2021vi21, Monday: It doesn’t have to be “personal” to be corruption.

Organisations can be corrupt, not just people. As a new report shows. And without an public duty to be transparent, that will be the rule, not the exception.

Short thought: There are a million definitions of corruption. It’s one of those “know it when you see it” kinds of words, and an exact definition is probably unhelpful. 

(Put up with me here. I’m going to wander off into a bit of a discursion. But I promise: it’ll come back to something current, and important. Something that ought to make you pretty angry. It did me.)

You can see this in one of the most common ones, which boils down to “the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain”. It’s not bad, so far as it goes. But there’s a lot of freight in those words, and in each of them – and that can lead us in unfortunate directions.

(One useful omission is any reference to “dishonesty”. For years, there’s been legal argument about whether dishonesty was an essential element in corruption. In the UK, it’s now pretty settled that it doesn’t – and that’s a good thing. “Corrupt” and “dishonest” are overlapping circles: you can be either without the other, although often they co-exist. Think, for instance, of blatant, balls-out abuse of power where someone simply takes advantage of their position without even bothering to hide what they’re doing. Not uncommon, and not in the slightest dishonest. But corrupt all the same.)

So what do I mean by “freight” in the words? This is where I behave like the stereotypical barrister: picking apart the language. But there’s a point, as I hope you’ll see. Taking it a step at a time:

  • Abuse”. Not all uses of power for personal gain are necessarily corrupt. A decision on behalf of your organisation might make you better off, but also be in the organisation’s best interests – and those of its stakeholders. No abuse there. No corruption.
  • Entrusted power”. An essential element in how law in England defined corruption used to be that an agency relationship needed to exist. This is still there in civil matters, to an extent: it’s trite law now (following FHB) that if someone acting for you takes a bribe, the law sees their gain as in fact yours, and which that agent (holding it in trust for you) therefore can’t lawfully use for themselves. As recently as 15 years ago, amid arguments over what ultimately became the Bribery Act 2010, many pushed for explicit inclusion of an agency requirement in the proposed new statute. Ultimately that idea died; but we still have the essential idea that bribery, at least (and corruption more generally) is about what you do with authority that you’ve been given and which you wield on others’ behalf.
  • Gain”. This is often misinterpreted as something strictly financial. In the UK, at least, that’s not the case, at least so long as bribery is concerned: the offences in the Bribery Act are committed for the gift or receipt of “financial or other advantage” (see for instance s1(2)(a) and s2(2)). Unlike in the Fraud Act 2006 s5, where “gain” has to be in property or something financial, an intangible advantage will qualify. Such as, for example, the preservation of a reputation, or the burying of bad news.
  • Personal”. This, I’d suggest, is also a dangerous one. It gives the impression that corruption is solely and always about individuals – whether acting in their own favour or for (for instance) their families or friends. 

Now we’re at the point. Sorry it took this long. The reason for this textual exegesis is the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel, whose report (all 1,200-odd pages of it) was finally released last week. For the uninitiated, it tells a thoroughly grubby tale of the grossly-incompetent investigation, over decades, by the Metropolitan Police of a 1980s murder of a journalist.

But worse than the incompetence is what the Panel’s report says is the Met’s “institutional corruption”. Partly because of the prevailing suspicion that Met officers were far too close to crooks for comfort, as they were with private investigators who hovered in the hinterland between the two. 

But mostly because of what appears to be an eight-year effort by the Met to obstruct the Inquiry, whether by failing to produce evidence, blocking access to systems, or otherwise. The Panel doesn’t mince words:

In failing to acknowledge its many failings over the 34 years since the murder of Daniel Morgan, the Metropolitan Police’s first objective was to protect itself. In so doing it compounded the suffering and trauma of the family.

…The lack of leadership, the reluctance to confront serious issues and the refusal to be publicly and internally candid about failings and deficiencies within the organisation, in this case and others, engenders distrust among the community served by the Metropolitan Police and within the organisation itself. The support of that community, and the confidence of good police officers in the organisation which they serve, is vital to the delivery of effective efficient policing. It is to be hoped that the findings and recommendations contained in this report will lead to a change of culture and ethos throughout the police service.

One could say that “institutional corruption” is a misuse of language. Is it really corruption for an organisation to drag its feet just to try to stifle criticism and keep its incompetence under wraps? That’s not “personal gain”, is it?

Wrong. What we’re talking about is, I think undoubtedly, the abuse of entrusted power. And it may not necessarily be for the individual gain of those making the decisions, but it’s definitely to aid the organisation at the cost of those it serves. Perhaps “personal” isn’t the right word; but to the extent that we’re talking about placing its own interests above the demands of its assigned duties and obligations, it fits. 

Another criticism might be: well, isn’t self-preservation an inevitable habit of any large institution? Of course it is. But there’s still a dividing line. We’re back to the “know it when you see it”. There’s vigorous PR. And then there’s this. They’re not the same. It’s facile, and I think foolish or in some cases dishonest, to suggest otherwise. 

The Morgan report is huge. Few will read it. But the summary is less than 20 pages. It tells an entirely unedifying story. And, to anyone concerned that those who protect us can be trusted not to privilege their own concerns over ours, it’s in my view essential reading.


Someone is right on the internet: A key recommendation in the Morgan report is the imposing of a “duty of candour” for public servants and public institutions. In other words, they would have a responsibility to be proactive in informing the people they claim to serve about what they’re doing and how.

This topic is picked up by David Allen Green in the latest of a set of posts concerning what he believes is a prerequisite for meaningful public service reform. David points out, perhaps slightly caustically, that calls for such reform are frequent (and the person voicing them is “usually Michael Gove”), but are rarely accompanied by any acknowledgement that without an imposition of transparency – that is, the obligation to disclose information they don’t want anyone to see – such calls are essentially meaningless. They are, he says, 

Nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I think he’s right. Governments (and public bodies) in general are loathe to let sunlight into what they do, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say our current administration takes this to an extreme: whether it’s changes to judicial review, or a backstairs bit of the Cabinet Office making sure freedom of information requests are hobbled, or an apparently academic disquisition on whether judges are trespassing on the rule of law in cases concerning (also) freedom of information, the trend is to lock down, not open up. To avoid scrutiny. To obscure transparency.

In a nutshell: to be unaccountable.

This cannot be right. Particularly in our majoritarian polity, where the combination of first-past-the-post elections and parliamentary supremacy puts immense power in the hands of the government of the day, trammelled only by conventions which this administration doesn’t seem to recognise, transparency is critical if those running the show are to be held to account. 

Mind you, I’d be saying the same thing were another party to be in power. Power corrupts. When it’s wielded without accountability, in the dark, its abuse is practically inevitable. 

Ah, you might say. But you’re forgetting Hanlon’s Razor: that wonderful (and I’ve always believed accurate) warning against assuming malice where something can just as easily be explained by incompetence. (More pithily put as: “Cock-up is far more common than conspiracy.”)

No. I haven’t. If anything, that’s still more important. Errors, mistakes and negligence only get learned from if they’re recognised. Institutional pressure to sweep cock-ups under the carpet is always intense: yes, partly for legal reasons, but as often simply to save face. Without transparency, the same errors happen. Over and over again. 

And we all pay.


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2021vi16, Wednesday: Domestication.

Pets deserve eulogies; cats especially so, given that it’s the junior partner in the relationship who’s writing them. And an example of the fake “war on woke”. From a silk, no less. For shame.

Someone is right on the internet: The relationship between cats and people is a nuanced one. That may be one of the reasons I’m more a cat person than a dog one. I recognise the beautiful straightforwardness of the dog-human connection: at its best, an honest mutual loyalty (albeit with a clear hierarchy as well). But the more mercurial, less owner/pet way that cats and the humans they cohabit with interact is more to my taste.

John Naughton captures that in a lovely elegy to Zoombini, one of his cats, who died last week. Should pets get eulogies? I can’t imagine why not. We may anthropomorphise shamelessly as a species, but we do so because – I think – we have an inbuilt need for relationships. And you can’t have a relationship with something unless you imbue it with some sort of self – even if it’s a partially imaginary, reflective one.

John writes:

She was a remarkable animal — the most intelligent cat I’ve ever known. She was wily, perceptive, affectionate, needy and could be imperious, so much so that we used to joke that she conformed to PG Wodehouse’s explanation of why cats are different from dogs — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. She could never understood why we — her servants — never rose at daybreak, and made her displeasure vocally plain. Although we had a perfectly good cat-flap, she would on occasion sit outside the back door yowling insistently — and of course I would eventually cave in and open the door, at which point she would strut in, purring ostentatiously at the triumph of the feline will.

This is instantly familiar to those of us with cats. Our own, Iroh (the name comes from here) who’s not quite a year old and has been with us for little more than seven months, is now wholly a member of the family. To lose her, even now, would leave a gap of significant proportions. For John and his family, with almost two decades of intimately shared existence, the gap will be huge. I feel for him.

John also observes – a day or two later – what appears to be a sense of deep loss in Zoombini’s sibling. I have no trouble in believing that there’s more to what he describes than mere instinct, or habit. A cat’s inner life is likely to be wildly different from our own. But I’m confident it’s there. And it’s definitely independent of us two-legs who give them house room. 

Much of John’s description of Zoombini maps directly onto Iroh – particularly her insistence, at sun-up, that the world should rise with her. And, of course, his insight about the direction of the cat-human relationship. As I’m not the first to notice, it’s clear to any thinking cat “owner” (such an inapposite term!) who, in fact, domesticated whom. 

I think it was Pratchett who observed that cats only tolerate us, amusedly, until someone invents a tin opener that can be operated by paw. That’s overdoing it: there’s definitely affection in the relationship, albeit perhaps the indulgent affection of a supreme monarch for minions she’s rather fond of. But Iroh, as the picture shows, is clearly a frustrated biped – and her frequent attempts to manipulate keys and door (and window) handles indicate that if anyone were ever to give her opposable thumbs, we’d be in deep trouble…


Someone is wrong on the internet: OK, OK. I promised myself I’d try not to do this – do a “SIWOTI”. But it’s so closely linked to what I wrote about on Monday concerning the weaponisation of culture wars for malign political ends that it feels obligatory.

The nutshell version, thanks to Joshua Rozenberg:

  1. Hardwicke Chambers, a long-standing commercial set of very high repute, announced yesterday that it was changing its name to Gatehouse. A year ago, it had come to recognise that Lord Hardwicke – after whom it was named – was the co-author of a 18th-century legal opinion which had played a significant role in buttressing the survival of slavery for many years. It decided it was time for a change.
  2. So far, so good. Until Lord Wolfson, a commercial silk himself and now – importantly, for this purpose – a justice minister, decided to wade in. In a series of tweets, he implied that this was a distraction from “the important business” of fighting racism and improving diversity – asking whether because Lincoln’s and Gray’s Inns (two of the four Inns of Court, to one of which all of us barristers must belong) were named after advisors to Edward I, and he’d expelled Jews from England in 1290, they should be renamed too.

There’s simply no meaningful comparison to be drawn between these two things. Lord Wolfson’s prowess as an advocate is not in doubt, so why he’s making such a snide, weak and tendentious argument is beyond me – unless, of course, he’s simply looking (or has been instructed) to score cheap and deliberately divisive political points in the name of the “war on woke”. 

For shame.


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2021vi14, Monday: Culture wars and small differences.

When you hear the phrase “war on woke”, it’s always worth looking around. What is someone trying to stop you from seeing – or thinking about?

Short thought: As I mentioned the other week, I mistrust and – frankly – despise anyone who decides to weaponise division to gain or keep power. 

Culture wars are a classic example – such as the “war on woke”. By this, I mean the deliberate pushing of people’s buttons by mischaracterising much of what is, in essence, an entirely reasonable desire on the part of those who are historically demeaned and disadvantaged to not have to put up with it any more as some malign, often Marxist, fifth column against “decent people everywhere”. 

It’s particularly depressing when one takes into account something I was recently reminded of: the “narcissism of small differences”. Frustratingly, I can’t remember where I saw the phrase – but it means a hyper-focus on minor divergences in view, ignoring (often) far wider areas of agreement. 

Why do I think of it? Because while of course there remains vast areas of prejudice, and discrimination, I tend to believe that the 10-80-10 rule applies here as in so much else. This, incidentally, is something that arose from my work in risk and compliance: the rule of thumb that 10% of people were saints and could be relied upon to do the right thing, and 10% were – well, let’s just say the opposite, and needed to be spotted and rooted out but weren’t really amenable to behavioural improvement. It’s the other 80% that you focus on in compliance: the ones who exist somewhere on a spectrum in between, and for whom environment, incentives, example and culture would tug them towards one extreme or the other. 

In society, too, it’s the 80% that are critical. They – we! – respond to tone. To the undercurrent of what appears to be socially acceptable. To whether angels or demons are seen as worth listening to. And thus to whether “we’re all in this together” or “it’s all their fault” is the song of the moment.

Often, our differences aren’t huge. Security. A decent life for self, kids and family. The ability to look in the mirror and be pleased at what you see. And often, if encouraged, a chance to hold out a hand and help.

Culture wars do it all wrong. On either side – but especially the right at present – they build walls, define enemies, assign blame. 

And, critically, rob society, and people, of the chance to be honest with themselves. This, too, was prompted by a recent piece on Jason Kottke’s wonderful linkblog (note more than 20 years old!), itself referencing a Washington Post article. It commented on one of those glorious German portmanteau words, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung: literally “working off the past”. In other words, the society-wide effort Germany has made in the past three quarters of a century to look itself in the face, be honest about what it did as a nation, and learn and grow. 

Is it perfect? No. The existence of the far right in German police and military, and the success of groups like AfD, show that. But has it been a triumphant example of societal success built on genuine self-examination? Absolutely.

I share a belief that a society that refuses to face its failures as well as embrace its successes is a deeply unhealthy one. That true patriotism requires honest examination, so that one’s country can learn and grow – not an angry denial that there’s anything wrong, and a piling-on of anyone who holds up a mirror.

That’s what culture wars prevent. They’re fundamentally dishonest. They’re damaging. They’re infantilising. And they make sure we focus on the small differences, not the huge and wicked problems which require our common commitment to resolve. 

As an investigator, often the question when confronted with wrongdoing was: fool or crook? Was someone acting stupidly or negligently – or with malign intent?

With culture wars button-pushers, it’s easy. They’re both.


Someone is right on the internet: This has gone the rounds, and you’ll have seen it. But it’s so good, I want to make sure I remember it.

As I’ve made clear, I have zero interest in football as a game. But I recognise its status as a cultural touchstone. And recognise also the threat that young footballers pose to culture warriors. 

So it’s good to see – for once – football authorities offering at least some support. Exemplified at its best by Gareth Southgate’s moving, thoughtful, principled and beautiful piece last week, supporting his players’ patriotism as shown by their desire for things to be better. Not for him the “just play the game” approach; rather, he sees his players willingly shoulder an obligation to be the exemplars they’re asked by so many to be – and commits to backing them in doing so:

Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people.

I have never believed that we should just stick to football. 

I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.

It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.

The whole piece goes directly to the patriotism vs nationalism question. Is love of country about wanting to make things better? Or is it about wanting to feel better than everyone else?

There’s also an ugly echo to the sound of those telling Southgate’s players that they’ve no business getting involved like this, that they should stick to the football, with the “leave politics at home” line pushed by some businesses. Most people in employment know they’re risking their livelihoods if they try to stand up for their rights, or what’s right. Southgate’s players are well-protected enough to take some of the weight for everyone else. No wonder some find that threatening. They can’t as easily be shouted down, or warned off, as the rest of us.

I still can’t really bring myself to care about what happens in Euro 2021 (or Euro 2020 as apparently we’re meant to call it). But this is the kind of patriotism I can always get behind. Get in, lads.


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2021vi9, Wednesday: Just one guy.

A friend made me cry over the weekend. I can’t thank him enough.

Short thought: It was the bags that did it for me.

An old friend, Andy Marshall, posted to his Twitter feed on Saturday a video from 1989.

I watched it. For what must be the hundredth time. And, as always, burst into tears.

So much about this video is beautiful, and terrible, and inspiring, and heartbreaking, all at once. 

But as I said, even more than the slight frame of the man making this astonishingly quiet, superlatively brave stance, even more than the simplicity of his dress – dark trousers, white shirt – what hits me are the bags. It’s hard to make out, but it looks like a briefcase in one hand and a shopping bag in the other.

Not only unarmed. But encumbered. Standing in front of a column of tanks. Because he feels he has to. 

Just watching it again as I write this, the tears are flowing once more. 

I knew next to nothing about China in 1989. I was 18. Doing my A-levels, hoping to get the results that would allow me to study Japanese at Cambridge. But even in my ignorance, everything that happened in China during May of that year filled me with a sense of possibility. That things could change. That people who hoped for the better – not just for themselves, but their fellows – could prevail.

And then came 4 June. Or May 35th, or any of the other date references now routinely blocked by the Great Firewall of China. As the tanks and troops rolled into Tiananmen Square. The protests were routed. Hundreds were killed. Something intangible died too. And in my teenage naïveté, I couldn’t stop weeping.

Then, the next day, came this guy. I don’t know what happened to him. I hope – somehow – he avoided the fate one fears was probably his. (Let’s face it. The traditional telling of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes finishes before the likely dénouement, where the little boy who yells out “I can see your bum in that!” is dragged off by soldiers who quietly explain to his parents that they never, actually, had a son in the first place, and any memory they may have to the contrary must be a fairy-tale.)

But when I cry at this video, it’s not just for the hopelessness. It’s for the opposite too. It’s at the thought that even in the darkest moments, when raw power smiles and shows its teeth, human beings exist who will say: No. Not this. Not now. Not me.

There’s hope in those tears. There’s faith – not just religious faith, but a faith that we frail, petty beings, with all our doubts and despondencies, our unerring ability to get the wrong end of the stick and listen to the demons whispering in our ear, can always find a way to step up. For as long as that’s true, there’s hope.


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2021vi4, Friday: People ≠ things.

What happens when you thingify people? Nothing good.

Apologies. As I mentioned, this week has been vacation, and has been busy with family matters. Without breaking anyone else’s confidentiality, suffice it to say that there’s a lot of complicated and slightly scary stuff happening to people I love. I’ll try to stick to three posts a week, but it may be two for the next little while. Please forgive.

Short thought: Evil begins, to paraphrase that great sage of our times Terry Pratchett, when you start treating people as things.

A bit trite, you might say. How can you run any society, any organisation with more than a handful of souls, without doing precisely that? Which, of course, is true. You have to abstract. You have to say: this many people take this much resource. This many people = this many sales, or (in the public sector) this much tax. Subtract one from the other: sustainable or not?

But this comes back to the heart of thingification. Do you do this as a planning tool, as a calculation shortcut? Or do you start to see the abstract instead of the people who comprise it? Do you somehow start to see some, if not all, people as worth less than others? Or, in the worst-case scenario, as simply pieces on the board?

Because that, I think, is what Pratchett was talking about. Particularly in ethics and politics, there’s a clanging alarm bell that I always look out for. Just as certainty warns of a closed mind, this is an indicator that people are being thingified – and evil is lurking.

And it’s terrifyingly common. It’s that easy tendency to build a community – political, religious, otherwise – around who you blame. Who you hate. Who you see as different. Who you treat as “other”.

In other words: who isn’t as truly human as you are.

It’s the thing I can’t trust. The thing that will, inexorably, drive me away from any group that manifests it, from any leadership which relies on it. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a convenient means to an end which is claimed to be laudable. Or if it’s a nod and a wink – “people will understand I don’t really mean it”.

Because it never stops there. This is the genie that never goes back in the bottle. We humans always find it fatally easy to put people in a box marked “not quite like us” – and then treat that box as a thing, with all the negative consequences. Every time we encourage that, we normalise this human tendency. So anyone who does so is, in my world, simply beyond the pale.

Back to Sir Terry. In one of his later books, he deals with the imminent explosion into hot war of a centuries-long enmity, as one side’s rhetoric turns vicious. Changing the wording a bit to minimise spoilers, someone finds the following on an old recording:

“The enemy is not one side nor the other. It is the baleful, the malign, the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good. Those we fought today, but the wilful fool is eternal and will say…”

“This is just a trick!” one of those present shouts. 

“…say this is a trick,” the recording concludes. 

Hatred is comforting. Nationalism or any other belief that defines itself by hatred, or against another, instead of seeking worth on its own terms, is comforting. But it’s deadly. It’s poison. It’s a parasite that not only destroys its host on its way to other minds, but pollutes the sea in which that host swims.

We’ll never win the fight against turning people into things. Not permanently. It’s too easy a trick to exploit, to abuse, to weaponise. 

But that only means we shouldn’t stop trying.


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2021v28, Friday: Not oil.

Getting the analogy wrong can ruin policy, as our approach to data has shown. And turning to real fossil fuels: two big, big events involving an oil company and a coal mine.

Short thought: Taking a short break from thingification, this week marks three years since the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR as most of us know it, came into force.

Many hate it. It’s caused a huge amount of work for organisations of all kinds. It’s clunky, imprecise, open to vast interpretation as to how its extensive obligations should be implemented, and therefore tends towards lengthy tickbox exercises rather than the “privacy by design and default” which is, to me, the heart of the whole exercise.

And, of course, it leads to all those dialogs every time you log into a website. And more recently, also the pointless and aggravating requests that you acknowledge the site’s legitimate interest in using your data any way they want. 

(Pointless because if push came to legal shove, I can’t believe a court would waste more than a few seconds on any such factor. Your legitimate interests aren’t something you can just sign away. Particularly not without genuine consideration. Yet another piece of annoying figleaf. Aggravating for the same reason.)

But I still think the anniversary is worth celebrating. Because GDPR did something really important. It enshrined, far more strongly than its predecessor legislation the core principle that your data is yours. It’s not some public resource that organisations can use however they want; some commons they can enclose at will. 

Analogies are important here – and yes, I realise we’re back on stories again, because when the story’s wrong, our responses to it are wrong too. Here, the problem is the dominant analogy: “data is the new oil” is a phrase often bandied around, but as Matt Locke notes here, this is entirely the wrong categorisation:

The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil – as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago – it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.

To indulge in a bit of shameless exaggeration, treating data as a common untapped resource from which anyone can make a buck is akin – in direction if not in scale – to treating Swift’s Modest Proposal as a sensible contribution to the argument on population control.

Think of data as a part of ourselves, and suddenly the priorities change. Stories like the UK government’s attempt – again! – to give relatively unfettered commercial access to health data become as vile as they seem. (On that, instructions to opt out are here – the deadline’s 23 June.)

It’s not oil. It’s us.


Ultra-short before-thoughts: While we’re on the subject of oil, a couple of interesting items which I haven’t had time properly to process yet:

  • A small investment outfit has managed to force directors onto the board of Exxon who actually care about climate change. My recent reading of The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, has been scaring me witless, and bringing me to the belated realisation of just how much harm climate change naysayers have done to my daughter’s future. About damn time.
  • This one I really want to read and consider: an Australian federal court has denied an application by several children for an injunction to stop a vast open-cast coal mine. But in doing so, it’s found something legally fascinating and with huge potential implications: that there is a duty of care on a government minister to consider what such a project will do to those children’s futures. To anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the common law jurisprudence of negligence, this is immense: new duties of care rarely emerge, with courts (at least in England and Wales) highly reluctant to go beyond existing categories of duty; and only then incrementally and with small steps, based on analogy with existing duties. (For a really good explanation of how this works, see the case of Robinson in the UK Supreme Court.) I really, really need to see how the judge in Australia reached this conclusion (which is at [490-491] of the judgment). I’m on vacation next week, so I might have time to take it in. 

Because I’m on vacation, no promises about posts next week. I’’ll try to take thingification a bit further forward, and there’s so much to do on privacy. We’ll see where we get to.


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2021v24, Monday: Reified abstracts.

More on thingification. This time with reference to the Big C. And something truly magical for watch wearers.

https://xkcd.com/881/

Short thought: A little over eight years ago, when I found out my dad had bladder cancer, it wasn’t God I turned to first. It was Gould.

Stephen Jay Gould, that is. Specifically a beautiful, life-affirming book of his that – in fact! – my dad had given me many years earlier, called Life’s Grandeur. In it, amongst stories on baseball and a number of other things, he described the shock of being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer at the age of 40: one with a median mortality of just eight months.

Eight months! A death sentence, surely. But Gould being the statistician and evolutionary biologist that he was, he dug below the numbers – and realised that this single number hid, of course, a huge variation in actual outcomes.

A median, after all, is only a species of average: the precise middle of a distribution, with half the cases lower and half the cases higher. So in fact, almost 50% of sufferers lived longer than eight months – and, inevitably given that one end of the distribution (the short end) had a tragically hard limit, the other end was likely to have a long tail. Looking into what factors seemed to predominate in the longer-lived, he was able to emulate them – and in fact lived 20 years beyond the diagnosis, dying at the age of 60 in 2002.

Why do I mention this? Why drag myself back to a tough time (my father lived less than two years after his diagnosis, leaving us in September 2014)?

Because this is one example of thingification, and a really important one at that. That eight-month figure is an abstract. A simplification of reality, to aid us in understanding it.

It’s not a thing in itself. Yet, in something some call reification and Gould referred to as “the fallacy of the reified abstract”, how many times have you come across people talking of averages – particularly, perhaps, means, which are the total of all values in a set divided by the number of items in the set – as though they have some independent, normative life of their own? Almost as if a divergence from the mean is wrong, bad, improper? 

Or – still worse – someone getting the same figures as Gould got, but without the advantage of his background; and reading them with despair?

As Gould found, if one can approach a situation like his with a positive, can-do attitude, there’s a real and measurable improvement in the odds (although, as he pointed out, there was an “unintended cruelty of the ‘positive attitude’ movement – insidious slippage into a rhetoric of blame for those who cannot overcome their personal despair and call up positivity from some internal depth”). Leaving someone without the tools to interpret a number like a median mortality rate can, in a genuine sense, make their nightmares come true.

Even for those of us who love numbers, and particularly probability, this kind of thing scares us witless, as the peerless Randall Munroe expressed better than I’ve ever seen in an XKCD cartoon which still makes me cry more than a decade after I first saw it.

The good news is, Randall’s then-partner, later wife, is still with us.

Hope exists. Probabilities are just that. Odds aren’t pre-ordained. Thank goodness.


Someone is right on the internet: Wow. Just wow.

I know I’m a bit of an Apple fanboi. Have been for years. And I’m sure someone will tell me that this is in fact old news, that Android or Windows had it years ago or some such.

But seriously. Just watch the video embedded in this press announcement. Controlling your watch with hand movements, rather than having to touch the screen. Yes, it’s principally for folks whose upper limbs aren’t optimised for prodding at a tiny screen on their wrist – and it’s a fabulous and necessary idea as a result. But it promises to be good for us all. Answering a phone simply by clenching your fist twice? Good lord. Magic at work.


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2021v19, Wednesday: Thingification.

The first of a series about what happens when we make things out of stuff (and ideas) that we shouldn’t. And: why grift isn’t good.

Short thought: I’m not always a fan of neologising. (Is there a word, akin to onomatopoeia, for “doing the thing you’re just criticising”, since I’m not convinced that there’s actually a verb that derives from the noun “neologism”? Oh. Yeah. Hypocrisy. Oops.) 

But a pair of posts (first one heresecond one here) – neither terribly new, but fascinating – do the job beautifully. 

The word? “Thingifying”. 

They’re all about the process by which we tend, as humans, to treat all that we see and experience as objects: specific, manipulable, concrete. How that obscures ideas and concepts. How it shrinks actions and processes to snapshots.

And perhaps most importantly, how it can obscure – often deliberately – agency.

The example in the second of the two pieces, which I won’t spoil more than this sentence, is “umbrellas are non-refundable” – as if this is not so much a choice, albeit probably an entirely fair and sensible one, by a store-owner faced with people returning umbrellas once it stops raining as though they were just for rental, but instead some intrinsic quality of umbrella-ness.

But think beyond this. “The situation is regrettable.” By whom? Why? Is that just how it is, or has someone done something dumb, damaging or malicious to bring the situation into being? Echoes there of “mistakes were made”, or “unfortunate circumstances”. Ouch.

Just reading these two pieces has sparked half a dozen lines of thought into thingification – some arising from my own experience, some from things I’ve read, and one or two which even relate to law and advocacy (honest). Over the next few pieces, I’ll try to break it down a bit. 

If this sounds turgid beyond belief, I’m genuinely sorry. (This is not a non-apology “sorry if you’re thin-skinned enough to feel offended” quasi-insult; honestly, I apologise that the next few pieces might not work for you, but this is an itch I feel really compelled to scratch, and I’ll try to spread the net wide enough so there’s something for everyone.)

I genuinely think there’s something interesting going on here, with significant ramifications. Stay with me. Let’s see where it goes.


Someone is right on the internet: While we’re mulling that one, as usual (this one’s a sorry-not-sorry, I have to admit) my thoughts stray to fraud.

Or rather to grift. An excellent piece of writing by Can Duruk highlights the key distinction between fraud and grift. And there are interesting and uncomfortable parallels to the distinction between lies and bullshit. Can points out that a true modern grift…

…is not run behind closed doors. Instead, you do it fully out in the open, screaming about it from the mountaintops. While greed is about focus, grift is about shamelessness. With greed, the game is to find the path between the rules with the most profit. Grift, on the other hand, ignores the rules altogether, armed with the knowledge that with shamelessness comes zero social costs, and with absent enforcement, no real legal risk.

One of his examples is Elon Musk, in which context he points to what amounts to a pump-and-dump scheme of publicly backing Bitcoin, riding the resulting surge as a bunch of techbros who hang on his every word jump aboard the HODL train, then selling a chunk of Tesla’s BTC holding before declaring that oh, yes, actually it’s an environmental nightmare not entirely in keeping with the noble business of making electric cars. Nice.

Or, as Can puts it:

Look, I am struggling to string together words into legible sentences here. Just like there’s no real person that thinks Bannon deserves his accolades as a wellness warrior, no one who doesn’t put laser eyes in Twitter bio thinks that Elon Musk didn’t know about the environmental horrors of Bitcoin. Or that he could not get away with a pump and dump scheme as blatantly run as this one. I know we are all amused by his antics, and as a car-guy who doesn’t even drive, I have somewhat of a soft spot in my heart for the Model S. But the grift here is so, so obvious and run so transparently that it becomes borderline paralyzing. I do wonder if I am not getting something here?

This also sparks thoughts about the Online Harms bill which the UK government published last week. In amongst the publicity was a comment that the bill would include: 

Further provisions to tackle prolific online scams such as romance fraud, which have seen people manipulated into sending money to fake identities on dating apps.

Well, lovely. Three big problems, though:

  1. The bill only deals with user-generated content. So anyone running a scam and willing to pay for it to be advertised is just fine. Rather missing the point, therefore.
  2. I’ve been through the bill, and I can see precisely nothing that deals expressly with any kind of fraud or scam. At best, it might be in clause 41, which defines “illegal content” to include content amounting to a “relevant offence” – further defining that as either an offence whose intended victim is an individual (although not one which concerns “the performance of a service by a person not qualified to perform it”) or one which is defined in further regulation. Honestly, I’m baffled. What have I missed?

That’s only two problems. The third is too big for a numbered paragraph. And it’s the old favourite: fraud is a huge problem. It hurts huge numbers of people, terribly. And yet, as always, no-one’s actually coughing up to resource dealing with it properly. 

To be fair, the Online Harms publicity does promise a “Fraud Action plan after the 2021 spending review”. And apparently the DDCMS is going to consult on “online advertising, including the role it can play in enabling online fraud, later this year”.

Reassured? Me neither.


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2021v17, Monday: It’s not just about you.

Why an apolitical workplace is a luxury only the comfortable can afford. And a cut-out-and-keep caustic guide to AI ethics.

Short thought: One of the more interesting “little firms that could” in the online services space has long been the outfit currently known as Basecamp. Its founder, Jason Fried, has been voluble – and thoughtful and interesting – about how to do good work remotely, long before the past year made that a necessity.

But now he and David Henmeier Hanson, known as “DHH” (together the senior management of Basecamp), have solidly put their feet in it. I won’t rehearse the background in detail, because others have done it far better. The tl;dr version (and this is a really thin summary of a big story):

  • Basecamp employees – a sizeable chunk of the 60-odd staff base – started to work on diversity and inclusion issues. Management blessed this.
  • In the process, the fact that for many years the firm’s internal systems had hosted a list of “funny customer names” – many of which, inevitably, were those of people of colour – came in for understandable criticism.
  • Initially, management were onside with this criticism; indeed, they owned their part in the list’s maintenance over the years.
  • But then it got ugly. A number of staff saw the list in the context of ongoing institutional discrimination – not just or even not mainly at Basecamp, to be clear, but societally. Management (Jason and DHH) pushed back against what they seemed to see as an over-reaction.
  • Jason and DHH announced that political discussion was now to be off-limits. (They later amended this – albeit apparently without making it clear that there was an amendment – to it being off-limits only on Basecamp’s own chat and comms systems.) They also said they would withdraw benefits, instead simply paying the cash value thereof, so as not to be “paternalist”.
  • This caused uproar. An all-staff meeting saw one senior and long-time executive play the “if you call this racism, you’re the racist”, “no such thing as white supremacy” card; he resigned shortly afterwards. As many as a third of the staff have now also taken redundancy.
  • This might seem like a tempest in a teacup. Small tech firm has row; news at 11.

But it’s not. Tech is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, particularly at its senior levels. (It may not escape your notice that the Bar isn’t much better.) Which means its leadership often misses the key point, which is this: when you’re not rich and comfortable, when your life has incorporated a lot of moments where you don’t get to expect everything will go smoothly, when you don’t have that much of a safety net, when large numbers of people at all levels of power get to mess you about just because they can, without you having much recourse, just about everything is political.

Healthcare is political, if its availability and quality vary depending on where you live and what you look like. (Don’t doubt this: I’ve seen healthcare professionals, who I’m certain would be genuinely horrified by conscious prejudice, treat Black women with breathtaking disdain compared with how they talk to people like me.) Pay is political. Work is political, because expectations and yardsticks vary unless we pay honest attention to how they’re generated and applied.

Put simply: cutting political and social issues out of the workplace is a luxury only comfortable people can afford. A luxury which exacerbates, rather than diminishes, the power imbalance built into to workplaces by the sheer fact of people’s dependence on a paycheque. (This, by the way, is why in the UK and Europe we say people can’t consent to the use of their data in the workplace. If the alternative to consent is “find another job”, that isn’t free consent for anyone without a private income.)

For Jason and DHH to take this approach is to forget that the only people for whom politics doesn’t relate to business are those who get to dictate the terms of what goes and what doesn’t. The blindness appears to dismal effect in a post by DHH on “Basecamp’s new etiquette at work”:

Just don’t bring it into the internal communication platforms we use for work, unless it directly relates to our business. I’m applying that same standard to myself, and Jason is too.

Well, that’s nice. Reminds of that line about the right of the rich to sleep under bridges. I wonder why.


Someone is right on the internet: On a somewhat related topic, issues of ethics in AI are big news, at least among geeks. Which is as it should be: the more AI or quasi-AI comes to control, dictate or direct our lives, the more concern we should have about whether the black boxes in question are exacerbating structural or other unfairness or inequality. It’s not good enough to just blame – for instance – algorithms that can’t recognise Black people on “computer says no”. People make decisions, and they must be accountable.

(This, of course, is why Article 22 of the GDPR prohibits “solely automated processing, including profiling” – although it’s by no means impossible to get round this by inserting a human into the final stage of the process, or by making statutory arrangements to allow for it.)

Big Tech isn’t that comfortable about this, so it seems – as shown by Google’s removal (whether it’s officially sacking or not isn’t wholly clear, but it’s effectively an ejection anyway) of two senior women working on AI issues.

So MIT Technology Review’s caustic A-Z of how to talk about AI ethics is horrifically on the nose. A couple of examples will suffice, I hope, to encourage you to go and read it:

ethics principles – A set of truisms used to signal your good intentions. Keep it high-level. The vaguer the language, the better. See responsible AI.

human in the loop – Any person that is part of an AI system. Responsibilities range from faking the system’s capabilities to warding off accusations of automation.

privacy trade-off – The noble sacrifice of individual control over personal information for group benefits like AI-driven health-care advancements, which also happen to be highly profitable.

And the best one comes first:

accountability – The act of holding someone else responsible for the consequences when your AI system fails.

Ouch. But yes.


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2021v12, Wednesday: Loss.

Short thought: I’m sorry. This is going to be far shorter a thought than usual.

My fellow member of Chambers, Tim Nesbitt QC, died suddenly a few days ago. It hurts.

I didn’t know Tim particularly well. I’ve worked with him I think three times.

But he leaves a huge hole. 

I can’t remember a conversation with him where I came away feeling anything other than better. I can’t remember him ever having been less than helpful, warm, funny. And most importantly, kind.

He was also a fabulous advocate. That must be said. But fine advocacy (and the razor-sharp mind behind it) and generous humanity don’t necessarily go hand in hand at the Bar. (Although it’s more common than some might cynically suspect.)

Tim exemplified this tendency, of brilliance coupled with kindness. Perhaps even the one feeding the other, and vice versa.

We miss him. We can honour him by following his lead. We’ll fail. Of course we will – that’s part of being human. But we can make it a priority. And that’s most of the battle.

Bye, Tim. God bless.