2021ii3, Wednesday: Getting away with it.

Fraud hurts huge numbers of people, hugely – yet it’s a law enforcement also-ran. When might that change? And, staying with crime, fantastic writing about my favourite detective author of all time.

Short thought: For anyone involved in dealing with fraud – as an investigator, an insurer, a lawyer or otherwise – the past couple of decades have been frustrating beyond bearing. Those 20 years have seen the resources devoted to investigating and prosecuting private-sector fraud dwindle to near-nothing, while fraud grew to half of reported (if not always recorded) crime (as the online environment both created new attack vectors and exposed a huge population of potential targets) and losses estimated by some in the hundreds of billions.

Some blame banks. And they’re not beyond reproach: the schemes set up to repay victims of authorised push payment or APP fraud (where someone bamboozles you into making a payment to the wrong recipient) have been dogged by reluctance, under-resourcing (again) and a tendency by some institutions to pin the blame on the victim far more than may be entirely justifiable

But there’s a fundamental tension here, as exposed in the recent case of Philipp v Barclays Bank [2021] EWHC 10 (Comm). A bank’s primary duty is to carry out its customer’s instructions, not to police those instructions on the off-chance there’s a fraudster behind them. There is a duty to act on reasonable suspicion of fraud or dishonesty; it’s called the Quincecare duty. But it’s of limited application, and (as the Court found in Philipp) doesn’t apply where it’s the customer themself, rather than an agent or someone purporting to act for them, who’s delivering the instructions. The public policy trade-off between the mandated duty and fraud protection is a real one, not something which can simply be refashioned on the fly.

So what about the regulators? Most fraud isn’t undertaken by regulated institutions. No doubt regulators such as the FCA could do more to police the perimeter of their powers – and as Dame Elizabeth Gloster has found in relation to the London Capital & Finance fiasco, it has often been shortsighted at best in how it approaches that task. But it’s not a complete answer by any means.

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer. (Which calls to mind HL Mencken’s maxim: for all complex problems, there’s an answer that’s clear, simple and wrong.) But a recent report by RUSI suggests a re-framing of the problem which I like, and which I think puts the emphasis where it belongs. 

RUSI sees fraud as a national security issue. It takes the UK’s three national security priorities – protecting our people, projecting our global influence, and promoting our prosperity – and points out that fraud does serious damage to all three. It impoverishes and immiserates the people of the UK. It damages our standing by making us seem to be a paradise for untouchable crooks (including substantial involvement by organised crime) and launderers. And it undermines our prosperity by leaching from the public purse and leaving us with a financial system and economy where transactions can’t be trusted. 

Taken together, it posits (I think rightly) that fraud imposes a uniquely damaging disruption not only financially but on society as a while

It suggests what it calls a “whole-of-system” approach, whereby non-criminal justice state actors including intelligence services work together with the criminal justice system to tackle the issue. Unsurprisingly, it calls for significantly enhanced funding – not just for existing specialist forces such as the City of London Police, but nationally. And it makes the case for clearer accountability and leadership.

Of course, you could say we’ve heard this all before. And yes, we have: the 2006 Fraud Review said some of these things, albeit in a different way, and a retrospective 10 years later found little had changed

But the losses are now staggering. Everyone knows someone – a relative, a friend, a business partner – who’s lost sometimes significant sums to fraud. The pandemic has created huge new opportunities for fraudsters. And if the government is even slightly serious about “levelling up”, or “building back better”, then keeping billions in honest circulation rather than in fraudsters’ pockets has got to be a good idea. Aside from anything else, the well-known principle of loss aversion indicates that if someone loses cash to fraud, they’re even less likely to spend what they have left. Not a great help to a pandemic-stricken economy.

And that starts, inevitably, with resourcing it in line with the huge harm it does.

Put more simply: if not now, when?


Someone is right on the internet/things worth reading: I’ve been a sucker for a good mystery all my life. As a kid, I thought Poirot and (later) Miss Marple were the best. Lawrence Block’s Burglar books were a later unashamed pleasure. I haven’t quite read all of Rebus, so I’ve gone back to the beginning and started over before reading the latest ones.

But if you backed me into a corner and said I could only have one detective fiction creator, there’s no contest. Dorothy L Sayers was, is and probably ever shall be the one for me, and Peter Wimsey is my sleuth. Five Red Herrings takes the cliche of train timetables and makes a masterpiece from it; Murder Must Advertise gives us a glorious double life; and Busman’s Honeymoon somehow combines mystery and romance into a piece of sterling literature.

But Gaudy Night is special. The point of view changes to Harriet Vane, initially a secondary character (in Strong Poison) but now a co-star in her own right. And – as beautifully explored in the New Yorker (sorry, paywall – but this could be one of your monthly freebies; it’s worth it) – an exemplar of how Sayers laid the groundwork for today’s flowering of superb female mystery authors. The article’s worth a read. And the books? Just go for it.

(I should also mention the supremely well-done BBC Radio adaptations – all available on Audible, with Ian Carmichaelas Wimsey and Peter Jones, famous among geeks for being the voice of The Book in H2G2, as Bunter. Not quite up to the Sherlock Holmes standard set by Bert Coules with Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson – but really, really close…)


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2021ii1, Monday: Hack job.

The Times publishes a misleading set of hit pieces about employment tribunals and judges. One of those it insults is a colleague. I can’t in good conscience let it lie.

A departure today from the normal routine of short thoughts etc. A colleague of mine, Natasha Joffe, has just been the subject of a piece of shoddy journalism. And I can’t let it pass. There aren’t that many barristers who used to be reporters, but I’m one of them; and this ought never to have passed the subs, let alone made it to publication. That it did reeks of an editorial hatchet job. 

For tl;dr purposes, I’ll put it simply. The overall impression of this piece, that employment judges being appointed are somehow substandard, is simply wrong, and unfair to the individuals named. It tells a one-sided story, ignoring vital context, and thus gives a misleading picture in all but one respect. That one thing is that the system is overburdened; but that’s not the fault of “inexperienced judges”. It’s the result of political decisions coming home to roost, to everyone’s cost.

(To be absolutely clear: this is my personal view, not that of my Chambers. But I suspect I’m not alone.)

The piece in question is in the Times. It accompanies an equally shoddy news story. (Update: a friend has provided shareable links to both pieces which are OK for non-subscribers legitimately to access.) The main assertions in the piece, and the news story it accompanies, are as follows (note these are the Times’s assertions; my repeating them here doesn’t mean I think they’re right or true):

  1. The MoJ is rushing to appoint “inexperienced” employment judges to deal with a huge backlog. A “hearings free-for-all”, the paper calls it.
  2. Employers are unfairly treated by tribunals, because they can’t recover their costs. 
  3. The backlog is because of a “surge in demand” since the 2017 Supreme Court case which ruled that fees were unlawful.
  4. The surge is mostly unrepresented litigants in person, some of whose cases “seem extraordinary”.
  5. The tribunal system should change its rules and throw out more cases, but is instead hiring inexperienced judges selected on the basis of lower standards. 
  6. The “lower standard” being no need for previous judicial experience. An anonymous “judicial source” said it was “quite a stretch for someone to be thrown in immediately as a full-time judge”.
  7. Profiles of several of the “inexperienced” (and by inference unsuitable) new judges follow. One is Natasha Joffe (a former member of my Chambers). She started work in September 2020. The Times says she is “among inexperienced judges appointed with backgrounds that might appear more embedded on one side than the other in employment issues”, saying that “her brief biography by the MoJ contained no previous work as a judge but stated that she was called to the Bar in 1992”. It also notes that she wrote “The Mumsnet Rules”.
  8. A number of other legal professionals are called out by name as well. One is snidely described as having previous judging experience limited to “choosing the winners of the Southport Writers’ Circle International Poetry Competition 2009”. Others appear to be unsuitable, in the Times’s view, because they were (like Natasha) authors, or because they were solicitors whose work was closely involved with trade unions.

Good lord. Where to start? Taking them in order:

  1. “Inexperienced” is an idiotic word to use here. Employment judges often, but not always, work as “fee-paid” (ie part-time) judges for a while before they go full-time. But fee-paid judges do the same work, in the same way. So everyone starts somewhere. There’s no difference in practice between a fee-paid judge and a salaried judge on day one, and no requirement to do the one before the other. So the point is to look at whether they can do the job. And taking Natasha as an example: she’s been doing employment law for 28 years (and was in fact appointed in 2019). She knows her stuff. To call this a “hearings free-for-all” is a cute phrase, but utterly misleading. Not to mention stale beyond belief.
  2. The costs-free environment is deliberate, and fairer than the alternative. If you’re suing your employer for a few hundred or a few thousand pounds, and you knew that if you couldn’t prove your case you faced costs of ten times that, you’d give up. Similarly, if you’re an employer, at least you can reasonably predict what it’s going to cost you to fight. You can insure against it, without the worry of the other side’s costs on top. And having just lost two cases for claimants in the past month (ouch), I think I can say that tribunals don’t routinely favour one side or the other.
  3. The “surge in demand” since UNISON in 2017 is real. What the Times fails to make clear is that between 2013 and 2017, during the period when taking (say) a discrimination case all the way to a final hearing cost claimants £1,200 in fees, the number of cases fell by around 70%. That’s mostly not people jacking in nuisance cases. That’s real people, with real grievances, being denied justice because they couldn’t afford it. The sharp fall allowed the Government to ditch large numbers of employment judges. The backlog is because there aren’t now enough to cope with what is, in practice, largely a reversion to the mean. In other words: the mismatch between judges and cases is an artefact of political decisions, coupled with the effect of Covid. Not a surge in people bringing pointless cases.
  4. Yes, there are lots of litigants in person, because there’s no legal aid. Legal aid helps weed out useless cases. No-one would deny that useless cases get brought. But often they get thrown out. Rule 37 of the Employment Tribunal Rules of Procedure allows a strike out (at the request of a party or at the Tribunal’s own motion). And any employment lawyer with tribunal experience will tell you that it does happen. Often. 
  5. The tribunal system can’t just change its rules. They’re statutory. So if they’re to change, the Government will have to do it for them. And a wholesale reinterpretation of those rules – say, to strike out more cases – would be the subject of appeals (and probably successful ones). Judges don’t decide to change interpretation on a whim, and no sane person would want them to. 
  6. As for the suggestion about “inexperience”: see 1, above. The blind quote could be anyone, from an usher to someone in the MoJ selling a line or flying a kite. (In other words: pushing out a quote to see how it’s received. If it goes down well, the minister can double down on it later. If it doesn’t, you can walk away from it unscathed.) And given that this situation arises largely from political decisions made in the past 10 years, of course it’s a blind quote. It’s notable that Dominic Kennedy, the investigations editor whose byline the news piece carries, hasn’t done anything to interrogate these issues. 
  7. Now for the hit job on Natasha. As noted above, she’s been in this game for 28 years. She’s represented both sides, as almost any experienced employment barrister will have done, so the suggestion she “might appear more embedded on one side” is wrong. She’s as qualified as any newly-minted employment judge, whether fee-paid or salaried. A quick web search would have brought up her professional CV. But why bother, when as a salaried judge, Natasha can’t answer back? The fact that she wrote a book based on MumsNet postings is neither here nor there, unless it’s intended to give the impression of someone unserious. The whiff of sexism is inescapable.
  8. Much the same applies to others named. The fact that two of 59 “newly-appointed” judges have strong trade union connections is irrelevant; Dominic doesn’t seem to have scanned the list for close industry connections which, according to his approach, would suggest bias in favour of employers. I’m sure they’re there too. And as someone who appears before ETs on a regular basis, I don’t care. If a judge reaches a biased decision, we’ll appeal them; and the Employment Appeal Tribunal will eat them for lunch. But it’s really, really rare.

I wrote a lot of investigative pieces during my time as a reporter. This is how it usually works:

  • You get a whiff of a story. Sometimes from a source, sometimes from open documents, sometimes from events.
  • You pitch to your editor what you think the story’s going to end up being. Hopefully, they tell you to get on with it.
  • You do research. You talk to lots of people. You get very frustrated with a few blind alleys. You test your hypothesis.
  • Sometimes it checks out as you’d expected. Often, it changes in the process and you end up with a rather different story. 
  • You go back to your editor and explain where you are. Hopefully, they say: OK, changed story is still interesting. Go ahead and write it up. Sometimes they say: I don’t like the changed story. Spike it and do something else. Or sometimes – worst of all – they say: no, I wanted the original story. Write that one.
  • If that happens, you’ve got a choice. Either you push back; or you find ways of adapting your research to fit the original pitch.

This piece smells of pushing a line. It would be so easy to include the context about UNISON and tribunal fees, the truth about how judges are appointed, the reality that a barrister with three decades of ET experience is absolutely standard material for a role as an employment judge. 

My suspicion? That material might well have been in the early drafts. A decent reporter would have included them. But they made the story more nuanced, less impactful. So they probably got taken out in the editing process. So as to make for – as one former editor of mine used to put it – “a better top line”.

This hack job isn’t victimless. It smears the reputations of professionals who can’t talk back. It paints an inaccurate picture of a system which – and this is the bit the Times gets right – is genuinely in trouble. There aren’t enough judges. There isn’t enough tribunal space. Tribunal systems are archaic – one of the reasons so many cases got postponed for so long (from April to September very few final hearings took place; that’s a half-year lost) was that they’re still very paper-based, and the electronic systems wouldn’t support remote working for a long time. And that’s the result of the huge cuts which tribunal fees allowed governments to make, and the fact that they’ve never yet been properly reversed. 

The result, even before Covid, was frequent delays. Between September 2019 and March 2020 I had three multi-day cases pushed back as much as a year because judges weren’t available – sometimes on the day. That doesn’t just hurt claimants. It hurts employers too. You’ve had to take critical staff off the front line to sit around in a tribunal waiting room, and then they all have to go home? And you have to do it all over again? That doesn’t do either side any good. 

You can infer this from Dominic’s piece. Sort of. But it wouldn’t produce the “know-nothing judges in hearing free-for-all” headline the Times seemed to want. A better top line, wasn’t it?


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2021i29, Friday: remote learning.

A 10-day trial is tiring. Done remotely, it’s exhausting; a few thoughts on how to cope. And a couple of wise lessons on motivated reasoning and analogies: food for thought for us advocates.

Short thought: The first four weeks of January 2021 comprised two back-to-back employment tribunal hearings: a four-day one (albeit that it wrapped up in three) and a 10-day one. Both were conducted remotely, using CVP (the courts and tribunals service’s preferred videoconference system, since it works on a smartphone or tablet without the need for a download). 

Both, sadly, we lost. But doing that much remote hearing work in quick succession drove home some important points. I may expand into a proper piece at some stage, and none of this is particularly new, but for those whose remote experience may be limited to single-day trials or applications, bear the following in mind:

  1. They’re exhausting. It might feel lovely to be sitting in your study (assuming you have one – a fairly large assumption, I admit). But the lack of physical presence is surprisingly wearing. The need to be alive to non-verbal cues on postage stamp-sized thumbnails is taxing, while the lack of physicality is itself equally wearing. The ET judge in the 10-dayer religiously took a break every hour, and he was absolutely right to do so. Even so, after five days of witnesses I was absolutely shattered. 
  2. Screen space is critical. Don’t try to do this on a laptop alone – or even, frankly, a single big desktop screen. Two screens are a minimum. Play with the arrangement: having notes (I touch-type) and the videoconference immediately in front works for me, with the bundle off to one side. But everyone’s mileage varies. I also had an iPad set up as a third screen, carrying the witness statements, but that might not be necessary for everyone.
  3. Don’t use Word for notes. Or if you do, don’t try to use bullets or numbering. I have an M1 MacBook Pro, which is incredibly fast even by desktop standards. But I was keeping XX notes in a Word document, along with my questions. Everything was numbered and indented, and on day 2 typing lag became intolerable. I switched to an app without Word’s overhead (Obsidian – more of that another day) and everything went smoothly. Never again.
  4. Use the right A/V kit. In my case, a Blue Yeti mic, a Razer Kiyo webcam, and earbuds (Anker Soundcore ones). For a brief hearing I’d be OK relying on inbuilt mic and camera. But not for a multi-day. Why look and sound worse than you have to?
  5. Finally, back to exhaustion. Eat properly. Drink lots of water. Go for a walk or run every morning before the day’s hearing, and preferably after it’s done too before cracking into prep for the following day. Try to sleep (always a challenge for me). Enjoy the fact that you’re not in a hotel somewhere benighted. And accept that when the submissions are finally done, you’re going to flop.

Notwithstanding all the above, it’s clear remote hearings are with us for a while – and for interlocutory matters likely to remain the norm. Professionally, we owe it to ourselves to get used to them. So invest in the kit, learn to work paperlessly, find the setup that’s right for you. Otherwise, it’s like turning up to court with a bundle printed on paper the size of a credit card bearing your notes in invisible ink: it makes your life far harder, and it stacks the odds against your client. Not really the professional way to do things.


Someone is right on the internet: Earlier this week I wrote about tools for thinkingTim Harford – FT columnist, More or Less presenter, role-playing gamer and someone who’s a good deal smarter than me – considered something similar in the FT yesterday. (For non-FT subscribers, Tim’s own blog usually carries his FT stuff about a month in arrears. For anyone on the RSS train, well worth following; for anyone else, well worth a regular check-in.) 

Tim’s focus was on motivated reasoning – similar to confirmation bias, where one’s need, desire or willingness to believe something can lead us to see truth where none exists. He uses as the basis for his tale a fascinating story of a fake Vermeer, which fooled the Netherlands’ foremost expert on the painter in the 1930s and became a cause célèbre when the forger was found to have sold paintings to the Nazis, but freed himself from a treason charge by proving his fakery. (He became something of a folk hero – with another slice of motivated reasoning cutting in as people ignored, overlooked or simply “forgot” that he was arguably a Nazi himself.)

Tim’s piece is fantastic. His key advice chimes well with mine, and is simple – if not always easy – to put into effect:

Any of us is capable of falling for a lie. There is no guaranteed method of keeping ourselves safe — except to believe nothing at all, a corrosive cynicism which is even worse than gullibility. But I can offer a simple habit of mind that I have found helpful. When you are asked to believe something — a newspaper headline, a statistic, a claim on social media — stop for a moment and notice your own feelings. Are you feeling defensive, vindicated, angry, smug? Whatever the emotional reaction, take note of it. Having done so, you may be thinking more clearly already.

Well worth reading. Tim is an excellent story-teller, and has a skill with anecdote and analogy that we advocates could usefully learn from. His podcasts, including Cautionary Tales and 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy, are short, elegant and fascinating. Excellent training materials for barristers everywhere.


On analogies: I never knew a silk called Edmund King, from Essex Court, who died just before Christmas of cancer. I wish I had; it seems he was a great advocate and human being. One of his final gifts to the profession was a wonderful piece entitled “How to lose a case”, published on Essex Court’s website, which gave a dozen or so pieces of excellent advice on what not to do in complex litigation. 

In a paragraph about the importance of making complex things seem simple, he stressed the value of analogies. I won’t spoil the piece, but he points to two cases in which he said a good analogy changed everything. Take a look at one of them: Harbourmaster at paragraph 27. The impact of the analogy is palpable. 

The rest of Edmund’s piece is fantastic too. (His intro, with its reference to marriage advice from a celibate priest, endeared him to me instantly.) Read and learn. I did. And as a result, regretted deeply the loss of a man I’ll never now meet.


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2021i27, Wednesday: “The vital importance of audit.”

It’s a complex world, drowning in data. But there are tools to help the brain cut through. And they help litigators, too.

Short-ish thought/someone is right on the internet: An all-in-one today – mostly about thinking tools, but with a legal sting in the tail. (Promise!) When I’m talking to my daughter about the welter of information (and mis- and dis-information) that floods across her perception each day, I struggle – as, I imagine, do most parents – to boil the problem down into strategies anyone can actually make work.

“Check the source” is great – but mostly it’s so far removed it’s not going to be evident. “Check the intention” is better; if you can at least make an educated guess about someone’s motives, it tells you a lot. But it’s still too hard for the everyday.

So I’ve settled on a couple of things. In a way, they mean much the same; but there are subtle and I believe useful distinctions. And I think they work just as well for adults:

  • First, one about delivery: beware of certainty. Certainty usually implies an unwillingness to learn, or a refusal to accept nuance. The HL Mencken line – that “for every complex problem there’s a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong” – is only too true. As is the rueful joke that there ought to be a “You know, it might be a bit more complicated than that” party out there somewhere. Put all that together, and being very careful of stuff told you by people whose presentation of it implies that they KNOW they’re right, they KNOW it’s true, becomes a sound strategy.
  • Second, one about people. A core test for me, and one I try to persuade my daughter to adopt, is to look at the person I’m talking to and try to imagine them saying, “I could be wrong”, and meaning it. If I can, I’ll listen. If I can’t, there’s a problem. The other value of this one, of course, is one can apply it to oneself. Am I being sufficiently humble about my state of knowledge? Or am I trapping myself or misleading others about the risk of inaccuracy? (I used to use this one as a reporter sometimes when interviewing someone about some plan their organisation had. I’d ask them: what could go wrong with this? If I got a sensible, thoughtful answer, I’d tend to feel a lot better about the plan; it seemed, in modern parlance, like someone might have run a pre-mortem. If I didn’t – and goodness knows I very rarely did – the temptation to do a Paxman and ask myself “why is this lying liar lying to me” got an awful lot stronger.)

The other critical one, of course, is an awareness of confirmation bias. There are a million cognitive biases, but this one’s the killer – because it means we test information which confirms our core beliefs with far less care than stuff that doesn’t. 

God knows I fall down on all three of these, every day. But they’re vital tools; and if I can help my daughter adopt them, I’ll have done at least one thing right as a parent.


Hold on a minute, you may say: I thought this was a SIROTI. Where’s the link?

In fact, it’s to something I’ve linked to before, but it’s more important than ever. Dan Davies of D-Squared Digestnotoriety once coined three rules which he said he’d learned in business school and dubbed the “One Minute MBA”. He promulgated them after the Iraq War in relation to (as it turned out) the abject absence of the WMDs which were the ostensible reason for the 2003 Iraq invasion. In short:

  • Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. When anyone handwaves a bunch of deliberate untruths and says that the end justifies the means, walk away. Fast.
  • Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. Simply put: you can’t fudge or mitigate or moderate forecasts made by a liar. They’re worthless. Ignore them altogether.
  • The vital importance of audit. You need to set the success boundaries for a project before you start – and then you need to check your working afterwards. Anyone who won’t do the first, or seems to fail to want to learn from the second? Again, ignore them if you can. Vote them out if you can’t. They’re dangerous.

I’ve found them enormously effective as a test for all kinds of other things, both political and otherwise. I’ll leave their application to our various current travails as an exercise for the reader. 

The last of these three, the audit bit, is to my mind the really important one – and it chimes back to the original tools. Acknowledging how things actually went – asking the “so how did we do?” question and wanting to know the answer – isn’t just basic intellectual honesty; it’s the most fundamental requirement for doing things better in the future. And checking your working is at the heart of that.

Own your errors. Learn from them. Do better. Anything else, from anyone with any kind of responsibility to others, is a betrayal of that responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m writing badly if for a second I seem to be falling into the trap of putting all public figures into a big box marked “liar”. Humans lie. It’s what we do. The important thing is how much, when and why. It’s too easy, and ultimately incredibly self-defeating and damaging, to play that political game. 

But the next time some grand plan is espoused, by anyone, listen for the lies told to sell it, the forecasts made, the success metrics. And then watch out later on to see if those metrics are taken seriously – or are handwaved. It’ll tell you a lot about whether you can trust those making the play.


(And now for the legal bit. I’m a great believer, in court, in crafting a narrative. Starting with one’s case theory, it’s vitally important to end up with a story that makes sense. A lot of things can happen during a case, of course, but the team with the most Occam’s Razor-friendly story to tell starts comfortably ahead. 

This is where the One Minute MBA can be really useful. On the one hand, if you can show exaggeration or false forecasts from the other side, that’s a great way to undermine credibility; and if they’ve skirted around anything auditable (or have tried to handwave their promised outcomes later) that, too, is a fantastic lever on which to push.

On the other, of course, if it’s your side that’s got the outlandish predictions and the dodged promises, don’t under any circumstances hope no-one will notice. Your story will have to explain them, rationalise them – if at all possible, find a way of making them sound sensible rather than left-field. Otherwise no-one’s going to live happily ever after.)


Combine a suspicion of certainty, “I could be wrong”, an awareness of confirmation bias, and the One Minute MBA, and that’s a powerful toolbox for dealing with the blizzard of BS in which we all find ourselves. (An appreciation of the difference between lies and BS is useful too.) 

Might be a bit much for a 14 year old, not least because I (like all adults) struggle to put it into effect myself. But I think it’s a start.


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2021i25, Monday: sticking the landing.

Approaching the last episode of a long-running TV show is terrifying. Will it be a TNG – or a BSG? A fitting end or a final insult?

Rest in peace: Sorry. Couldn’t let this go by without marking it. Mira Furlan, who was a star (and, with Andreas Katsulas, very much the soul) of Babylon 5, died last week. Nothing much to say that she – or J Michael Straczynski – hasn’t already said. Except thanks. From the depths of my heart, thanks. And may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


Short thought: Anyone who watches TV knows that feeling. A series you love, one that’s taken you places full of emotion, apprehension and excitement, one whose characters have grown and changed and learned and sometimes died, is drawing to an end.

And you’re scared. Because you don’t know if they’re going to stick the landing or not.

Put simply: is it going to be a Next Generation, or a Battlestar Galactica? Will it leave you feeling fulfilled or angry?

Some do both to different people. The Sopranos is probably the greatest case in point: the sudden cut at the end of the final show, with no-one knowing what actually happened, divided fans squarely down the middle. (I never really got into the Sopranos, so this is academic. But I empathise.)

From a genre perspective, I’ve been lucky. DS9 stuck the landing – indeed, the back half of its final season was almost uniformly wonderful. Babylon 5’s final season was patchy, but its last episode was transcendent. Fringe took its aggressive weirdness to the edge, and won. Person of Interest, Orphan Black, Elementary, the Good Place: they all went out on top. 

(Let’s not talk about the shows cut off in their prime. Firefly, Dark Angel: I’m thinking of you, with tears in my eyes.)

So the final season of Star Wars: the Clone Wars was a worry. With the weight of Star Wars mythology to navigate, and Revenge of the Sith ready to ruin everything if it got the chance, would they manage it?

Short answer. Yes. Gloriously. Tragically. With heart and soul.

As always, no spoilers – except to say that anyone with a soft spot for Ahsoka Tano (in other words, all right-thinking people everywhere) is going to love it. The final four episodes in particular comprise in effect one awe-inspiring 90-minute animated feature, that gets almost everything – direction, music, script, character and pace – just right.

If Star Wars means anything to you, anything at all: watch it. 

And be prepared for a tear or two. No shame in that.


Someone is right on the internet: Well, technically someone is good on the internet. 

I mentioned a week or two ago the glory that is RSS – and mentioned too my use of Feedbin as a back-end service to look after my RSS needs. I also mentioned Reeder as my feed-reading app of choice.

That wasn’t always the way. The grandparent of all Mac (and later iOS) RSS apps was NetNewsWire, developed by Brent Simmons. It was a lovely app, and like many other old-line Mac users it was my staple. Brent moved on to other things in around 2011 and sold NNW. And somewhere along the line I discovered Reeder and switched. But NNW was still my RSS gateway app, and Brent is one of the old guard of generous, wonderful developers, whose work I continue to follow with interest and gratitude. 

Brent’s “work” domain was always ranchero.com. He’d never bought NetNewsWire.com back in the day; and so, as humans will, someone else bought it – probably in the hope of making a quick buck flogging it to him. Brent never did so.

But in an instance of truly joy-inspiring humanity Ben Ubois – the creator of Feedbin – has acquired it, and given it to Brent for free. Don’t know what his motive was; but the sight of one RSS pioneer doing something beautiful for another is good for the soul.

I’ve always believed we all have better angels, if we choose to let them fly. Believing that is what keeps me sane, particularly over the past half-decade or so when it’s been a bit tougher to hold onto that article of faith. Things like this restore that faith. Blessings.


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2021i22, Friday: floating cats.

It’s Friday. It’s been a long week. So seriousness can go hang.

Short thought/good readChristopher Paolini’s To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a huge book. A quarter of the way through, it’s proving to be a fine one, too. 

In line with my normal principles, no spoilers; and there are reviews aplenty that a quick web search will produce. (There’s also the first several chapters online to read, and to listen to. So no need to dive in and purchase without tasting first.)

But there’s one lovely bit that came at a perfect time. Our kitten, Iroh, is proving to be an acrobat par excellence. Her ability to jump is remarkable; it involved earlier this week an almost parkour-like bounce off a wall to get to the top of a bookcase. And as for her tendency to jump up and grab door handles with both front paws: well, no-one’s yet told her that she doesn’t have opposable thumbs, clearly.

Which is why daughter and I idly speculated a couple of days ago about whether cats would make good space pets. Their grace, balance and agility would be unbeatable in micro-gravity, we mused.

Blow me down if Paolini doesn’t then, the very next day, produce a cat in a starship, grabbing a ladder with its paws and launching itself like an arrow down a corridor. Fantastic stuff. 

If only it wasn’t called Mr Fuzzypants, puir wee beastie. But you can’t have everything. 


Someone is right on the internet: This is just beautiful. For Japanophiles like me, Spoon & Tamago (which means “egg”, incidentally) is a lovely site, bringing all kinds of Japanese artistic and cultural wonder to our lives. 

And not just artistry. Natural wonder comes, too. As with these fabulous pix from Japan’s northernmost main island, Hokkaido. I had no idea this freezing phenomenon was possible. And my life is the better for knowing it is.


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2021i21, Thursday: shinjirarenai hodo oishii.

Translation: delicious beyond belief. My favourite Japanese delivery place has gone national. And a smart and luminous way of adding randomness.

Short thought: Before the Bug, when I worked in London most days, every so often I’d treat myself to Japanese food – thanks to Waso. It was a delivery service which brought amazing bento boxes to your office, in a half-hour time slot. 

Then came the pandemic. It nearly killed Waso as offices shut down. Thank goodness it managed to re-create itself delivering Japanese meals (and indeed other cuisines, too) to people’s homes. I was delighted – but desolated that it only delivered in London. Our Essex fastness was too far out.

Now, at last, they’re starting to deliver nationally. Once a week – but that’s plenty good enough. And I couldn’t be happier. I want to hug its founder, Toshihiro Yoshimura. Unfortunately our freezer is a bit full – but as soon as we can eat it down, I’m bulk ordering.

Ganbatte kureyo, Toshi-san. Your food is wonderful. Your business is too. Consider me delighted that I’m back to being a happy customer.


Someone is right on the internet: quick one, this. And a bit of an old one. But as anyone with even vaguely geekish pretensions will probably know, computers don’t really do random. The best they can manage is pseudorandom: something that looks like a dice roll but really isn’t.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a company in need of randomness for security reasons will look to something analogue in order to service purposes. And CloudFlare (that’s the outfit that blew the whistle on the Solar Winds fiasco) uses lava lamps.

Yes. Lava lamps. Whole rooms of them.

Go and have a look. It’s just wonderful.

(Thanks to Jason Kottke for spotting it.)


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2021i18, Monday: Eight legs. Nine brains. All good.

Again, a quick hit because I’m in court later this morning. But this one’s for lovers of octopuses everywhere.

Someone is right on the internet/books to expand the mind: Not too long ago I highlighted Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, as a book I was looking forward to. (Update: I’m done with it. It was fantastic.) I do revile spoilers, but I’m really not giving anything much away when I say the book involves octopuses in a pretty big way.

I love octopuses. They’re gloriously weird (video embedded below, but linked here if you prefer that sort of thing), in comparison to us bipedal vertebrates who struggle with the idea of a creature with – in effect – brains in each leg. (That’s leg, not tentacle. Tentacles are feeding appendages with suckers only at their ends.) There’s a serious body of thought (encapsulated in the wonderful Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith) that postulates that they’re sentient – at least to some degree, assuming sentience is a matter of degree rather than a digital yes-no question – and that they’re therefore the closest thing we’ve yet encountered to a wholly alien intelligence. At least from our (perhaps limited) primate point of view.

(I now recall eating a tiny baby octopus, whole, served as an appetiser in Japan, with a fair degree of revulsion. It was 20-odd years ago, but still…)

And to make it even better, it turns out that at least two members of the Outer Temple family – one of this year’s pupils, and one of next year’s – are as fascinated by them as I am, if not more so. I can’t believe we’re alone in forming an informal cephalopod fan club. Who’s with us?

(If your taste in cephalopods stretches beyond the octopus, then security guru Bruce Schneier has, for years, put up a weekly Friday Squid Blogging post. Admittedly, sometimes – as here – it’s a recipe (ouch); and it’s also an excuse to provide a forum for his readers to chat about security issues. But it’s a lovely touch. Well worth a look.)


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2021i15, Friday: Thank God it wasn’t me.

In (virtual) court for a 10 day hearing at the moment. So again I’ll be brief. A wrenching judgment, and a lovely bit of writing about a friendly neighbourhood hero.

Short thought: Whenever I’m talking to law students, I always say: read the judgments. Not just the brief snippets with the authoritative bit you want to quote. No; read the whole thing when you can. Partly for the context, of course. (And because every advocate has, albeit hopefully only once, done that thing where you find a fabulous quote, but overlook the perfect way of distinguishing and thus destroying your point two paragraphs further down. Which, of course, your opponent finds and seizes upon to devastating effect.) But mostly because the best judgments are some of the most phenomenal legal writing you’ll ever be exposed to; an education in themselves.

Put differently – when I read a really good one, I find myself thinking: I want to write like that when I grow up.

But every so often comes a judgment… and you’re so, so glad you weren’t the one who had to write it. Guy’s & Thomas’s v Pippa Knight [2021] EWHC 25 (Fam) is one such.

The story’s heart-wrenching. Pippa is five years old. She is on a ventilator. She suffered brain damage in 2017. Her father took his own life shortly afterwards, having already lost a child to meningitis. She can’t breathe on her own, is unconscious and has lost most function. The hospital went to court to ask whether it should withdraw life-sustaining care. 

I can’t do anything approaching justice to the care, consideration and professionalism of Poole J in reaching and writing this judgment. Katie Gollop QC has done a fine job of describing the key points. Read her twitter stream. Read the judgment. It will break your heart. But maybe some things should.

There’ll be those who say Poole J was wrong. That care should not, or should never, be withdrawn. There’ll even, perhaps, be those who see him as a monster, or as having committed a grievous sin. (On which subject: I’m a person of faith – and I have zero sympathy with, and some anger for, those who use tragic cases for politico-religious ends. I don’t think anyone has here, thank God. But still.)

But I see none of that. I see a fine jurist, facing a heart-rending choice with no good or easy answers, doing his level best to do what the law – and, I think, morality – requires: to put the child first. While still respecting and highlighting the awe-inspiring love and dedication that her mother has shown her throughout her life.

I want to write like him when I grow up. Just not about that. Please God, not about that.


Someone is right on the internet: I’m a sucker for Spider-Man. I sometimes find superheros somewhat annoying (although that doesn’t stop me watching Marvel movies, or the Arrowverse DC TV shows). But Spidey has always been special.

Like so many others, I watched Into the Spider-Verse with gratitude, wonder and delight. Not just because in Miles Morales there’s a whole new generation reflected in the best and most demotic hero ever. But simply because of the joy, craft, art and genius – and love! – that went into making it. It’s a genuine masterpiece. 

And I have to admit, Tom Holland does an excellent job in the new MCU ones.

But every so often I go back to the 2002 film that got Spidey onto the silver screen and kept him there. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man creaks a bit at the edges, and the effects – well, you have to work a bit not to see the seams. But the film, and Tobey Maguire in it, get Peter Parker right. Like no other film truly has. (The sequel did too. More so, perhaps. Let’s agree not to talk about the third one, OK?)

The AV Club, home of some of the best culture and genre writing around (its TV reviews are to die for), in one of its long-running series (this one looks at the highest-grossing movie in the US for each year, starting in 1960), has made it to 2002. And their write-up on Spider-Man gets it just right.

Won’t say more. If the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” means a thing to you, go and read it. You won’t regret it. And then, if you’re like me, you’ll want to push off and watch it. All over again.


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2021i12, Tuesday: Portrait, for preference.

Why do most iPad cases only do landscape? And bookshelves to die for.

Short thought: I’d be the first to admit I’m reliant on my iPad. I’ve owned 4 of them: a first-gen, an iPad 3, a 2017 iPad Pro 10.5”, and now a 2018 iPad Pro 12.9”. They’ve been first-line writing tools, media consumption devices, and portable libraries.

Now, as a barrister, more than ever I can’t imagine working without one. Particularly when, as is the case, I sync all my case files and background docs: I can essentially sit down in an armchair, read and mark up bundles, refer to authorities and practitioner texts, and scribble (literally or figuratively) notes into one of several apps which also sync beautifully, so everything is back on my mac when I’m next at my desk. And the 12.9” screen is big enough to be the bundle when I’m physically in court. Perfect.

But there’s one thing I don’t get. A good case is a must, of course – so why do so few hold your iPad in the portrait position? For reading, or typing, it’s perfect. A single page of a book or authority. A single sheet of a Word document. What’s not to like?

I only know of two manufacturers who do this well: Pipetto and Moshi. I’ve tried both, and favour Pipetto. There are others on Amazon, sometimes a good deal cheaper; but I’m not confident on quality. And some that rotate – but bloody hell, they’re bulky, whereas Moshi’s and Pipetto’s remain both sleek and light. Or you could have a separate stand – but haven’t you got enough bits and bobs already?

Am I the only person for whom this is a thing? And why do I never see portrait cases in best-buy lists? Seems bonkers. If you have an iPad and you’re a barrister, I do recommend you look into it. It’s a bit of a game-changer.


Someone is right on the internet: Even in this paperless era, books are special. The feel of the pages. The weight in your hand. A beautiful binding. For some, even the smell!

So there’s also something magical about bookshelves. Admit it: we all scan someone else’s bookshelves when we’re in a room of theirs. We did so physically; and we’re certainly doing it now, virtually, squinting behind people’s heads at what their webcam will pick up. (Hands up: I’ve got the White Book carefully positioned behind me, along with a copy of the Employment Law Handbook I co-wrote. But then I’ve also got a book of Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo, which is just as much a part of me as the law is. Or – for less formal occasions – an Asterix book…)

So this gallery of unique bookshelves generates pure envy. Some are slightly bonkers, certainly. But some are gorgeous. And some – well, let’s just say we need new shelves in the front room. And I’ve got ideas.


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