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‘Shooting yourself in the head’

Yesterday, I read Emilio Casalicchio’s excellent Politico article which gave a glimpse into the Conservative’s election campaign. I was struck by the line ‘launching the first attack by shooting yourself in the head doesn’t look so clever’.

But I was even more struck by the notion that the campaign had been led by a headstrong small team, which neither sought nor responded to external feedback. This is redolent of the flaws of Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign.

Perhaps responding well to feedback counterintuitively conflicts with the egotism necessary to seek public office. Perhaps this is only exacerbated for those seeking the top office in an era of ‘strongman leadership’.

It was certainly true that Sunak’s public response to even a hint of public criticism during the campaign was primarily defensive: he did not give the impression of being curious to better understand the alternative viewpoint, let alone to change course in response to it. It’s not like he’s alone; this behaviour is common.

Over the years, I’ve read quite a lot about the skill of constructively receiving feedback. I don’t think it is something that comes naturally to anyone, but it is a skill that’s particularly well-developed among people that I admire. Getting better at it has certainly been useful for me and has helped my professional development.

I recently read one of Arthur C Brooks’s articles in The Atlantic covering this topic, too. I enjoyed his observation that ‘once you depersonalize criticism, you can start to see it for what it is: a rare glimpse into what outsiders think.’

This is both blindingly obvious and yet also often missed: it’s easy to get too caught up in judging the person who wrote the comment or perhaps being defensive. But taking feedback exactly as it is offered—as in, this person thought X—can be radically helpful. One doesn’t need to agree with the other person’s viewpoint, but having knowledge of it can nevertheless be extremely useful.

After reading Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book Thanks for the Feedback a few years ago, I added a link in my work email signature which gives people the opportunity to offer anonymous feedback. This has served me very well, giving me lots of opportunities to reflect and develop my understanding of others’ viewpoints. Philippa Perry’s book also offered some useful insights into contextualising and using feedback in a personal (as opposed to professional) context.

I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if people were better equipped to receive criticism—politics would certainly be better for it. Failing to make use of feedback feels a bit like ‘shooting yourself in the head.’

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

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

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, , .

Finding freedom

I read Jacob Stern’s article in The Atlantic about the political controversy in the USA related to specific car manufacturers selling certain models without AM radios.

It made me wonder whether my car has an AM radio. I know it did when I bought it, a little over 14 years ago. I remember occasionally listening to Richard Bacon’s afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live in the car. But I’ve replaced the radio twice since then.

For the last three years, I’ve been using a ‘radio’ which uses Apple’s CarPlay system to stream content from my phone. Since then, I’ve never listened to broadcasts via FM or AM. I knew the system had a ‘tuner’ function, but I wasn’t sure whether it included AM frequencies.

Surprisingly, the ‘radio’ unit I bought is still ‘current’. I found it on sale on a national retailer’s website. Despite the technology now being several years old, the retail price has inflated by more than 11% since I bought it.

The retailer’s website didn’t list whether the ‘radio’ had an AM tuner. I can only assume this must be irrelevant to many people’s purchasing decisions these days.

I consulted the manufacturer’s website, but it wasn’t listed on the main product page there, either. I dug into a separate ‘full specifications and features’ page—lo and behold, there it was!

My car radio does, indeed, have a hitherto unused AM tuner.

Some US commentators appear to believe this to be essential to my freedom. I still don’t think I’m going to use it. Given that my car model isn’t sold in the US, perhaps no one will mind.

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

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

Who nose how to breathe?

I’ve been the proud owner of a nose for over thirty-eight years and went through more than thirteen continuous years of medical training. Yet, somehow, news of the nasal cycle had utterly passed me by until I read this article by Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic.

Since I learned about it, I’ve been borderline obsessed with it. I already knew that humans effectively have two noses, like we have two eyes and two ears. Each nostril connects to an independent nasal cavity, a complex construction with multiple functions. These include filtering, warming and humidifying air, as well as containing the olfactory epithelium which allows us to smell (and, to a large extent, taste) things. The nose also plays a vital role in speech.

It was news to me that each of the cavities contains erectile tissue similar to that found in the sex organs. Each side alternatives throughout the day in swelling, leading to slight congestion. This ensures that one cavity always has high airflow and the other low. This is important for the olfactory epithelium because different chemicals take different amounts of time to bind, meaning that we need high and low-flow surfaces simultaneously to have the full spectrum of scent. The cilia, tiny hairs which clear mucus, also suspend their usual pattern of beating on the congested side, allowing it to be more moist and hence help humidify the air we breathe.

Even more astoundingly, when one lies on one’s side, it appears that signals from the compressed armpit can induce the nasal passages on the opposite side to open.

Now that I’ve learned this, it’s obvious: I’ve become obsessed with noting which nostril is congested throughout the day. Wendy and I even sometimes ask each other out of mild amazement that we’ve never noticed.

I trust that you, too, will be amazed by this and will spend the next few days noticing with fascination what your nose is up to.

This post was filed under: Health, Post-a-day 2023, , .

The first modern Olympics

Highlighted by Ellen Cushing in The Atlantic Daily yesterday, this first-person account of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 is brilliant and hilarious. It was published in 1956, and written by Thomas P. Curtis. It is stuffed full of moments like this:

For the aquatic events we had on our team a very fast short-distance swimmer, who had won many races in warm American swimming pools. He journeyed to the Piraeus on the day of the first swimming competition blissfully ignorant that even the Mediterranean is bitterly cold in the month of April.

He had traveled 5000 miles for this event, and as he posed with the others on the edge of the float, waiting for the gun, his spirit thrilled with patriotism and determination. At the crack of the pistol, the contestants dived headfirst into the icy water. In a split second his head reappeared. “Jesu Christo! I’m freezing!”; with that shriek of astonished frenzy he lashed back to the float. For him the Olympics were over.

It’s well-worth five minutes of your time.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , .


‘Dechurching’ is an awful word, but Jake Meador has an interesting article in The Atlantic about the decline of church attendance in the USA. I thought this section was particularly interesting:

After a few weeks of either scenario, the thought of going to church on Sunday carries a certain mental burden with it—you might want to go, but you also dread the inevitable questions about where you have been. “I skipped church to go to brunch with a friend” or “I was just too tired to come” don’t sound like convincing excuses as you rehearse the conversation in your mind. Soon it actually sounds like it’d be harder to attend than to skip, even if some part of you still wants to go.

The dread of having to explain previous non-attendance—not at church, but anywhere—is a specific feeling. I can feel it in the pit of my stomach as I write this. I think it’s something we’ve all experienced, but which I don’t recall seeing articulated, and certainly not in this context.

I probably need to be better at thinking about how to avoid conjuring that feeling in others. Are there, perhaps, meetings that I invite people to, where they feel guilty if they miss one—guilt which, in turn, makes them less likely to come to the next one?

Keep with the churchy theme: how can I be better at welcoming back the prodigal son rather than making them feel guilty for their prior absence?

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

What happened to the book critics?

There’s an article in the latest edition of The Economist which laments the death of the hatchet job in book reviewing. At first, I enjoyed it mostly for the bitchy quotations from bad reviews:

It is delicious to know that one reviewer called John Keats’s poetry “drivelling idiocy”. It is more pleasing yet that Virginia Woolf considered James Joyce’s writing to be “tosh”. And surely no one can be uncheered to hear that when the critic Dorothy Parker read “Winnie the Pooh” she found it so full of innocent, childish whimsy that she—in her own moment of whimsical spelling—“fwowed up”.


In the Victorian era, “reviews were seen as a kind of cultural hygiene, so there were high standards,” says Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a professor of English at Oxford University. Reviewers were not merely taking a swipe at an enemy but cleansing the sacred halls of literature. Not that this stopped them from mild grubbiness themselves. For example, one reviewer called a fellow writer’s work “feculent garbage”; the reliably robust Alfred Tennyson called yet another “a louse upon the locks of literature”; while John Milton (apparently having momentarily lost paradise again) described another as an “unswill’d hogshead”.


One of the most famous poems of the Roman writer Catullus is a riposte to critics who accused him of being effeminate. “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,” he wrote, which means (broadly speaking): “I will sodomise and face-fuck you.” Not the sort of thing you see in the Times Literary Supplement these days.

But the comments later in the article about the effect of the internet on book reviews came to linger longer in my mind. The article argues that the risk of a social media pile-on has led to fewer scathing reviews.

I then came to read an article by Megan Nolan in the New Stateman and one by Helen Lewis in The Atlantic, both criticising the negativity of the online book-themed social media site Goodreads. They both cite the same examples in some cases, and make the point that many people on the site review books even without reading them.

At first, I was slightly taken aback at how this implies people use Goodreads: I mostly use it to see what people I know in real life thought of books, not to look at the aggregate scores and (seemingly aggressive) reviews of random strangers. I’m not certain why people would attach much weight to this.

And secondly, I thought about how this is a good example of the complexity of the influence of the internet on systems. According to these three articles taken together, the internet has vastly decreased the likelihood of a book being panned by a critic, making professional reviews less valuable as a result of them essentially becoming less discriminating. At the same time, it has drastically increased the likelihood of an amateur reviewer having a disproportionate effect through sharing opinions uninformed by the most basic facts.

It feels like that that might read across to other areas of life, too.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , , .

God and politics

The influence of the evangelical church in on US politics is something that always seems fascinating and strange from this side of the pond. It’s not uncommon to see commentators here ask, for example, how the church can so strongly promote a character as obviously un-Christian as Donald Trump. The answer is always complicated.

But here’s an angle I’ve never considered before: what if you are a young Christian growing up in the USA? Your position in the ‘culture war’ is likely to be at odds with that of the evangelical church.

The No. 1 question that younger evangelicals ask me is how to relate to their parents and mentors who want to talk about culture-war politics and internet conspiracy theories instead of prayer or the Bible. These young people are committed to their Christian faith, but they feel despair and cynicism about the Church’s future. Almost none of them even call themselves “evangelical” anymore, now that the label is confused with political categories. “Sometimes I feel like I’m crazy,” one pastor said to me just days ago. “Does no one see that the Church is in crisis?”

Russell Moore’s article in The Atlantic provided some insight into these questions for me. Russell’s starting point for his argument is entirely different to mine—he’s a Christian, I’m an atheist, and we have vastly different views on many things. But this is a great example of an article that gave me insight, even while I didn’t agree with its approach. It’s useful to read things that challenge us, sometimes.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

They cried wolf

Yesterday, I felt sad as I read Tom Nichols’s response to the indictment of Donald Trump in The Atlantic Daily, particularly the following parts.

The rest of us, as a nation but also as individuals, can no longer indulge the pretense that Trump is just another Republican candidate, that supporting Donald Trump is just another political choice, and that agreeing with Trump’s attacks on our democracy is just a difference of opinion.

We can no longer merely roll our eyes when an annoying uncle rhapsodizes about stolen elections. We should not gently ask our parents if perhaps we might change the channel from Fox during dinner. We are not obligated to gingerly change the subject when an old friend goes on about “Demonrats” or the dire national-security implications around Hunter Biden’s genitalia. Enough of all this; we can love our friends and our family and our neighbors without accepting their terms of debate. To support Trump is to support sedition and violence, and we must be willing to speak this truth not only to power but to our fellow citizens.

Every American citizen who cares about the Constitution should affirm, without hesitation, that any form of association with Trump is reprehensible, that each of us will draw moral conclusions about anyone who continues to support him, and that these conclusions will guide both our political and our personal choices.

This is painful advice to give and to follow. No one, including me, wants to lose friends or chill valued relationships over so small a man as Trump. But our democracy is about to go into legal and electoral battle for its own survival. If we don’t speak up—to one another, as well as to the media and to our elected officials—and Trump defeats us all by regaining power and making a mockery of American democracy, then we’ll all have lost a lot more than a few friendships.

Firstly, how can it possibly be that one of the tied favourites to win the next US Presidential election can be someone involved in a conspiracy which contemplated deploying the American military against its own people? How the hell did we end up here? How did the US elect someone like that in the first place? Why isn’t the idea of re-electing that person unthinkable? What does this mean for the future of the USA? What does this mean for the future of democracy?

Secondly, should we really be worried? Democracy and the constitution passed the stiff test posed by Donald Trump the last time; ought we not to be confident that the same tactics will fail a second time? Should we really be that threatened by someone contemplating something awful, but deciding not to do it? Isn’t the outcome more important than the contemplation? Is Trump really a threat to democracy, or is he just a very naughty boy?

Thirdly, isn’t it depressing that the ‘threat to democracy’ that Nichols cites has become such a common refrain? Not from Nichols, not even really from The Atlantic, but from—well—everywhere? The New York Times has used the phrase 590 times. The Times of London has used it 155 times. Even the bloody Financial Times has used it 216 times. Some of these uses are legitimate references others are not. Even as long ago as 2006, the transfer of ownership of ITV was called a “threat to democracy”—it wasn’t one. There’s no space left to amp up the rhetoric. Rage sells, and anger drives online engagement. The media hit peak rage too soon. The papers have cried ‘wolf’ once too often. And it means that if and when there’s a real threat to democracy, the rage and anger and language is just the same as when the threat was little more than tepid air. We need the reasonable voices, the ones willing to say “there’s nothing to see here”, “this isn’t a crisis”, and “it’s more complicated than that”—but they’re drowned out, because calm rationality is boring.

Fourthly, does the failure of journalism explain the failure of democracy? Can democracy survive without reliable information? Or in an environment where reliable information is drowned out by hysterics? And is there any route to improving any of this in the current environment? Or are we in a complete spiral of doom?

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

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

Pulling threads

I’m predisposed to dislike Meta’s new social media app Threads. It’s years since I left Instagram and Twitter, and I haven’t missed either of them. I’m therefore unlikely to be convinced by something which seems to be a combination of the two. But equally, my lack of engagement means that I’m not well-informed, and my opinions ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Yet, Threads has been unavoidable in recent days, with acres of press coverage. In this post, I want to reflect on some of the things I’ve read.

In Tedium, Ernie Smith wrote:

I don’t feel particularly motivated to write about Threads, the Instagram-in-Twitter-form social network that Meta launched this week. It feels like a social network that exists to check a box for a company that owns a lot of social networks. But I do think it represents something about the moment that we’re in, where people are so desperate for a certain kind of experience that they will go from the hands of one billionaire to another, in hopes that will give them what they don’t feel like they were getting before.

It would be a bit rich of me to claim that I don’t feel motivated to write about Threads at the start of a blog post about Threads. But I do feel removed from it. I can’t imagine I’m ever going to join the service, and—in all honesty—I think the moment for this sort of short-text-based social media service has probably passed.

In his Platformer newsletter, Casey Newton interviewed Instagram’s Adam Mosseri about the new product. This bit stood out to me:

The thing that makes Twitter distinctive, Mosseri said, is that replies are given the same visual priority as the original posts. In a world where every other social network buries comments underneath posts, Twitter elevates them. And that encourages people to participate in discussions.

“The post-and-comment model is great,” Mosseri said. “But it really does not support public discourse nearly as well as the tweet-and-reply model. Elevating the reply to the same level as the original post allows for much more robust, diverse discourse.”

I fundamentally disagree with this: I think giving replies equal prominence to original posts fuels terrible discourse. It pits experts on the same level as conspiracy theorists. It encourages people to seize on the tiniest error, the most abstracted perceived slight, in any Tweet in order to ramp up engagement with the reply. It encourages attack, not discussion, and pile-ons (a natural by-product of giving responses the same prominence as original posts) squeeze out diversity rather than encouraging it.

In The Atlantic Daily, David Graham wrote about the impact of the death of Twitter on the ability of journalists to build personal brands. He said:

What comes after Twitter is a much more fragmented landscape. Many social-media sites command significant audiences, but no single platform can do what Twitter once did. A journalist can make a big bet on one platform, or they can try to hedge and be active on Reddit, YouTube, TikTok, Substack, and, as of this week, Meta’s Threads—give or take a dozen more. But who has the time? And besides, you don’t get the same reach. TikTok and YouTube command enormous but typically niche audiences.

I’ve written with boring frequency on this site about the BBC’s promotion of Twitter. This is, in my view, the wrong approach for myriad reasons, but the more the social media landscape fragments, the more unsustainable that approach becomes.

Imagine a 2024 Presidential election fought between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Suppose Biden continues to campaign on Twitter, but that Trump restricts himself to Truth Social, safe in the knowledge that he won’t be banned or fact-checked and that his messages will find their way beyond the network anyway. Would the BBC continue to promote only the platform used by only one of the candidates? Self-evidently not. Would it promote Truth Social? No chance.

And so, the era of free promotion of a particular network ends… surely. We presumably revert to “Campaign X said Y”, rather than “Candidate A posted on social network B”. The latter has never made sense for the BBC anyway: it’s no more logical than saying “Party M has posted a press released on media repository N”, which has never been a thing.

Threads won’t benefit (in the long-term) from the free promotion that built Twitter.

FullFact recently posted about false news circulating on Facebook suggesting that animals had been released from Paris Zoo in recent riots.

This stood out to me because I well remember, in the days I was on Facebook, the frequency with which “escaped zoo animals” were reported in connection with any number of news stories. I remember this because I briefly parodied it in an email to partners after arranging rabies vaccinations for an individual bitten by a wild animal abroad.

This is a long-standing and easily disproved item of fake news which could reasonably cause unnecessarily fear among readers. Even all these years on, Meta hasn’t got a grip of this simple stuff. The idea that Threads will be a reliable source of anything, or a place for informed discussion, is clearly not rooted in reality.

In Garbage Day, Ryan Broderick wrote:

My verdict: Threads sucks shit. It has no purpose. It is for no one. It launched as a content graveyard and will assuredly only become more of one over time. It’s iFunny for people who miss The Ellen Show. It has a distinct celebrities-making-videos-during-COVID-lockdown vibe. It feels like a 90s-themed office party organized by a human resources department. And my theory, after staring into its dark heart for several days, is that it was never meant to “beat” Twitter — regardless of what Zuckerberg has been tweeting. Threads’ true purpose was to act as a fresh coat of paint for Instagram’s code in the hopes it might make the network relevant again. And Threads is also proof that Meta, even after all these years, still has no other ambition aside from scale.

If you look back at every era of the internet, towards the end of each, you’ll see a whole pile-up of forgotten apps that tried to swoop in and bring back or replace something that was dying or dead. Myspace tried to bounce back with a redesign. Vine was going to be resurrected as Byte. BeReal was marketed as a way to recapture the simple fun of Snapchat, etc. But it doesn’t really work that way. Our tastes change. We move on. And then suddenly we can’t imagine ever going back.

I’ve wrongly predicted the death of Twitter an embarrassing number of times. I even did it earlier this month. I think Broderick might be right that it’s the class of services that is fracturing and dying, not just Twitter specifically. And that bodes ill for Threads.

In The Atlantic Daily, Charlie Warzel is interviewed about the impact of Meta’s appalling privacy record on the potential success of Threads:

People are never going to be as concerned with privacy stuff as they are with I want to be where my friends are. I want to try something new and interesting and see if it works. And if that initial experience is easy, fun, and intriguing, the potential to hook a new user and turn them into a quality repeat customer is very high.

It’s fair to say that Warzel’s overall impression of the prospects for Threads is less positive than this brief quotation implies. But this quotation stood out for me because I think Warzel is right.

It was the ‘creepy line’ that drove me away from Google services. Like most people, I think I projected my views onto others, and assumed that everyone else is increasingly concerned about privacy too. Except, objectively, they are not.

Warzel’s words reminded me that I often overhear people talking nonsense about Facebook spying on them through their phone’s microphone and inserting related adverts into their feeds. Yet, none of them have deleted the app or left the service… even when they genuinely believe they are being covertly surveilled.

Privacy is not a big deal to most people, which probably works in favour of Threads.

It’s probably not in their favour that when I think of ‘Threads’, I think of this:

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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