2022vi1, Wednesday: The question that comes too late.

We’ve all kicked ourselves on occasion for missing the chance to ask about the thing that’s really important. Although sometimes the answer is too obvious for words…

Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Sometimes it’s a few seconds. Sometimes half an hour. And sometimes it’s not till the following day.

But I can’t be alone – either among reporters (my former trade) or advocates (my current one) – in, far too often, having the lightbulb moment just too late. When an excellent question comes to mind only after you’ve put down the phone, or walked out the door, or watched the witness exit the box.

In the latter case, of course, a well-planned, well-prepped cross-examination should minimise the risk – although it does still happen.  (And as anyone who’s done this will testify, and frankly any barrister who says it’s never happened to them is a liar, the bigger risk is often asking one question too many than one too few.)

In a journalistic environment there’s sometimes a second bite at the cherry. A follow-up call. Or someone else you can talk to.

But it happens.

It’s now a decade and a half since I jacked in journalism, it having lost its remaining lustre for me following the Hutton Inquiry and the BBC’s retreat to pre-emptive, cowardly cringe. (And many too many editorial meetings where senior editors would try to force my desk to run a story which I said was – put as politely as I felt able – complete bollocks, because it had “a great top line”.) I asked a lot of hard questions during my time. But it wasn’t till after I left that I came across the concept of the “pre-mortem”, and realised that all the politicians, and businesspeople, and others that I talked to, as they sold some grand scheme or gold-plated plan, should have been confronted with a really simple question.

“What could go wrong with this?” 

Or: 

“What are the downsides?”

I know. They’d probably swerve the answer. Or I’d never get offered an interview again.

But it’s a critical question. Anyone planning something new with ramifications for people other than themselves who hasn’t thought, deeply and scarily, about what the downsides are, where the blowback might come from, ought never to be allowed to make decisions affecting anyone else. Ever again. Similarly, anyone who denies that any exist is immediately either a fool or a liar.

Talking about fools and liars… a similar thought has kept striking me as stories about letters to the 1922 Committee proliferated. Letters which say: Boris Johnson is no longer fit to be Prime Minister.

(It’ll be even more pressing once the results of the no-confidence vote hurriedly scheduled for today come in around 9pm or thereabouts.)

I haven’t the time, the energy or the self-loathing to read most of those letters, not in any depth or volume. (Jesse Norman’s being a notable and laudable exception, not least since – as David Allen Green points out – it trespasses into policy failings as well as political quagmires.) So some of them may answer this question.

But I can’t help wanting to ask those writing these more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger missives:

Set aside Partygate. Set aside Sue Gray, and the Met and all the sound and fury. If you’re saying Johnson isn’t fit for the office, that’s not just about what he’s done. It’s about who he is. 

So, simply put: what do you know now about him that you didn’t know when you made him party leader – and backed him for PM? What, really, is new?

Answers on a postcard. Speculating about how big a postcard is required is an exercise left for the reader.


(Incidentally, I know it’s been months since I last wrote. A lot has happened since then. I’m not quite ready to write about it. Nearly. But not quite. Bear with me. Please?)

2022ii6, Sunday: Sheer dishonesty.

Politicians shade the truth. Fact of life. But that’s different from deliberately seeking to mislead. Option one is excusable. Option two isn’t. Kwasi Kwarteng: I’m looking at you.

Lord Agnew, demonstrating what honour in office means: “Given that I’m the minister for counter-fraud, it seems a little dishonest to stay on in that role if I’m incapable of doing it properly, let alone defending our track record.” Screenshot from the House of Lords broadcast of his speech.

Expecting politicians to be wholly straightforward is a mug’s game.

That’s not to parrot the common canard about them “all being the same”, or that “you can’t trust any of them”. I wholly disagree with that. In my experience, it usually comes from someone with a strong affiliation, or at least voting tradition, in favour of one party. If that party causes them disillusion, this is what you tell yourself to justify not even considering voting for someone else.

No. It’s that politics, and in some ways still more government, can’t work if you’re telling the whole truth all the time. I expect my political leaders sometimes to shade things. If you’re negotiating a treaty, you can’t do that in the blaze of sunlight, for instance.

But shading the truth and outright lying, bullshitting or gaslighting are wholly different. Breathtaking intellectual dishonesty and taking the voters for mugs falls firmly in the second category. Politicians who engage in option one can still deserve trust. Those who exploit option two have sacrificed it. Usually for ever. And don’t deserve ever to occupy a public office, ever again.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, is now firmly in box two.


Why am I being so dismissive of him? Because he’s just said something which is both flagrantly intellectually dishonest, and falls squarely in one of those few areas where I can actually boast some specialist knowledge.

I don’t watch Sunday morning political TV. Life really is too short. But according to Politico, which for its faults is usually accurate in stuff like this, he was asked this morning about the fact that his boss, our embarrassing (at best) and shameful (more likely) PM, had been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for misquoting crime stats. Johnson had told the House of Commons that crime was down 14% – but the UKSA pointed out that this was only true if you leave out fraud and cybercrime, which together in fact amount to about a half of recorded crime and had in fact risen 47% in the period in question.

In other words: a bit like saying that violence is down as long as you only count crimes which don’t involve a weapon.

Kwarteng’s response?

“When people talk about crime — I think fraud is really really important — but people are talking particularly about burglaries, about personal injury, about physical crimes, and I think in that context we’re seeing lower crimes.”

Bollocks. Utter bollocks. Kwarteng is a smart person. He must know this is bullshit. Both in the sense that it’s a wholly misleading number to have used (let’s not get into the fact that Johnson too must have known he was lying to the House) and to defend it at all is dishonest; and in the sense that to imply (as I think he did, with explicit intention or not) that fraud is somehow less harmful, less damaging, less serious for its victims than violence or physical theft is not only wrong, but deeply insulting to those victims.


No surprise, of course. As you’ve heard me rant on about probably far too often, the gross under-resourcing of fraud investigation except where it affects the public purse has been shameful for years. Only this past week or two, we’ve seen the minister with responsibility for fraud resign at the dispatch box (seriously, listen to his speech) because of his sense of shame at the government’s counter-fraud ineptitude, in a demonstration of honour and character which both elevates him and shows too many of his former colleagues to be without either; and we’ve seen a report from the Treasury Select Committee which underscores the poverty-stricken mess that is fraud investigation and prosecution in this country.

The point being: fraud affects millions. It doesn’t just rob them of money. It also can do terrible damage to their psyche. Their ability to trust others. And, just as importantly, their confidence in themselves. And the entirely justified impression that there’s no point in reporting it because no-one will lift a finger to help only adds insult to those injuries.

(This story in Wired – although it deals with the US experience – gets absolutely to the heart of what happens to people when they’re taken by a fraudster. It’s wrenching. And, in my experience, it’s bang on the money. Unfortunately, it’s for subscribers only – but if you do subscribe, do read it.)

So it’s for those reasons that, as far as I’m concerned, Kwarteng has just thrown his honour, his character, his credibility and his fitness for public office on the bonfire. I can understand an urge to try to protect one’s boss. Even if that boss is as venal, shameful, shameless, narcissistic and – put simply – an utter disgrace to his office as this one. But to do so in such a demeaning, insulting and downright dishonest way? No. Hell, no.

As I’ve found myself saying far too often about members of this low administration, whose dishonour discredits us all: for shame.


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2021vii8, Thursday: Passive, aggressive.

Apologies for the long gap. I may be pedantic, but some words have old meanings that carry genuine value – the more so because of the state we’re in.

I’m torn when it comes to language. 

On the one hand, I’m absolutely alongside the idea of seeing linguistic evolution on a prescriptive rather than normative basis. Language changes with usage. It always has. And one of the joys of English is how – generally – receptive it’s been to incoming influence. 

On the other, there are some usages that are on my “die in a ditch for this, even if it’s a hopeless cause” list.*

I know. These two stances are potentially mutually contradictory. But there’s sense in it, I think, so long as one limits the second stance to a few areas where there’s a genuine, practical justification. 

So, for example, I limit my reaction to “literally” meaning “figuratively” to a mild internal flinch, although I flatly refuse to use it that way myself.

But “disinterested” used in place of “uninterested”? Hell, no. Particularly in our polarised world ([cough]Hancock and others in government giving jobs to their mates [/cough]), the secondary meaning of “interested” – that is, not something which fascinates you, but something you have a stake in – is more important than ever. Finding someone genuinely disinterested – that is, someone who can stand apart from a dispute and see it dispassionately (another great word), or at least someone with sufficient humility and wisdom to seek that position – has huge value. I don’t know another word which captures it quite as effectively. “Neutral”? “Objective”? “Unbiased”? Nope. They don’t mean the same. 

So yes: that one I’ll keep fighting for.

Slightly differently, but on a similar note, misplaced passives drive me nuts. This isn’t just parroting the Strunk & White-style simplism (ooh, that’s another word to defend) that actives are better than passives – not least because of the number of times things that aren’t actually the passive mood are quoted in defence of the position. Grrr. Not least because sometimes a passive is right: when you want to place the stress on the victim of an action, the passive can help keep the focus where it belongs. 

But far too often, there’s the “mistakes were made, lessons were learned” usage: what I call the “institutional passive aggressive mood”. The usage that obscures the fact that people did things that were wrong. That people need to learn and change. And that accountability, as opposed to blame, is important. And, if anything, makes it look like it’s your fault, not theirs, if you’ve got any further problem with them.

You know what? Don’t just listen to me on this. Go to this link, where the near-unparalleled US satirical website McSweeney’s (second only to The Onion, which published the best story in the world on Steve Jobs’ death a decade ago) does a bang-up job putting this very special linguistic usage precisely in the context it demands, with some nice animation to boot. Read it. Enjoy it. Make sure you get to the end. And see how you feel about the institutional passive aggressive then.

*As for whoever wrote the advert on the side of a double-decker bus I saw earlier this week, which used the American spelling “labeled”: well, I’m not the one who should be dying in a ditch for that.


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2021vi28, Monday: Interest.

Accountability starts with keeping track of conflicts of interest. Fail to do that, and corruption comes next. As the Matt Hancock saga shows all too clearly.

Back in my banking days, part of my job – frankly, one of the less fun parts – was to help people understand not only what restrictions and controls applied to what they did, but why.

This was always, to my mind, critical. People might not agree with the “why”. Often, they didn’t. But you owe it to them to explain them. There’s a reason why “Because those are the rules” is on a list of “Things never to say to anyone, ever” in one of the most helpful books on interpersonal communication I ever read.* 

Often I could understand people’s questions. Not least because banking systems and controls frequently appeared to be designed by people who’d never, actually, met people before. Which broke Scott-Joynt’s First Rule of Policies and Procedures: don’t ever expect human beings not to behave like human beings; so design your systems with the grain of how people tick.

(The second rule, of course, is that policies are either written for people to use, or written to cover the organisation’s backside. Those written for the first purpose can often also achieve the second. Those written for the second, usually by lawyers like me, can never achieve the first. This is also the difference between focusing on risk and focusing on compliance; but that’s another discussion.)

But one set of questions always baffled me: those about conflicts of interest, and why they needed to be declared. Banker after angry banker would wave the form at me demanding why on earth the bank needed to know about the relationships they had and the businesses they were connected to. “None of this is relevant,” they’d grouch. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

They were probably right. And it didn’t matter. Because the whole point of conflicts checks and declarations – whether general ones, or requirements to declare an interest if you’re involved in a decision which could benefit someone or something close to you – is preventative, not detective. It’s to put transparency in place before it’s needed, so that conflicts never actually arise. Which is why the broad declarations are needed: to avoid situations where there might appear to be a conflict, and thus the risk – yes, you guessed it – of corruption.

It doesn’t work that way, of course. People don’t declare. Often it’s relatively innocent, in a way: people think they’re not the kind of person who’d act improperly, to act partially, so therefore they don’t need to declare anything. Only dishonest people need to do that. And they’re not.

Balderdash. Most of us have immense blind spots when it comes to favouring those in our circle. Because we’re human. Because that’s how humans tick. So it’s not a matter of trusting honesty. It’s a matter of building in solutions where problems might arise, shining a great big spotlight on them, verifying connections, and thus obviating the problem as far as possible.

Why has this sprung to mind? It’s fairly obvious, I think: the Hancock Half-Hour of shame. The embarrassing clinch and the shameful do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do in re social distancing regulations and guidance is bad enough. Certainly enough reason for anyone with the slightest integrity to have resigned instantly, or (when it comes to his boss) to have sacked him on the spot. As is the hypocrisy of having demanded the head of Neil Ferguson, and then going on to do even worse yourself. 

But the conflicts are to my mind far more serious. There’s the obvious one, and the less obvious one. 

  • The first: the fact that Hancock appears to have given a job to a woman he was having an affair with, in secret, as well as sending work to members of her family. All while – so it’s reported – keeping comms relevant to this kind of thing out of government systems and on a private Gmail account. When the job or the contract came up, the only ethical thing to do would have been to declare an interest. He didn’t. Draw your own conclusions. 
  • The second: the fact that the only person with the power to decide whether his actions were acceptable or not is the PM. Someone not only with ethics that make Hancock look honourable, but with an immense vested interest in the outcome. 

Conflicts matter. Because being accountable matters. (Not just paper accountability; real accountability, in the sense of submission to those whose interests are not aligned with yours, and who have authority separate from your own.) Because transparency matters. And without it, you have corruption, self-dealing and disgrace.

Always. 

*The book’s called “Verbal Judo”. Setting aside the unfortunate fact that the co-(ghost?) writer seems to be the bloke who later co-wrote the ghastly “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic cod-Christian guff, it’s excellent. Written from a police officer’s point of view, but with much wider application. If I mention that other phrases on that list include “you always/you never”, “come here”, “be reasonable”, and my personal favourite, “calm down”, I hope you’ll agree there’s some smart and thoughtful stuff there.


Note: what with the family stuff that’s going on, I’m going to experiment with just having a single item for each post. That should (a) allow me to post more regularly, by not feeling obliged to have multiple things each day and thus ending up not getting stuff out; (b) make it easier to link to specific pieces. Hope that’s OK. If not, let me know.


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2021iv28, Wednesday: “A bloody computer system killed my brother.”

More on the Horizon scandal. And yes, it’s a scandal.

Someone is right on the internet: A very short hit. Because Dan Hon, an excellent writer on tech, has hit the nail on the head with an important backstory to the Post Office Horizon scandal in which dozens of honest sub-postmasters were prosecuted and convicted because the software running their accounting went horribly wrong – and no-one was willing to admit it.

His take is very much on how Horizon went so badly wrong, from a software and services project management perspective. That makes it sound boring. It really isn’t. It’s critical to understanding how organisations go so far off the rails that they do truly sociopathic things like what the sub-postmasters experienced.

Not least because as is almost always the case, it’s not actually a case of “computer says no”. Instead, it’s a story of human decision-making, and decision-ducking, and arse-covering. With utterly tragic and – quite possibly – criminal results.

Read the whole thing, but this ending is bang on the money. Under the heading “The Biggest Lesson”, Dan writes:

The sister of the former post office worker who committed suicide said: “a bloody faulty computer system killed my brother”. [The Evening Standard, April 12 2021]

My heart goes out to Jayne Caveen. And I hate to do this: a computer system did not kill her brother. Horrible people in management killed her brother, and it’s easiest to blame it on a computer system.

People, people in management, people in positions of trust people running one of the most trusted institutions in England made those decisions to double down and to persecute and prosecute people knowing that the evidence wasn’t reliable and concealing that evidence wasn’t reliable. Intentionally not investigating reports for fear of what might be found, because it might affect public perception of trust, or because it might be discoverable and admissable in court. Cowardice, fear and a lack of integrity is what happened. Pride and boastfulness in a system that could never do what it could. Using technology was and is an excuse. Not taking responsibility is what happened.

Technology is for people and made by people and this is what happens when the people running it don’t realize that.

Amen.


Short thought: Incidentally, the Court of Appeal judgment was unstinting in its criticism of the prosecution. And utterly unyielding in its position that the convictions were not only unsafe, but an affront to justice.

But it didn’t say, in terms that the victims – and victims they were – of this injustice were innocent. That wasn’t its job.

And that’s a problem.

Because ever since 2014, victims of miscarriages of justice – even those who may have had their lives destroyed, spent years in jail, and gone broke trying to defend themselves (see the Secret Barrister’s first book for details of this “innocence tax) – have faced an intimidating bar for getting compensation.

Intimidating? Make that well-nigh unclearable.

Look at it this way. People should only be convicted if a magistrate or jury is confident beyond reasonable doubt that they did what they’re accused of doing. “Beyond reasonable doubt” is now generally seen as not clear enough; judges now direct juries that they need to be “sure”.

This is rightly a high bar (or should be). A criminal conviction is a very big deal.

But under s133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act, as amended by the then Conservative-led government in 2014, this is the test for miscarriage-of-justice compensation:

…there has been a miscarriage of justice in relation to a person convicted of a criminal offence in England and Wales… if and only if the new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that the person did not commit the offence and references in the rest of this Part to a miscarriage of justice are to be construed accordingly).

In other words: you get banged up. You shouldn’t have. Your life is ruined.

But you have to prove your own innocence to the same standard as proof of guilt. Not “more likely than not” innocent. Not “all the evidence points towards someone else” innocent. No: “can’t possibly have been you, under any reasonable circumstances” innocent.

No-one pays to help you do this. No account taken of the fact you might have been seriously psychologically damaged by your ordeal. And if you don’t do all this and submit your application within two years of your conviction being quashed, then by s133(2) you’re out of luck anyway.

I very much doubt the sub-postmasters can reasonably surpass this hurdle. Even though they’ve obviously been subject to the most appallingly inhumane and unjust treatment.

I don’t often say this. But this provision is wholly unjust. It makes a mockery of the need to correct injustices. It needs to go. Although I can’t imagine this government – or any other government which relies on the hang-and-flog vote – doing anything about it.


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2021ii15, Monday: Damn.

Positive test. Feeling OK, but probably won’t. Please forgive me, but this may not be a priority till I’m through…

Short thought: It’s not even two months since I started doing this writing business on a regular basis, and I’m already taking a break.

That said, I think I’ve got a pretty good excuse. A Covid test I took on Saturday came back positive.

Right now, the worst of it is a moderate headache and a stuffy nose. But I imagine it’ll probably get worse. My primary worry is wife and daughter: they’ve both come back with recent negative tests, but that doesn’t mean I can’t infect them. So my life for the next week or two (at least) is the front room and the study. (I recognise I’m very, very blessed to have that much space available.)

I hope you’ll understand if I don’t prioritise this writing till this is over. I may write stuff – it might actually be therapeutic. But please forgive me if that idea slips down the back of the sofa. I may stick to the odd SIROTI – they’re fairly straightforward. Hope that’s OK.

Of course, this either means I’ve managed to catch it twice, or that godawful bug I had in March/April last year wasn’t Covid after all. I rather hope for the former; last time was horrible but relatively short. I could live with that again. In contrast, I’m petrified of long Covid: since I’m self-employed, that would be financially catastrophic for my family. Save us from that.

Fingers crossed, people. See you in a bit.


Someone is right on the Internet: While we’re on the subject of The Bug: I’m not the only one to be staggered by Taiwan’s handling of this thing. I remember a headline in December saying – I think – that they’d just had their first new case in seven months. Not death. Case.

Total deaths: 9. Total cases: under a thousand.

Wow.

It’s a place which deserves closer attention. Not just because of that, and not just because – in TSMC – it has one of the most important and critical chipmakers for the world’s electronics. But for so many other reasons.

I won’t bother to enumerate them. I’ll leave that to Noah Smith, who knows far more about the place than I do.

All I can add is this: one of my good and dear friends, my ex-boss Hui Chen, is Taiwanese-American. And she’s been in Taiwan pretty much throughout this madness. The thought that someone I care about has been in practically the safest place on the planet is a bright spark in a dark universe. Thank goodness.

(Noah also knows a lot about Japan. This piece, about Japan’s interwar history of fascist coups which failed in the short term but which arguably succeeded in aggregate, is sobering when one thinks of the 6 January affair, and Trump’s recent acquittal.)


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2021ii12, Friday: Different ≠ worse.

Why section 3 of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 has a lesson for our polarised world. And something special about the spiritual geography of offices – those places we may miss more than we know.

Short thought: I’ve rambled before on the power of analogies for advocates. I was half-convinced anyway, before Edmund King QC (RIP) pushed me all the way. It’s a bit like when I first found out about the Dunning-Kruger effect*: its explanatory power was such that examples suddenly started popping up everywhere. 

(To be more precise: they were there anyway. I just didn’t have a name for them. Like that cognitive glitch when you think about red cars and then notice them everywhere. They were always there; your conscious mind simply had no reason to single them out before.)

A fresh one popped into my head when I was prepping for yesterday’s hearing. In the end I didn’t use it: the judge found for us on another ground, and agreed with us on this point without me really having to argue it. But it set me thinking, about how easy it is to overlook how different doesn’t have to be better or worse.

The situation was this. My client had bought an expensive hospitality package for a sporting event from a vendor; the vendor didn’t come through, but offered them a different package claiming it was an “upgrade”. Among several key issues was how to make clear that something can be substantially different without having to be inferior. The point was for the sake of s3 of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, which means a business offering another business a “substantially different” product from what they’d promised can only rely on a get-out clause in the contract if that clause is objectively reasonable. The point being that if (but only if) the product was substantially different, I could bring in the (genuine) unreasonableness of the clause in question.

The analogy I came up with: Imagine you’re a computer vendor. Your client wants a PC. You provide a higher-spec Mac. For many people – myself included – this is absolutely an upgrade. (Don’t flame me, people. I’ve used both platforms side-by-side for decades. I’m allowed.) But that’s irrelevant. For a PC user, the higher spec doesn’t matter. There’s a material and important difference. And any customer would reasonably be entitled to a swap or a refund.

(It works the other way round, too, of course. I realised this when I first used a PC for work, after always using Macs, and got horribly confused that there was no menu bar at the top of the screen. The lack of a Start menu must do the same for PC-to-Mac switchers. I feel the pain.)

Why did this stick in my mind? Well, with polarised politics and with-me-or-against-me thinking has come, I think, a diminution in our preparedness to consider that sometimes people just see things differently – and that sometimes, that isn’t a bad thing. When that different outlook causes real harm and power imbalances, then by all means we should act. But the starting point has to be an acceptance that everyone has the filter of their own lived experience, colouring what they see and how they understand. And many, if not most, of the distinctions will be just that. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

It’s a bit like steel-manning. Start from an assumption of good faith. Try to see and understand. Test your own assumptions. We may be stuck with polarisation for a while; it’s useful for a certain type of politician who cares more about the short-term boost than the long-term catastrophe, and sociopaths like this are sadly in the ascendant. But each of us, in our private lives, can make this work. And the smallest change can echo outwards. 

*I feel obliged to mention this recent piece seeking to debunk a chunk of what most people understand to be the Dunning-Kruger effect. I’m not wholly convinced; the effect’s application seems anecdotally to be too prevalent. But I’d be dishonest not to include it. 


Someone is right on the internet: Calling Paul Ford a writer is like calling Thelonious Monk a musician. It’s true, so far as it goes. But that’s not very far. Paul Ford is also a software designer, and much more. 

Many geeks who didn’t know of him before came to know and love him from What is Code? (on Bloomberg, so a metered paywall), a long read – in fact, at 38,000 words, practically a novella – about what coding and programming was really about, and like. It’ll take ages to read. You’ll need a cuppa, or three. But if you are even slightly interested in how the software business works, and how people write and create it – and in our world today, how could you not be? – it repays the investment several times over.

Now he’s done it again, albeit far shorter. The Secret, Essential Geography of the Office in Wired (also a metered paywall) does more to describe something essential about how workplaces function in 1,200-odd words than I’ve read in years. The geography he talks about isn’t just physical; it’s social. And it’s temporal. It’s both beautiful, and achingly painful in its sometimes uncomfortable sociological implications. 

And it’s recognisable. He mentions being told of specific spots in one workplace where you can go to cry; and I remember my time at BBC TV Centre, with its dozens of sometimes half-hidden staircases, and a spot on one – just between the fifth and sixth floors – where I went to cool off after an argument. And the joy of the balcony on the front of the building, facing east across London, where on an early shift – if you timed it right between stories – you could make it up there just in time for sunrise.

It’s different now. A Chambers is more of an interconnected set of separate worlds than a single entity. Each room is distinct; hierarchy, at least in our Chambers, is far less noticeable. (It may be different in more traditional buildings on staircases like an Oxbridge college.)

But we’ve still got a back staircase. Echoing bare stone steps, worn at the edges by generations of advocates. And amid the lockdown, having been in Chambers only four times since March last year, is it strange that I miss that staircase almost more than anything else?


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2021ii10, Wednesday: “Conspiracy without the theory.”

Some excellent, if depressing, writing on the modern prevalence and abuse of conspiracy theories. But also: fantastic new knowledge tools for Mac/iOS users.

Someone is right on the internet: I remember my first argument about conspiracy theories. It was decades ago: I was in India, on a gap year, in a cafe somewhere in Rajasthan. Jaisalmer I think, out in the Thar Desert. And some other Brit was expounding on some conspiracy or other. I took the other side: what I now recognise is the classic position of noting how improbable it was that everyone involved could collaborate so perfectly and secretly. I can’t remember what it was about; probably the Moon landings.

One of the many depressing things about the past few years has been the proliferation (and popularisation by people you really wish knew better for selfish ends) of conspiracy thinking, to genuinely poisonous and damaging effect. This piece does an excellent job of walking through – as it puts it – their “enduring allure”, noting as they do that the USA was founded on a conspiracy theory of a sort, and that “losers” in politics often turn to conspiracy theories and paranoia to explain the outcome. (A classic piece of writing, Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, noted this tendency more than half a century ago. He’s no more wrong now than he was then; I suspect we’d see strong echoes here, too.)

But then the piece takes a darker and scarier turn, noting that the turn now is towards – as the authors put it “conspiracy without the theory”. By which they mean the old days of obsessing over bullet trajectories (Kennedy) and flag shadows (Moon landings) are gone. Who needs actual facts to analyse when instead you can disappear down a rabbit hole of assertion like QAnon – something which, as has been noted, seems almost as tailor-made to deliver addictive dopamine hits to its adherents as a computer game?

Compared with this, the innocent era of the Bush administration – when people were shocked, shocked to hear an anonymous US government source declare that they “created their own reality” in contrast to what he dismissively referred to as “the reality-based community” – seem like halcyon days.


It just works: Those who’ve been reading my stuff for a while will be aware of (and may fairly despair of) my on-off search for the right tool for taking notes and keeping records. Scrivener, Ulysses and Notion have all come in for favourable reviews – and are, without a doubt, fantastic pieces of software. For the right user, each of them is probably spot on.

But none have settled for me. Scrivener’s clunky sync was a killer. Ulysses’ clumsy search and less-than-ideal tagging frustrated me intensely. Bear – which I’ve only mentioned in passing before – is an excellent “dump stuff for later” tool with the best tag system I’ve come across, and I still use it for that purpose; but is just too “flat” for my purposes. (I need ways of keeping info about particular cases together without relying on tags or keeping everything in a single file.) Notionwowed me with its versatility, but I need reliable offline working and easy import-export, and that isn’t it.

At least I’ve realised what my priorities are by now. Not all are deal-breakers, but all are important:

  • Portability. I don’t want my stuff locked up in a format or location I don’t control. So ideally files on the desktop or in a cloud share I trust, and Markdown as the format. 
  • Easy export. I need to be able to dump stuff into a PDF or Word document easily, with minimal formatting faff. 
  • Bringing stuff together. I need to have everything about one topic easily accessible.
  • Search. There’s no excuse here. Rock-solid, no-brainer universal search is essential. If you make me work for it (Ulysses, I’m looking at you), that’s a critical fail.
  • Linking, in both directions. I’d forgotten how much I love this. Not only must I be able to embed links to other files/documents in the system into any other file; ideally I want to see what links to the thing I’m looking at now. This is backlinking; it’s a very old-school hypertext function, but now I’m using it again I’m staggered how I survived without it.
  • Multi-platform. Being limited to the desktop doesn’t work for me. Admittedly my new machine is lovely; but my workflow absolutely embraces phone and iPad. I need convincing to do anything that blocks that.
  • Multi-window. I need to see two or three things at a time. 
  • Speed. I’m lucky enough to have good kit. If the software slows it down, that’s unforgivable. I’m looking at you, Word.
  • Keyboard shortcuts. Don’t force me to use a mouse or trackpad any more than I have to.

In our new no-paper world, I’d very much recommend anyone else thinking through their own priorities. I’m very happy to discuss with mates what they need, and what might fit.

Me? Two new tools have presented themselves, both of which tick almost all these buttons. Both promise shortly to tick them all, although we’ll see what those promises are worth. 

First, there’s Obsidian. This is desktop-only, for now, which is a real pain. But it’s wonderful: in essence, a smooth, keyboard-led take on a Markdown wiki and knowledge handler with everything stored locally as individual text files, back- and forward-linked to high heaven. It’s not for everyone: it’s a kind of throwback to a primarily text-heavy world. But I just ran a 10-day hearing with everything in Obsidian: a master page for the case, with pages branching off (in separate panes) for each witness’s evidence, for my own notes, and for important background. All cross-linked and lightning-fast.

Then there’s Craft. I found this late last year, and frankly I don’t quite know how to describe it. It’s got some (though not all) of Notion’s virtues – a block-based structure where each paragraph on a “page” can easily have links, formatting and other things defined by easy keyboard shortcuts, or be turned into a link to a sub-page which in turn backlinks smoothly. It isn’t as versatile as Notion, but it’s happy offline, it’s quicker and smoother, and its exporting is excellent. Initially it was single-window, but that’s been sorted now. It’s cross-platform all the way, too. The one fly in the ointment is that right now it stores its own data; but its developers promise the ability to host data wherever you want within weeks, and their pace of evolution is excellent, so I’ve some faith they’ll manage it.

For the moment, I’m sticking with Craft. It’s smooth, it’s elegant, it’s designed by people who clearly care deeply about their users, and much as I love Obsidian (and I do), for now cross-platform ease is too important to sacrifice. I’d strongly recommend it.


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2021ii8, Monday: The intellectual dishonesty of pushing buttons.

New rule: if you use a dog-whistle, I’ll stop reading. Fair enough? And a lovely rabbit-hole for word-loving geeks.

Short thought: By way of a tangential follow-on to the stuff on tools for thinking the other week, there’s been something else on my mind. And I recognise that I may be about to sound doctrinaire, narrow-minded, closed.

Which is ironic. Because that’s more or less the charge I’d level at the people to whom, I’ve decided, I’m not going to bother reading any more. 

That’s not entirely correct. I’m not shutting people out altogether because of something they write. I’m shutting the particular thing they’ve just written. 

Because I’m tired – so tired – of push-button words. You know: Woke. PC. Gammon. Karen. Cancel culture. TERF. And so many others.

(A point of clarification. This is about the use of the label. Not whether I agree or disagree with the underlying position it (mis)represents. As I hope I’ll make clear in a second.)

I think it started with “Remoaner”. Yes, I voted Remain. And I still think Brexit was a bad idea, done worse. (As with all things in UK politics, there’s a Yes Minister quote to fit the moment: “If you’re going to do this damn’ silly thing, don’t do it in this damn’ silly way.”) But among my friends are those who think otherwise, and we’ve come to understand and respect (and even care for) each other better because we started from assuming we were all acting in good faith. Still, every time I read a piece of writing with the word “Remoaner” in it, I just stopped reading. I thought: you’re pushing your readers’ buttons. You want them immediately to leap over the pros and cons, and move right on to an assumption of idiocy and bad faith on the other side. And that’s just wrong. 

And when I started thinking like that, I realised that so much of modern political discourse, on all parts of the political spectrum, was doing the same thing. In sports analogy terms, playing the person not the ball. Pushing the button, delivering a nice big dose of we’re-right-they’re-wrong dopamine, rather than actually trying to make the case. It’s not dog-whistling, because it’s not even bothering to hide in plain sight. No; it’s waving other views aside. Apply label, turn off brain, stop listening, assume the worst. 

In a way, it’s akin to what I’ve long regarded as the ultimate intellectual dishonesty: the straw-man fallacy. Even those not familiar with the term will recognise it straight away: the (deliberate) misrepresentation of someone else’s view so it’s easier to (ostensibly) refute. A classic example: we’re debating the notion of a just war. I say: I have an ethical problem with violence . You say: “So you’d be happy to watch your family get killed and do nothing about it.” You’ve taken my position to an absurd extreme, so as to make a case against something I’ve never said and don’t think. (It’s only a couple of years ago that I learned of the opposite, steel-manning. Which I love. As a barrister, it’s the key to winning a case: construct the best possible version of the other side’s argument first, and only then find a way of beating it. When I lose a case, it’s often because – on reflection afterwards – I realise I didn’t do that as well as I should have.)

Labelling someone as “woke”, for example (or, a few years ago, an SJW; before that, PC), is similar. You freight their position with a bunch of assumptions that you know “your” side will recognise and abhor. Then you go straight on to argue against that caricature rather than against reality. It’s a fundamentally dishonest way of doing things, whether you mean it that way or not. It short-circuits genuine thought and engagement, in favour of scoring points and pointing fingers. And whether it’s from the right, the left or somewhere in between, it’s abhorrent.

So that’s my rule. When I encounter a push-button word, I stop reading. 

I know it’ll mean I don’t read some things that perhaps I should. But attention is a very limited resource, for us all. And if you’re going to waste mine (and others’) by pushing buttons instead of engaging brains, I can’t be bothered with you. I’m going to turn the page. Close the tab. Move on. And read someone I disagree with who’s got more integrity.


Someone is right on the internet: Geeks like words. It’s part of who we are, on the whole. We have whole languages sometimes (conlangs – love ‘em). But even when we don’t, any fandom has words, phrases, which carry in their etymology histories of how our genres have evolved that we’re probably not aware of in the slightest. 

Which is where the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction comes in. Find a word or phrase. Jump drive. Nanobot. Sentient. And trace it through writings and media over the past 70 years or more. It’s a lovely rabbit-hole. Enjoy.


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2021ii5, Friday: Malleable memory.

The litigation process causes witness inaccuracy – and the courts are recognising that. Also: a wonderful hymn to the joy of errors. And why stories can help fight corruption.

Short thought: Job one, when you’re a barrister, is to read the papers. 

In olden times – that is, a year ago – these would normally arrive in fat bundles. Possibly, even today, tied up in pink tape. (Ah, the nostalgia.) Nowadays it’s PDFs. Already put together if you’re lucky. Buried in dozens of nested emails if you’re not. (The fact that I’ve written about this three times in the past six months shows how painful this is.)

But however they come, knowing the papers, inside out, is critical.

In commercial litigation this is if anything more important. The reason? Over the past decade or so, judges in the English commercial courts have recognised the fundamental problems with oral witness evidence, long considered the gold standard and backbone of any trial. 

The first really stalwart example of a judge making it clear that documents, not people, were what they would primarily rely on was the case of Gestmin v Credit Suisse [2013] EWHC 3560 (Comm), in which Leggatt J (now Lord Leggatt JSC) made clear at [15]-[22] his awareness that memory is fallible, that the process of civil litigation itself risked making it still more fallible, and that the mechanics of memory formation itself meant relying on witness recollection except as a means of scrutinising the documents in the case was usually a futile exercise.

There’s been push and pull about Leggatt J’s points ever since. But at their heart they stand up. They reflect, among other things, the growing and spreading knowledge of how cognitive biases function (warning: that link is a rabbit hole from which you may not emerge), and the fact that memory is a construct, not a recording. 

The Courts’ recognition of this, at least in commercial litigation, is now official. Enshrined in a new practice direction (PD57AC for those keeping score – starting at p64 of the linked PDF), are rules about witness statements at trial which seek to mitigate the adverse effects of the litigation process and improve the odds of witness evidence actually being useful. The explicit recognition of what one might call the Gestmin principle is at para 1.3 of the appendix, at page 69 in the PDF I linked to:

Witnesses of fact and those assisting them to provide a trial witness statement should understand that when assessing witness evidence the approach of the court is that human memory:

(1) is not a simple mental record of a witnessed event that is fixed at the time of the experience and fades over time, but

(2) is a fluid and malleable state of perception concerning an individual’s past experiences, and therefore

(3) is vulnerable to being altered by a range of influences, such that the individual may or may not be conscious of the alteration.

The other reason for the PD (and this was made clear on a enlightening webinar by the Leeds BPC Forum earlier this week addressed by Andrew Baker J) is the burgeoning use of witness evidence to make arguments. Judges are getting more and more annoyed by this – one can do little better than look at the many, many posts on Gordon Exall’s Civil Litigation Brief (this is just the latest) on this subject for excellent examples. 

Either way, though, the message is clear. Know your papers. Make them tell the story you need to tell, and use witnesses carefully to buttress that story. Because if you don’t, the other side definitely will.


Someone is right on the internet: Speaking with the experience that comes from being the parent of a 14-year-old, her generation seem to have a harder time with perfectionism than mine ever did. I don’t know why, but I suspect the welter of examples, spread across countless media, of people who seem effortlessly to succeed – with all the hard work in the background neatly occluded – may have something to do with it. The fact that Gen Z simply, frankly, has it harder than we do, with narrower pathways to success and far greater consequences for screwups along the way, is probably also relevant.

Even so, I remain a true believer in the principle that to be good at anything, you have to be OK with being bad at it for a while as you try to improve. And that it’s OK – no, it’s critical – to be OK with getting it wrong. So long as you only get it wrong the same way once. I remember interviewing someone for a job once who surprised me at the “do you have any questions for me?” stage by asking how I’d deal with her making a mistake, which sparked a great discussion about the importance of assessing people by how they correct and learn from errors, rather than by the errors themselves. A reallybrave question, but in fact an excellent one – one which made sure she got onto the final shortlist. 

So this piece by David Duchovny (yes, that David Duchovny) struck a chord. Starting with a Beckett quote – “Fail again. Fail better” – he weaves a hymn to the importance, and sometimes even the joy, of screwing it up and trying over. Or, as Fred and Ginger put it, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” He also used a word I’ve never seen before, but am now in love with: hamartia, which he describes as the “near miss” that delivers an electric energy driving the next attempt. (Dictionaries give a darker meaning: the tragic flaw in a hero that triggers their downfall. But Duchovny’s sentiment, if not his usage, is bang on.)

Seriously, it’s a great read. (Sorry, paywall again, but The Atlantic’s is metered so you should be able to take a look.) And I can’t sing this song often enough. 


Thing I wrote: In less plague-ridden times, Fiona Horlick QC – a fantastic advocate and a genius at health and safety and disciplinary law – is my roommate at Chambers. 

(Barristers’ chambers are usually, although not always, set out in individual rooms rather than open-plan spaces. Our work doesn’t lend itself to the disruption and lack of privacy of open-plan. But often those rooms are shared with one or two others – which both cuts the cost and makes for a pleasant collegiality. Alex Haines, one of only a handful of lawyers who are genuine experts in the law of international organisations like the IMF or the international development banks, is in our room too.)

For the moment, of course, we’re physically far-flung. But we’re still working together. And Fiona and I put together a piece for the Government’s Public Sector Counter-Fraud Journal (link to the whole thing in PDF; we’re on page 5) on how the stories people tell themselves can encourage corruption – and how we can use those stories to quell it or find it as well. My past life as a reporter means that perhaps I look too much for narrative in my work as a barrister, but finding the right story can be a hugely important tool (a bit like finding the right analogy – see the last chunk of this piece). And understanding how the stories which people tell themselves can influence their actions is important for this, too.


Thing I said: My friend Daniel Barnett, who’s been mentioned in these annals before, was as upset and (frankly) perplexed by the Times’s assault on employment tribunals and their judges as I was. So he corralled – sorry, persuaded – several employment lawyers to take the Times’s inaccurate claims apart on his YouTube channel. I was one of them. Personnel Today followed us up – thankfully with a pic of someone else, not me. Phew.

Incidentally, judges aren’t the only people who can’t answer back. Think of all the tribunal staff who’ve been working their hardest, amid this nightmare of a pandemic, to keep the show on the road and to keep delivering justice. They don’t have a voice either, but their morale is hit just as badly by inaccurate garbage like this. We’re fortunate to have a voice; as (for barristers) self-employed professionals, speaking up for people is our job. So in this we’re speaking up for them, too.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)