Wollongong in Transformation

For some time, the city of Wollongong has been changing… and for the better. We’ve always had gorgeous beaches and a picturesque escarpment but elements of our city have needed updating.

The most notable shifts in recent years have been improvements to the Blue Mile coastal areas and old tramway, the refurbished Crown Street Mall, new GPT shopping developments and the annual breath of life that is the Wonderwalls Festival of street art. Not to mention, the city council has undertaken the massive task of overhauling the streetscape, with new footpaths bringing greater consistency into the place. I applaud them for this.

There has always been disagreement, like how how the mall should function. I disagree with the idea that it should have reverted to allowing traffic and am glad that it remained as a pedestrian strip. Around the world, we’re seeing a shift back to pedestrian-friendly areas that enable safer movement, outdoor activities and events such as markets. That’s why when you visit countries like Italy and Germany, you come back with romantic memories of their amazing respective piazze and Fußgängerzonen. These open spaces allow the creation of culture, with locals with visitors mixing and mingling. Cities are for people, not cars.

The thing that does puzzle me about the mall, however, is the lack of eateries on the strip, particularly those that can provide al fresco dining. At night-time (other than on Thursdays with the Eat Street Market), the place is dead. The insistence on having almost entirely daytime retail is strange and totally cuts off the bustling Keira Street restaurant strip from the similar setup on Corrimal Street. We basically have two entirely different nightlife zones.

Recently, I’ve been wondering about another development that was completed farther down Corrimal Street, on the old Dwyers site. The fantastic decision was made to keep the footpath very wide, enabling improved pedestrian access and avoiding the creation of a huge wind tunnel with the new Oxford development that stands across the road.

Except the only issue is, nothing is happening here. It’s dead space. Sure, the Coffee Club has just moved in up the road on the corner, but other than a few chairs outside, everything is indoors and behind glass. One restaurant has already failed and other spaces are offices or have remained for lease since construction was completed.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s actually a long-term vision that drives all of this. Cities should feel lively and inviting; this area, unless there’s some future plan of which I am unaware, does not display those characteristics. Why not add a coffee cart? How about news or fresh produce stands, like in Sydney? How about a place for street artists? The same can be said of Civic Plaza in front of the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, which is often empty unless the Spiegeltent is in town.

As unpopular as this suggestion may be, what about something like the sandstone and palm tree art installation in the mall? Whilst some people hate that design, at least it’s distinctive and children can be seen climbing and jumping from sandstone block to sandstone block. It’s a great combination of form and function, as the blocks function as family seating during the markets and also break up the greyness of the mall. Remember, Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it went up and now it’s an icon. I’m not saying that the palm tree is our Eiffel Tower but at least it’s unique, memorable and makes you stop to observe your surroundings.

Wollongong is a beautiful place that’s full of diverse, interesting people. Fortunately, as a regional centre, we don’t suffer the same level of congestion and air and noise pollution that Sydney has. In many ways, we have it really easy here. I’m so proud of the improvements that have been made over the last decade but occasionally you see something like this and wonder… ‘Why?’. I want to see Wollongong CBD become an altogether exciting place, not a mish-mash of food and retail.

If anyone has any clue about the intention for this dead space, I’d love to know about it.

OK, that’s a Word

I’m fascinated by language and often take notice of the words that people (sometimes unknowingly) tend to use. As an aside and to be upfront, I’m really big on words like ‘certainly’ and ‘ultimately’; they just sound nice and dramatic to me.

One term that I had never really considered was ‘OK’; it is used so frequently by so many people. My interest was piqued by this fantastic video on Vox, which explains the history behind this now ubiquitous word. I had originally heard that it came from the wartime display of ‘zero kills’ after a successful day on the battlefield, however, this is one of many fake stories (as the video explains). Instead, it comes from the 19th-century trend of creating humorous abbreviations and phrases for other pre-existing terms. (I won’t ruin the rest of the story… you should just watch the clip.)

All of this made me think more deeply about why I find other current, ubiquitous words frustrating, such as ‘like’ and ‘literally’… so why not the word ‘OK’? After all, it is even more common and as a phrase from the United States, is a shining example of American influence on all global ‘Englishes’.

I arrived at the following conclusion: it comes down to the usefulness and purpose of such a word. If there is an intention behind the creation of a new word or the alteration of an existing one’s meaning, this is a sign of language adapting, improving and perhaps even filling a gap. A term like ‘OK’, with its neutral yet affirmative nature, according to the video, did not exist in English beforehand. ‘Yes’ is simply too definite and much less versatile. You can say ‘Are you OK?’ but you can’t say ‘Are you yes?’.

Other examples include the transformation of the word ‘access’ into a verb. This may be excruciating for some (such as my extended family) but it now fills a gap. ‘Accessing’ is a major feature of computer language and dialogue boxes, such as when waiting for a connection to be established to a file, site or other content. A word like ‘retrieving’ doesn’t work.

The words ‘like’ and ‘literally’ are frustrating because they are not so much the evolution of language but pure mistakes. ‘Like’ is useless filler, a strange interjection where ‘um’, ‘ah’ or ‘hmm’ would suffice. Outside of its proper usage, such as ‘I like jam’, it only serves to disrupt the flow of any given sentence. ‘Literally’ is even more annoying, since it is used instead of ‘actually’ or ‘really’. The original definition of this word is being misunderstood and eroded, not enhanced. If and when all people start to misuse this word, will we actually lose the word’s original meaning and literally have to replace it with something else?

To avoid obsessing entirely about only these two words, another made-up term that I hear frequently is ‘learnings’… wrong. We already have the word ‘lesson(s)’; ‘learning’ is an abstract noun that can’t be used as a plural. Again, this is an error that only leads to ambiguity and confusion. How many ‘learnings’ can one learn whilst learning?

Some may argue that the word ‘gay’ fits into this category, as prior to its being synonymous with ‘homosexual’, it meant that one is happy. I argue that this is different. The word ‘gay’ has gained an extra meaning and now benefits from the positivity of its original definition. ‘Literally’, however, is now used in a way that makes no sense and conflicts its real definition.

What I’m getting at is that we shouldn’t be linguistically deterministic. To totally standardise and clamp down on language is to stifle its evolution—how else would we have so many languages and dialects today? We can’t, however, swing back too far the other way and just accept anything and everything. My only issue is when changes are based on error rather than invention, creativity or cultural nuance.

‘OK’ is an example of true linguistic creativity; it is a word that has come to be so versatile and significant for so many people. If anything, it’s the ultimate symbol of Americanisation/globalisation, spanning not only English-speaking nations but also infecting others’ languages. You know what, though? It has filled a gap. It’s a word that affirms and unites everyone and I’m cool with it. OK?

Walkie-Talkie on Apple Watch

I’ve been a fan of Apple Watch since it was first announced back in 2014. With each subsequent model and version of watchOS, there have been numerous new features that have enhanced the experience of wearing a computer on your wrist.

Some of the most notable changes over the past few years have been the addition of native support for third-party apps, cellular connectivity, enhanced health-tracking (e.g. accessibility, ECG and fall-detection) and of course, the overhaul of the user interface, bringing the Dock, Control Centre and more.

What I love the most about the Apple Watch is the fact that it frees me from my phone. I’ve left my phone on silent for years now and appreciate the taps on my wrist whenever important notifications arrive.

Now using the Series 4 with watchOS 5, I have found one of the most profound improvements to be Walkie-Talkie. When Apple announced it as a new feature earlier this year, it was mainly with a sense of humour and fun, as the first use case that was shown was two kids in a backyard at night for a sleepover, joking back and forth with the app between two tents.

Whilst it certainly is fun, I use it as a serious feature almost every day with my wife, Natasha. We still make phone and FaceTime Audio calls with each other and naturally use iMessage, however, there are certain cases when Walkie-Talkie is best. We use it when we need to know each other that we’re leaving work, late, stopping somewhere on the way for groceries, have a quick question to ask or even if we need something across the house (to save ourselves from yelling).

For those who haven’t used Walkie-Talkie, it’s not the same as sending audio files that require manual playback through iMessage. Instead, it sends an audio file that plays live on the other person’s watch, if only with a slight delay. This gives the feeling of a true Walkie-Talkie, as if you’re conversing with the person in-person.

Simply press and hold the big ‘TALK’ button whilst speaking!
Simply press and hold the big ‘TALK’ button whilst speaking!

Naturally, there are contexts where this would be downright inappropriate or wouldn’t make sense, particularly if you keep it on high volume. This is because the other person’s voice springs out spontaneously if you keep your status on ‘available’. Therefore, Walkie-Talkie is most useful when you only permit your most important contacts to become favourites in the app.

Taking a step back, when Apple unveiled the first Apple Watch, it touted the device not only as a tool for activity and health, but one for enhanced personal communication. Whereas wrist-taps, Messages, Scribble and other messaging apps and features have certainly made communication more convenient on Apple Watch, Walkie-Talkie is perhaps the first function to make you feel even more connected and really personal. Remember the favourite contacts list that hid behind a press of the Digital Crown in watchOS 1? It has been gone for some time and Walkie-Talkie feels like the app where your favourites truly belong. Now, five OS updates in, I’m even more excited about Apple Watch and what it means for communication.

iPad Pro as Your Everyday Computer

Some Background

I’ve been a committed Mac user since I was five years old, with my family’s first Power Macintosh 6500 in 1997. From classic Mac OS through to modern-day macOS, Cupertino’s take on the desktop interface has always worked for me.

My mental model of computing is built around the Mac but in recent times, I’ve moved much of my everyday computing to my 10.5-inch iPad Pro. My earliest experiences with iPad (aside from playing around with others’ models from 2010), was when I could afford the third-generation iPad in 2012. I absolutely loved it and certainly appreciated its status as an ‘in-between’ device, as Jobs sold it: more capable than a smartphone but more portable than a laptop.

The Mac is still the hub for my heavier content, such as original iCloud Photo Library files and HD iTunes downloads, however, the iPad now serves as the device that I pick up first to edit photos, create documents, watch online video, complete emails and other creative tasks.

The Home Screen

To frame my thoughts on using iPad Pro, I thought that it would be interesting to run through my first home screen. The apps that make up this space—particularly the dock—determine how you use the device. My home screen is below, followed by a list of apps (with links to those from third parties).

Dock

Three Other Visible (Suggested) Apps in the Dock

The Rest of the Home Screen

The Wallpaper

The ‘Why’

I could go on forever about why I use certain apps and place them on the first home screen but we don’t have all day. I could talk about how useful the Affinity apps are (despite my seriously amateur artistic status) or how great it is to read with Books. Not to mention, Shortcuts is really powerful, but I’ve got nothing on the famous Federico Viticci. Instead, reflecting on my move to spending most of my time on the iPad Pro, I thought it would be better to highlight five of the more interesting third-party apps on iOS that have transformed the way that I think and go about computing.

One of the apps that I use the most on my iPad Pro is Twitterrific. In recent years, Twitter has received more and more criticism for its handling of online abuse, fake news and bots. I don’t see any of this when I use Twitterrific, as it offers powerful muting, muffling and most importantly, no ads. The ability to customise the interface with themes, colours and icon shapes is also fantastic and the app respects the recommended two-column interface that works so well on iPads. Altogether, Twitterrfic turns Twitter into a pleasant online space for me and I use its Twitter list function heavily to follow news and blogs that I don’t want to see in my normal feed. It’s also great to have to the side in split view.

Whilst Twitter is my main link to new and the outside worl), Icro for Micro.blog has radically shifted the way that I think about microblogging and sharing updates online. Icro on the iPad Pro offers a simple interface for posting images and sharing quick thoughts, with what can only be regarded as a very engaged and genuine user base, who are generally over the foolishness and narcissism on Facebook. I’ve met a number of interesting people using on Icro on my iPad Pro, whom I wouldn’t have met elsewhere.

Moving on, Ulysses on iOS has changed the way that I think about writing. In fact, I’m wrote this blog post with it. My idea of documents has always been the traditional model of creating individual files, all of which are accessible from a shared file system like the Finder on macOS. Ulysses focuses on a more stripped-back writing environment, based on Markdown XL, with a dark theme, unobtrusive user interface and grouped projects with ‘sheets’ that replace individual documents. With the ability to set writing goals, tag sheets and post directly to sites, it has enabled me to focus more on my writing and use the iPad Pro with less friction. Most importantly, because of its ease of use and minimalism, I’m more motivated to write.

Staying on the topic of text, Day One is one of those apps that can really enhance your computing experience… if you commit to it. As a journaling app, it offers powerful tagging and media capabilities like Ulysses, along with the ability to create multiple journals for different purposes, such as holidays, for example. I was very inconsistent with my use of Day One in earlier days but with the addition of the Smart Keyboard on iPad Pro, two items that are now always with me, writing a long-term journal is now much less of a chore. Tie that in with split view and drag-and-drop, and you suddenly have an easy way to integrate photos, videos, links and other information that’s relevant to your chronicle of the day.

Last of all, this may be the most unexpected choice: V for Wikipedia. Without a doubt, Wikipedia is one of the most revolutionary tools of the digital age, giving people access to abundant information no matter where they are. That being said, Wikipedia makes a lot of sense on the desktop but hasn’t always been super-nice to use on smartphones and tablets. There’s often a lot of scrolling to be done. V for Wikipedia is one of a number of third-party Wikipedia clients that presents the site in a way that is easier and more digestible on portable devices. This app is undoubtedly the nicest and offers quick chapter navigation, bookmarking, search, beautiful type and an engaging and dynamic front page that shows the most read Wikipedia articles on any given day.

Furthermore, V for Wikipedia shows the most searched items in your area, if you grant it access to your location. The thing that is most significant about this app is the feeling that it gives you as you use it. It transforms the site into a reading experience and makes you want to keep discovering new content. In essence, it takes what is an endless database of web articles and makes it seem like a well-designed and modern Britannica or Encarta. When I use this app, it takes me back to the sense of discovery that I had when I was in primary school, using Encyclopedia Encarta on CD-ROM.

What’s a Computer?

Shifting now, this brings me to the major point argument about computing on iOS. Many say that it needs to compete with a laptop and that it fails in doing so. Of course, there are areas where iOS falls down, such as connection to peripherals such as external drives. To me, this is a redundant argument. When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad back in 2010, he clearly pitched it as an in-between device that combines the best of consumption and production into a portable package. Since then, it has changed to address the feedback and needs of pro(sumer)s who want something more. Given its original design purpose relatively short history in contrast to the Mac, people just need to be patient. The platform will continue to mature.

What is profound about iPad Pro (and iOS more broadly) is how the form factor enables a new type of computing. Stripping away the need for a desk and pointing devices, at least up until now, has given us completely different apps and contexts for computing. The Apple Pencil is the perfect example of a tool that works beautifully with the iPad Pro, but would gel with a Mac.

I will always love the Mac and see no immediate reason to stop using it. It’s powerful, it’s versatile and it’s nostalgic. The difference is that the vast majority of what I need to do on a computer is now addressed by iPad Pro. It has a keyboard when I need it to have one.

All of this is precisely why I avoid saying that the iPad Pro is my main computer. It’s impossible really to define what ‘main’ means for all users, as I check my Apple Watch more than any other device with wrist-turns all the day, overall I spend the most time on my iPhone and I use the Mac as my content storage hub. I choose to say everyday computer instead, as it’s the large-screen device that I use for the majority of my more taxing functions.

iPad Pro is both a computer and not a computer. It is yet another choice in a broad range of devices and I can’t wait to see where Apple takes it in the coming years.

ABC Life on the Art of Small Talk

I found this interesting article on ABC Life by writer Mia Timpano: Is having great conversation a science or an art? Turns out it’s a bit of both.

As someone who obsesses over daily minutiae, I really enjoyed the content. Small talk can be such a culturally-specific and personal thing, with everyone set in their own conversational habits. People certainly differ in the ways that they speak, how long they take to respond and whether they are concise or verbose.

To me, the biggest thing has always been eye contact. Everyone should be comfortable with pauses and extended silence—things can take time to process and the article makes this point very well—but simply hearing isn’t enough. It’s important to show that you’re listening to someone by engaging with them visually and providing real-time feedback.

Not everyone is a keen or enthusiastic interlocutor, however, I certainly think that a percentage of people have become worse in their conversational abilities, due to an over-reliance on smartphones and digital services.

Almost 20: ‘The Matrix’

The other day, I was flicking around our local iTunes library on the Apple TV. I put on one of my absolute favourite films: The Matrix. I only watched about 15 minutes’ worth, skimming here and there, but as it played, something occurred to me: the movie was released in the year 1999.

The Matrix is almost 20 years old.

I took greater notice of the special effects, the stunts and cinematography and you know what? It still holds up today. The Matrix truly set the standard at the time for Hollywood film-making (leading into the start of the new millennium), capitalising on fear about the seemingly inevitable Y2K bug. The idea of being a prisoner of some false reality was certainly a theme at the end of the nineties, as evident in other films such as The Truman Show (another personal favourite of mine).

Sure, some of the devices in the film look quite old these days, such as the famous falling Nokia 8110 and beige CRT displays, but that doesn’t matter at all. It all contributes to the aesthetic (along with the subtle green hue) of the film.

All of this also made me reflect on another major reason why I love The Matrix. It’s not just the look, the story, the effects and the soundtrack… it’s the setting. The Wachowskis decided on Sydney as the filming location, which gives it a completely different feeling from just about any other American sci-fi or action movie. The architecture is distinctive (take Harry Seidler’s prominent Australia Square Tower in a few shots), the phone boxes are different and the streetscape in general lends a different feel to the neo-noir aesthetic.

Beyond the fact that it’s obviously different from the normal appearance of American films, The Matrix also shows places throughout Sydney that Australians were able to recognise, albeit from odd angles and obscured views. This makes the locations eerily familiar, although somewhat foreign and other-worldly. Perhaps more than for any other viewer, American or otherwise, Australians can experience the matrix as it is described by the characters Morpheus and Trinity: a dream world that seems like home but just doesn’t feel quite right.

The Matrix still influences so much of what we see in movies today, be it slow-motion ‘bullet time’ in action sequences, atypical musical scores or stories that question reality (think Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, let’s all be grateful that the Wachowskis dared to do something truly different, philosophical and brave, which set the standard for better American action cinema.

Abbott vs. Turnbull: Republic Debate (1993)

The last decade has been an extraordinary (and disappointing) one in Australian politics, with tiresome leadership spills, the rise of the often unpredictable micro parties and forever-shifting policies, particularly when it comes to energy and sustainability.

Things move quickly and we’re already into the post-Turnbull ‘ScoMo’ era (cringe). Before we forget recent events between Turnbull and Abbott too quickly, however, it is important to remember that history has a habit of repeating itself…

I couldn’t help being reminded of this fact when I stumbled upon a video of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull on the ABC’s 7:30 Report back in 1993, debating the need for Australia to become a republic. Shared on YouTube by ABCLibrarySales, this great video shows that Abbott and Turnbull almost seemed destined to butt heads ideologically for the rest of their political careers.

As a side note, the question of Australia becoming a republic really doesn’t seem to have progressed since the 1999 referendum. The issue of a rebranded royal family with increasing popularity certainly isn’t helping things.