2020xii31, Thursday: Some things don’t add up.

Counting things is important. But not everything that matters can be counted…

Short thought: Back to the Brexit deal, and what is – I admit – probably a wholly specious comparison.

I’ve been puzzled for months, if not years, by the narrow focus among Brexiteers on zeroing out tariffs, and the complete lack of attention to the far greater, and far harder, problem of non-tariff barriers. It’s as though we were marooned in mercantilist times, decades or even centuries ago. I’m no expert on international trade or the law underpinning it, but even I recognise that tariffs are, frankly, the easy bit (indeed, the bit that was solved with the customs union we entered when we joined the EEC, and the common market, 47 years ago). It could be simply that any non-tariff agreement involves giving up some mythical sovereignty (defined, it seems, by the standards of an unusually grabby two-year-old or an elderly orange-faced narcissist: “No-one gets to tell me what to do, and I don’t have to bear the consequences of my decisions”). It could be that many of them, including sadly our leaders, simply don’t understand – although I doubt that. I don’t know – although I know we’ll all be paying for it.

Now for the specious comparison. Tariffs are easy to count and thus to shout about; non-tariff barriers are by their very nature more nebulous and qualitative. Similarly, in competition, we’ve been dealing for years with the fall-out from the narrow US anti-trust focus on consumer prices (measurable) while ignoring the less measurable questions of monopsony-driven market dominance. I’m not saying there’s a connection, of course. Nor am I saying there’s anything genuinely comparable. But I do find it interesting that in both cases looking at stuff that’s easy to count, to the exclusion of other stuff that in the long run probably matters more, has led to significantly harmful outcomes.

Anyone reading this who’s had experience of KPIs or KRIs (whether in terms of personal or institutional performance) can probably think of examples where “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter”, applied thoughtlessly or reductively, has gone horribly, horribly wrong. I know I can. Let me know your thoughts.

Someone is right in the internet: Well. Two someones. First Bruce Schneier, who combines smarts and thoughtfulness like few others on security matters, with the best take on the Solar Winds fiasco that I’ve seen, noting that this should – but tragically won’t – put the final nail in the foolish argument for software backdoors. Second an old friend, Sean Maher, who’s looking at it in the context of government capacity and the decades-long ideological assault on it in the US/UK. Sean’s focus is on the investment implications – but his points are of much broader relevance.

Things I wrote: A while ago, I wobbled. In fact, like so many others in this hellswamp of a year, for a few hours or a day I broke. So many people I know and respect, and several hearts of gold that I didn’t, chipped in with support or shared burdens. So I wrote a follow-up.

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Unbroken. At least for the moment.

I cannot, possibly, thank you enough.

Everyone who wrote to me, commented, or otherwise made contact following that thing I wrote a while ago. You are blessings, every single one.

Some said it helped them think about what they did, and how. Some, bravely, shared their own travails. Some simply offered a hand. A shoulder. A (digital) nod. Every little bit was wonderful, and generous, and human.

(Particular thanks to Max, who reminded me of a truism that we all should be saying to ourselves and those we care about, on a far more regular basis: that it’s ok not to be ok. It really is.)

It’s even possible I may have helped a person or two myself. If I have, then Lord knows every word was worth it.

And I’m OK. Even amid Tier 4 (let’s call it what it is – a renewed lockdown – even if our government remains too cowardly to do so) – late, again; inefficient, again; incompetent, again: why don’t they learn? – I feel surprisingly together. I’m sleeping more. I’m reading more. I’m running more. (Including, sometimes, in the rain and before sunup. The calm of being out running as dawn starts to break – wow.) I’m walking more. I’m playing the piano more. I’m spending more time with my wife and daughter.

More simply, I’m trying to make time just to breathe, and to see the small things that make life worth living. A cobweb with dewdrops. A bright green caterpillar on the front step. A huge full moon with an aurora of cloud around it. A street I’ve never walked down before. The always-renewed pattern of light on the estuary waves.

And we’ve got a cat. Ostensibly it’s for daughter. Honestly? It’s as much for me. The idea of reading papers while enveloped in an industrial-strength purr was enticing beyond belief, and has proved to be even better. I’m sure more experienced cat-owning barristers will attest to the benefits of that.

So things are better. There’s a vaccine. Early signs are good. Trump is on the way out, even if his party has descended into something genuinely alarming, full of believers in what amounts to a one-party theocracy. (As a person of faith, theocracies terrify me. Because people who are certain they’re right, and who have power, are even scarier if they’re convinced God agrees with them.) There’s a Brexit deal; it’s rubbish, and has gaping holes that’ll take years or decades to fill, and we’ll suffer for it. But not as badly as we would on a no-deal finish.

So I’m grateful. Because perhaps, having recognised and accepted my weakness, and having had people I respect say good and kind and thoughtful things about it, I can be stronger. As, God willing, can we all.


2020xii30, Wednesday: Soul food.

Without the sustenance of something we do for our souls – even if we’re bad at it – we lose something vital to being human.

Short thought: Everyone needs a hinterland. Something (or indeed somewhere) they can retreat into: as an escape, or for solace, or simply for the sake of sanity. It feeds a soul which can otherwise wither and die.

My soul food? Music. Always has been. I’m a (poor) piano player, helped somewhat over the past year by my 2019 birthday present to myself: a subscription to a wonderful jazz and improvisation teacher called Willie Myette (his site, Jazzedge, has been a haven).

(And I’m getting better. Very slowly. And re-learning the essential lesson: to get good at anything, you have to accept being pretty bad for a while.)

But honestly, I’ve realised it doesn’t matter what you do. Play something. Write. Build. Make. Walk, or run, or ride, whether with music/podcast/audiobook or in blissful silence. Just something that’s not passive consumption or work. Something that can become a habit of self-nurture.

(I’m not including reading in the above. Because – call me an elitist; please, go ahead – I regard reading long-form things, by which I mean anything long enough to have some structure and thought behind it, as something as fundamental as breathing. Not so much soul food as a basic necessity.)

If the past year of strange days that seem to stretch for weeks, and months that have fled by like days, has taught me anything, it’s that without regular intakes of soul food we lose something critical to being human.

So find your sustenance. Treasure it. Be bad at it for as long as it takes. Your soul will thank you.

Nothing wrong with a re-read: I’ve never understood those who say books aren’t worth reading twice. I love a good series, and there’s something special about re-reading the last one (or, for TV, re-watching it) before getting into something new. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin is on my Kindle maybe-next-up list, and I’ve nearly finished a re-run through its predecessor, Children of Time. It’s awe-inspiring; a consideration of genuinely alien thought and culture in the grand tradition of CJ Cherryh’s Chanur and Foreigner books. (Again with the series…) It doesn’t hurt that its non-human species reminds me of my favourite gaming alien race of all time, Traveller’s Hivers. They were always such fun to play…

Someone is right on the internet: With thanks to Anne Helen Peterson, Anne Applebaum writes about collaborators in The Atlantic. A long read, talking about the US GOP and dealing with the use of strategic and voluminous lies. But worthwhile.

Things I wrote: some time ago I looked at bundling apps for barristers. A good one would be the holy grail. So no surprise there isn’t one. Not yet. I’d favoured one; but now I’m reconsidering. And I’ve committed hard cash too.

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2020xii29, Tuesday: Day One.

Short thought: I can’t say much about Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s report on the FCA’s handling of London Capital & Finance. The FCA is a client. But suffice it to say that the grey area that is currently the perimeter – the boundary between what’s regulated financial services activity and what isn’t – is going to be a point of serious contention for the foreseeable future. Even the FCA acknowledges (perhaps implicitly, but still) that it isn’t always clear what falls on either side of the line; it now publishes an annual perimeter report setting out the current state of play. If I wanted to be optimistic, I’d say that one of the very few dividends of Brexit might be to grasp the nettle and define it more clearly, or at least make a better stab at dealing with those who deliberately blur the distinction. But my optimism only goes so far.

I really need to get round to readingBeing Mortal, by Atul Gawande. Given it several years ago, after my dad died. Haven’t yet been able to read it. (I’m not sure if that’s causative or not.) Gawande is just marvellous; I really owe it to myself to get on with this. And it’s a sign of some basic competence in the incoming Biden administration that he’s been co-opted into the US’s coronavirus taskforce.

Someone is right on the internet (with apologies to the stone-cold classic XKCD): Ars Technica with the history of the ARM architecture whose use by Apple is now overturning several decades of microprocessor orthodoxy. (I’m using an M1-powered MacBook Pro. It’s revelatory. Honestly.) Recall that this is arguably the most influential and game-changing UK tech company of the past several decades. So when you hear UK government spokespeople bloviating about national champions, or tech mastery, just recall that ARM was bought by Softbank in 2016, and Softbank agreed to sell it to Nvidia earlier this year.

Things I wrote: The Brexit deal is (nearly) done. What’s it mean for legal services, and data protection? Mostly a case of Watch This Space.

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A deal. At long last.

Any deal was always going to be better than no deal. And there’ll be lots of tall tales (put generously) told about its glories. But so much of this is placeholder…

I clearly haven’t been reading carefully enough, or broadly enough, because I haven’t seen anyone crowing about how wise it was to go down to the wire.

I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. But the fact is, there’s finally a deal. (That’s the UK page. The EU one is here.)

It’s 1240-odd pages plus a couple of extra documents. Better people than me have scanned it already, in far more detail than I want to when I’m still on holiday. (Yesterday was spent in bed, lounging with wife and daughter, on a binge rewatch of the final season of the West Wing. Amazing. I really need to do that more often.)

But a couple of things stand out.

For the areas I’m most interested in professionally – legal services and data protection – a lot remains to be worked out.

Data protection, thank goodness, has a pin stuck in it till 1 May (or 1 July, unless either side objects); we don’t become a third country till then, or until an adequacy decision is made, or unless the UK does something unilaterally stupid. (This is p406 of the Draft Agreement, if you want to check.)

So no need for binding corporate rules or standard contractual clauses. For the moment. Although lots of people will have spent mounds of money and time trying to put them into place. And the implications of Schrems II for law enforcement/intelligence mass collection still make adequacy far from a done deal.

So what about us lawyers? Not such good news. All my friends at the Bar who were getting Irish qualifications are looking sensible. Predictably, perhaps, the UK spin on the section on lawyers is fairly cakeist. As Joshua Rozenberg notes, there’s careful wording suggesting – but not explicitly saying – that all is reasonably well for UK lawyers who advise clients in the EU.

It’s not, unless your advice is limited to UK law: as Nicole Sykes points out, each country has its own rules. And most bar third-country (that’s us) lawyers from advising on their own or EU law unless they’re either EEA (or Swiss) nationals, residents, or often both.

And as for the question of mutual recognition of qualifications: well, that too is kicked into the long grass; the “we’ll get to it, honest” pile.

Sigh. It really is a sign of the fundamental unseriousness of our leaders in this negotiation that they’ve always prioritised form over substance, headlines and politics over policy. I know my experience is in the more loathed parts of the services sector (finance and the law; add in estate agency and I’d have the unholy trinity), but the UK makes a lot of money, earns a lot of tax, and brings in a lot of jobs from overseas services sales. And data protection is an area where going it alone kills jobs, privacy and human rights. Was it really too much to ask that they’d be a priority?

Question asked. Question answered. I guess we have to trust to cooler heads, and more sensible negotiation, in the months and years to come. Feeling good about that?

Reconsidering bundling apps.

Recently I tried three, and reluctantly settled on one. After a long chat with the founder of one of the others, I’m thinking again.

Not so long ago, I tried out three apps designed for lawyers to handle paperless bundles: to make them, and use them. As I explained, I don’t need the “use” bit; PDF Expert hits the button for my multi-device workflow in a way that none of these services comes close to achieving. But bundling hurts.

At the time, I selected Hyperlaw and rejected Casedo because the former did three things the latter didn’t: OCR; handling emails with (nested) attachments; and handling multiple document types. (I rejected Bundledocs because it did these things, but with an appalling interface and a shocking price tag.)

I’ve tried. But I just can’t love Hyperlaw. It sucked in documents beautifully. But putting them in order, making sure they’re what and where they need to be, took me forever, through an interface that just makes no sense to me. And that process, given that I had several dozen documents to process, ended up taking almost as long as extracting the emails individually would have done.

So I gave Casedo another whirl, on a new M1 MacBook Pro (which, incidentally, is glorious). I like what it does, and how it does it. OCR I can live without; ReadIris does the job well for me. Most of my docs are Word or PDF anyway, so that’s no great hardship. The nested email thing remains a stopper. But I had a long chat with Ross Birkbeck, Casedo’s founder, and I’m reassured it’s a priority.

So I’m trying Casedo. I’ll have to disentangle nested emails myself for a while, which I loathe. But everything else about bundling is far closer to the holy grail of “it just works”. So they’ve got my cash. We’ll see how it goes.

Something new.

I need to write more regularly. So I’m going to try to do something – however tiny – every day. And Substack might encourage me. I’ll give it a whirl.

Oh dear.

It’s been almost two months since my last post. I’m sorry.

It’s been busy, but that’s no excuse. I need this to be more of a habit. And my posts have been getting longer; perhaps that’s part of the problem.

So: change of plan. Much shorter posts. Sometimes splitting a single topic over several posts (I can always combine them later, for ease of reading). Trying to post every day. Nearly. Well, mostly.

And I’ll try out Substack as well (https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com for signups). So whatever I write here – and it’ll almost never be more than once a day – will appear in anyone’s inbox who wants it. It may be that over time I end up switching to Substack altogether and away from this WordPress setup; it depends how much faff I have to undergo in working on two platforms at once. To be clear: I have no intention of asking anyone to pay for these ramblings. Not unless they ever get a lot more focused and a lot more useful. The Substack idea is just to make it more accessible and easier for anyone who wants to read.

Anyhow, enough. Do sign up for the emails. Or don’t; your call. I’ll still cross-post on LinkedIn and Twitter, because why not? – but over time we’ll see if Substack turns out to be a better option.

Happy 2021, everyone. This clown car of a year is nearly over. May the coming one be sweeter, saner, and kinder.