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A crushing realisation

Apple recently released an advert for a new iPad, and it seems it’s like a Rorschach test for our times.

The first I heard of this advert was when I saw this article in the FT, reporting that Apple had apologised for it. And so I sought out the advert. The message I got from it? Apple has managed to fit a load of different tools and functions into an extremely thin device. I wasn’t offended by it, but thought I could see why others would be: wanton destruction of perfectly good instruments, tools etc. In a world of limited resources, and from a company that preaches about sustainability, it’s not a good look, even if it’s all just visual effects.

But it turns out that I was wrong. The controversy was related to a different metaphorical interpretation of the advert. As Tedium explained:

Apple’s infamous “Crush” ad deeply misunderstands the role of the hydraulic press in meme culture.

I’m completely ignorant of the role of hydraulic press in meme culture. It turns out that there’s a whole industry around videos showing hydraulic presses crushing things. I did not know this existed. I’ve heard of Will It Blend—but I’m clearly behind the times when it comes to online video culture.

The ad doesn’t connect because the message it’s trying to promote is essentially completely at odds with our understanding of the hydraulic press, which we only understand as a device that breaks things in the most brutal way possible. There’s no intelligence at all, artficial or otherwise. It just crushes things.

Clearly, many people had viscerally negative reactions. TechCrunch called the advert ‘disgusting’. Where I saw a neat metaphor for packing functions into a device, others saw an enforced digital transformation:

Does your child like music? They don’t need a harp; throw it in the dump. An iPad is good enough. Do they like to paint? Here, Apple Pencil, just as good as pens, watercolors, oils! Books? Don’t make us laugh! Destroy them. Paper is worthless. Use another screen. In fact, why not read in Apple Vision Pro, with even faker paper?

Our social context can completely change the way we interpret the same piece of footage… and perhaps I’m getting old.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Technology, , , , .

Dinosaurs’ habitat at risk of extinction

Twelve years ago, I told you about Teessaurus Park in Middlesbrough, a pocket of child-friendly green space in a highly industrialised part of the town. I wrote more about it the following day, and still think of it often. The sculptures feel very 1980s, and the whole idea of a park surrounded by heavy industry feels worthy yet dystopian.

It’s in the news this week because the Twentieth Century Society is applying to list the three most important sculptures, which were designed by Geneviève Glatt. This is in response to a local plan to close half of the park.

The C20 Society article about their campaign has much more background and history about the site, much of which was new to me. There are very few major public sculptures from this period by women which adds to the rarity value of the three they are seeking to list. The article also introduced me to the fascinating North East Statues website, which is a rabbit hole I’m now inevitably going to spend quite some time exploring.

This post was filed under: Art, News and Comment, , , .

Sick election result

Two weeks ago, the Conservative Prime Minister delivered a ‘major speech’ decrying Britain’s ‘sick note culture’ and promising punitive reforms to get people back to work. He expressed his profound disappointment that sick notes had become a ‘lifestyle choice’ for some.

Yesterday, the Conservatives had their first election victory in Newcastle in more than three decades, securing a single council seat. The newly installed Conservative councillor is a former GP, once suspended for falsifying a sick note to cover the holiday of an undercover Sunday Times journalist.

It’s a funny old world.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , .

I agree with Rishi

Yesterday, in his press conference about the Government’s plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda, Rishi Sunak said:

If Labour peers had not spent weeks holding up the bill in the House of Lords to try to block these flights altogether, we would have begun this process weeks ago.

There are 790 peers, of which 173 are Labour peers. Labour peers alone do not have the majority required to pass amendments and hold up the bill in the House of Lords.

Sunak also told us:

The only way to stop the boats is to eliminate the incentive to come by making it clear that if you are here illegally, you will not be able to stay. This policy does exactly that.

More than 6,000 asylum seekers have crossed the English Channel so far this year, a less-than five-month period. Rwanda has agreed to accept 1,000 asylum seekers over a five-year period… or about 83 per five-month period.

In his press conference yesterday, our Prime Minister claimed that:

the patience of the British people ‘is worn pretty thin by this point.’

I agree with him, though I think our patience is being worn through by him. I think that Ali Smith perhaps put it better in Autumn:

I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

Out of ideas

In 2008, Dame Carol Black said:

Replacing the sick note with a fit note would switch the focus to what people can do instead of what they cannot.

Gordon Brown’s government subsquently replaced the ‘sick note’ with a ‘fit note’ which put a new focus what people could do instead of what they could not.

Yesterday, Rishi Sunak said:

We need to change the sick note culture so the default becomes what work you can do – not what you can’t.

It might seem like money for old role, but nevertheless, let’s focus on what Sunak can do, not what he can’t.

In 2008, 2.4% of all working hours in the UK were lost to sickness absence. By 2022, this had ‘spiralled’—Sunak’s word—to 2.6%. For what it’s worth, at the demise of the last Tory government in 1997, it was 3%.

In 2008, 2.6 million people were waiting for NHS treatment. By 2023, that had almost tripled, from 2.6 million to 7.7 million.

Here’s what Sunak, and perhaps Sunak alone, can do: look at those figures and conclude that people are staying off work too readily, and that the welfare system needs to be—Sunak’s word—’tightened’.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, .

They giveth, they taketh away

Like me, you may have a dim recollection of Monday 3 September 2012. The Minister for Immigration was thrilled to announce a £5 cut in the cost of a standard UK passport, a result he attributed to his hard work in driving efficiency at the Identity and Passport service.

So good was his performance that the very next day, he was promoted to become Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice.1

As of next Thursday, the passport fee will increase by £7, capping off a total increase of £27.50 since that 2012 announcement. The fee will reach triple figures for the first time.2

You might note that next week’s £7 increase isn’t being promoted nearly so much as that £5 decrease. We got a fiver off, but then stung for the better part of thirty quid over the ensuing years.

Let me be clear: I don’t begrudge the increase in the passport fee. I’d happily pay twice the price if it protected some of the essential services that are no longer financially sustainable thanks to this Government’s choices.

It’s more that cutting the price then jacking it up gives the impression that there’s no strategy: no ‘long-term economic plan’, no ‘plan that we need to stick to’. And when repeated across, well, basically all areas of Government policy, that begins to feel like something of an electoral challenge.

  1. It wouldn’t be until five years later that he’d be sacked for having pornography on his work computer and lying about it, issues which were uncovered during an investigation into alleged sexual harassment.
  2. There is an £11.50 discount for applying online these days, but it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that you’re still much worse off.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics.

Cozzy livs and letters

Sitting at the Harrods Champagne Bar last week, I overheard a conversation between two customers. One pulled a book of stamps from a handbag—“Ten pounds! And there’s only eight in it now, not twelve! Can you believe it?!”

“Talk about the cost of living!”

Today, they’d be even more appalled: the price of a first-class stamp rose to £1.35 this morning, so the book of eight sticky portraits of the King now costs £10.80.

If this interaction had been filmed and played to Rishi Sunak, I’m fairly sure he’d deny responsibility. And in a technical sense, he’d be correct: the price of first-class stamps was deregulated by his Prime Ministerial predecessor, and current Foreign Secretary, David Cameron. In 2012, when that decision was taken, a first-class stamp cost 46p; a book of twelve, £5.52.

For the Prime Minister, if the cost of living crisis—aka “cozzy livs”, apparently—is the topic of conversation in Harrods Champagne Bar, you’ve probably already lost the argument. Hailing a “new economic moment”, as Sunak was yesterday, probably isn’t going to cut the mustard.

But then, I don’t know what could save the Prime Minister now. As one Sunak-supporting MP said this week,

We’ve got to stick with the plan. I don’t know what it is, but we’ve got to stick with it and it’s working.


The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , .


It fucked up my life but I wasn’t upset. You know, they kept talking about “undergoing” surgery, “undergoing” chemo. It really bugged me. I never saw it that way. I was just living my life. I wasn’t “undergoing” it.

— Geoff Dyer, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It

I struggle to imagine how it feels to sit on a bench and record a statement telling the world about your cancer treatment, just weeks after hearing the news yourself.

But more even than that, I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to get up in the morning and know that’s in your diary for the day; or for your family to ask how the filming went; or to go about your day as the news breaks in ripples all around.

It’s not something separate and distinct and different and cordened off; it’s part of life, and that makes it all the more difficult.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, .

The end of shared reality

Last week, a colleague sidled up to me at my desk: ‘Simon, do you think Kate Middleton is dead?’

Until that point, I’d been only vaguely aware that theories were circulating about the status of the Princess of Wales. I’d seen passing mention of the existence of such discussion, but rolled my eyes, and wondered who had time for such things. After all, she’s been unwell, indications from the start were that she wouldn’t be returning to public life until after Easter, and it’s not Easter yet.

It turns out that I was just out of the loop: it appears that it’s been the hot topic of conversation for weeks, now.

For a little while now, I’ve been harbouring a contrarian theory about images generated by artificial intelligence. It’s widely assumed that these will cause chaos as people struggle to work out what’s real.

I’ve been unconvinced by those arguments. In my mind, there are two groups of people:

  1. Those who get their news from social media. These people often seem to be surprisingly gullible and develop quite peculiar beliefs. They are vulnerable to being conned by fake imagery, but they’re already conned by any number of weird theories spread by other means. The addition of fake images doesn’t change much.
  2. Those who get their news from professional outfits. It is the job of professional outfits to know the provenance of images they share, and so—by and large—they’re unlikely to be fooled for long by fake images.

I’ve long felt that AI imagery is unlikely to cause much movement between the groups, and therefore to have much impact on the news or how it is consumed.

On Sunday, Kensington Palace shared a picture of the Princess and her children to mark Mother’s Day. When professional outfits assessed the image, it was found to have been doctored, and was withdrawn from circulation.

To say this caused a furore is a substantial understatement. In his insightful article, Charlie Warzel shared this reflection:

Adobe Photoshop, the likely culprit of any supposed “manipulation” in the royal portrait, has been around for more than three decades. And although the tools are getting considerably better, the bigger change is cultural. The royal-photo debacle is merely a microcosm of our current moment, where trust in both governing institutions and gatekeeping organizations such as the mainstream press is low. This sensation has been building for some time and was exacerbated by the corrosive political lies of the Trump era.

The affair has made me reconsider my views on the threat of AI imagery. Unlike Warzel, I don’t worry excessively about trust in the mainstream press’s ability to separate fact from fiction, but more in their ability to focus on the issues that matter.

A photoshopped image has dominated the news agenda: it isn’t difficult to imagine arguments about AI images dominating in the run-up to an election, drowning out discussion of competing policies.

I still think I’m right that professional news organisations can sort fact from fiction, but I’d underestimated the likelihood of the process of dispelling the myth becoming the story—and the debate becoming framed by hand-wringing on how to deal with this stuff.

Fakery has proven to be more disruptive than I imagined it could be.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, , .

Fixing things when everything’s broken

Fintan O’Toole is always worth reading, and his latest for The TLS is no exception. I particularly enjoyed this paragraph, which does a great job of summarising the failure of the current Government while setting out the challenge for the next:

Comparatives make Starmer look good, but they also make his task, if he wins, look overwhelming. Income inequality is higher in the UK than in any other large European country, with the exception of Italy. Typical households are 9 per cent poorer than their French counterparts and the poorest households are a staggering 60 per cent poorer than their equivalents in Ireland. Almost a third of young people in the UK are not engaged in any formal education by the age of 18 – compared to just one in five in France and Germany. UK hospitals now have fewer beds than all but one OECD advanced economy. Since 2005 UK companies have invested 20 per cent less than those in the US, France and Germany, placing the UK in the bottom 10 per cent of OECD countries in this category. Since 2008 the UK’s productivity gap with France, Germany and the US respectively has doubled to almost 20 per cent. It is quite possible for an incoming Labour government to do much better than all of this without doing nearly well enough to get the UK back on a par with the countries it used to be able to regard as its peers.

I’ve written many times before about how I could never be a politician, so this is never likely to be a problem for me: but where on earth do you start on sorting out this mess?

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

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