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    Why? No, seriously - why?

    There's not much to say about this other than: enhance.

    Enhance again.

    Look upon your democracy and weep, Britain.

    (EDIT: OK, so it turns out he's doing this for charity. You can donate here. That's alright then.)


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    The Labour leader accused the Tories of an "intellectual collapse" after their U-turn on payday loans but as Cameron knows, the wise Conservative travels light.

    Ed Miliband arrived at today's PMQs with the confidence of a man who believes that he is winning the argument. In Labour's view, the coalition's U-turn over a payday loan cap symptomises the Tories' complete confusion over how to respond to his interventionist agenda. Miliband began by quipping that Cameron had moved in two months from believing that intervening in broken markets is "living in a Marxist universe" to regarding it as a "solemn duty of government". Confronted by this charge, Cameron replied that the government had acted after 13 years in which Labour had done "absolutely nothing" before joking, in reference to Miliband's Desert Island Discs appearance (and his choice of Robbie Williams's "Angels"), "I think it's fair to say he's no longer a follower of Marx...he's loving Engels instead" (a line lifted from Twitter).

    In a competitive field, it was the most egregious PMQs joke in recent history but it still was enough to throw Miliband off balance as he rather humorlessly replied: "You’d have thought he’d be spending his time trying to be prime minister." After that, Miliband never quite managed to pin Cameron down, despite the coalition's shameless volte-face. Rather than asking Cameron whether the payday loan U-turn was motivated by the possibility of defeat in the House of Lords (it was, so he ignored the question), it might have been better for him simply to ask why the coalition had decided to adopt a cap after repeatedly voting against it last year. His attack on the Tories' "intellectual collapse" is a line that will resonate with op-ed writers but it's likely to prove less effective with the public who, as Raf noted yesterday, rarely look to governments for ideological consistency. Like his Tory predecessors, Cameron knows that the wise Conservative travels light. When Miliband attempted to portray him as inconsistent for supporting a payday loan cap while opposing an energy price freeze, the PM replied that the two weren't comparable since "we don't have control of the international price of gas", a line that will undoubtedly resonate with some voters.

    Miliband finished on a stronger note as he warned of rising deaths from cold weather (something that, combined with the A&E crisis, ministers fear could inflict significanct damage on the government) and, in revenge for Cameron's Tony McNulty quote last week, cited a tweet from Zac Goldsmith declaring that "if the PM can drop something so central to his identity, he can drop anything #greencrap" Miliband's line that "any action he takes on the cost of living crisis is because he’s been taken there kicking and screaming" was his strongest of the session. Cameron ended, as so often, by accusing Miliband of not wanting to talk about the economy. But as Labour's strategists will tell you, for most voters, living standards are the economy. Unless, and until, real wages begin to rise significantly for most earners (and perhaps not even then), Cameron will remain vulnerable on this territory. 


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    Air pollution is killing millions, and the government has responded by confiscating 500 illegal barbecues.

    In a move to combat smog in Beijing - where air pollution levels are often over 20 times the limit defined safe by the World Health Organisation – the Chinese government is cracking down on outdoor barbeques. AFP reports that over 500 have been confiscated by authorities, and illegal barbecue owners are being fined over $3,938, according to China Daily.

    The government’s decision has been ridiculed on China’s social media. The move will put hundreds of street vendors out of business, many of whom are from the restive Uighur state, as Reuters notes. It also means that many Beijing residents won't be able to enjoy some of their much loved street food. But more than being unpopular, it's pretty ineffective as an anti-pollution intervention: outdoor barbecues don’t contribute anywhere near as much air pollution as vehicles or factory fumes.

    The Chinese government is trying to limit pollution in other ways; cars with odd and even number plates are allowed to drive on alternate days, to try and clamp down on exhaust fumes. Around 1200 polluting factories are due to close, according to Beijing’s environmental bureau.

    In the meantime, however, the residents of Beijing are slowly choking to death. According to a World Bank report in early 2013, an estimated 1.2 million people in China died prematurely due to air pollution alone. 500 fewer barbecues won’t change that.


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  • 11/27/13--07:00: How to write about the north
  • Try to evoke a vague, slightly chilly sense of up-thereness and isolation. Mention any traffic problems on your journey, failure of lineside equipment near Stockport or any particularly awful baguette you were offered on the train. Ask: did you know they have wi-fi and sushi?

    You are invited to read this free preview from this week's New Statesman special on the north of England, out tomorrow. To purchase the full magazine - with our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage, plus Philip Hensher on the region's bright cultural life, Anthony Clavane on the history of rugby leage, Will Self on walking from London to Whitby and a special Critics section on northern arts and literature, please visit our subscription page.

    ---

    Inspired by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s celebrated essay “How to Write About Africa”, here is some guidance for those wishing to tackle the north of England.

    First: don’t define your terms. The north is not so much a place as a national myth, so don’t confuse your reader with any specific or detailed references to, say, Merseyside or County Durham. The northerners won’t thank you for it anyway, being petty churls riven with factional differences and impacted grudges. Assume that everyone knows what and where the north is – don’t attempt anything as prosaic or useful as a definition.

    Depending on the kind of piece you are trying to write, you will probably want to convey something of the following:

    Re-Return to Road to Wigan Pier (Again) Revisited. Concerned liberal goes back “oop north” on any convenient Orwell anniversary to find they’re all still eating chips and dying of pneumonia.

    It’s Flat White Skinny Latte Not Flat Caps Any More! Wide-eyed, well-meant “Did You Know They Have Wi-Fi and Sushi?” travel blog occasioned by Hull winning City of Culture 2017.

    The Shame of My Dewsbury.Daily Telegraph piece by Today programme presenter who left in 1968 based on inaccurate rates of teenage pregnancy and an obese family he once saw on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

    Auntie’s Folly. Screed of barely concealed contempt and suspicion (usually in the Daily Mail online) on BBC relocating to Salford straplined “Bill Turnbull fears for his life every time he parks car, say friends.”

    And so on. Try to evoke a vague, slightly chilly sense of up-thereness and isolation. Mention any traffic problems on your journey, failure of lineside equipment near Stockport or any particularly awful baguette you were offered on the train. After this, let your intentions be your guide. If your piece is generally favourable, mention any hills or cows you glimpse from first class and even risk a bit of poetry about pylons or cooling towers. If not, do note the first swear word you hear, particularly from a hoodie or a uniformed employee of any privatised industry.

    Go big on phonetics, especially with regard to cursing. “Fook” and “bluddy” should be written as if in Middle English to better emphasise the mood of both the alien and the ancient. This is a primitive place, several centuries behind Islington, and a good writer will evoke this sense of primal darkness underlying the seemingly normal. Remember, it could all kick off in the north at any minute, even in Booths supermarket (their version of Waitrose). If no one actually says “Ee bah gum” or “Garlic bread?” or “Art tha oop for’t coop?”, try to engineer it. Offer money. It doesn’t matter that you’d never dream of reproducing a Bristolian or an Aussie or an Old Etonian phonetically. It is expected of the north. It makes them feel different. It makes them feel special.

    What could be more northern than crime and violence? This should be reflected in your piece. Remember that different rules apply here and you must get the terminology right. Shoreditch is “edgy” whereas Longsight is “dangerous”. Bow is “real”, Whitehaven is “run-down”. Hackney is “gritty and bracing”, Rotherham is “bleak and menacing”. Other good words to drop are “blighted”, “desperate”, “red-brick”, “eyesore”, “hen party”, “fake tan”, and “Greggs”.

    Food and shopping in the north is, as we all know, uniformly dreadful. However, if you are a London-based restaurant critic (is there any other kind?) it will behove you occasionally to placate your paper’s advertisers by leaving NW1 for the north. Hopefully this will be to somewhere civilised like the Inn at Whitewell or Sharrow Bay. But if, God forbid, it’s Carlisle or Leeds, be sure to let any minor discomfiture be reflected in your review. Patronise wearily. Imply that the sushi/ibérico ham/marrowbone granita is probably passable for Cumbria but would be a laughing stock in Hampstead. Mock the staff’s accents and the chef’s pretensions to metropolitan standards. Do include something disparaging about any difficulties you had parking the car or getting a taxi. The tone should be high-handed and sneering, but with a hint of noblesse oblige.

    If your piece is more generally positive, you may want to include something about the region’s achievements. But remember to keep this largely to football, comedy and pop music. Display a familiarity with – but a patrician distance from – the works of the Stone Roses, Tony Wilson, Bez (he’s a funny one!) Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, Oasis, the Verve, John Cooper Clarke and New Order.

    If you can mention any of their football allegiances, all the better. Mention of Accrington Stanley usually gets a laugh.

    Never forget that the north of England is essentially comic. You may be tempted to overlook this in favour of a nuanced account of how it was the Victorian industrial powerhouse that shaped the world’s economies and politics – but this would be a mistake. Rely instead on the more humorous tropes that have served other writers well. The people here are good-hearted but essentially simple, unless they are criminals or drug addicts (see all TV police procedurals) The men are blunt, half-witted and work-shy while the women are brassy, big-hearted, and of easy virtue. Mention “donkey-stoning” and “sparking clogs”. These are northern things apparently.

    On no account waste your time dredging up any of the region’s political, scientific or cultural achievements; these are somewhat dull and worthy, and not exactly representative of the North as we like to think of it. Think Noel Gallagher, Gary Neville and Peter Kaye, not Alan Turing, Henry Moore, Rutherford splitting the Atom, the Pankhursts, Wordsworth, Engels or the Peterloo Massacre.

    Illustrations? L S Lowry is perfect but avoid the weird Edvard Munch-esque ones, or the landscapes. Try to find one with downtrodden crowds, a mill chimney or a child with callipers. It shouldn’t be too hard. Photographs should have been taken no later than 1962, be in black and white and feature sooty-faced coal miners emerging from the pithead or urchins kicking a football in a back alley, not hi-tech office blocks or young women with iPhones drinking cocktails, however many you may encounter. Never use a picture of a northerner in a suit unless it is a TV comedian or a celebrity footballer appearing at his drink-driving hearing. If you can get a mangy dog, a rat-faced kid in a cheap tracksuit or an old dear with a tartan shopping trolley, so much the better.

    Don’t go to Harrogate, Hebden Bridge, Durham, any part of the Northumberland Coast, the Lake District, the Eden Valley, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay or Hadrian’s Wall. This is not really “the north” as we all understand it and will only confuse your readers. Keep it urban, keep it polluted, keep it depressed. And don’t be afraid of any comeback from actual Northerners. You can always put this down to “chippiness”.

    They love that.

    Stuart Maconie is a writer and a presenter on BBC Radio 6 Music


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    Next week’s Autumn Statement provides Cameron and Osborne with the perfect opportunity to act - but will it be more of the same for the privileged few?

    Last month, I visited a primary care centre in my constituency to hear more about the challenges facing those working in general practice. In the face of ever increasing demands for their services, stretched budgets and the ongoing upheaval within the NHS, these challenges are many and growing. But while well aware that food banks across the north east are giving out seven times more in emergency food parcels than this time last year, I was still disturbed to learn on my visit that, on an almost daily basis, the GPs and their support staff are giving patients the bus fare to get to the nearest food bank, from their own pockets.

    No doubt the Prime Minister would welcome this as the perfect example of the 'Big Society' in action. He would possibly go so far to suggest that it’s saving the taxpayer money in the long-term as patients able to obtain a decent square meal are less likely to need to see their doctor so often. But I believe this appalling state of affairs is a sad reflection of the cost of living crisis facing millions of hard-pressed families and individuals up and down the country under David Cameron.

    While out-of-touch Tory ministers might like to kid themselves that the threefold national increase in food bank usage in the last 12 months is a result of posters in local job centres – or because "they are not best able to manage their finances" – those of us in the real world know that increasing numbers of people now turning to food banks for help are in work but still unable to meet the basic cost of living.

    And is it any wonder, when for 40 out of the 41 months that David Cameron has been in Downing Street, the cost of living has risen faster than wages? The stark reality is that average earnings have fallen in real terms in every region and nation of the country on this government’s watch, while the cost of family essentials continues to go up and up. Gas and electricity bills have risen by an average of £300 a year, and the cost of nursery places by 30% under David Cameron.  Households are spending 12% more on food bills than in 2007, despite actually purchasing 4.2% less food.

    The economic recovery which finally appears to be underway after three years of damaging flatlining is clearly yet to touch the lives of millions of households across Britain.  That’s why Labour has called an Opposition Day debate in the Commons this afternoon, focusing on the cost of living crisis and the government’s economic failure. We believe that any economic recovery should deliver rising living standards for all, and not just for the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s friends at the top. We need a recovery that is balanced, that is built to last and – absolutely critically – benefits every corner and community of this country.

    Yet what we have is a government with ministers who continue to bury their heads in the sand and remain totally oblivious to the cost of living crisis that millions are experiencing. Or worse, deny what they hear, and see, with their own eyes and ears.

    It’s time that our complacent Prime Minister and Chancellor got a grip of this issue, by finally taking action to tackle the cost of living crisis now facing too many – for a start by implementing our proposed energy price freeze that would benefit 27 million households and 2.4 million businesses, and by extending the previous Labour government’s 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 25 hours per week for working households to help make work pay.

    Next week’s Autumn Statement provides Cameron and Osborne with the perfect opportunity to take heed and do something - but will they stand up for the many struggling to make ends meet, or will it be more of the same for the privileged few?

    Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne


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    Evan Booth subverts the idea of airport security by showing how easy it is to craft weapons - like guns and grenades - out of things like magazines, batteries, and Lynx.

    The worst thing about going through airport security and having, say, your sweet, sweet honey confiscated, is that you can probably buy a replacement from at least one of the shops in the area between the security gates and the departure gates. This security theatre is justified on the grounds that only stuff that’s harmless is allowed beyond a certain point - so it follows to reason that everything those shops sell should be pretty much useless when it comes to taking over a plane.

    Except, no.

    That is the BLUNDERBUSSiness Class, as designed by security researcher and computer programmer Evan Booth. Everything you see there was bought from stores within an airport, and the weapon exploits some simple chemical reactions.

    A battery in the “gun” runs an electric current through a piece of wire when the trigger is pulled, melting the condom with heat. The water from the condom mixes with the lithium, and that reaction heats up the deodorant can so quickly that it explodes, forcing the “shot” - in this case, pennies - out of the rolled-up magazine barrel.

    There’s a fair chance it would take your arm off with it, but it also puts those coins through a partition wall, so it counts as a weapon.

    Fast Companyspoke to Booth about his work:

    “I think people have kind of been suspecting that the type of things I’ve built are possible,” says Booth, “I just don’t think anyone’s ever taken the time to do it.” The object of the research is a demonstration - half silly, half disturbing - that weapons are everywhere and that the "security theatre" of the TSA is not doing that much to keep us safe.

    "If we're trying stop a terrorist threat at the airport," says Booth. "It's already too late."

    The weapons that Booth has created are fantastically imaginative, and shown off in videos on his site, Terminal Cornucopia. There are nunchucks made out of belts and miniature Statue of Liberty figurines, and a crossbow that uses the rigid struts from an umbrella as arrows. He melts down a soda can into a solid metal bullet using a body spray flamethrower. A cigarette lighter and a toy plane controller are turned into a remote detonator.

    Booth gives his creations tongue-in-cheek, satirical names, too, like Chucks of Liberty, Planned Parenthood, and ‘Murica (for a club made by tying a miniature Washington Monument figurine to a rolled-up copy of the US Constitution).

    Here’s the Fragguccino, which - as the name suggests - is a frag grenade that uses a coffee flask as a shell:

    For what it’s worth, Booth is clearly aware that this kind of thing might scare people, and he assures us that he’s kept the FBI fully informed of all of his inventions with full, detailed reports. He also says he’s never assembled these weapons inside any airport - he’s always waited until he got home, to put them together in his workshop.

    That said, he’s disappointed that the authorities haven’t been as forthcoming in helping him with his research by providing him with something “awesome” like an aeroplane door with which to experiment.

    Regardless, it does kind of show the ridiculousness of the hype over 3D-printed guns. It is so, so much easier to build dangerous weapons out of stuf that's already lying around - going to the effort of manufacturing a completely new type of weapon is a long way from being sensible or practical.


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    The party reveals that it has recruited over 100 full-time organisers in key target seats, more than at any time in the 1997 election campaign.

    One of the criticisms made of Labour over the summer was that the party was not battle-ready. While the Tories poached Barack Obama's former campaign manager Jim Messina to work alongside Lynton Crosby on election strategy, Miliband's MPs fretted as the party delayed naming a successor to Tom Watson as campaign co-ordinator.

    Now, having appointed Douglas Alexander as chair of general election strategy, and Spencer Livermore, Gordon Brown's former director of strategy, as general election campaign director in the recent reshuffle, Labour is seeking to show that it is on a "war footing". 

    At an all-staff conference tomorrow, Alexander and Livermore will deliver a joint presentation on "election strategy and structures" and will explain "how the party will now be organised around a structure of seven taskforces in an election war room." This will include a "strengthened Attack and Rebuttal Unit and a Digital Taskforce".  The conference will be opened by general secretary Iain McNicol followed by a Miliband speech and Q&A.

    Judging by the early extracts released by Labour, Miliband will emphasise the message that he delivered at today's PMQs: that the Tories' U-turn on payday lending marked "an intellectual collapse of their position". Here's the key passage:  

    Two months ago, David Cameron and George Osborne were warning that a Labour Party that wanted to fix broken markets and build an economy which works for working people was flirting with communism and being inspired by Das Kapital.

    This week, George Osborne has finally followed our lead on pay day lending and declared, with a straight face, that he now believes markets must be made to work for people, even while he and David Cameron still refuse to take on the big six energy companies.

    So be in no doubt: we are winning the battle of ideas, the Tories have no answers. They will always stand up for the privileged few.

    But while seeking to show how it's making the intellectual running, Labour will also point to its plans to win the ground war. The party has revealed today that it has already recruited over 100 full-time organisers in key target seats, more than the number achieved at the height of the 1997 election campaign. 

    Optimistic Labourites and pessimistic Tories have long cited the party's superior ground game as one reason why it is likely to win in 2015. One shadow cabinet minister recently told me that Labour's strength in this area helped it to win "a 1992-style share of seats on a 1983-style share of the vote" at the last election. The party currently has 187,537 members, significantly more than the Tories' 134,000, a stat which prompted political and campaign communications head Michael Dugher to remark recently: "Labour still has its historic competitive advantage – people. Tory party membership is dying on its arse and no one is joining the Liberal Democrats."

    Conscious of this gap, Grant Shapps has written to every Tory MP asking them to increase the average number of Conservative members per constituency from 0.5% of Tory voters to 3% (something that would increase the party's total membership to 800,000). But barring a dramatic transformation, Labour can be confident that it will retain its ground advantage right up to May 2015. 


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    The party is being being whittled into a crude instrument for the sole purpose of bludgeoning the opposition.

    When David Cameron stood for the Tory leadership in 2005, it was obvious to anyone who wasn’t a Conservative that he was the best man for the job. Elections are generally won by converting voters from the opposite side and Cameron’s fresh-faced urbanity seemed likelier to achieve that than the Jurassic growls coming from the right of his party.

    For similar reasons, Conservatives cheered when Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership. They doubted that his preaching would reach any but the already converted. As it turns out, neither Cameron nor Miliband has made great incursions into enemy terrain since 2010. Fluctuations in opinion polls describe a flight to Labour of Lib Dems who hate coalition with the Tories and a flounce to Ukip of Conservatives who hate Cameron. The swingometer has stalled.

    The lack of voter traffic between the big two parties is one reason Labour strategists are less perturbed by Miliband’s dismal personal ratings than most of Westminster thinks they ought to be. It is undeniably a problem that so many people struggle to imagine the Labour leader striding into Downing Street. But Miliband’s aides point out that Cameron’s weakness – the suspicion that he serves rich men first – is especially pronounced among exactly the voters the Tories need to persuade most. The Prime Minister has made no progress in charming people in marginal seats who voted Labour in 2010 and if they don’t switch, the Tories can’t win a majority. Public doubts about Miliband are well-advertised. Cameron’s electoral blockage is better hidden but surgically acute.

    In a close election, mobilising loyal support could be critical and here Miliband has an advantage. He isn’t great at poaching Tories but he sure gives Labour people reasons to vote Labour. It isn’t “big tent” politics but, whether he is making an enemy of Rupert Murdoch or the big energy companies, Miliband knows how to make his tribe feel at home in his tepee. Cameron, on the other hand, has confused Conservatives with a mix of provocation and bribery, offending their sensibilities with gay marriage one day, offering them a European referendum the next.

    This gets to the heart of the crisis in Tory “modernisation”. It pains those who admired Cameron’s plan for detoxifying his party’s brand to admit that his subsequent flakiness – dismissing environmentalism as “green crap”, for instance – and his lofty manner are themselves toxic. He is such a fluent messenger, it is hard to accept that he may embody the wrong message.

    Tory traditionalists have the opposite problem. They are well aware of the gilded complacency that dulls Cameron’s appeal, especially to squeezed households. But they want that flaw to discredit the rest of his project to reform the party. According to this view, the Cameroons led the Tories down a blind alley of cosmopolitan elitism.

    The Conservatives are marooned between being the party their leader once wanted them to be and the one they suppose they might have been without him. So Downing Street has settled for unification around a goal all can agree on – trashing Labour. With the help of Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign strategist, the Tories are turning every debate into a warning against the perils of electing Miliband. If there is a problem with the NHS, it is the legacy of Labour negligence. Economic malaise? Labour spent all the money. Immigration? Labour opened the floodgates. The chairman of the Co-operative Bank is alleged to have taken hard drugs? Labour took money from the Co-op so, er, well, never mind the details, there’s something a bit whiffy over there on the left. Hold your nose and turn right.

    Vilifying Miliband needn’t stop the Tories nicking those of his ideas they deem workable and popular – hence George Osborne’s recent U-turn on capping pay-day lender charges.

    This smash-and-grab approach could work. Labour MPs are easily spooked. Many still see Miliband proceeding into the next election in a rickety red charabanc, good for attracting attention but sure to be run off the road by the Tory armoured Land Rover. Cameron’s approach doesn’t ask people to fall in love with the Conservatives. He just needs them to see voting Labour as a dangerous gamble when the economy is improving.

    The weakness in the plan is its sheer nastiness. The vitriol may put some undecided voters off siding with Labour but if there is no positive reason to choose the Conservatives instead, they may just stay at home on polling day. Meanwhile, Tory aggression really fires up Miliband’s core support, which, bolstered by the Lib Dem defectors, might be bigger than the Prime Minister’s.

    The Conservatives need millions of new votes to win a majority and it still isn’t clear where they will come from. Cameron once had the potential to deliver that bounty but he squandered it. He may even become an active impediment. His patrician gentility passed for charisma when it was allied to a moderate, optimistic prospectus. Without that, it congeals into arrogance.

    The Tories would still be unwise to change leader before the election. (Only a tiny cabal of hardline Eurosceptics even consider this an option.) They could still win or, more likely, stay in power in another coalition with the Lib Dems. The economy is growing. Miliband looks ill-prepared for the total war that is coming his way.

    To be back in No 10 after the next election would be victory enough for Cameron. But to the outside observer, to anyone who is interested in Conservatism as a political creed, to anyone who values debate or who recognises that there are principled MPs on the Tory benches, the party looks diminished by its leader. It is being whittled into a crude instrument for the sole purpose of bludgeoning the opposition. You don’t have to be a Tory to believe it should be more than that.


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  • 11/27/13--21:28: Is this the death of Apple?
  • Steve Jobs’s creation, long thought to be the smartest company in the world, is in danger of falling behind Google and Facebook in the race to be the internet platform of the future.

    Steve Jobs died on 5 October 2011, the day after the launch of the iPhone 4S. His chosen successor, Tim Cook, was already installed as Apple’s chief executive and, after initially faltering, the share price recovered, rising 76 per cent in the following year. Then, in a few months, all those gains vanished and the price is still well below its peak.

    The reason is market scepticism about the post-Jobs regime. Cook is not Jobs and, since the iPad, there has been no spectacular product launch, only the usual stream of updates and improvements. His more conventional management practices are said to be counterinnovative. In addition, competitors are thriving, and most importantly Google and Facebook seem to have solved the puzzle of how to make money out of advertising on mobile devices. All of which is just another way of saying that Steve Jobs is dead.

    Then there is the sigmoidal curve. Companies are like animals. After an initial growth spurt, they slow down and die, usually in a matter of decades. Imagine the letter “S” fallen on its face: there is a curve downwards on the left, then a rise – the start-up and growth spurt – then it reaches a plateau and begins to decline. This is the sigmoidal curve, applied by the physicist Geoffrey West of the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico to both organisms and companies. Some are now saying that it applies to Apple, one of the biggest companies on the planet – and certainly the smartest.

    Business theories are like Marxism in the Soviet Union: they are only true to the extent that enough people pretend that they are. Apple, however, looks like an unusually perfect test case, not just of the theory but also of the possibility that the sigmoidal curve can, for a time, be beaten by the creation of a new curve, a new injection of start-up energy, a new growth spurt. Under Jobs, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad did this and it is what the markets are now looking for, post-Steve. Apple has yet to deliver.

    One symptom of market nerves is that investors are increasingly unwilling to let the company sit on its great pile of cash. In Apple’s case, this amounts to $150bn, almost 10 per cent of all the holdings of non-financial companies in the United States and, at times, more than the cash cushion held by the US Treasury. Cook has agreed to hand back $100bn in dividends and share buybacks. In October, a powerful investor, Carl Icahn (who is worth $20bn), demanded the return of the whole $150bn.

    Meanwhile, the shares of Google, Apple’s bitter rival, have soared over the past year. Google, the story goes, is now the great innovator in Silicon Valley. Apple, after Jobs, began to ossify, to lose its ability to scatter “insanely great” products over the adoring masses. There are currently only three serious players in the battle to be the platform on which the future is built – Facebook is the other. Apple is in danger of taking the bronze.

    The mixed response to the launch of iOS7 – the new version of the iPhone and iPad operating system – in September seemed to confirm this. It was also a reminder of one of the most important things that happened after Jobs’s death: Cook’s dismissal of Scott Forstall. Forstall is a curious figure, a Jobsian to his core – he tended to wear the same clothes as Steve and even drive the same car (a silver Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG). He was in charge of iOS and, crucially, of the disastrous launch of Apple Maps, an app initially so bad that Cook advised users to go back to Google Maps.

    Forstall was also a fan of skeuomorphs, a term of design art that has suddenly escaped into common usage. It means things that look like older, more familiar things – so an icon for an app for making notes looks like a notebook. This dominated iOS visuals until Jonathan “Jony” Ive, Apple’s senior vice-president of design, threw it out in favour of a “flatter”, de-skeuomorphed look with iOS7.

    Many objected to the new system, claiming that it hurt their eyes, made them dizzy, and so on. The truth was that with the flat look, Ive and Cook had bigger fish to fry. As Will Self has astutely observed in the New Statesman, skeuomorphs signal the dominance of western old-guy culture. They are a way of making the old feel comfortable with the new. In that context, it seems that iOS7 is aimed at youth, specifically Asian youth. It is in Asia where Apple is growing and will continue to grow fastest. Nevertheless, iOS7 remains contentious and further evidence for those who believe that Apple has lost it.

    This raises two questions. Should we believe any of this? Should we care? A quick answer to the first question is: of course not. Precisely because it is the largest and – thanks to the epic tale of Jobs’s life and death – the most dramatic tech company, the imminent demise of Apple is announced with tedious regularity. The “Apple Death Knell Counter” at the Mac Observer website records 63 premature obituaries since 1995, the most recent being in July, when an article on the CBS site carried the headline: “Why Apple is a dead company walking”.

    Nevertheless, the point about crying wolf is that eventually the wolf does come. Its arrival would be traumatic for veteran Apple users like me. For anybody young enough to know music primarily as something heard through white earphones (the iPod was launched in October 2001), the idea of an Appleless world is hard to imagine.

    “I was born in 1985,” says Luke Dormehl, author of The Apple Revolution. “I was 16 when the iPod came out. For my whole consumer-electronics-buying life, Apple has been as we know [it] today.”

    The software and hardware of Apple’s computers remain years ahead of and infinitely more usable than anything else on the market. Its ethos of striving for “machine beauty” – a kind of beauty now reflected in the splendour of the Apple Stores – is still seductively unique. In this, Google comes a distant second but there is not a single brand – not in technology, not anywhere – as potent as Apple.

    Consider this: Apple makes very few products – Cook once said its entire range could fit on a tabletop – and they are more expensive than the competition. So how has it become one of the biggest companies in the world? It has done so through the power of mystique, aspiration and industrial design; through, in short, the narcissistic, brutally competitive aesthetic obsessiveness of Steve Jobs. Apple continues to be formidably profitable – its stores, for example, have the highest sales per square foot of a retail outlet in the world. Yet Apple is not a viable business model: it is, like Jobs, an unrepeatable corporate freak show. Can it possibly be, post-Jobs, a freak show that runs and runs? The reviews are not yet in but doubt is priced into the shares.

    What is going on? Given the number of full-time Apple watchers in the world, you’d think that somebody would know – but nobody does, not even, thanks to the company’s internal as well as external secrecy, most of its employees. Products are developed in closed-off rooms entered only by those who need to know. The one small peephole in this wall of silence used to be patent applications, which are public documents. Apple’s used to be scanned for what would come next but now the company patents everything, even abandoned ideas, so there is no knowing which are the real possibilities.

    However, when the watchers converge on a forecast, it tends to have at least a grain of truth. Currently, they say, an iPhone with a much larger, curved screen and pressuresensitive touch controls is on the way. But that simply augments the current product. Two possible and entirely new products could restart the company’s sigmoidal curve. “I’m pretty confident that they have at least two more technologies,” says Leander Kahney, editor of the Cult of Mac blog and author of a new book about Jony Ive.

    Current televisions are among the worstdesigned electronic products on the market; they are a vision of what mobile phones and computers would be like if Apple had never existed. Everybody has several remotes and, to the rear of the flat screen is a zoo of wires and ports. Apple can fix this – just before his death, Jobs said he had solved the problem – and Ive can make it beautiful. Imagine a screen and an iPad-like controller and you probably get the picture. An Apple television would be an invasion of a new product zone comparable to the launch of the iPhone. The project is fraught with difficulty, however, not least because Apple would need to control the content flow, as it has done with music ever since the iPod, in order to preserve its freakish profitability. Jobs may be dead but the company’s control mania is undiminished.

    The latest rumours suggest that the TV is not imminent but also that something perhaps much more interesting is. The biggest clue to this is Cook’s appointment of Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry, as head of retail. This has been called “the most important hire Cook has ever made” and Ahrendts has even been tipped as the next Apple CEO. Less obvious are a number of other appointments from the fashion industry.

    “They are hiring fashion designers like crazy,” says Kahney, “and they’re getting all these people from the fashion industries; they’re working with somebody from Yves Saint Laurent. They’ve just secretly hired three industrial designers with experience in hi-tech clothing; there was a wetsuit designer from Patagonia [the company, not the place]; there’s an expert in industrial knitting from Nike; and at the same time, they are hiring all these engineers who build biometric sensors.”

    The next move in this game is, therefore, the cyborg – the part-human, part-machine, dreamed of by science-fiction writers. This is all about wearable computing or “technologically enhanced clothing”, as Kahney puts it. The widely rumoured iWatch may be the first step in this direction, though this would hardly be revolutionary, as there are many such devices already on the market. What follows may be, for example, clothing that tracks your vital signs – blood pressure, heart rate, and so on – giving you instant feedback so that you can adjust your behaviour. Apple Stores could thus become, in part, clothing outlets. Hence the appointment of Ahrendts.

    This would be a move in the great Jobs tradition: the annexation of a new industry. Wearable computing is, at the moment, a mess of rather dull-looking products, primarily watches, and the best known of them, Google Glass, is still not widely available. In any case, it seems specifically designed to make its users look like idiots – Glass is a spectacle frame controlled by a series of strange movements of the head and hands; it is guaranteed not to break the ice at parties. Yet if Kahney is right, Apple intends not just to compete with these ephemeral gadgets but with the entire clothing industry.

    Can Cook do it? The first point to make is that he may not be Jobs but he made what Jobs did possible. “It is no coincidence,” writes Adam Lashinsky in his book Inside Apple, “that the more responsibility Cook took on in the nuts-and-bolts parts of Apple, the more Jobs was freed up for his creative endeavours. Released from worrying whether customer service was operating smoothly or if retail outlets were receiving inventory to match customer demand, Jobs spent the last decade of his life dreaming up the iPod, iPhone and iPad – and then marketing them.”

    Cook created the supply chain, a global network of manufacturers whose components converge, primarily, on giant Chinese assembly operations. It is unlikely that Jobs could have done this, given his volcanic temper, his impatience and his love of the product rather than its manufacturing ancestry. Kahney suggests that Cook’s strategy now is to become an enabler for Jony Ive, the man who, more than anybody else, seems to keep the Jobs mystique alive.

    It is certainly still the case that ID – the industrial design studio – is the dominant force within the company. It is said that at meetings, everybody falls silent when the designers walk into the room. They have the last and the first word on everything that Apple ships, the packaging included. This is unique in Silicon Valley and probably unique in the industrialised world. If Cook tampers with that, then he risks Apple finally becoming just another company.

    What Cook can’t do, however, is maintain’s Apple marketing operation; this is because it is dead. Jobs was the marketing department. His story – ejected in 1985 from the company he co-founded, returning to save it from bankruptcy and lead it to world dominance in 1996 – combined with his theatrical skills (his product announcements were some of the greatest shows on earth) and his attention to detail in advertising all created a personal mystique that fed into a product mystique of religious intensity. Steven Levy of Newsweek was one of the four journalists to get an iPhone ahead of its launch. In the crowds outside the New York Apple Store, he was being interviewed on TV when somebody grabbed the microphone and announced that he had one of the sacred gadgets. What followed was a weird display of what can only be called piety. “Shaken but undaunted,” Levy wrote later, “we restarted [the interview]. It got scarier. People pressed in close, fingers stretching toward the device, Michelangelo-style.”

    Even Jobs’s death seems to have been choreographed as a quasi-religious ceremony. His last words are said to have been: “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow” – as if he saw, beyond the veil, the ultimate product. And he once said that death was “very likely the single best invention of life”.

    Cook can’t match this – nobody could – and it is noticeable that the quality of Apple’s advertising has slipped badly. Print and video ads have become corporate feel-good hack work, indistinguishable from the competition: a sad decline from the often outrageous and always stylish edginess of the Jobs years. Cook now seems to be buying in marketing skills, notably with the hiring of Ahrendts, but Apple will have to function without the giant personality attached.

    The fate of this confection of ego, art and advertising will ultimately be determined by competition. As a new book – Fred Vogelstein’s Dogfight– explains, Apple’s history since the iPhone has been dominated by an increasingly bitter war with Google. Prior to the iPhone, the two companies were quite friendly, sharing a director, Eric Schmidt; Apple even tolerated that Google seemed to be developing a mobile operation system that might compete with its device.

    After the launch of the iPhone in 2007, this fell apart as phones using Google’s Android system started to appear. Jobs was incandescent and launched a series of lawsuits against the makers of Android phones. In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson quotes him in full flow after he launched a case against the smartphone manufacturer HTC in 2010: “Our lawsuit is saying, ‘Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.’ Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40bn in the bank to right this wrong. I am going to destroy Android because it is a stolen product. I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death because they know they are guilty. Outside of Search, Google’s products – Android, Google Docs – are shit.”

    Vogelstein points out that Jobs’s vendetta “created one of the largest patent law firms in the world”, an amalgam of Apple’s legal team and four outside firms deploying 300 lawyers and costing about $200m a year. All of this on the basis of a case that, Vogelstein suggests, was far from fair. Apple, too, had copied ideas – notably the computer mouse from Xerox – but any defence from Google along those lines could not dent Jobs’s conviction that Apple had invented everything.

    Cook is unlikely to be any less determined to wage war on Google. Yet the late boss’s vehemence may prove a burden. It wasn’t just applied to one company; all of Apple’s competitors and even their partners were subjected to his monomaniacal conviction that there was Apple and there was the rest of the world, which largely consisted of bozos and rip-off artists. This left behind a burden of scratchy corporate relationships. When Jobs was alive, the other companies grinned and bore it; now they are not doing so.

    The big picture now is this. There are three companies competing to be the internet platform of the future –Apple, Google and Facebook. They have quite different methods and utterly different images. Google’s approach is based on its near monopoly over advertising and its drive to feed this by a rapid expansion of its ability to acquire and control information; its image is that of the wacky, let’s-give-it-a-whirl inventor. Facebook pursues a massive expansion of the idea of the social network; its image is that of a hip, genial, idealisticmaker of friendships and connections. Apple aims for the tightest possible integration of hardware and software that ties users into its system; its image is that of the autocratic genius who knows better than you how to live your life and, soon, how to dress. Apple’s image is at least the most honest.

    At the moment, Google is the favourite for gold, with Facebook as a possible silver if it can control its appalling public relations and crass handling of private information. Apple is on the ropes. I hope it won’t stay there for long for one simple reason. None of these companies is especially loveable; they are all power and money-hungry operations that seem to think they have a right to remake the world in their own image. They employ people who think that Ayn Rand’s objectivism is the last word in philosophy and that the “technological singularity” – the takeover of the machines – is imminent and desirable. They no doubt want us to be more like machines, the better to be interacted with and be read by their products. Yet Apple has a redeeming feature. It does, in spite of everything and thanks to Steve Jobs, make things beautiful.

    Bryan Appleyard is a writer for the Sunday Times and other publications. He tweets as: @bryanappleyard


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    The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau.

    An American friend is absorbed in that occupation so fascinating to all us foreigners when we first arrive in this island – an empirical study of the class system. Engaged in painting the Universities and Left Review coffee house, he often travels in paintstained clothes, when he is treated with camaraderie by workmen, and as if he does not exist by the well dressed. Back in respectable clothes, he is a sir, another person. I once wrote in a book review that the caste system in this country was as complicated as that of India. I had 37 indignant letters saying that class distinctions had been killed in the Second World War. They were all from middle class people.

    A man told me this story of the last war, when he was simultaneously one of the managers of a large factory outside London and Communist Party organiser for the area. Three times a week he changed into workmen’s clothes and stood at the factory gates speechifying. The other managers, beside whom he worked all day, would drive out past him at a couple of yards’ distance, but none of them ever recognised him: they simply didn’t see him because he was wearing different clothes. And it was the same with the workmen who saw him every day in his capacity as boss. One of them did once remark that he could swear he “knew his face from somewhere”. My friend, torn apart by this Jekyll and Hyde existence, tried to explain, but the man would not believe him.

    ***

    The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau – he fits her much better than those boys she used to pick up at the Palais. She tried out seven applicants before she found one to suit. But marriage bureaux work in more devious ways than perhaps they know.

    I once lived in the next room to a girl, waitress at Lyons, who was in love with the manager of the restaurant across the street. He had been playing her up, so she decided to make him jealous. She visited the bureau demanding “a handsome dark man, aged 25, five foot ten”. The lady at the bureau was distressed at Betty’s frivolous attitude, even came to visit her at home so as to explain that happy wedlock did not depend on good looks. Betty was tolerant about this, conceding that she meant well. Meanwhile, handsome dark young men came to tea with Betty on those afternoons when Steven the manager was due to pass by. Everyone’s plans miscarried. Steven was jealous, but too much so: Betty turned him down because she couldn’t be happy with a man as unreasonable as all that. Two of the bureau’s candidates took to her, but she couldn’t fully take to men who had to go through an office to find themselves girls. She married a boy she had known since childhood – tall, dark and extremely handsome, but because, she said, she was “used to him”.

    ***

    My son has flu, rather too intensely. He, like myself, is accomplished in the pleasures of hypochondria and has decided his temperature is too high for real enjoyment. “About 100° is what I like,” he says, and I agree with him. While we wait for his temperature to fall to a pleasurable level, his remarks hover on the borders of sense.

    Do I agree, he asks, with the man who says that the Tube is like a pea-shooter?

    “What tube?” – my mind being full of bronchials.

    “The Underground – all those people like peas blown in at one end and flying out the other.”

    “People,” I say, severely maintaining the humanist position, “are not like peas, not ever. They are people.”

    Meanwhile the Warwick Road, grey and damp with winter, roaring with great lorries, remains sulking outside. A red fire engine gongs its way past.

    “Is it true that lions would live in England if it was hot?”

    “Who said so?”

    “The man at the bus stop.”

    “What makes you think of lions now?”

    “The fire engine, it makes me think of lions, when I cough I sound like a lazy lion. I like the thoughts I have when I’m sick. What’s going to happen to the thoughts I’m having in this room when we leave? Will they stay here and get into the minds of the people who come?”

    “Certainly not,” I say, delivering a short but unprincipled anti-idealist lecture.

    “Well, then, they’ll go rippling out over London into the sky and out and out . . . What happens when they collide with the waves that come from the hydrogen bombs?”

    ***

    Like every right-minded woman I disapprove of Dr Johnson, and even the one remark he made I do like is hard to hold fast to in March. Yet the streets of London can always be relied upon for entertainment. It was snowing, so I tied a scarf over my head to go shopping. In the supermarket I was stopped by a couple of girls who announced themselves as members of an association to brighten Britain, particularly in its standard of dress. If I didn’t mind them saying so, I was fine as far as the shoulders, but would I please give them my word I would never again, in the national interest, wear a headscarf?

    Last year a visiting Russian writer borrowed an umbrella for a visit to Hyde Park, and was approached by a couple of men from the League for the Correct Furling of Umbrellas – or some such title. The Russian said that he deduced from this incident that Engels’s estimate of the British character was still valid.

    This is an extract of an article that appeared in the NS on 22 March 1958. Doris Lessing died on 17 November 2013, aged 94


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Don’t summon up the immigration monster (Times)

    Most people’s assumptions about immigrants are wrong, but politicians cynically play to their prejudices, says David Aaronovitch. 

    2. Labour must answer the SNP with more than a slogan (Guardian)

    Unless Ed Miliband defines what One Nation means, the nationalists could win a victory that will leave him paralysed, says Martin Kettle.

    3. Iran nuclear deal: The friends of Israel who are refusing to face facts (Daily Telegraph)

    Benjamin Netanyahu’s acolytes are hell-bent on undermining Barack Obama's nuclear pact with Iran, writes Peter Oborne.

    4. It’s a rip-off. We need an English parliament (Times)

    The formula requiring Westminster to pay for huge benefits north of the Border must be abandoned, says Tim Montgomerie.

    Historians of the future may say the Lib Dem did as well as he could have – nonsense, says Owen Jones.

    6. Scotland: A Yes vote offers some wonderful 'what ifs’ (Daily Telegraph)

    If the Scots opt for independence, the negotiations will be endlessly complex, says Sue Cameron.

    7. Austerity is wreaking havoc, but the left can unite to build a better Europe (Guardian)

    Zealots for neoliberalism have created a humanitarian tragedy across the continent, says Alexis Tsipras. It is our destiny to fight back.

    8. In the Royal Mail sell-off scandal, taxpayers have been robbed by the very piranhas who caused the crash (Daily Mail)

    Seldom in financial history has a share offer been so scandalously misjudged, writes Alex Brummer. 

    9. America isn't leaving the Middle East, unfortunately (Guardian)

    The Iran nuclear deal is a product of the failure of the war on terror, writes Seumas Milne. It should at least hand more control to the region's people.

    10. China must tread carefully over islands (Financial Times)

    Regional powers are more wary of Beijing than of Tokyo, writes David Pilling.


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    The mayor presented social mobility as compensation for inequality but it's the gap between the rich and poor that erodes opportunity.

    We can at least commend Boris Johnson for his candour. Unlike those in his party who hide behind euphemisms and platitudes, the mayor presented rampant inequality as both inevitable and desirable in his Margaret Thatcher lecture last night. Differences in IQ, the efficient operation of the free market and the need for economic incentives all meant it was "futile" for politicians to even try to narrow the gulf between the rich and the rest. "Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2% have an IQ above 130," he said, oblivious to the fact that this gap isn't the cause of inequality but the result of it

    But while delivering this bleakly Hobbesian message, he attempted to sweeten the pill by echoing John Major's lamentation of stagnant social mobility and calling for a dramatic expansion of opportunity. In one passage he remarked:

    I worry that there are too many cornflakes who aren’t being given a good enough chance to rustle and hustle their way to the top. We gave the packet a good shake in the 1960s; and Mrs Thatcher gave it another good shake in the 1980s with the sale of the council houses. Since then there has been a lot of evidence of a decline in social mobility, as Sir John Major has trenchantly pointed out.

    And in another:

    It seems to me that though it would be wrong to persecute the rich, and madness to try and stifle wealth creation, and futile to stamp out inequality, we should only tolerate this wealth gap on two conditions. One, that we help those who genuinely cannot compete; and two, that we provide opportunity for those who can

    But his presentation of social mobility as a form of compensation for inequality was almost comically inappropriate. As anyone with the most cursory grasp of the subject knows, reduced opportunity is the inevitable result of greater inequality: it's harder to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart. As the empirical masterpiece The Spirit Level showed (see graph), it is the most unequal countries, such as the UK and the US, that have the lowest levels of social mobility, while the most equal, such as Sweden, Canada and Japan, that have the highest. In the case of Britain, it was after Boris's heroine took office, and the gap between the rich and the poor became a chasm (the gini coefficient rose from 12.9 in 1978 to 22.2 in 1990), that social mobility began to stagnate. 

    Confronted by this unavoidable truth, Boris offered nothing resembling a solution. In his recent report on the subject for the coalition, Alan Milburn wisely noted that "deep-rooted inequality and flatlining mobility have been decades in the making" and that "in most developed countries there has been a declining share of economic growth going to labour (and a higher share to capital) at the same time as there has been growing wage inequality. In the UK, the share of national income going to wages of workers in the bottom half of the earnings distribution decreased by a quarter between 1979 and 2009."

    But Boris had nothing say to about repairing the broken link between growth and earnings. Instead, he called for the return of academic selection under the guise of "academic competition" (perpetuating the myth of grammar schools as engines of social mobility) and sought to reassure us that those benefiting most from inequality were already paying their fair share. He told his audience: "Today, when taxes have been cut substantially, the top one per cent contributes almost 30 per cent of income tax [one might note that he is among them]; and indeed the top 0.1 per cent - just 29,000 people - contribute fully 14 per cent of all taxation."

    Yet this statistic tells us less about what has happened to the tax system than it does about what has happened to the income system. Over the period in question, the earnings of the rich have soared to hitherto unimaginable levels. As a recent OECD study showed, the share of income taken by the top 1% of UK earners increased from 7.1% in 1970 to 14.3% in 2005, while the top 0.1% took 5%. Quite simply, the rich are paying more because they're earning more. Is this really cause for us to "fete them and decorate them and inaugurate a new class of tax hero"? If 11 million low and middle earners receive the pay rise they have been denied since 2003, they'll pay more tax too. In fact, compared to the rich, they're already paying the lion's share. As the ONS recently found, owing to VAT and other regressive levies, the least well-off households pay 36.6% of their income in tax, while the wealthiest pay 35.5%. Had the coalition taken Boris's advice and cut the top rate of income tax to 40p (with a 30p rate down the line) , that gap would be even wider. 

    A more progressive tax system would narrow the gap between rich and poor and tilt the odds in favour of social mobility but here, as elsewhere, the policies promoted by Boris aren't the solution to a society in which birth determines destiny, they're the cause of it. 


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    CT scans and 3D printers are making it possible to see fossils that were previously inaccessible inside rock.

    Accurate copies of fossilised bones can now be made from the combined use of computed tomography (CT) scans and 3D printers, according to a paper published in the journal Radiology.

    The technique offers scientists a non-destructive way of transporting and handling rare or fragile fossils.

    To protect such specimens from damage during transportation, the fossils are often stored in plaster jackets or casts. These jackets must be strong enough to protect the fossils, but should also separate easily from the specimen when removed.

    It is during the removal of the plaster and surrounding sediment that the fossil is in danger of material loss or even destruction. This typically occurs when the plaster is stuck fast to the bone.

    (A 3D print of a fossil (right) next to the original still inside a plaster jacket. Image: Courtesy of Radiology and RSNA)

    A group of German researchers found that, by using CT and 3D printers, they could separate fossilised bone from its surrounding sediment matrix in a way that would not harm the specimen, then produce a 3D copy of it.

    Applying this method to an unidentified fossil from the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, the researchers scanned the bone with a 320-slice multi-detector system to show up the different attenuation (absorption of radiation) through the bone and the surrounding sediment matrix, depicting clearly the fossilised vertebra.

    The scan also provided information on the condition and integrity of the specimen, like otherwise unknown fractures, and helped the researchers build an accurate reconstruction of the fossil.

    Then using a laser sintering system– a process which uses high-powered lasers to fuse materials by adding thin horizontal layers of plastic – an accurate 3D copy of the fossil was produced.

    (An enlarged 3D copy of a 380 million year old coelacanth skull found near Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. Image: John Long)

    The impact on palaeontology
    According to Richard Brian Gunderman, a professor of radiology at Indiana University who was not involved in the study, CT scanners are able to determine the exact structural dimensions of an object, down to fractions of a millimetre.

    This data can then be used to construct a replica so precise that objects of great historical interest, like Stradivarius violins, have been created to sound remarkably similar to the originals.

    “Such a technology has been a boon to palaeontologists in the past few years,” said John Long, strategic professor in palaeontology at Flinders University.

    “Once we relied on meticulous time-consuming methods to prepare delicate fossils out of the rock and, even then, we could only see their external features. Now, using high-resolution micro-CT scanners and synchrotrons [particle accelerators], we can investigate every nook and cranny of the fossil right down to individual cells and tissue structures without having to risk damaging the specimen.

    “Combined with advanced 3D printing, we can now slice though the ancient fossil skulls and print them in halves showing the full anatomy in clear definition. This will no doubt revitalise palaeontology.”

    (A 3D scan of a 380 million-year-old Gogonasus fish skull by Tim Senden and ANU Vizlab.)

    Ahi Sema Issever, from the Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin and one of the study’s authors, explained: “The most important benefit of this method is that it is non-destructive so the risk of harming the fossil is minimal. In addition, not only does this method allow for a global exchange of rare fossils in any quantity, data on the specimens can also be digitally shared between research institutes, museums and schools while protecting the original fossil.”

    Darren Curnoe, associate professor at the University of New South Wales, agreed, saying: “Famous fossils like the Taung Child in South Africa - the very first ancient ape-like creature found in our human evolutionary tree - has been quite badly damaged following almost 90 years of study by scientists.

    “Almost everyone who sees the fossil wants to take a couple of measurements of their own, and by doing so, is damaging these priceless pieces of our collective heritage. We need to do better, and such technology might just be the answer.”

    A note of caution
    Although supportive of the technological breakthrough in this study, Professor Long warned that researchers must not rely too heavily on tomographic imagery and 3D printing to draw their conclusions.

    “It is important to carefully study the preservational biases of the original fossil first to determine how reliable a computer-generated image will be. In some cases, replacement of bone by other minerals or the presence of solid inclusions can effect the quality of CT images and affect 3D printing results.

    “Scientists still need to study the original specimens in detail first, and then make interpretations using CT tomography and 3D printing.”

    (A scanned 400 million-year-old placoderm eye capsule found in Taemas near Canberra. Image: Tim Senden)

    Associate Professor Curnoe agreed, saying: “Any model made from CT scans must properly distinguish actual bone from missing bone, or even from materials like plaster, that had been used in the past to reconstruct missing bones in the fossils. This is particularly important since most fossils found are incomplete or distorted.

    “In the end, there is nothing like seeing the real thing to fully understand the anatomy and the state of preservation of a fossil. But, for the sort of work many scientists do, especially postgraduate students, 3D models would be incredibly useful at a time when funding can be very hard to get.”

    Beyond fossils
    Some experts speculate that the findings from this study will benefit the medical field, like building and fitting implants in orthopaedic surgery. Others feel that the technique could be used to model real bones and other tissues, such as cadavers that have been preserved in ice or peat bogs.

    Martin Baumers, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham, would like to see the implementation of a virtual library and data infrastructure for such 3D data and designs. He believes that it would aid collaborative research, allowing experts from different disciplines to share and retrieve 3D models for 3D printing or other scientific, even commercial, usage.

    For Professor Long, the biggest breakthrough will come when palaeontologists possess the ability to make portable machines to take into the field and scan fossils, still buried under the rock layers, to determine the full extent of the fossil before excavating it.

    This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation


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    Sometimes the best things that make us human emerge from the worst things that we have to endure.

    I was fortunate enough to spend the first 13 years of my life with two incredible women who happened to be my mother and my sister. My sister, Linda, has been part of my life ever since but we grew up, raised families and now live on opposite sides of the world.

    If you asked us to define humanity, we’d both say that it was personified in the tiny frame of our mother, Lily, who had deep compassion, enormous courage and a capacity for selfless love that is the essential element of what makes us human.

    After a harsh childhood in Liverpool she faced an even harsher adulthood in the slums of Notting Hill, west London, with a feckless husband, two children and a heart condition that she knew would lead to an early death.

    Our father, Steve, ran off with the barmaid from the Lads of the Village pub when I was eight and Linda was 11. There is no denying that Steve’s cruelty and his failure to provide for us reflected aspects of humanity including fallibility.

    However, he had another defining human characteristic. He was a musician. Steve played the piano entirely by ear – only having to hear a song once before he could play it in the pubs and clubs of our corner of west London. The ability to translate emotions into music, art, poetry and dance brings joy to our existence, however mundane or difficult that existence may be.

    We had a big old Radio Rentals contraption wired into one of our rooms in Southam Street, W10, with a Bakelite switch setting out our three options; BBC Home Service, Light and Third Programmes.

    One day, unusually and perhaps unintentionally, the switch was on “3”. Out of the huge speaker in one corner of the squalid room we called a kitchen came a piece of music that enchanted me. It wasn’t the pop music that I was already fascinated by (only “classical” music had its own station in those days), but it was uplifting and inspiring in equal measure. I found out years later that it was Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. Its beauty and majesty nourished my soul.

    Lily believed in God, although she never went to church. Our moments of worship came when she found a shilling piece to feed the empty gas meter; or a piece of coal as we joined her on the trail of the coal man, picking up the chunks of black gold that dropped from his sacks as he delivered to the big houses in Holland Park.

    Faith and belief are very human traits, as are laughter and joy. What I remember most about my mother is her radiant smile, the way she’d try to imitate her favourite Hollywood film stars, her little homilies and her terrible jokes. Every New Year’s Eve without fail she’d tell us that she’d just seen a man with as many noses on his face as days left in the year and every year we’d try to manage an indulgent chuckle.

    After Steve had started another life with his new family, my mother did an extraordinary thing. Having tracked down where he lived, she implored me to visit him on the spurious grounds that every boy needed a dad. I refused and, in desperation, she offered to go with me – to enter the home of a man who’d abused and deserted her and sit exchanging pleasantries with his new wife. She would have suffered that humiliation because she felt it was in my interests.

    After Lily died, Linda displayed all her mother’s characteristics in her battle with “the authorities” (as she called them) to keep us together and out of care.

    Unlike me, she eventually made contact with her father, principally because she wanted to have a relationship with our halfsister, Sandra.

    The things that make us human aren’t common to every human being. I couldn’t understand how Linda, who’d suffered much more than me from Steve’s cruelty, could bring herself to make contact. But she, like Lily, was far stronger than me.

    I don’t think that she ever forgave Steve but her desire to be a sister for Sandra drove her to do what was undoubtedly the right thing. If I had an ounce of that magnanimity, I would be a better human being.

    My mother died almost 50 years ago. Linda and I have enjoyed an infinitely better life than hers. Sometimes the best things that make us human emerge from the worst things that we as humans have to endure.

    Alan Johnson is the MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Labour) and was home secretary from 2009 to 2010. This article is part of our series published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show.


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    A place where cling-filmed leftovers await their final judgement.

    ‘‘Then he took the five loaves and the two fishes and, looking up to heaven, he blessed them and brake and gave to the disciples to set before the multitude. And they did eat and were all filled; and there was taken up fragments that remained to them 12 baskets.”

    Setting more complicated exegetical questions to one side, surely the most miraculous fact about the events recalled by this passage from the Gospel of Luke is that after the 5,000 had been fed, there were still some leftovers. Luke is alone in specifying the quantity of these; according to John, “There were left some fishy bits.”

    We now know that the Gospel accounts were set down many years after this al fresco banquet – and who, in the normal course of things, can be expected to remember what was uneaten? So it seems fair to speculate that Luke was making a point here about not simply abundance but superabundance and, indeed, wastage.

    No kind of wastage is more troubling than that of food. “Eat up your broccoli, children,” we say. “Remember the starving children in Africa.” To throw perfectly good vittles in the bin hurts us far more than chucking away, say, two-year-old computer equipment that is not exactly obsolete, only a little bit slow.

    When I was a child, my mother would send me down to Greenspan’s, the kosher deli, to buy half a pound of smoked salmon scraps – and, oh, was there any meal more virtuous-tasting than those viscid remains? When I grew older, I used to delight in buying bags of broken biscuits from market stalls, not only because they were cheap but also because I had the crunchy thrill of consuming that which would otherwise turn to dust. These were the fishes and the loaves conjured into being by the grey magic of the market and such repasts remain, to this day, my favourite.

    I’ve some rich foodie friends who eat out whenever they please at the swankiest of restaurants; they delight in quizzing the waiter, calling for the chef and dissecting the menu before they anatomise the dishes. Yet they once confessed to me that the meal they loved most was what they termed a “hooded supper”.

    And what’s this? It’s when you’ve fed the children their bland stuff and are too tired to consider making yourselves anything elaborate (a large part of the labour consisting in the necessary negotiation over what that thing should be) and instead declare open season: you both pull the hoods of your fleecy tops down over your faces, go to the fridge, yank out the Tupperware boxes and cling-film-wrapped bowls that most appeal to you and, standing at the counter, wolf it all down, groaning the while.

    I got their point entirely. For the most part, the preservation of leftovers is one of the most potent instances of the triumph of hope over expectation. Each greasily wooden sausage, every bald-faced tomato all twisted congealings of pasta – these are offered up to the domestic gods as evidence of our good faith and conscience; proof that we understand how blessed we are and that we do not take for granted that we are able to go to a 24-hour Tesco Metro whenever we please and buy a microwaveable ready meal.

    That these items then sit in the fridge for a day or three before acquiring a fungal bloom and being chucked out is beside the point. Indeed, this sense we have of the fridge as a sort of purgatory for comestibles in which they await the final judgement only adds to the sacerdotal character of the whole ritual.

    So, to break into purgatory and gobble up the lost souls of cold potatoes – to do so is to enact a miracle. The four-day-old lamb chop, smeared with mint sauce and eaten in the small hours of the morning by the light that spills from yonder fridge; the knifeloads of peas quavering towards a quivering mouth; the slices of honey-glazed ham that taste all the more sweet because they’re on the turn – to eat any or all of these is to somehow become a personification of the charitable impulse itself, for in so doing are you not both giver and receiver at once?

    We do not know what happened to those 12 baskets of fragments but I like to think that Jesus put them in the pantry for a couple of days, before on the morning of the third they were resurrected.

    Next week: Madness of Crowds


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    This week the Children’s Commissioner for England released a report into how young people in England understand sexual consent. “Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape” is well worth reading - and it’s every bit as unpleasant as you’d expect.

    “Your brother does not want a plastic octopus stuck up his bottom!” is one of the many things I never thought I’d say, at least not until I had children. These days I know better. Shared bath times, an overdose of Matey and a pink Playmobil octopus that turns yellow when immersed in warm water can lead to no end of trouble.

    On the bright side, such bath times do at least provide an opportunity to give what I like to think of as impromptu lessons in consent. Whether it’s wet sponges in the face or sea creatures up the bum, the message is always the same: if it’s someone else’s body, you don’t touch unless he or she wants you to. And that’s the case even if, one minute earlier, your devious little brother was giggling away, begging you to empty the entire contents of a Head and Shoulders bottle onto his head. The moment he realises what a stupid idea that was, you put the bottle away.

    Messages about ownership of one’s own body seems simple enough, at least when your children are small. You can kid yourself that, providing you hammer it home early, you won’t need to bother in later years. I want my boys to grow up to respect other people’s boundaries and to expect the same treatment in return. In ten years’ time I don’t want to hear whining about consent being “confusing” or resentful mutterings about “prick teases”. I hope my sons never end up lurking around comment threads making flippant comparisons between women and unlocked cars. I want touch, whether sexual or non-sexual, to be a positive thing in their lives, not something that is fraught with doubt, entitlement, misunderstanding and abuse of power. Unfortunately, I fear that all these objectives, which seem so straightforward now, will become harder and harder to achieve as my children grow.

    This week the Children’s Commissioner for England released a report into how young people in England understand sexual consent. “Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape” is well worth reading. It’s every bit as unpleasant as you’d expect but at least it’s one more nail in the coffin for the ludicrous belief that lecturing potential victims on “rape prevention” is helpful or that consent is simply too difficult for the average person to understand. On the contrary, such assertions aren’t just untrue, they’re also counterproductive.

    If young people don’t “get” consent, it’s not because consent itself is confusing; as the report states, “young people’s understandings of consent in the abstract are relatively clear”. The trouble comes when such understandings are applied to real life situations, whereupon “gendered codes of behaviour and victim blame change how [young people] make sense of sexual negotiation”. The rules on consent itself are fine in  principle -- indeed, even a four-year-old wielding a lethal bath toy can grasp them -- but countless other rules and social judgments end up contradicting them. We can’t teach consent effectively unless we’re willing to un-teach prejudice.

    Sex isn’t the problem, nor is that vague-but-suitably-worrying concept “sexualisation”.  Alas, it’s sexism (which is far less sexy than the other two, at least in terms of the kind of images it will bring up if you use it as a search term on Google). According to the report, interactions related to consent take place within a far broader context of sexual inequality:

    For many [young people], young women are held responsible for ‘getting themselves in situations’ and expected to physically or verbally demonstrate refusal, while young men are presumed to be reckless about whether or not young women want to have sex, along with a spectrum that ranges from failing to seek consent, through manipulation and persuasion to pressure and coercion.

    This is the cultural environment that currently awaits my sons. It’s one in which they’ll feel pressure to achieve “man points” through sexual conquest and in which their female counterparts, the “sexual gatekeepers,” will be “simultaneously blamed for victimisation, yet also denied the possibility of actively desiring sex”. It’s a deeply unbalanced environment in which everyone is assumed to be heterosexual and everyone is expected to stick to their allotted gender roles. It’s horribly oppressive and our children deserve better than this.

    The report’s recommendations include encouraging discussion of “the gendered double standard” and “challenging victim blame”. Neither of these aspects have attracted much attention in the media so far. The Evening Standard merely states that “more needs to be done to increase understanding of the concept of consent” (thus creating the impression that the report is wholly focussed on how complex this is) while ITV news refers only to “the significant influence pornography now has in young people's lives, and the lack of effective sex education offered to young people”. If only it were that obvious. To look, not just at teachers and internet search engines, but at the damaging beliefs about sex and gender which underpin our society as a whole is evidently a step too far. We’re too attached both to sexism and to a prurient, half-disapproving, half-titillated and wholly ineffective approach to discussing young people and their choices.

    Obviously I hope that, by the time my sons hit their teens, this situation will have improved. I want them to have confidence in their relationships with others and to be able to move beyond all the play acting that reduces bodies to props. I want them to have not just understanding for others, but the space in which to be brave. The thought of them hopelessly chasing approval points, no matter what the consequences, just seems desperately sad. There have to be happier, more imaginative ways to form relationships. It ought to be easy, so why are we making it so hard?


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    Boarding schools would provide the stability and structure that the most disadvantaged so desperately need.

    In among all the policy and pathways, it’s easy to forget the real reasons why children are in care. When a child is taken into care it’s not because there is some minor issue at home. They have often suffered unimaginable abuse, horrific neglect or unspeakable violence. Many have lived under conditions that are so appalling that the only option is to remove them for their own safety. Children in care have seen and experienced things that we cannot even start to imagine.

    Our duty to vulnerable children

    These children don’t choose their parents or their family circumstances. They don’t have a say in the physical or mental health of their parents. They can’t avert family tragedy or breakdown. They can’t avoid abuse or neglect. They have no choice as to whether they will end up in care.

    To say that we have a duty to these children is a huge understatement. They are some of the most disadvantaged people in society. These children miss out on the love and support of a family, the consistency of a safe, stable home and good academic role models. The state has a responsibility to ensure these children get everything they need to build successful lives.

    I came into politics because I wanted to make sure that everyone, regardless of their background, got a good chance at life. But without a stable environment and good education, how are these children supposed to succeed? The truth is, at present, the vast majority won’t.

    A national crisis in children’s care

    The statistics are devastating. A third of all care leavers are thought to be living on the street, half of all sex workers were in care at some point and nearly a third of people in prison were in care at some point. Many of these kids’ parents have been sent to prison, gone missing or have died. Many are addicts. Horrifically, more than 6 in 10 of these children have been taken into care because of parental neglect or abuse. These kids should not have to bear responsibility for their parents’ actions. A bad start in life means that they become tangled up in crime and drugs early, and that less than 15% end up achieving 5 A* to C grades including English and mathematics at GCSE.

    This is a damning state of affairs. We cannot let these children to fail, through no fault of their own, because of where and when they were born. The state must fulfil its responsibility to these disadvantaged children if it wants to create a true meritocracy.

    The state has a rich history of looking after society’s most disadvantaged and that’s why it’s right for the Conservative-led coalition to place renewed focus on social mobility in UK. Everyone, regardless of their background, ethnicity and upbringing, should be able to 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps'. The government has made great progress but, unfortunately, children in care are not always given that chance.

    How boarding schools can help vulnerable children

    That is why I think the state, with the help of charities, schools, philanthropists and businesses, should pay for these children to go to the best boarding schools in the country. Boarding schools could provide these children with their first experience of proper stability and structure. At the moment these neglected children are often shuttled between foster carers and children’s homes. They’re lucky if they see the same person twice. They can end up switching schools and teachers every other month. Why work hard when you might change schools in a couple of weeks? You’ll just start at bottom of the class again.

    These children also don’t have the opportunity to build up strong friendships with other children or adults. This is not because foster carers or the people who work in children’s homes don’t do a great job, but because these children are shifted from place to place undermining their stability and wellbeing. The think-tank Policy Exchange found that it wasn’t unusual for a child to change schools more than three times in a year.

    Boarding schools give these children a chance to get a proper education, make real friends and aspire after proper role models. This isn’t revolutionary. There are already some fantastic charities doing some brilliant work. Charities like the Royal National Children’s Foundation (RNCF) and Buttle UK that provide vulnerable children with bursaries to study at boarding schools.

    What boarding schools can achieve

    The results of these schemes open up your eyes and take your breath away. Education, alongside business, is the best way out of poverty. They are the engine of social mobility because they let people stand on their own two feet.

    The education attainment of the vulnerable children who took part in RNCF’s schemes shot up 28%; their self-esteem and morale soared 50% and their overall performance rocketed 80%. Half of those kids who were considered 'at risk of failing' had caught up with – or exceeded – their peers within three years and 39% of children who are enrolled in boarding schools by RNCF become star performers.

    Staggeringly, the cost of sending these children to top boarding schools is cheaper than what the government does now. While it costs an eye-watering £150,000 to care for a child in a children’s home and between £20-25,000 to look after a children in foster care, it costs only £14,800 to enrol a child in a state boarding school and between £25-30,000 at an independent school, including the cost of care during school holidays. And the actual amount the government pays will be much lower after charities, philanthropists, schools and businesses get involved.

    I know that these bursaries won’t work for all children. Some children suffer from difficult emotional problems that cannot be properly managed in a school environment. I’m the first to admit there’s no fix-all solution to difficult problems. But we need to start somewhere. And we need to remember why these children are in care. Don’t we owe them the chance at a bright future after such an appalling start in life? 

    We can’t wait any longer. We need to act now. And we need to act early. Let’s overcome our prejudice about boarding schools and give these children the chance to turn around their lives.


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    Make a game about being a pirate, let the player be a pirate, spend the money you would have spent on building the modern world part of the game on more pirate things. Like a parrot.

    Franchises are the way things are done these days, this is a fact that it is impossible to escape when talking about video games. Franchises roll over the years, building up a fan base, building up a brand, nurturing a specific set of skills in their players as core elements of the game mechanics are refined over time into a more perfect interpretation of developmental intent. In some ways this is a good thing, you don’t get the sort of budgets that games like GTA V or Skyrim demand without that gradual expansion and growth of expectation. That’s the good. The bad is that conceptual mistakes made early in a series can persist, game mechanics can become stagnant, games can become unwelcoming to new players. So does there a point come when you just have to take that cherished franchise and put it out of its misery, before it enters terminal decline, or can a good sequel always save the day?

    The Assassin’s Creed series is just such a franchise. What may have at one point been envisaged as a trilogy has sprawled into a series that sees all kinds of releases popping up on all kinds of platforms, from PCs and latest generation consoles to mobile phones and table tops. It’s not paranoia; there really are assassins everywhere now.

    So when Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag appeared, the sixth major release in a series that is only six years old, it was not exactly greeted with a sense of awe and wonder. This was not a game that was long awaited, we all know we’re going to see at least one Assassin’s Creed game every year, usually more. Fans of the series rejoiced in much the same way that people who like Christmas rejoice, they knew it was coming and they knew what to expect. Folks who have gone off the series, or were never turned onto it in the first place, well they mostly didn’t care at first.

    But then something strange happened, it became apparent that Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is actually a good game, not in the perfunctory yet polished way that we would expect a franchise game to be good either. There’s some actual good gaming to be had in Black Flag, it respects skill, it has lots you can do, it has great style and flair for action, it’s a very enjoyable arcade pirate game. With emphasis on the arcade of course, the ship combat is to the age of sail what Afterburner is to building an Airfix kit. But credit where it is due, Black Flag is fun.

    But there are flaws to Black Flag, big ones that are a product of its nature as an Assassin’s Creed game. When Black Flag strikes off on its own as a pirate game it is good, but the collected baggage from six years of Assassin’s Creed titles gone before weighs it down.

    First and most obvious is the story. Black Flag is a story about a man who goes into an office and uses a device to access memories of his ancestor’s life as a pirate. This is a terrible story that it is impossible to get invested in at all. The actual fun bit of the game, the bit where you are a pirate, that’s basically a dream sequence. The game takes that most relentlessly awful plot device, saying that it was all a dream all along, and drops that on you like streak of seagull shit right after the first tutorial. It doesn’t even have the common human decency to wait until the end of the game.

    Why does it do that? Why does it leap from the player finding his sea legs and buckling his swash in the pirate-infested 18th century Caribbean to giving you a tour of an office and telling you that all you are doing is helping to make a video game? Because it’s an Assassin’s Creed game, and Assassin’s Creed games are not games about assassins, they are games about people remembering their ancestors being assassins.

    Part of me, I will admit, is tickled by the setting. The verfremdungseffekt caused by the present-day story, the way that the games push you back from the action is an interesting experiment. The way that Black Flag is effectively a game about the design of the game that you’re actually playing, that could almost be Brechtian, inserting an additional layer between player and principle avatar in the game. You are not dashing pirate captain Edward Kenway, you’re a white collar peon in an office cubicle. This game within a game line is something Assassin’s Creed can legitimately claim to have pioneered, at least in major releases, Max Payne’s hallucinations notwithstanding. Part of me respects that they had the guts to take a big budget series and continue to play these kinds of mind games with it.

    However, while I respect the creativity, it’s clearly balls. Make a game about being a pirate, let the player be a pirate, spend the money you would have spent on building the modern world part of the game on more pirate things. Like a parrot. Parrots are better than offices.

    The baggage of Assassin’s Creed hangs heavy on other parts of the game too. Because the main character, Edward Kenway, is an Assassin’s Creed character he has to act like an Assassin’s Creed character. The daft little wrist blades return, the idiotic stealth system has to be in play and the nearly-ninja fighting style has to come back. Amid a world of colourful and credible buccaneers, marines, brawlers and brutes our hero stands out like a pickled egg in a bag of Skittles.

    Those combat systems had their place in other games but in Black Flag they feel like they are stopping the game from being what it wanted to be. There is a cheeky little pirate game in here that really didn’t need all that faff. Roaming the sea, nicking things from the King of Spain, antagonising whales and digging up buried treasure, what’s not to love?

    The last and perhaps more dispiriting piece of baggage from the Assassin’s Creed games in Black Flag is the lazy and gratuitous violence that permeates it. I love violence in games as much if not probably more than the next man, but in Black Flag the callous, casual and visceral nature of the slaughter runs so contrary to the humour and cartoonish tone of the game that it just feels sordid. You play a pirate but the game mechanics are built around playing an assassin and there is a clear gulf between Edward the lovable rogue as he is presented by the game and the way you murder hundreds of people in it.

    The term ludonarrative dissonance could be applied, but it’s more than just the game play and the story that are at odds. The game wants us to love Edward, this greedy, thieving Welsh killing machine whose forte is murdering people while they are looking the other way, but it gives us little to love about him. He does develop as a character but by the time he finally works out what is really important in life he’s killed more people than yellow fever and you might just be forgiven for thinking that his personal enlightenment wasn’t worth the cost. A more nuanced approach to the life of the pirate would have been very welcome, but when your pirate is built as a murderer first and a buccaneer second that nuance is harder to express.

    It is clear that if Black Flag was just a game about pirates, unencumbered by all the baggage of its Assassin’s Creed branding, it could be a much better game. But is it a game that would ever get made? Without the ability to borrow assets, mechanics and ideas from the other games and without the ready-made fan base and high profile would Black Flag have been a prohibitively expensive gamble? We can only speculate, but it does show that while there is still life in the Assassin’s Creed series, that life is suffering from the weight of its own systems and selling points.

    Some franchises have a better handle on the business of choosing what to keep and what to discard over the years. The Far Cry series embraces a diverse array of settings and characters, with the Far Cry name travelling very light in terms of mechanics. One Far Cry game might share very little with another, all that is generally consistent is that the game will take place in a remote setting. The GTA franchise also is consistent only in the core mechanic of stealing cars. Every time a franchise picks up a piece of mechanical or narrative cargo it becomes harder and harder for it to substantially improve or adapt and for Assassin’s Creed this may be an even greater problem down the line.

    In the case of Black Flag the game is still good. For all the clashes of tone and content, the ridiculous meta-narrative, the many wafer thin game mechanics and the awkwardness of playing an assassin in a pirate hat, Black Flag provides an enjoyable sandbox/paddling pool to muck about in. That is enough. While it may not feel the most natural title in the series Black Flag has a good claim to being the best Assassin’s Creed game so far.


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    The life and death of Michelangelo was a monumental celebrity affair.

    On 14 February 1564, a young Florentine living in Rome named Tiberio Calcagni heard rumours that Michelangelo Buonarroti was gravely ill. Immediately, he made his way to the great man’s home in the street of Macel de’ Corvi near Trajan’s Column and the church of Santa Maria di Loreto. When he got there he found the artist outside, wandering around in the rain. Calcagni remonstrated with him. “What do you want me to do?” Michelangelo answered. “I am ill and can find no rest anywhere.”

    Somehow Calcagni persuaded him to go indoors but he was alarmed by what he saw. Later in the day, he wrote to Lionardo Buonarroti, Michelangelo’s nephew, in Florence. “The uncertainty of his speech togetherwith his look and the colour of his face makes me concerned for his life. The end may not come just now, but I fear it cannot be far away.” On that damp Monday, Michelangelo was three weeks short of his 89th birthday, a great age in any era and a remarkable one for the mid-16th century.

    Later on, Michelangelo sent for other friends. He asked one of these, an artist known as Daniele da Volterra, to write a letter to Lionardo. Without quite saying that Michelangelo was dying, Daniele said it would be desirable for him to come to Rome as soon as he could. This letter was signed by Daniele and also underneath by Michelangelo himself: a weak, straggling signature, the last he ever wrote.

    Despite his evident illness, Michelangelo’s enormous energy had still not entirely ebbed away. He remained conscious and in possession of his faculties, but was tormented by lack of sleep. In the late afternoon, an hour or two before sunset, he tried to go out riding, as was his habit when the weather was fine – Michelangelo loved horses – but his legs were weak, he was dizzy and the day was cold. He remained in a chair near the fire. All this was reported to Lionardo Buonarroti in a further letter sent that day. This was written in the evening by Diomede Leoni, a Sienese friend of the master, who advised Lionardo to come to Rome, but to take no risks in riding at speed over the bad roads at that time of year.

    After another day in the chair, Michelangelo was forced to take to his bed. At his home were members of his inner circle: Diomede Leoni, Daniele da Volterra, his servant Antonio del Francese and a Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, some four decades his junior, who had been perhaps the love of Michelangelo’s life. Michelangelo wrote no formal will but made a terse statement of his last wishes: “I commit my soul into the hands of God, my body to the earth and my possessions to my nearest relatives, enjoining them when their hour comes to meditate on the sufferings of Jesus.” For a while, he followed the last of those recommendations himself, listening to his friends reading from the Gospels, passages concerning the Passion of Christ. He died on 18 February at about 4.45pm.

    Thus ended the mortal existence of the most celebrated artist who had ever lived, indeed by many measures the most renowned to have existed until the present day. Few other human beings except the founders of religions have been more intensively studied and discussed. Michelangelo’s life, work and fame transformed for ever our idea of what an artist could be.

    In 1506, when he was only 31 years old, the government of Florence described Michelangelo in a diplomatic communication with the Pope as “an excellent young man and in his profession unequalled in Italy, perhaps in the whole world”. At that point, he had almost six decades of his career still to come.

    There was an epic quality to Michelangelo’s life. Like a hero of classical mythology, he was subject to constant trials and labours. Many of his works were vast and involved formidable technical difficulties: the huge frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgement, the marble giant David. Michelangelo’s larger projects – the tomb of Julius II, the façade and the new sacristy at San Lorenzo, the great Roman Basilica of St Peter – were so ambitious in their scale that he was unable to complete any of them as he had originally intended. However, even his unfinished buildings and sculptures were revered as masterpieces and exerted enormous influence on other artists.

    Michelangelo continued to work, for decade after decade, near the dynamic centre of events: the vortex in which European history was changing. When he was born, in 1475, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli were starting out on their artistic careers. The Italian peninsula was a patchwork of small independent states, dukedoms, republics and self-governing cities. By the time he died, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had taken place. The political and spiritual map of Europe had altered completely; France and Spain had invaded Italy and turned it into a traumatised war zone. The unity of Christendom had shattered: Protestants had split from the authority of the Pope in Rome. Catholicism was resurgent in a more tightly orthodox and militant form. A century of religious strife had begun.

    While still in his mid-teens, Michelangelo became a member of the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent, one of the figures around whom our idea of the Renaissance has coalesced. He worked in turn for no fewer than eight popes. He had grown up with the two Medici popes, Leo X (reigned 1513- 21) and Clement VII (reigned 1523-34), at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The former spoke of him “almost with tears in his eyes” (but found him dauntingly difficult to deal with). With Clement VII, Michelangelo’s connection was even closer. According to Ascanio Condivi’s early biography, he regarded Michelangelo “as something sacred and he conversed with him, on both light and serious matters, with as much intimacy as he would have done with an equal”. Clement died in 1534 but Michelangelo still had 30 years to live and four more popes to serve.

    The huge church of St Peter rose, very slowly, under his direction. Rome and Christianity metamorphosed around him. The Jesuit order and the Roman Inquisition were founded and Europe froze into a religious divide between Catholic and Protestant quite as ferocious and lethal as any of the ideological struggles of the 20th century. Still Michelangelo was there, acknowledged as the supreme artist in the world. Not just in his time, but of all time.

    The day after Michelangelo died, an inventory was made of his goods. It listed the contents of a house that was sparsely furnished but rich in other ways. In the room where he slept there was an iron-framed bed with one straw mattress and three stuffed with wool, a couple of woollen covers and one of kid skin and a linen canopy. The clothes in his wardrobe suggested a touch of luxury, including a selection of black silken caps, two coats lined with fox fur and a fine cape. In addition, Michelangelo owned a variety of sheets, towels and underwear, including 19 used shirts and five new ones.

    Apart from these, the house seemed bare. There was nothing in the dining room except some empty wine barrels and bottles. The cellar contained some big flagons of water and a half-bottle of vinegar. Two large unfinished statues – one of “St Peter”, perhaps in fact an effigy of Julius II once intended for his tomb; the other described as “Christ with another figure above, attached together” – remained in a workshop behind the house. There was also a little incomplete statuette of Christ carrying the cross.

    Some drawings were found in Michelangelo’s bedroom, though a very small number in relation to the quantity he had made over the years. Most of these concerned his current building projects, particularly the Basilica of St Peter. Of the thousands of others he had made, some had been given away, some remained in Florence, where he had not set foot for almost 30 years, but a huge number had been deliberately destroyed by Michelangelo in a series of bonfires.

    Also in the bedroom was a walnut chest. This was opened in the presence of the notaries carrying out the inventory. It turned out to contain, secreted in bags and small jugs of maiolica and copper, some 8,289 gold ducats and scudi, plus silver coins.

    Michelangelo remarked: “However rich I may have been, I have always lived as a poor man.” Clearly, he was not joking, on either count. The inventory gives the impression of a decidedly spartan style of life; the gold and silver in that chest represented a fortune. Stored in his bedroom was a sum just a few hundred ducats short of the amount that Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany, had paid 15 years before for one of the grandest dwellings in Florence: the Palazzo Pitti.

    The gold in Michelangelo’s strongbox was considerably less than half of his total assets, most of which were invested in property. He was not only the most famous painter or sculptor in history, he was probably richer than any artist who had ever been. This was just one of many contradictions in Michelangelo’s nature: a wealthy man who lived frugally; a skinflint who could be extraordinarily, embarrassingly generous; a private, enigmatic individual who spent three-quarters of a century near the heart of power.

    By the time Michelangelo died, the praise of him as “divine” was taken almost literally. Some, at least, regarded him as a new variety of saint. The strength of the veneration felt for him was similar to that in which martyrs were held. As a result, Michelangelo had two funerals and two burials in two different places.

    The first was in Rome, in the church of Santi Apostoli not far from the house on Macel de’ Corvi, where the artist and pioneer art historian Giorgio Vasari described how he was “followed to the tomb by a great concourse of artists, friends and Florentines”. There Michelangelo was laid to rest “in the presence of all Rome”. Pope Pius IV expressed an intention of eventually erecting a monument to him in Michelangelo’s own masterwork, the Basilica of St Peter (at that point still a domeless building site).

    This state of affairs was intolerable to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, who for many years had tried without success to lure the old man to return to his native city. He resolved that Rome should not retain the artist’s corpse. The great man’s body was smuggled out of the city by some merchants, “concealed in a bale so that there should be no tumult to frustrate the duke’s plan”. Arrangements for an elaborate state funeral and interment were made. When the corpse arrived in Florence, on Saturday 11 March, it was taken to a crypt behind the altar in the church of San Pier Maggiore. There, the next day, the artists of the city assembled at nightfall around the bier, on which Michelangelo was now placed in a coffin covered by a velvet pall richly embroidered with gold. Each of the most senior carried a torch, which would have created a scene of sombre magnificence, the flickering flames illuminating the casket draped in black.

    Next Michelangelo was carried in procession to the huge Gothic Basilica of Santa Croce, the heart of the quarter to which his family had always belonged. When word got around of whose body was being moved through the dark streets, a crowd began to assemble. Soon the procession was mobbed by Florentine citizens: “Only with the greatest difficulty was the corpse carried to the sacristy, there to be freed from its wrappings and laid to rest.” After the friars had said the Office of the Dead, the writer and courtier Vincenzo Borghini, representing the duke, ordered the coffin to be opened, partly – according to Vasari, who was there – to satisfy his own curiosity, partly to please the crush of people present. Then, it seems, something extraordinary was discovered.

    Borghini “and all of us who were present were expecting to find that the body was already decomposed and spoilt”. After all, Michelangelo had been dead at this point for the best part of a month. Yet Vasari claimed: “On the contrary we found it [his corpse] still perfect in every part and so free from any evil odour that we were tempted to believe that he was merely sunk in a sweet and quiet sleep. Not only were his features exactly the same as when he was alive (although touched with the pallor of death) but his limbs were clean and intact and his face and cheeks felt as if he had died only a few hours before.”

    Of course, an incorrupt corpse was one of the traditional signs of sanctity.

    This is an extract from Martin Gayford’s “Michelangelo: His Epic Life” (Fig Tree, £30)


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    Scientists desperate to have an "impact" in their field are cherry-picking and misrepresenting their results. It's the natural result of a desperate scramble to publish.

    Science, according to a recent Nature article, is like Battleship. You fire shots into the dark and mostly miss your target. But every missed shot is useful, and after a while you have a clear picture of the landscape and can finally work out where the ships are.

    Trying to get your study published, though, is not like Battleship. It's like Trafalgar. You really can’t afford negative results. An analysis by Daniele Fanelli found that an average of only 10 - 15 per cent of results published are negative, and this has been declining by about 6 per cent every year. Science journals just aren't interested in write-ups that don’t find anything. And other scientists don’t tend to cite them.

    What to do then, if you turn up a normal proportion of null results (most of them), and you want to make an impact on your field? Well, there are ways of getting the results you want. You could, for example, cherry-pick. In a batch of negative, there is often the odd positive due to statistical fluctuation or chemical impurities. You could simply ignore the rest and report this one.

    Some do, and it's a real problem. Journals full of of happy accidents send future researchers off on wild goose chases, or cost them money and time trying to replicate, which they can never quite do. From this comes the famous “decline effect” - findings that become less marked every time an experiment is repeated. And studies that show important dead-ends never see the light of day, meaning those dead-ends get discovered over and over again. Those who wipe experiments from history seem doomed to repeat them.

    But of course this is not necessarily a deterrent. Fanelli notes that states where science competition is fiercest produce the largest number of positive results. Send your competitors down dead ends and up garden paths? In the scramble to publish, this only seems like a good idea.

    Not everyone does this though. Just a couple of moral points ahead of the cherry-pickers come the judicious plodders. These researchers limit themselves to experiments with predictable outcomes. A sure way to get published, even if it never advances the field.

    Then, with all the motivations in place, you get full on fraud. In 2011, a social psychologist called Diederik Stapel was found to have made up data on a huge scale - it turned out he had lied about his results in at least 30 publications. Those who conducted the investigation wrote: “Whereas all these excessively neat findings should have provoked thought, they were embraced ... People accepted, if they even attempted to replicate the results for themselves, that they had failed because they lacked Mr Stapel's skill.”

    How to solve the problem? It's difficult, because what is essentially a group endeavour is fraught with competition. You can't change that overnight, but you could tweak the prize: publish more negative results. It’s a big ask - rather like requiring newspapers to report neutral events instead of interesting ones - but a necessary one. Science journals should stop trying to be exciting, and settle for just being right.


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