, or public-service ads telling kids they can play outside if they put on a shirt, some sunscreen and a hat, those are a fantasy with a sinister political agenda behind it, spread by ratbags and troublemakers.

australia climate change culture war global warming 0

2019/10/31

As of today, I have lived in Stockholm for a year.

A year ago, I arrived at Arlanda on a one-way flight from London, with two checked bags and carry-on luggage; I caught the train to Stockholm, and a taxi (regular car-shaped, though a Tesla with a large iPad-like screen in the middle) to a friend's house. The following day, I picked up the keys to my new flat and went to awaited the arrival of the removalists with a lorryful of packed boxes. It got dark before they arrived, and I noticed my first difference between Swedish apartments and their Anglospheric equivalents: light fittings are not included. Other than the kitchen, each room was devoid of ceiling lights, having only a small socket (of a standard type) and hook on the ceiling. I quickly bought one light from a nearby thrift shop, and the flat wasn't completely dark by the time my things arrived, borne up the stairs by two muscular Russians who could plausibly have been Olympic weightlifters.

I stayed at my friend's place for a few more days as I made the flat habitable; gradually reducing the ziggurats of boxes to piles of flattened cardboard and a mass of familiar objects not yet having a canonical place, and making repeated trips to IKEA. After a while, it was habitable if cluttered; the clutter would take longer to fully dissolve.

Other aspects of getting set up in Sweden went relatively smoothly, if not always quickly. I was able to get a basic, limited bank account in a few days, though it took me a few months to get a Swedish personnummer (ID number); having one of those unlocks many of the mechanisms of the highly digitised, largely cashless society that is Sweden, including a digital identity infrastructure used for pretty much anything to do with finance and the Swish mobile payment system, which is used for everything from buying at flea markets to squaring up tabs. Trading my British driver’s licence for a Swedish one was pretty seamless. Other than that, there was not much hassle; for the moment, my British passport is sufficient to let me live and work here, and I’m informed that, in the worst case, I’ll have a year’s notice if that changes. I am, of course, hoping it doesn't come to that.

The year passed relatively quickly; winter came, shrouding Stockholm with snow and treacherous ice; spring followed, the ice melted, trees came into bloom, and the city came to life as the days became longer. By midsummer, there was barely any night left, only a few hours of twilight, though after the solstice, the night gradually began pushing back. I travelled a little, finding myself back in London more than I expected; first for a gig, then work, conferences, and en route to other events. London changed and yet remained the same (my old flat, with its low ceiling, stifling summer heat and the aroma of kebab grease never far away, had found a new tenant pretty much immediately; a favourite café closed down); friends were mostly still around, and I caught up with various of them on various visits. Ironically, my travels outside the UK have been fairly limited so far: a trip to Denmark for an exhibition, a visit to Barcelona for Primavera and a small amount of travel within Sweden.

Every change of scene brings with it a change of perspective, and a test of assumptions. Moving from Australia to Britain, two cultures with historical connections and cultural similarities, was a subtly uncanny experience, partly from the differences between British and Australian cultures, but also between the actual Britain and any number of idealised Britains, absorbed through old books, childhood TV viewing, pop music, or other media. A move to Sweden, a country that can speak English and yet is not officially an English-Speaking Country, and that was always separate from the British/American sphere, was a jump to another subtly parallel universe; one familiar and different, in different ways than London was from Melbourne.

There are the obvious things: traffic, for example, drives on the right (which, if you cycled in left-driving countries, requires some retraining of muscle memory; I'm still not at the stage of favouring my right leg to rest on at stops). The architecture is more continental, and vaguely mitteleuropäisch, a world of art-nouveau apartments around courtyards in the Germanic fashion and more recent geometric modern blocks of post-Bauhaus functionalism, rather than either the Victorian terraces and semi-detached houses of Britain or the more Italianate terrace houses, motel-style flat blocks and American-style suburban bungalows of Australia. (My eyes, trained on the Anglosphere's landscapes, pick out echoes of other parts of continental Europe; a bit of Paris in Norrmalm, a cleaned-up, more affluent Berlin in Södermalm, and so on.)

Then there is the landscape the city is built on, which, being spread over a set of islands and peninsulae, is slightly fantastic. The pieces of land are often dramatically rocky, and as such, the city is full of sets of parallel streets on different levels, connected by steep stairways, dramatic overpasses and houses with different ground levels. (London has a few of those things as well, though nowhere near as many; Edinburgh probably comes closer.) Sheer rock faces often jut out on the sides of roads carved from them, with the entrances of parking garages or other facilities hewn into them. All this is surrounded by harbour views that make Sydney look bland by comparison. Out in the harbour are hundreds of islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, some inhabited and sporting timber houses, linked by a system of ferries. Then there is the city's small scale (it has only about a million inhabitants), and the fact that nature is never far away, which warps the perception of its space in interesting ways: I can leave my flat in Södermalm, cycle for half an hour (and Stockholm is a great city to cycle in, at least for the 8 months or so of the year when one can cycle without coming to grief on treacherous ice), and find myself in a secluded cove that, other than specifics of vegetation, looks like somewhere one may reach after driving for three hours out of Melbourne.

And, of course, there is the question of language. In Sweden, English is everywhere: almost every adult speaks it very well, companies which hire international talent use it internally, and one sees English around in the city: not just in bilingual signage, but in ad slogans, business names and repurposed neologisms (an “afterwork”, for example, is early-evening drinks in a pub). Some of this Swedish English does have a slightly uncanny feeling one can almost put one's finger on: shops with generic-looking names as if out of an architectural rendering, or English-style pubs with excessively English names, usually related to Charles Dickens. And yet, of course, the language of intellectual and cultural life here is not English but Swedish. After a while, one becomes aware of this, of there being layers one is not privy to. The locals generally are polite, and switch to English when a non-Swedish speaker joins their conversation, though it's there. This also exists in places where there is no language difference, only a different cultural history; while I have lived in Britain for 14 years, and have absorbed enough second-hand knowledge of recent British cultural history, I will never be British enough to understand the references in a Half Man Half Biscuit song. The language difference, though, adds another dimension to this; it is as if there were a membrane between oneself and the cultural life of the country; that until the moment when one becomes fluent in Swedish, one is disconnected, floating.

Sweden has an English-speaking personality, and a subtly different native-language one, which manifest themselves in their culture. The parts of Sweden one sees abroad are different. For example, if one were to think of Swedish indie music in, say, Britain, the US or Australia, one might think of Jens Lekman, or The Radio Dept., or perhaps The Knife. In Sweden, though, the biggest indie band was Broder Daniel, who, while they sang in English, did not match their local success abroad. (Second to them is the solo project of their drummer, Håkan Hellström, who did not sing in English.) Generally, Swedish indiepop in English was strongly influenced by British indie, particularly things like Sarah Records, C86 and the Glasgow school; switch to Swedish, and the reference points often become more elusive and unfamiliar, made for a domestic audience. On the subject of music, the live music scene in Stockholm appears a lot smaller than in London or Melbourne, with fewer gigs and venues; I'm told it used to be much better, before a lot of venues closed down, and/or in the Golden Age Of Swedish Indie, which was some 10-20 years ago.) What venues survive do so tenuously: the last outpost of the institution known as Debaser is facing an uncertain future, as its lease may not be renewed after next year. Record shopping also is a bit thin on the ground; in shops that sell new records, the range of new releases is fairly small; in one shop, the featured CD wall may have half a dozen recent releases, surrounded by rereleases and back-catalogue; if you want to fill in your Black Sabbath or Queen collection, you're sorted. There isn't really anything on the scale of Fopp, let alone Rough Trade, here (perhaps everyone in Sweden is over buying music, and just streams it on Spotify?), though for some reason, there is an abundance of secondhand record shops.

Other things: there is an abundance of high-quality baked goods made with cardamom, cinnamon and/or saffron; Sweden is to those what Australia is to coffee, in that what passes for a cinnamon roll abroad would be unacceptable here. Sweden is a coffee-drinking culture; traditionally filter, though espresso is common now. If you want non-dairy milk in your flat white, there is generally one brand of local oat milk, whose ads are obnoxiously ubiquitous; a few places have soy milk, though nobody seems to import Bonsoy or make anything similar. The supermarkets have an abundance of dairy products, including pourable yoghurts in cardboard cartons (fun fact: Tetra-Pak is a Swedish invention), though Icelandic skyr is less popular than in the UK; oddly enough, Swedish supermarkets include things like caviar in toothpaste-style tubes and entire aisles of different types of bearnaise sauce. Sweden has a reputation for expensive drinks, though a beer is not much more expensive than in London; a gin and tonic, however, will set you back at least twice as much. There is also the state liquor monopoly, with its extensive network of well-provisioned booze supermarkets, previously discussed here; they are closed on Sundays for historical reasons. Sweden is historically Lutheran (and, before that, of course, Norse pagan), though no longer has an established state church. As far as I can tell, the Swedish ideas of lagom and Jante Law are, in practice, a bit like the English idea of social class: there's a grain of truth to them (though with many untidy exceptions), but they're vague enough that any commentator can find them in what they see, like a Rorschach inkblot.

In any case, Stockholm is a good place to live, if perhaps a bit quiet at times. It is easily the most beautiful place I have lived so far.

personal stockholm sweden travel 2

2019/9/10

Another Apple Event™, this time the annual iPhone/iPad one. And out comes Tim Cook, announcing that they're foregoing the traditional feel-good videos and plunging right in, as today's event will be “truly big”; followed by an hour and a half of mostly incremental improvements. Oh, and a pay-TV platform that looks like an Onionesque parody of the Netflix/HBO/Amazon high-concept event-serial genre.

The good news is that it won't have a huge impact on one's credit card, as there are no must-haves. Everything's slightly nicer, and the top-end iPhone takes better pictures than any other iPhone, though nothing's compelling. (Apple themselves quoted a report from last year saying that the A12 processor in the iPhone XS will be ahead of Android devices for two years, which means that my XS still has one year of non-obsolescence left.)

For what it's worth, three things I would have liked to have seen announced at an Apple device event:

  1. The ability to use the NFC transceiver in the Apple Watch (and iPhone) for arbitrary non-payment-card applications; allowing things like putting public transport cards, library cards, locker keys and such on one's watch. The convenience of being able to board buses or enter/exit Tube stations without getting my wallet out is one thing I miss about London (which achieves this by tapping into the payment-card network with its system). (IIRC, Apple have said that they keep the NFC chip under tight control because of security considerations. Perhaps an acceptable compromise would be for Apple to closely vet all applications with NFC entitlements, with their security engineers going through the NFC-adjacent code with a fine-toothed comb, as they do some other apps with elevated security permissions. This would be fine; after all, it's not like every developer and their dog would be putting this functionality into their apps.)
  2. An iPhone with the capabilities equivalent to the iPhone XS or similar (decent cameras, reasonable battery life, at least 256Gb storage maximum), but in an iPhone 5-sized form factor. Being able to use a phone one-handed without precariously crowd-surfing it on one's fingertips to reach the top of the screen would be nice. If they made it thicker to accommodate the battery and Flash storage, that would not be a problem either; besides, IMHO, the bevelled edge of the iPhone 4 and 5 did look more stylish than the generic roundedness of the iPhone 6 and subsequent models.
  3. In terms of pro photographic products: an iOS (or iPad OS) device with a decent-sized sensor (at least Micro ⁴⁄₃, if not full-frame), with a decent optical zoom lens that's f/1.8 or better, or, even better, an interchangeable lens mount; thus giving you the advantages of a full-sized sensor and lens (and the laws of physics say that, however good phone-sized sensors get, they'll always be handicapped by their size) with Apple's computational photography and the iOS photographic app ecosystem. Of course, it will probably be a cold day in Hell before Apple put something like this out; it may be more likely that several incumbent camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, mindful of phones biting into their market share, get together to launch a computational-photography application platform, complete with interchangeable APIs and app stores, allowing photographic app developers to get their apps running on real cameras. Or maybe not.
So, not the most exciting Apple Event, by all accounts; credit cards are staying firmly in wallets, as the last year's devices prove to be good enough, which will undoubtedly bring out the pundits decrying Apple having lost their way and stopped innovating; at best, they're coasting on inertia from the Jobs years, their lucrative App Store monopoly and iMessage blue-bubble lock-in, and at worst, it's time to dump your AAPL shares while they're still worth something. Which, as humdrum as today's spec-bump update was, is not entirely true. Apple are pushing out some dramatic innovations this year, though they're mostly at the technical level, and were discussed in this year's WWDC. (For one, the user interface framework used for developing iOS apps, which dates back to the iPhone 1.0 and stands on the 1980s Smalltalk-inspired foundations of NeXTSTEP, is being replaced by a set of new, declarative framework named SwiftUI and Combine, which takes extensively from the functional-reactive programming world; these framework will be unified across all Apple platforms, including macOS and WatchOS, allowing apps' codebases to not only be simpler but shared across platforms which would have been too different until now. This, however, is harder to convey in a device event than a 3-camera bump or a new colour option of “Midnight Green”.)

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