Thursday 31 August 2017

The weaponisation of influence

The media is in the habit of putting out hooks that aim to grab our attention by flagging imminent threats, it’s true, so we’re used to being told to be scared of the future, but Mark Pesce is known for his solid grasp of that nebulous place we are all travelling toward at the speed of electrons. Or the speed of light.

This morning’s talk by Pesce was a Rising Minds event held at the Golden Age Cinema and Bar in Surry Hills. The small downstairs cinema was quite full and there were questions at the end of the talk, which was titled ‘The last days of reality’. A more complete version of the material contained in this morning’s talk will appear in an essay in the summer issue of Meanjin.

In 2011, Pesce told the audience, Facebook started curating the news feed because it had reached the limits of its economic growth. The company started developing user profiles to increase user engagement and exposure to advertising. It coupled profiling with machine learning, and the profile, Pesce said, is both observational and experimental. “Engagement is an algorithmic outcome.”

In 2015, Facebook demonstrated a capacity to alter the moods of its users, he went on. And in May this year it was revealed that the company had guided an advertiser to target vulnerable children on the platform.

Pesce labelled the way that social media is thus reaching deep into our lives as “the weaponization of influence”. It is a hyper-mediated world we live in, and machinery is always censoring our view of the world. These trends, combined with the rise of neuromarketing and augmented reality, are “warping the fabric of what we think is real”. We live, he said, in a post-real world.

As to Facebook’s promises to filter out “fake news”, responding to pressure from different parts of the community in the wake of new types of media players appearing in recent years, Pesce thinks that the company is effectively trapped in a fake news loop. “It can’t deprecate fake news too much because then engagement will drop,” he said. The result of that would be lower profits.

Pesce then turned his attention to the way that social media is altering the world outside the private sphere. He talked about Cambridge Analytica, a company which builds profiles of voters, and which uses the resulting information to influence people’s behaviour in polls. They know when a voter is most vulnerable, he said. “When there are aims beyond profit, the weaponization of influence takes on a different nature.”

As for the future? He said that Facebook is obsessed with augmented reality. “Facebook wants to rewrite the way we see the world,” he said. “The real world will be a reflection of what Facebook knows we want to see.” We are at the dawn of the post-real era, he went on, and the trick for everyone today is to learn how to live in this world. He pointed to Solid, an initiative by internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee, which is aimed at letting people exert control over their profiles.

Pesce opened this morning’s talk by painting a vivid word picture. He wanted to illustrate in a dramatic fashion what he intended to tell the audience during the talk. He told us to close our eyes for a moment. Imagine, he said, that you wake up in a dark room without knowing how you got there or where you are. Then, all of a sudden, you see a glowing pane of light. There is a chair, and you sit down in front of the light source. Then images start to resolve out of the light. A series of images. You react to each image as it appears, and your reactions are recorded by cameras and other instruments in the room. One image might make you feel happy. The next image revolts you. Each time you react, your responses are captured and stored. At the end of many hours of watching the screen, the light source goes black again and you enter into a deep sleep, exhausted by your labours. But the next day you wake up and sit in front of the light source again, and you see a new set of images. This time, however, the images you see make you happy. The room has “learned” from your responses and keeps you entertained by presenting only images that will cause a positive response in you.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Rainbow banners, Taylor Square

On Sunday I was buying a kebab at Taylor Square and the rainbow banners the city has installed caught my attention. I asked the woman serving in the shop when they had been put there but she didn't know. She asked a man seated at the back of the shop if he knew, but he shook his head. "We don't notice things around here," she said to me with a wry smile. She has started to recognise me since I began going to the shop for lunches. "I only noticed them today," the man said to me from his table.

Yesterday I emailed the city council about the banners, asking them if it had been the City of Sydney itself or someone else who had decided they should be placed in such a prominent location. 

"The Rainbow Banners are booked by the City of Sydney to support our Sustainable 2030 plan to support Diversity and Inclusion," the acting manager of corporate partnerships replied to me. "We fly the Rainbow Banners as part of our ongoing support for Sydney’s LGBTI community and for the marriage equality campaign." She then pointed me to a web page setting out the city's policies for diversity and inclusion.

Monday 28 August 2017

Nala the dog, Pitt Street Mall

This morning around 11am I walked past this man and this dog asleep under this blanket on the pavement in Pitt Street Mall, and on the way back up the mall after lunch, about 20 minutes later, there was a young woman seated on the blanket as well. I put the coins in my pocket into the cap placed on the ground for money and asked her what the dog's name was. She said it was Nala. I had met her and the dog three weeks earlier but hadn't recognised the woman this time. She told me Nala is two years old.

Beggar, Market Street

This poor fellow was sitting on the corner of York Street and Market Street yesterday when I was making my way home, but I didn't have any money left to give to him. I had given a handful of gold coins to the woman sitting in Pitt Street Mall with Bear the dog - who I met three weeks ago - although the woman was different this time. It was most certainly Bear with her though, he even had on the same jacket with the faux-fur trim. I had also given five dollars to the owner of Roxanne (who I wrote about two weeks ago), who told me this time that the dog is "an American staffie-cross with ridgeback". "I reckon she's been up half the night," he added when I asked about her, giving me the same line he had given me last time I had given him some money. Roxanne was lying on his lap as he sat cross-legged on the pavement, which is her normal perch.

Sunday 27 August 2017

We need to rename Sydney Eora

The image that accompanies this blogpost is a photo of Archer Russell, an early Australian naturalist and journalist. I wrote about his political views about five years ago at the time when I accessed his papers, which are in the State Library in Sydney. I had already written a story for Australian Geographic about Russell, in 2011, and I had been thinking at the time I visited the library of the possibility of writing something more substantial. But I never got around to it. I read through my notes from that library visit this morning, though, and it made me think about Russell and what he stood for. I remembered one of the newspaper clippings I had seen in one of the boxes of his papers the library holds, which showed Sydney Harbour - in black-and-white of course, but still a photographic reproduction - and which had labels on it indicating different places in the city with their original Aboriginal names.

This brings us back to current events in Sydney, where the prime minister has voiced the opinion that the vandals who defaced the Hyde Park statues of James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie were doing something reminiscent of 20th-century Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

If you read the 2012 blogpost about Russell, you'll know that in later life he was politically active on the left, and participated in the literary life of his country with vigour and dedication with a view to helping people to live better lives. So he was "Green" generations before today's term was invented, in more than one sense.

But the thing about the left is that they always seem to end up on the right side of history. This is something that the prime minister should keep in mind when he labels people with terms of opprobrium without necessarily understanding their motivations. The fact is that Stan Grant is right and that James Cook did not discover Australia (as we were taught to know in school). The Aborigines were here 60,000 years before Cook came ashore, and it's time we renamed the places we think are important to reflect that reality. So let's start by renaming Sydney Eora, as a friend suggested to me on Wednesday night.

Rough sleepers of Wentworth Park

On my way to Newtown yesterday I took this photo of the tents under the railway viaduct in Wentworth Park. I had been told on Wednesday that the rough sleepers there had moved on but it turned out to be a false alarm, because they're still there although some of the arches that had been occupied are now empty.

Further up, on Broadway I saw Pepper and her owner walking down the street toward me. We all crossed the road at the traffic light and the dog and her owner - who I met last week - went into Victoria Park beside me. I didn't say hello. The man was carrying a bottle of red wine and he sprinkled a few drops of the liquid onto the dirt of a flower bed as he entered the park, with the dog at his heels. They walked past the old sandstone Gardener's Lodge and he sat down on a bench with another man near the building. I continued on my journey through the park toward Newtown.

Eat cheese and vote 'Yes'

I saw this sign on the footpath outside The Stinking Bishops on Enmore Road, Enmore, yesterday when I was up there having lunch at my usual Egyptian place. I guess they serve cheese, but it's only a guess because I've never seen their menu. I think the rainbow is a nice touch.

Saturday 26 August 2017

Who is Junya Ishigami?

Sydney's proposed cloud arch sculpture has received broad approval in the community but the designer is still an unknown quantity in Sydney, so I did a bit of sleuthing to find examples of his work in other parts of the world.

Junya Ishigami has been in the public eye for quite a few years. Born in 1974, he went to Musashi Institute of Technology from 1994-98, then he went to Tokyo University of the Arts from 1998-2000. He joined architect firm Kazuyo Sejima + Associates in 2000 and in 2004 he set up his own firm.

The first important event in his career seems to have been the Venice Biennale in 2008 where he was the designer of the Japanese pavilion.

In the same year his design for a workshop at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology was completed.

Ishigami was back at the next Venice Biennale in 2010 winning the Golden Lion for best project, for Architecture as air: Study for ch√Ęteau la coste.

In the video you can see the thin carbon fibre rods and the wispy threads of stuff the exhibition participants are using to construct the installation in the exhibition space, which is an old building dating from a much earlier era. There is almost nothing to be seen, the thing is just the mere impression of a structure, indeed it is the bare outline of one. Ishigami's exhibition later went to London, where it was shown at the Barbican.

In 2012 Ishigami’s firm won a competition to build a visitor centre for Park Groot Vijversburg, in the Netherlands, along with local firm MAKS. From the designer's own website:
Park Groot Vijversburg, located in the north of Holland was established in the 19th century and contains a rich history of flora and fauna. A historical villa is centrally placed in the park. Throughout the year, the park hosts many events such as international exhibitions of contemporary art, musical performances, church services and excursions. 
The goal is to design a new visitor center, renovate the historical villa, develop a floating stage for performances, and create glasshouses for the botanical gardens. 
One of our main proposals is a visitor center, positioned next to the historical villa. In plan, the form is as if pulled tightly in three directions while maintaining a required main hall. 
As the main hall stretches, it gradually becomes a path – naturally transforming into a park trail. This slowly pulled wing loses its quality of interior space as one progresses along it, leaving only its wall, until it finally disappears into the park environment. 
In this way, the building establishes a large scale similar to that of the generous park, and at the same time, the enclosed space provides small scale ambiance and intimacy. This is our aspiration for the new visitor center.
In 2014 two big wins came Ishigami’s way: the Kinmen ferry terminal in Taiwan, and the House of Peace for Copenhagen’s harbour. The second of these projects was won with local firm Svendborg Architects.

Neither of the projects seems to have been built yet but in 2015 Ishigami constructed a nursery in Atsugi, in Japan, using cloud forms. He was interviewed about the project:
"I like to look at the clouds," explained Ishigami. "Clouds change their form at will, with a certain rationality. Moreover, they are all white and fluffy, having both a sense of unity and some consistency. And they are vast." 
"I have been thinking recently about whether it is possible to think of architecture in such an atmosphere," he added.

Friday 25 August 2017

Best salad bar in the Sydney CBD?

The picture below shows Famous Fish Co by Costi in the food court on the ground floor of the MLC Centre. Costi's have a great salad bar and I bought Lebanese lentil salad today along with the creamy seafood salad. The salads here are very fresh and tasty as well as cheap at only $11 for a large container with two salads in it. The taste of the lentil salad especially was really nice and fresh. There's a Soul Origin in the MLC Centre as well, where they sell salads too.

In the Westfield food court under the Myer store on Pitt Street Mall there's another good place to get salads called Pasta Pantry. I had a large container of their salad as well as some of one of their meat dishes the other day and it came to just over $14.

There's also a Soul Origin in the Broadway Shopping Centre which I use now that SumoSalad in that shopping centre has closed. The company CEO announced that it would be rethinking its viability back in June due to rising rents in shopping centres, and the Broadway shop hasn't been taken over by any other tenant since it shut.

Shopping centres will be feeling a bit shaky since Amazon announced earlier this month that it would be opening a fulfilment centre in Melbourne to service the Australian market. People like Frank Lowy, who owns Westfield, will be looking sideways at Amazon, which has just announced it will start cutting prices at Whole Foods Market, the retailer the company just purchased.

The move by the internet giant caused the stock prices of rival retailers in the US to fall, at the same time that its own stock price went up.

I've been eating a lot more salads following the advice of my dietitian, and so I've been looking around for whatever healthier options are available when I go on walks. Most food that's sold at lunch counters is starchy and bad for your health.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

On journalists and their privacy in the era of mass surveillance

This event was held as part of the Sydney Ideas program and featured (from left in the photo in the blogpost) Gabor Szathmari a founder of the organisation CryptoAustralia, Paul Farrell a journalist at BuzzFeed, Julie Posetti who is head of digital editorial capability at Fairfax, and Benedetta Brevini a senior lecturer in communication and media at the University of Sydney. Brevini did the honours as compere.

Farrell kicked off the evening last night, which was titled ‘Journalism, Resistance and Metadata’, by providing some background about his own career. He studied journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, and has worked at the Guardian. He is also co-founder of the Detention Logs website and was the lead reporter on the Guardian’s Nauru Files. In 2014 Farrell said the Guardian was still soliciting stories via email, but added that the police had routinely investigated journalists’ stories to find their sources.

“It’s challenging to be confronted with evidence of mass surveillance,” Farrell said. “It’s a structural problem for people doing journalism.” Farrell found out by accident that the AFP had in fact even accessed his own phone records. But he did note that journalists had been successful in securing amendments to the federal government’s metadata laws.

Posetti comes to her job at Fairfax after a stint in Paris, where she worked on a large study funded by UNESCO during 2014-15 that involved input from journalists and editors in 121 countries. Privacy is a global crisis, she said, with legal frameworks being eroded everywhere. She said that there’s a need to strengthen laws protecting journalists and their sources. Acts of journalism should be shielded from surveillance, data retention, and handover of material connected to confidential sources.

She said that she understood that using an encryption tool could be a red flag for authorities, but that protecting sources is an ethical consideration. “It’s almost impossible to protect sources,” she said. But the killing of sources was a distinct possibility in many parts of the world. She noted that in some countries where the repercussions sources can face if their activities are discovered are very severe, journalists are reverting to analogue measures to avoid detection. “Really basic measures,” she said, such as meeting in obscure locations like parking garages. “You can revert to analogue methods but you have to be smart.” In some countries, she said by way of example, the authorities use facial recognition technology to identify sources. She also said that in order to protect their sources some journalists stretch the timeline between accessing the source and publication.

Szathmari said that he senses a power disparity between the offensive side (the authorities, who can conduct mass surveillance) on the one hand, and journalists on the other. “It makes sense to go back to the basics and leave the phone at home.” He suggested that journalists should use SecureDrop and GlobalLeaks for first contact. Posetti advised opening a Signal account in order to be able to use encrypted communications to talk with sources.

Farrell said that there is “an almost willful misunderstanding about these tools”. Older journalists, he opined, seem to relish a complete lack of understanding about them. Brevini added that there’s a lack of care, in some cases, for sources.

As to how to get laws protecting journalists and their sources strengthened, Posetti said that journalists now have a responsibility to report about these issues “in ways that allow citizens to appreciate what is happening”. Journalists are obliged to explain to the public the likely outcomes if we continue down the current path.

Szathmari illustrated some of the problems facing journalists and their sources by talking about the case of Reality Winner, a US intelligence contractor who was charged with leaking information about the US election to The Intercept, a US media website. The documents were printed at the NSA, handed over to The Intercept, and rescanned, then published on DocumentCloud. But the printer at the NSA left a trail, because all printers add a series of microdots to printed documents. The NSA was able, by examining the microdots, to identify the exact printer the documents were printed on, and the approximate date they were printed. This information led them to Winner.

Szathmari said that to combat this kind of sleuthing by authorities there is now a PDF redaction tool that converts documents to PDFs but which also removes the printer’s microdots. Journalists can use the tool in order to “clean” documents received from sources, so that the documents can be safely made accessible to the public. CryptoAustralia was started in 2015 and ran workshops with the Walkley Foundation in Sydney last year. Their next meeting is on 20 September.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Talking about the subscription economy

This morning I went down to Darling Harbour to attend the Zuora conference, a one-day event for people who registered online with this American software company. Company founder Tien Tzuo was first up. The company was founded in 2007 and now manages 70 million subscriptions, and has 800 employees in 18 countries. The first slide I chose to go with this blogpost is one of Tzuo's, and it shows that companies that have a subscription model for customers are growing nine times faster than S&P 500 companies.

With the software the company supplies, customers are "freed from the shackles of time or location", said Tzuo. The word "freedom" came up again and again in the promotional material the company brought to the event. Certainly more and more things are available via a subscription these days, and Tzuo told delegates that Oracle's cloud business was growing at 30 percent per year. The New York Times, he added, was on the way to three million subscribers.

Some unexpected candidates are appearing within the subscription economy, too. Tzuo pointed to the way that Japanese heavy-machinery maker Komatsu has automated its business using sensors and software. The company can now get drones to map an area of land, then send the resulting data to a computer, where a complete redesign of that area of land can be planned by operators. The heavy equipment is then sent in to do the hard work of earthmoving, and such vehicles are often completely automated.

Another customer of Zuora's is Servcorp, which started out in Australia subletting office space to companies and individuals. The company now operates in 22 countries and 52 cities in 10 different languages. Their customer billing is through Zuora software. Tzuo also mentioned Stitchfix, an American company that sends packages of clothes to subscribers, who can return items that they don't want to keep.

Next up on stage was Paul Shetler, a consultant who noted that there are now 3.5 billion people on the internet. He also remarked that there are new types of subscription businesses, such as "tractors as a service", which is what US company Caterpillar provides to many of its customers. "Pretty much every company today is competing with a digital services company," he said. "If you're competing with a digital services company, you're a digital services company."

Shetler remarked on the recent statistic being bandied about in the public sphere that Australia has had 26 years of uninterrupted growth. "You don't have another 26 years of uninterrupted growth in Australia," he opined. For companies here, new realities throw up a set of new challenges. "Bureaucracy," Shetler said, "tries to maintain itself." You need to have the political will necessary to make changes from the top, he added. All businesses these days, he went on, are IT and service design businesses.

We then had Katelyn Bonato from Deloitte's talking about the new AASB 15 accounting standard which the US-based Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) have developed. The new standard concerns "the recognition of revenue from contracts with customers", and will impact on businesses in Australia from 2018. The new standard was created, Bonato said, because "the FASB and the IASB wanted consistency globally". And she added that it's "not just a revenue change opportunity it's a whole wider opportunity".

The last speaker I'll mention here is Stuart Thornton from event sponsor worldpay. Thornton came up on stage after lunch and gave delegates a short, potted history of payments which, he said, began 2.5 million years ago with the use of nuts. Coins appeared about 3000 years ago, and banknotes around 600 years ago. These days, he said, "Payments is all about reducing friction." Which brings me to the second photo attached to this post. It lists a few of the new ways that payments will likely be able to be made in future.

In Singapore, where Thornton is based, he said, there are people working on, "Using social media data to prove who you are." And there may soon be applications that can give you a credit limit based on your device activity alone. In future, he went on, when you walk into a store there will be cameras with facial recognition software connected that can identify you and allow you to pay for things without using cash or a debit or credit card, because the store will already have a relationship with you that it draws on to make a decision about whether to trust you. He called this kind of scenario "translucent payments".

Sunday 20 August 2017

In conversation with Glenn Greenwald

"The journalist has an adversarial relationship to institutions of power," said Glenn Greenwald at the start of this afternoon's talk. Greenwald today shared the stage with compere John Keane, the author of an important book on democracy, ex-Greens senator Scott Ludlam, and journalism academic Benedetta Brevini. (I enjoyed today seeing Keane in action as much as I did seeing Greenwald talk, although the Brazil-based journalist was the main draw card for the afternoon, which was organised by the University of Sydney. Keane has a plummy accent and a shock of white hair and was assiduous in his attempts to keep questions taken from the audience short and to-the-point.)

Greenwald justified his position vis-a-vis the powerful by noting that the second half of the 20th century was peppered with "a series of significant and consequential lies", namely the debacle of Vietnam (which was a war started by an American administration that simply lied to the public about who first attacked whom), the war in Iraq under George W. Bush, and the appearance of James Clapper before a 2013 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing during which he denied that the National Security Agency collected data on "millions or hundreds of millions of Americans". Edward Snowden, the CIA whistleblower who leaked thousands of classified documents to Greenwald, told Greenwald that this statement had angered him and had helped him decide to leak information to the media. Journalists have to have a "willingness to challenge conventional pieties", Greenwald told the audience. "You can't want to be liked. If you're liked you're not doing your job."

Greenwald recalled the example of Scott McIntyre who, in 2015, criticised the Anzacs publicly in a series of Anzac Day tweets, which resulted in him losing his job with broadcaster SBS. What McIntyre did was "the essence of journalism", Greenwald said. It sounds like something that should be normal but it is actually something that is in fact polarising, he went on.

Brevini asked Greenwald how society should go about funding journalism, and whether there should be a levy imposed on internet companies by the government.

On privacy, Greenwald said that the goal of the NSA was the elimination of privacy in the digital age. And there was "no democratic accountability in this decision", he said. But he added that because of the way that Silicon Valley companies had been awakened to expressions of public anger at the loss of their privacy - something that had happened because of the Snowden leaks - they had started "providing a measure of privacy" in order to stop consumers going across to rivals in the digital space.

On the issue of public debate, Greenwald said that "In that clash of ideas I think truth is found," referring to the plurality of views that are available on the internet if you seek them out. It was put to him that many people spend their time online in a virtual echo chamber, because they surround themselves only with views that agree with what they already think. "I think our polity and our discussion will be improved" if we pay attention to what people who have opposing views are saying.

On the rise of extreme political players in the US and Europe, Greenwald was philosophical. He said that inequality is a "disease of spirituality", and that Americans feel that they have no future. He mentioned how he had spent time recently in Wisconsin - a state that Donald Trump won in 2016, and that Hillary Clinton had been so confident of winning that she never visited there - and he talked about rising rates of opioid addiction in America. "What causes addiction is a lack of hope," he said. But he added that, "If Hillary had won, the crisis would just have been delayed." Society needs "systemic change", he went on, rounding out his views on the issue of inequality.

With the threat of terrorism "we've allowed [it] to evoke all of our tribal fears", he opined.

On free speech, he takes a 'absolutist' approach and admitted to feeling wary of allowing the government to decide what people should or should not be allowed to say publicly. He doesn't trust governments to say what cannot be expressed by individuals.

Thursday 17 August 2017

Movie review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, dir Luc Besson (2017)

The movie opens with a dream about a paradise lost that is dreamt by major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a government agent who teams up with colleague sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to reclaim a stolen animal whose value lies in the fact that it can replicate anything, and that he had already seen in the dream. The two successfully complete their mission and return to space station Alpha where they find a bigger challenge, as authorities strive to control a foreign presence that has taken the form of an unknown force at the centre of the orbiting habitation. But motivations are not at all clear and when Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) is kidnapped Valerian and Laureline must follow the trail that is laid into parts of the conurbation that most people living in it have never seen.

There are hundreds of strange beings and thousands of unlikely events in the movie, far too many to catalogue one by one. And who would want to do that anyway? Suffice it to say that the creators of the story have let their imaginations roam through many alternate realms of being. From the opening world which is a complex hologram transforming a desert community into a vast marketplace, to the depths of Alpha with its specialised lifeforms and varied microcosms, the possibilities for creativity are endless. The filmmakers have capitalised on the freedom the original comic series offered to them and have made something weird and exceptionally wonderful. But this is also a serious movie, which is what we have come to expect from science fiction generally; difficult ideas about intercultural relations, politics, human rights, and diversity are explored in the course of the movie, as Valerian and Laureline battle with a variety of curious enemies and work alongside an equally curious array of allies.

Love is central to the story, of course. What else would you expect from an action drama? And in exploring the complex relationship that develops between Valerian and Laureline, the movie's creators have given themselves permission to elaborate on other themes, such as forgiveness, truth-telling, and tolerance. At the centre of the nexus of such ideas the two protagonists encounter a space where they can reach out to each other, and find a safe haven for powerful and universal human emotions.

There's plenty of humour as well in this movie, of a sophisticated and subtle kind, as well. No lifeform is too strange or aberrant that the movie's creators cannot find something redeeming about it, and here we find they have taken opportunities to create a kind of laughter that resists the urge to stigmatise in the absence of understanding. All kinds of creatures are invited to belong in the vast community on Alpha, and thrive within the panoptic clasp of Besson's powerful vision. An outstanding movie that can satisfy any taste, young and old.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Pepper the dog, Bay Street, Glebe

I stopped and gave Pepper's owner five dollars and asked if I could take her photo. He said it was ok but I didn't get too close because Pepper had already growled at me when I went to give him the money. The man said he lives in Wentworth Park. I asked him if he ever went to Martin Place of an evening for a feed and he told me that there are people bringing food to the park where he lives, in the evenings. I have seen a Missionbeat van down there and people with tables and chairs.

Swifts on an unseasonally warm winter's day

Today I headed off through Wentworth Park to Glebe to go to the office supplies store, and on the way I saw dozens of swifts skimming the grass, banking, and turning in tight circles. I went under the railway viaduct through the empty opening you can see in the photo, and there was a deep pit in the earth under the arch, big enough to cause someone to fall and hurt themselves if they crossed through there in the dark of night.

It was a windy day. On the other side of the viaduct the topsoil was blowing off the ground where the grass has been denuded by the soccer players who use the fields on weekends. The grass gets wet with rain, and the ground stays boggy, then the people play their games and all the grass is destroyed.

Further down near the racetrack there were men and women setting up tables and chairs and awnings. I asked a man why they were doing this and he said, "We've got the movies. They're shooting somewhere down there," indicating with his hand. On one table was an espresso machine. On my way up St Johns Road I saw in Darling Street a truck with its back doors open, and witches hats set up to cordon off some parking spots, as well as some tents, so I guessed that one of the terrace houses in that street was the place they were doing the filming.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Roxanne the dog, Pitt Street Mall

Yesterday I stopped in Pitt Street Mall and gave five dollars to a man who had his dog in his lap and was stroking her head. Just before I came up to him the dog shifted position and got up to stand on the pavement. I asked if I could take a photo of the dog and the owner warned me that the dog had eaten the mobile phones of other people. "She's eaten mine too," he said. The dog's name is Roxanne.

I stood back and took this photo, then asked if he had trouble getting food on the street. He said he went to Martin Place in the evening, when the food truck comes, but that hundreds of people were there for that reason every day, so that there was competition for available food. "Even people with homes and that," he said. "It's unbelievable."

Monday 14 August 2017

Brutalism two: Town Hall House

This post is the second in a series of blogposts on brutalist architecture in Sydney. I took the first photos of the building, shown below, from Pyrmont Bridge, then I walked south along Kent Street and came to Town Hall House from its major street frontage.

In 1970 architects Archer Mortlock and Woolley were engaged to design a building to replace the nine-story office block the council had built in 1927, which housed the council’s Electricity Department, and a group of older buildings. Construction started in early 1972. In December 1974, the council accepted a tender in the sum of $8.9 million from Max Cooper and Sons for the completion of the building. The NSW governor, Sir Roden Cutler, opened the building on 28 June 1977. He said in his speech on the day:
Council saw the opportunity of providing a Civic Precinct in keeping with the importance of the City as the Capital City Council of New South Wales and the largest City in the Commonwealth. 
At the same time, it saw the need to house its staff in modern accommodation to enable Council’s obligations to its ratepayers to be made more effectively and efficiently.
The building won a Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ merit award in 1979.

At the time it was built Town Hall House was to house council staff on the first ten levels, with levels 11 to 23 leased to businesses. There was to be a public restaurant on level four. In May 1975 display ads for the restaurant lease were taken out in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. Level four now houses the Marconi Room and Southern Function Room, both of which can be booked for functions by the public.

Level four is connected to Town Hall by the Marconi Terrace, which contains a sculpture by Mike Kitching installed in 1976, and a pedestrian walkway. The building also includes part of the underground Town Hall Square Arcade, which connects Town Hall Station with St Andrews House (completed in 1976).

The foyer to Kent Street and the interior of the building were refurbished in 1997.

When he worked in the NSW Government Architect's Office Ken Woolley designed the State Office Block, which was opened in 1967 and demolished in 1997.

To research for this blogpost I visited the council’s archives on level 21 of the building. The staff there were very helpful, getting records for me and helping me to take photos of the building’s interior. I had to get one of them to go with me to the lobby to supervise taking of the interior shots because the security office asked me to do this.

We need a refugee processing centre in Jakarta

Former journalist Mike Carlton tweeted this morning: "Before we disparage American society [for the riots in Charlottesville] we might reflect on the brutal cruelty we Australians inflict upon our refugee prisoners on Manus."

He joined editors at The Age in voicing support for the detainees on Manus Island and Nauru; they published a comment piece two days ago on the subject. And the government's control over the camps has anyway been weakened since the immigration minister removed legal gags preventing people employed to look after inmates from talking about what they see there. This means we can expect to see more reports about the terrible conditions refugees are forced to endure in the camps.

But offshore detention however unappetising for certain sections of the community remains a bipartisan policy. In fact it was reintroduced by the ALP in 2012 because after the Rudd government dismantled it the boats started coming from Indonesia again. I hasten to say that there is nothing wrong with people coming to Australia claiming refugee status. But while there remains a lot of ambivalence in the community about locking people up when they are doing nothing wrong, the unorderly arrival of people by boat causes many people discomfort. Which brings us back to Mike Carlton's comment, because it is this fascistic impulse in Australia for things to run in an orderly and predictable fashion that keeps both major political parties on their toes. And keeps the Pacific Solution alive.

So how about we open up a refugee processing centre in Jakarta? Clearly, refugees have no trouble getting out of the countries where they face persecution, or worse, such as Iran or Afghanistan. If they can make it to Indonesia then we can instead go there, where they are arriving by aeroplane, and help them to get across the last bit of ocean in safety, instead of on a dangerous, flimsy fishing boat.

Such a solution would help people currently stuck on Manus Island (which they have to vacate soon because of the 2016 ruling by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court) and Nauru, because they could then be sent back to Indonesia for processing in an environment where their basic needs could be catered to efficiently and where they would not be subject to abuse. The governments of the two countries could work out how to support refugees who had made it to the archipelago, since we have very good relations with Indonesia. This option would also save a lot of money, money which is currently being wasted on border protection and incarceration.

Sunday 13 August 2017

Fountain, Darlinghurst Road

Fountain on Darlinghurst Road is next to the El Alamein Fountain and the Kings Cross police station. There's a paddy wagon parked outside the cop shop sitting on the footpath so that you can't possibly miss it. Inside the cafe, you can sit next to the window. I had the Fountain duck fat hash, which is latkes (potato cakes) cooked in duck fat and stacked on the plate with interleaved layers of smashed avocado, finely chopped tomato and bacon. There's also an egg on top.

It's a filling meal and the coffee is good. You can see past the fountain to the local street markets, where people come to shop. We wandered down to Potts Point a bit then turned back and made our way up to Victoria Street and on to Oxford Street. Everywhere you looked in Darlinghurst today there seemed to be police cars cruising by. There were uniformed officers on foot on Oxford Street and further down on Liverpool Street also. Cop city weekend!

Saturday 12 August 2017

Rare example of Sydney brutalism

The Molecular Bioscience Building at the University of Sydney (known as G08 within the organisation) received National Trust heritage listing last year. It was listed after three staff members submitted an application for listing with the Trust. The building was designed in 1970-73 by Stafford Moor and Farrington Architects and is one of three brutalist buildings heritage listed by the Trust in 2016.

Brutalism was in the news recently because a court in Sydney decided that the Sirius Building in The Rocks could not be demolished.

G08 is connected to the Wentworth Building by an elevated walkway. When I worked at the university my manager and I would go up to Wentworth for a coffee on most mornings, and we would stand talking and drinking the coffees in the space under the elevated walkway. This space has now been decorated with murals and they have set up table tennis tables for students to use. Some of the concrete walls in the space have been painted white.

But this style of architecture is gaining more attention in the community as people start to appreciate it as having a distinctive and unique visual vocabulary that signals its era strongly, and that offers a visual experience in contrast to the often unremarkable towers of glass and steel that are very common in Sydney. Another good example of brutalism is the University of Technology, Sydney main tower on Broadway.

Chopper the dog, Bay Street, Glebe

Just off Broadway in Bay Street, Glebe, you can see Chopper sitting on the pavement next to his owner, who makes drawings of cars. I was up there today and gave the man five dollars before asking if I could take a picture of his dog. He said ok. He said, "He's named Chopper because when he was born his ear was in-turned." His mother used to lick the gammy ear, the man told me as he stroked the dog's truncated left ear. People went streaming past us on their way to and from the Broadway Shopping Centre, which is just down the road.

Friday 11 August 2017

Young dandy, Kent Street

This man was walking west down the hill on Market Street when the words on the back of his jacket and on his trousers caught my attention. I maneuvered myself into position so that I could snap this photo, which I finally managed to do as he turned south on Kent Street. Young Asians are the most fashionable people in Sydney and they sometimes wear the most incredible clothes. Not long ago I saw a young Asian woman wearing a pair of trousers that had a fart embroidered on the seat. You see some odd things in the city, which can be refreshing, because most young people seem to wear clothes purchased from the same handful of international brand outlets. (But what do I care, all my clothes come from Myer.)

Nala the dog, Pitt Street Mall

I gave a few gold coins to the young woman sitting on the pavement in Pitt Street Mall as the lunchtime crowds flowed thickly around us. The woman had a dog lying next to her on a red rug and I asked if I could take the dog's picture. She said it was ok. The dog's name is Nala and I asked her why. "My friend called her Nala. Originally it was Princess but she's adjusted to Nala."

The woman agreed that it was easy to find food on the street in Sydney, pointing toward Hyde Park where a truck comes in the evening. She also said that there was a drop-in centre at Wynyard Station at 7.30am.