Keeping the Balance

maría guðmundsdóttir

Next year, Parity (est. 2017) is scheduled to release the adventure game Island of Winds. Loosely based on the so-called “witch-craze” in 17th-century Iceland, the game draws upon elements of nature, folklore, and history – with a focus on puzzles and empathy encounters. The game features nine unique areas inspired by Iceland, including glaciers, highlands, […]

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Elon Musk Walks Back Comments About Halli After Twitter Exchange

halli haraldur þorleifsson twitter

Elon Musk has walked back some of his comments regarding Haraldur Þorleifsson, better known as Halli, after a contentious exchange yesterday, March 7.

Twitter layoffs

The exchange followed Halli’s termination at Twitter during the latest in the large-scale layoffs since Mr. Musk’s acquisition of the social media platform. After he was locked out of his work accounts, Halli was unable to get a clear statement from Twitter HR about the status of his employment. He opted instead to contact Mr. Musk directly over social media.

In the ensuing thread, Mr. Musk cast doubt on Halli’s disability, and accused Halli of not working.

A partial apology

Following his statements, however, Mr. Musk has walked back some of his statements.

In the wake of the exchange, Mr. Musk stated: “I would like to apologize to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation. It was based on things I was told that were untrue or, in some cases, true, but not meaningful. He is considering remaining at Twitter.”

Some commentators have also pointed out that identifying Halli’s disability publicly violates American labour laws.

While not all details of the Ueno sale were made public, Halli purposely chose to receive the sale price as wages in order to pay higher tax on it in Iceland. Likely due to this arrangement, Halli was reportedly on a “do not fire list” at the social media company. If Halli is indeed terminated, Twitter is likely still obligated to pay him out.

At the time of writing, it is unclear whether Halli will remain at Twitter.

Halli has called the entire exchange “surreal” on social media.

Submarine Cable Between Iceland and Ireland Begins Operation

Better telecommunications security and speedier cloud services are two of the benefits of a new submarine cable connecting Iceland and Ireland, RÚV reports. The cable, named ÍRIS, began operating yesterday and is the third submarine cable installed and operated by state-owned Icelandic company Farice. The first two are FARICE-1 and DANICE, which connect Iceland to the UK and Denmark, respectively.

“We have evaluated that with the arrival [of ÍRIS], we are increasing Iceland’s international telecommunications security tenfold,” stated Þorvarður Sveinsson. One of the reasons the company decided to lay submarine cables to Ireland is that the country hosts facilities of many tech companies. One example are Microsoft cloud services, and Þorvarður says the new cable should increase their speed for users in Iceland. “The transit time that it takes our data to go between Iceland and these data centres in Dublin is decreasing,” Þorvarður explained.

Farice has additional submarine cable projects in the works, including a pan-Arctic cable connecting Iceland to Japan, set to be completed by the end of 2026. It will be the first Arctic route connecting Asia with Europe through the Northwest Passage and should greatly reduce the optical distance between the continents, minimising latency.

New App for Learning Icelandic Vocabulary

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

Academics and students at the University of Iceland have created a new mobile and computer app that uses flashcards to teach Icelandic vocabulary. The flashcard deck contains the 4,000 most frequently used words in Icelandic and provides translations into English, Polish, Chinese, and Ukrainian.

“Flashcards [are] a well-known and well-established method used in diverse studies. The cards used to be made out of paper but now they are usually digital on phones or in computers,” says Anton Karl Ingason, associate professor of Icelandic linguistics and language technology at the University of Iceland. Anton has developed the app, called IceFlash 4K, along with Xindan Xu, Veronika Teresa Kolka, and Alesia Kovaleva at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Linguistics.

“There has been rapid progress in Icelandic language technology in recent years, both when it comes to software and databases,” Anton stated. “We also believe that there is a considerable demand for tools to facilitate learning Icelandic; this project is thus a certain contribution to meet this demand.”

The vocabulary app is open to all and is free of charge. Anton stated that the database behind the teaching tool is open source, making it easier for other developers to create language-learning tools built in part on IceFlash 4K.

Instructions on how to set up the app are available in the YouTube video below. See Iceland Review’s comprehensive guide to online resources for learning Icelandic.

Man of the Year

Haraldur Þorleifsson

This is Haraldur Þorleifsson. In 2021 he sold his company, Ueno, to Twitter. During the sale process, he was advised how to legally avoid paying taxes on the profit. Instead, he demanded that the purchase price be paid as salary to maximise the tax he would have to pay.In 2021, he paid the second highest tax in Iceland.

When Ramp Up Iceland constructed its 300th ramp this November, a curious scene ensued. As Haraldur Þorleifsson, the project’s founder, took centre stage in the Mjódd bus station to make a celebratory speech, President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson interrupted him from the crowd, in what the media would later playfully describe as “heckling.” The President then proceeded to spray-paint over Halli’s initial goal of 1,000 with a new one of 1,500. Later, Halli would tweet, “Since he’s the president, I guess we have to do it.” The playful exchange captured what many find so endearing about Halli, as he’s often known: a benevolent tech titan who’s still able to take a joke. Much of the exchange also took place on Twitter, of which Halli is both an avid user and a current employee.

People can be successful without working hard or being smart. But nobody can be successful without luck. And a lot of it.

LIFE BY DESIGN

As a designer, Halli thinks a lot about the decisions that shape the world we inhabit. We take so many aspects of life for granted, be it a building, a coffee cup, or a public transportation system. We see them as a given, as part of our environment, forgetting the choices and circumstances that made them. Halli, however, was not the kind of child to settle for “that’s just how it is” as an answer.

His tech career has allowed him to work wherever he wants, and he has travelled extensively, living and working in places like Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Barcelona, and Rio de Janeiro. Both his travels and design background have made him think very deeply about why cities are laid out in certain ways and why certain buildings lack accessibility, while others don’t. “You can go from city to city,” he says, “and often even just within the same country, there’s a very stark difference. So it’s very clear that these are all man-made decisions.”

 

HUMBLE BEGININGS

Halli’s journey to becoming one of Iceland’s so-called “tax kings” was not an obvious one. Born with muscular dystrophy which left him fully dependent on his wheelchair by his mid-20s, his family was working-class. Looking back, Halli is fully aware that things could have been different. “Education is definitely the big one,” Halli says, reflecting on the advantages of growing up in Iceland. “In places like the United States, there’s a big difference in education depending on the money you have. And social differentiation begins very early in education, starting in kindergarten. And of course, it’s not just the quality of education, but the network you develop and your social ca  pital as well.” 

Having studied philosophy and business at university, Halli went on to drop out of a master’s degree in economics. Like so many foundational figures of the tech industry, Halli found it hard to adapt to the daily routines of formal education and work life. But unlike many of his tech peers, Halli hasn’t mythologised his origin story. “It wasn’t really a principled stance at the time,” Halli admits. Thinking back to some of his first jobs, he’s quite candid about the reason he forged a different path: “I just felt I couldn’t show up in a tie every day.”

As Halli was finding his way in the world, he also received some aid in the form of disability payments. “I couldn’t have lived off of them for a long time,” Halli says, “but they did get me through some hard times.” Some of these hard times included being fired from one of his first serious jobs in New York and a difficult period with alcohol and drug use. He also recalls ruefully how he happened to start his first day of work at CCP, a large Icelandic game development studio, on the same day as the banking collapse in Iceland. But in 2011, Halli sobered up and got married.  In 2014, founded Ueno.

Ueno grew out of Halli’s work as a freelancer. Halli scored a lucky break in taking on a project for Google, and as his projects grew bigger and bigger, he realised that he needed to organise a team. Over the years, Ueno grew into a full-service design agency, developing apps, making websites, creating brands, and leading the way in online marketing for some of the biggest names in tech, including Uber, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Visa, Verizon, and others. Some of their best-known projects include the Google Santa Tracker, the Reuters news app, and Dropbox’s online guide.

When Halli sold Ueno to Twitter in 2021, the proceeds from the sale were enough to send him to number 2 on the list of Iceland’s top taxpayers, the exclusive list of “tax kings.” Normally, selling off a highly profitable tech company involves stock options and other financial instruments designed at keeping the profit in lower tax brackets than wages. Instead of experimenting with creative bookkeeping, Halli went in the opposite direction, opting to receive the majority of his profit in the form of wages. The highest wage bracket in Iceland is taxed at a marginal rate of 46%, with lower brackets at 38% and 31%. Had Halli chosen stocks or other financial instruments instead, he would have been taxed at a much lower rate of 22%. Not all details from the sale are public, but according to his tax return, Halli reported a monthly salary of ISK 102 million [$718,000; €672,000] throughout 2021, some 46% of which would have been paid in tax.

In talking with Halli, there is no sense of martyrdom or regret. Nor does he seem to have been simply “following the rules,” impartially acting like everyone ought to. He seems genuinely happy to have the ability to give back. 

The largest part of his working life has been with American tech companies. Reflecting on the differences between his home and the United States reveals a deep appreciation for Iceland’s social systems: “In terms of living, Iceland is simply a better place. In terms of work, if you just isolate that part, the US probably has a leg up, but not for the right reasons. It’s a fear-based society. People are afraid to make mistakes, and when they do, there are no safety nets. In a lot of ways, I relate to that American work ethic, but I don’t think we should build a society around it. Everyone is very motivated, but I don’t think they’re happier. In Iceland, because of the social system, there’s more room for life.”

Despite his passion for the principles of social democracy, Halli certainly does not believe he has all the answers for the world’s social woes. Exhibiting his trademark humility, Halli says simply, “I’m not smart enough to have solutions, but I think in general it would be good to level things. We should start with the assumption that it would be good to be more equal, that people who have more should pay more.” 

This, it seems, is Halli’s goal: to make Iceland an even better place for living. 

‘Talent’ is my least favourite word. It implies that some people are born with a gift. And that others are not. It’s a limiting word. Gatekeeping through genetics. Passion is what actually matters.

RAMP UP

Once Halli was back in Iceland with his family after years of travel, its lack of accessibility seemed both obvious and insupportable. Only now, he could do something about it. Ramp Up Reykjavík started humbly, with the goal to build 100 ramps, mostly in downtown Reykjavík. “It seemed like every year, there was some story about how a person in a wheelchair couldn’t go somewhere on Laugavegur,” he recalls. “The reporter was always shocked, but nothing ever changed, and I remember stories like these going back for decades.” 

Now, Ramp Up has expanded its scope from Reykjavík to all of Iceland, with the goal of 1,600 total ramps across the country by 2026. The difference is especially noticeable on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Just a year ago, the entrances to many stores, restaurants, hair salons, clinics, and more were blocked by staircases. Now, gently sloping stone ramps, unassuming in their design, can be found throughout the land, allowing people in wheelchairs to access services previously out of reach. Every ramp is a little different, needing to be fitted to the building and surrounding in question. Ramp Up’s success, according to Halli, is largely thanks to the very focused nature of its goal. “In the beginning,” Halli remembers, “we weren’t really sure how it all worked. But now we can do it at scale. It’s complicated and expensive to do as a one-off, but we’ve learned from doing this over and over again.”

“We have a very deep knowledge of this subject now, but we have no idea how to do anything else,” he jokes. The goal of Ramp Up, in short, is to remove any excuse for lack of basic accessibility, making it as easy as possible for the store owner. With a total budget of ISK 400 million [$2.8 million; €2.6 million], half of which is supplied by government funding, Ramp Up handles everything from applying for permits, submitting plans to the city, sending out work crews, working with local municipalities, and everything else. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, with many confessing that they’d wanted to build ramps to their stores for years, but had no idea how to go about it.

However, Halli tells me, as Ramp Up has made progress, they’ve quickly realised that ramps are far from the whole story: “In the beginning, we talked with a lot of people in the disability community. They rightfully pointed out that it’s not just ramps. How wide are the hallways in a building? Are the restrooms accessible? Are there accommodations for blind and hearing-impaired people? There are so many things that need to be fixed,” Halli says. “If anyone wants to tell me how we could be doing better, I’m always listening.”

A tourist asked me recently why there were so many people in wheelchairs in Reykjavik. I told him his country had them too, but it wasn’t as accessible so they stay at home. Same applies to all minorities. If you don’t see them it’s because they are hiding.

ANNA JÓNA

One of the defining experiences of Haraldur’s life was the loss of his mother to a car crash at age 11. He was on vacation at Disney World when his father received the news, but it was only once they arrived back in Iceland that he was told. Her early loss was, of course, a tragedy. But before he lost her, she left a lasting mark on her son that would shape how he viewed the world for the rest of his life. In Halli’s telling, his mother Anna Jóna was like many mothers: “The best in the world.”  

His mother imprinted a deep love of the arts in Halli. According to him, she was loving and creative, having worked in set design for films. He remembers how they watched many movies together and what an amazing storyteller she was. It speaks volumes that many of his passion projects now aim at promoting the arts. Upcoming projects include an artists’ residence on the Kjalarnes peninsula and his own musical pursuits, including a guest appearance at this past year’s Airwaves festival and an upcoming album called The Radio Won’t Let Me Sleep, to be released in the spring. For an awkward and depressed kid, the recent time in the spotlight isn’t entirely natural. “I’ve had to learn to be open to failure in a whole new area,” he explains. “It’s a small country, so everyone’s kind of famous, but I’ve gotten a fair bit of attention. It’s been kind of scary. What if the music is terrible? It would be a very public failure.” 

This February, Halli will be opening a new café in downtown Reykjavík. Dedicated to his mother, it bears her name: Anna Jóna. With a small theatre equipped with 40 seats, it also aims to become a venue of sorts for small performances and screenings. “It’s an homage to my mother,” Halli tells me. “But something I thought about a lot before opening this café was how I only grew up with her until I was 11. When I think about it now as an adult, it’s such a small slice of her life. I thought about going around to everyone who knew her and asking about her, about their memories of her. But, ultimately, I decided not to, because there’s no way for me to capture her in her entirety. This is an homage to her, but it’s also an homage of my memory of her, of a son for his mother.”

An especially strong memory of his mother stays with Halli to this day, some 40 years later. “Something I keep coming back to is a conversation with my mom I remember very well,” Halli tells me. “We were walking around the city, I think, and she was telling me how everything I saw, everything around me, was man-made. I got such a clear impression from my mother that I could have an impact on the world, that it wasn’t just for me to look at. It was something that I should, that we all should, feel some responsibility for changing.”

 

LIFTING THE VEIL

A popular post featuring Halli made the rounds on social media recently, titled simply “If you’re rich, be more like this guy.” In the comments, a general consensus emerged that cast Halli as the “good guy millionaire.”

Inevitably, the idealisation of Halli is also tied up in romantic ideas of what people want Iceland to mean to them. These ideas portray it as a perfect society, the first nation in the world with an openly LGBT head of state, and the nation that jailed their criminal bankers, if only for a little while.

But to be faithful to Halli’s own social democratic convictions, it is only fair to see him too as someone human, all too human. There is, for instance, the uncomfortable truth that Ueno made much of its fortune working for American tech companies, many of which are working against precisely the systems which allowed Halli to flourish. Companies like Uber, Tesla, and Amazon have all worked to drive down wages, while fiercely resisting the recent wave of unionisation in the United States. Ueno was, of course, not directly involved in these practices. But nevertheless, wherever Silicon Valley seems to promise novelty and freedom, one cannot help but notice that potentially democracy-destabilising concentrations of wealth seem to follow. Halli was lucky enough to benefit from strong social systems during the hard times of his life, but for many, such opportunities are increasingly being taken away by these tech firms.

Though Halli’s fortune is admittedly more humble, it is difficult not to draw comparisons with other members of the tech elite. In some sense, Halli serves as the inverse image of his current employer, Elon Musk. The child of South African diamond miners, Mr. Musk has likewise benefited from the advantages of his upbringing, though where Musk was born into great generational wealth, Halli was simply born into a strong social democracy. But what truly differentiates Halli from his fellow members of the tech elite is the application of the designer’s eye to his own life as well. Halli doesn’t take the world for granted, nor his position in it. Where others justify their anointed positions through appeals to genius, work ethic, and rugged individualism, Halli openly talks about the social support he’s received, often letting online followers in behind the scenes of his life. 

And it’s this kind of online engagement that keeps Halli optimistic about the future of our increasingly digital lives. “I still remember the first chat on a computer I ever had with my cousin on an old 286,” Halli muses, referencing a popular Intel PC model. “Back then, I thought it was going to revolutionise the world in almost exclusively good ways. I am in general more optimistic than pessimistic, but the pessimistic part has definitely grown.” Something the tech world, and especially Twitter, has still not totally come to terms with was the election of Donald Trump and the accompanying culture wars centred around freedom of speech, “cancel culture,” and online hate speech. Today, Halli is working closely with his team at Twitter to address some of these problems, but given the sensitive nature of the work, much of it is under wraps. As hard a project as it may seem, Halli hopes to make Twitter resemble more the digital hopes of his youth. “Twitter has allowed me access to different groups of people,” he explains. “I think it’s broadened my view of the world. I often learn things on Twitter that are uncomfortable but necessary. I come from a very specific background, a community where everyone is kind of the same. It’s important to have access to these different experiences.” 

haraldur þorleifsson

MAN OF THE YEAR

At the end of 2022, Halli swept various Icelandic media outlets’ awards for Person of the Year, being voted by the audiences of Iceland’s widest-read publications as the man of the moment.

And for good reason: between Ramp Up, his contributions to legal funds for victims of sexual abuse, and generous donations to families in need over the holidays, it is hard to think of one Icelander trying to do more good. 

And yet, despite all of the good he’s done, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider a peculiar irony. The Man of the Year, after all, was chosen for something every one of us does every year: paying our taxes.

Síminn Retires Clock Service after 86 Years

síminn iceland

Telecommunications company Síminn has decided to retire their clock service, where residents could call a number to know what time it is, after 86 years of service.

The company announced on their website that the service stopped answering calls on January 16. The change comes in response to a world in which information technology has made such services redundant, and Síminn points out in their announcement how we are now surrounded with many devices in our homes and offices that easily provide this service.

Utilisation of the service has declined significantly over the decades, and according to Síminn, was barely used at all in its final years.

The service was introduced in 1937, when Halldóra Briem was the first voice for the clock. According to Síminn, she travelled to the headquarters of the Swedish phone company Ericsson, where she recorded 90 separate different recordings that could be played back in different versions.

During its first years, the service was only available in Reykjavík. It was only introduced to Akureyri in 1950.

Over the years, voices of the clock have included actress Sigríður Hagalín (1963), actress Ingibjörg Björnsdóttir (1993), and the first man in 2013 with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.

 

 

Optimism for Icelandic Language in the Digital Age

microsoft icelandic

The integration of the Icelandic language into digital services and devices has improved rapidly over the last few months, with large leaps in speech recognition.

Nana Bule, a representative for Microsoft, stated to RÚV: “We’ve been fortunate enough to have really high quality data sets on the Icelandic language, which means that we’ve in very short time improved language recognition for Icelandic by 32%. Which may sound small, but is actually a very big improvement that would normally have taken 5 to 10 years.”

Read more: Icelandic Language on Devices to Improve

Earlier this May, an Icelandic delegation including President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and Minister of Culture and Trade Lilja D. Alfreðsdóttir met with American tech companies to discuss the further integration of the Icelandic language into digital services and devices.

Following the May meetings, representatives from Microsoft have been visiting Iceland this week to report on progress made.

Now, the meetings seem to be bearing fruit, with surprisingly fast improvements for the integration of Icelandic into digital services. Mrs. Bule stated that Icelanders will soon be able to speak Icelandic to their devices without a problem.

Bule also stated with regard to speech recognition: “We can already do that today, but my hope is that in the future, we will be able to do it much more fluently. In the future, an interview could be you asking me questions in Icelandic, me answering in English, but listeners could hear it in Icelandic hopefully because we’ll be able to translate it in real time.”

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson said with regard to the innovations that it will be essential for the future of the Icelandic language to have a place in the digital sphere as well.

Akureyri Data Centre to Open Next Year

Akureyri Iceland

Construction on a data centre in Akureyri is well underway, reports RÚV. Work began in mid-July and it’s hoped that operations at the centre will start by the middle of next year.

The data centre will be the first of its kind in the region and will be especially useful for those who want to geographically separate data that is being stored in other data centres.

The Akureyri Town Council gave North ehf. approval to build the centre on a plot of land on Hlíðarfjallsvegur in January and work has progressed quickly since then. Two interconnected buildings, 2,500 square metres in total, are being built during phase one; the full complex will include three office buildings and a service building.

With the completion of the Hólsandslína 3 electrical transmission line that runs from Akureyri to Holasandur opens up the possibility of more energy-intensive industrial development. North ehf. CEO Eyjólfur Magnús Kristinsson said that initial plans are to employee 15 staff members.

Iceland Ranked Fifth Globally for Digital Public Services and Infrastructure

Iceland is among the top five nations in the world when it comes to digital public services and infrastructure. According to the United Nations’ annual digital government assessment, the eGovernment Development Index, Iceland is ranked fifth globally, out of 193 countries. This is up from the nation’s twelfth place ranking in 2020.

Denmark came in first place in the rankings, followed by Finland, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and then Iceland in fifth. The remaining top ten nations are: Sweden (sixth place), Australia (7), Estonia (8), The Netherlands (9), and the United States (10).

The UN’s bases its assessment on three main areas and indexes: digital services (Online Service Index); ingenuity (Human Capital Index); and technical infrastructure (Telecommunication Infrastructure Index). Iceland ranked particularly high in both ingenuity and technical infrastructure. The Icelandic government has made digitizing services a particular priority this term, with the goal of making all applicable applications, payments, and receipts for services accessible online.

Screenshot via island.is

“The government has set itself the goal of Iceland becoming a leader in digital public services, and surveys show that good progress is being made,” reads an announcement about the rankings on the government’s website. “Digital services are already simplifying people’s lives—saving time while improving service.”

The announcement also points to the European Commission’s eGovernment Benchmark 2022, in which Iceland ranked fourth amongst the 27 EU member states, as well as Norway, Switzerland, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey. The Benchmark compares how governments across Europe deliver digital public services by asking citizens from the participating countries to visit and evaluate local websites. Iceland rose three places in this assessment since 2021.

See the full rankings and Iceland’s full eGovernment Development assessment, in English, here.