How your brain buys a sofa

Almost every popular commercial product owes its success to two different qualities. First, it does the job it is ostensibly designed to do pretty well. Secondly, it has some quality that you might call ‘limbic appeal’. It delights or soothes our unconscious mind in ways which defy objective measurement. Much as it delusionally believes that it runs the show, the power granted to conscious reasoning within the brain is that given to a slightly colour-blind, utilitarian man when he buys a sofa with his wife. The man may have his own preferences, but he has a minimal role in the selection, involving as it does many complex factors that defy

High life | 21 April 2016

My, my, the rich are under attack everywhere, and I thank God the Panama Papers didn’t include the name of the poor little Greek boy. Legality being my middle name, I took legal advice and stayed away from offshore trusts and shell companies as soon as my daddy died. Steer clear of Mossack Fonseca, they advised; everything’s gotta be on the up and up, which means that I now depend on the munificence of my children and their mother for walking-around money — and that includes change for coffee and a pack of fags now and then. Mind you, it beats being on a Panama list and having all those

We’re swamped with nonsense gizmos and it’s all Steve Jobs’s fault

I keep being told that the big hot technological gizmo of the moment is a box that sits in the corner of your room and listens, and I don’t want one. They’re made by Amazon, largely, and the idea is that you tell them to order stuff — such as a pizza, say — by shouting: ‘Alexa! Order me a pizza!’ And Alexa, which is what the thing pretends to be called in this infantile, accommodating, psychotic age of ours, perks up and does so. Or orders books, or summons a taxi. Or it gets your phone to call somebody, or plays you a particular song. The rest of the

Is the next Steve Jobs really among Syria’s migrants?

Steven Pinker famously observed in The Blank Slate that ‘Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which all loose ends are tied and everyone lives happily ever after. Yet when it comes to the science of human beings, this same audience says: Give us schmaltz.’ The same is true of the politics of human beings, where educated people want stories of individuals overcoming the odds, and hate discussing depressing, but more useful, overall patterns. A good example is the recent meme that among the recent Syrian influx may be the next Steve Jobs, a theme repeated by that hugely profound modern-day genius Banksy. Jobs’s biological father was

Disciple of Duchamp

Michael Craig-Martin has had a paradoxical career. He is, I think, a disciple of Marcel Duchamp. But the latter famously gave up painting in favour of something more conceptual — ready-mades and whatnot — whereas Craig-Martin began with Duchampian concepts. He once exhibited a glass of water on a shelf together with a claim that he had mentally transformed these, by a kind of transubstantiation, into an oak tree. Then he metamorphosed himself into a still-life painter. As his current exhibition at the Serpentine demonstrates, for nearly 40 years Craig-Martin’s staple subject-matter has been everyday tools, gadgets and accessories. An early example, ‘Vertigo’ (1981), consists of elegantly pared-down line drawings

The rise and fall of Sony

Here is a Japanese fairy tale for Christmas. An allegory of insight, opportunism and a fall from favour. It is 1945. Japan is devastated and disgraced, but two bright young men, Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the first a salesman, the second an engineer, have a plan to turn toxic ashes into precious metal. They have discovered a curious typewritten document published by the Civil Information and Education division of the US Occupation Forces. It is called ‘999 Uses for a Tape-Recorder’. In those days, people needed to be told these things. Inspired, they form a company called TTK and Ibuka writes in its Purposes of Incorporation that it will

Was Steve Jobs really a genius?

Steve Jobs is a film about a man in whom I have little interest, but for 120 minutes I was at least quite interested, which is a result. But this doesn’t make it a great film, and in many ways it isn’t. It never quite pins Jobs down. It never quite works out what it wishes to say about him. That he was such a ‘genius’ it didn’t matter if he was also a bit of a dick? Or that it did matter, totally? Plus, the ending is calamitous. But it is well made, and the performances are ace, as is the dialogue, and I was kept interested, so the

The vision of Steve Jobs

Last week I went to a screening of Steve Jobs, the new biopic about the co-founder of Apple directed by Danny Boyle, and I was impressed. It’s structured like a three-act play, with each act set backstage at the launch of a new product — in 1984, 1988 and 1998 — and then unfolding in real time. Superficially, the film is about the gradual ascent of Apple (and Steve Jobs) as the dominant force in the personal computer industry, but beneath the surface it’s about much more than that. As portrayed by Michael Fassbender, Jobs isn’t just a common or garden perfectionist. He’s neurotic, obsessive, driven, ruthless and almost inhumanly oblivious

How Taylor Swift socked it to Apple over a weekend

All hail Taylor Swift. How she must give baby boomers the fear. Not just baby boomers. Also those who came next, the Generation Xers, who seemed to define themselves culturally mainly via goatees, apathy and heroin. And my own rather listless, half-generation thereafter, with our bigger beards and binge-drinking. Taylor Swift makes us all look old. Because we are old and the world will be hers. You will have heard about her victory over Apple this week — you must have heard about it, because an opportunity to put Taylor Swift on the front of a newspaper is an opportunity not to be missed, particularly now that Elizabeth Hurley is

The world belongs to Taylor Swift now. There will be no free-trial period

All hail Taylor Swift. How she must give baby boomers the fear. Not just baby boomers. Also those who came next, the Generation Xers, who seemed to define themselves culturally mainly via goatees, apathy and heroin. And my own rather listless, half-generation thereafter, with our bigger beards and binge-drinking. Taylor Swift makes us all look old. Because we are old and the world will be hers. You will have heard about her victory over Apple this week — you must have heard about it, because an opportunity to put Taylor Swift on the front of a newspaper is an opportunity not to be missed, particularly now that Elizabeth Hurley is

Apple and IBM may just have changed the future of personalised medicine

As the FT reports, Apple and IBM have got into bed together. The deal they’ve struck has major implications for the growing number of people using wearable tech (and indeed mobile phones) to monitor their health. Here are the details. IBM has entered into partnership with Apple and other manufacturers of medical devices to make health data from wearable tech available to doctors and insurers. One outcome will be personalised treatments for diabetics. But that’s only part of the picture. This is how it will work. If you’re self-monitoring your heart rate, calories and cholesterol levels – as more and more of us are – you will now be able to

The Apple Watch could have been a proper health-monitoring device. But the FDA won’t allow it

Apple’s new smart watch, unveiled by Tim Cook yesterday, had incredible potential. But its functionality has been hindered by technical hitches – and, especially, overzealous legislators. Their cloying presence must have been felt at every product meeting. Engineers working on Apple’s watch did so with the rasping breath of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the back of their necks. The result? Apple is nowhere near giving us a device that allows comprehensive self-monitoring of health – thanks to federal regulations. Public health services everywhere tell us that prevention is better than cure. But the FDA doesn’t trust Apple, or any manufacturer of wearable tech, to gather the sort of intimate

Portrait of the week | 29 January 2015

Home Party leaders mercilessly launched 100 days of campaigning before the general election on 7 May. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said he would reduce the annual maximum household receipt of welfare to £23,000 from the current limit of £26,000. Ed Miliband announced a ten-year plan for the National Health Service, but Alan Milburn, a former Labour health secretary, said: ‘You’ve got a pale imitation actually of the 1992 general election campaign and maybe it will have the same outcome.’ Amjad Bashir, a Ukip MEP, switched to the Conservative party, upon which Ukip said he was being investigated over ‘unanswered financial and employment questions’, allegations he denied. Peers dropped an

The technology giants are breathtakingly irresponsible about terrorism

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”James Forsyth and Hugo Rifkind debate the clash between geeks and spooks” startat=37] Listen [/audioplayer]The arrogance and intransigence of some of the technology companies in the fight against terrorism has become extraordinary. We learned this week that one of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murderers, Michael Adebowale, had Facebook accounts closed. Apparently, this was because it was feared he was using them for terrorist activities. No one told the authorities. Even now, our security services — which have helped prevent 40 attacks since 2005 — have not been given full details of what Adebowale was doing online. What makes the foot-dragging of tech companies inexcusable is that we know they could

Steve Jobs’s button phobia has shaped the modern world

Koumpounophobia is the fear of buttons. Steve Jobs had it — or at least a strong aversion, which explained his affinity for touch-screens and turtlenecks. So do an estimated one of every 75,000 people alive today. Your correspondent was only recently made aware of the phenomenon when a friend, K of Cambridge, requested that I refrain from wearing buttoned shirts in his presence. ‘A minor quirkiness with buttons,’ he confessed over email, while we were planning a rendezvous. ‘They make me very mildly uncomfortable.’ I turned straight to Google: ‘fear of buttons’. There it was: koumpounophobia, from the modern Greek koumpi (‘to button up’), with case studies, digital fora offering

The horrid, helpful egg-freezing scheme at Facebook and Apple

Was the chief operating officer of Facebook, one Sheryl Sandberg, involved, do you reckon, in the company’s exciting invitation to its women employees to freeze their eggs so they can become pregnant at their convenience, preferably a little later in life? I’m not sure that this was one of the recommendations in Lean In, her inspirational advice to women wanting to get ahead in business. Get stuck in, was its motto, and sort out the children in the fullness of time on your terms. She does that herself, you know, with a Shared Earning/Shared Parenting marriage with David Goldberg. The rest of us get on with sharing both those things

Why the real winner from George Osborne’s ‘Google tax’ could be Nigel Farage

George Osborne’s promise to crack down on multinational companies’ avoidance of UK taxes by the use of impenetrable devices such as the ‘Double Irish’ and the ‘Dutch Sandwich’ certainly has the support of this column. I have long argued that the ‘fiduciary duty’ (identified by Google chairman Eric Schmidt) to minimise tax bills within the law for the benefit of shareholders has to be balanced against a moral duty to pay at least a modicum of tax in every profitable territory. Google, Apple, Amazon and eBay, as well as Starbucks and big names of the pharmaceutical sector, are among those known to use smart schemes which variously involve sales bookings

A game of dominoes turns ugly

I’m round at Amy and Bill’s for Sunday afternoon tea. Amy and Bill are my in-laws, kind of. When I was courting their daughter, I used to spend most of my spare time sitting around Amy and Bill’s kitchen table. She was 15 when I started going round there, I was 26, and I suppose if I were an old TV entertainer or disc jockey, I should be tidying up my affairs before officers from Operation Yewtree beat a lively tattoo on my front door. But Amy and Bill welcomed me in to their family from the start. If they had an objection to my courting their daughter, it was

British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor trips up over technology wars

Mr S found himself at the British Museum, for the launch of the new exhibition ‘Mummy: The Inside Story’. The Museum’s esteemed director Neil MacGregor was on hand to give an introductory talk about the development of tools throughout history. From ancient ones – ‘a beautiful hand axe’ – to the pinnacle of modern ones – ‘the iPhone’ – MacGregor explained how civilisation had created some truly staggering pieces of technology. Staggering indeed. But perhaps MacGregor’s choice of examples were a little ill-advised. The entire exhibition and event were sponsored by Samsung, Apple’s biggest rival.

The rich have given up their freedom

The appointment of Sajid Javid as the new Secretary of State for Culture has been much criticised on the grounds that culture is not his forte; and in an interview with the Times the other day he confessed that he had never been to the opera. This is a little surprising because, as a former banker in the City earning an estimated £3 million a year, he is just the kind of person you might expect to go to the Royal Opera House if only to flaunt his wealth. However, Javid has never seen an opera; and the reasons he gave for this in his interview were that when he