2021vi9, Wednesday: Just one guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2021vi4, Friday: People ≠ things.

What happens when you thingify people? Nothing good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that only means we shouldn’t stop trying.


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2021v28, Friday: Not oil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not oil. It’s us.


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

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

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


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2021v24, Monday: Reified abstracts.

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

https://xkcd.com/881/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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2021v19, Wednesday: Thingification.

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

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

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

The word? “Thingifying”. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Or, as Can puts it:

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

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

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

Well, lovely. Three big problems, though:

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

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

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

Reassured? Me neither.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the best one comes first:

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

Ouch. But yes.


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2021v12, Wednesday: Loss.

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

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

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

But he leaves a huge hole. 

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

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

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

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

Bye, Tim. God bless.


2021v10, Monday: Put yourself in the picture.

No-one gets elected unless they can tell a story enough people want to be part of. Will Labour ever learn that lesson again?

Short thought: Those bored to tears with me banging on about stories should look away now. Because in the wake of last week’s local elections in the UK, here we go again.

I don’t know what a Labour-run country would look like. They haven’t told me. Or if they have, I’ve missed it. And I’m really not oblivious enough to news to have overlooked it.

I know what the Tories want me to think a Tory-run country (which is what we currently have) looks like. I don’t believe they’re either willing or (more importantly) capable of producing the levelled-up, non-London-centric future they’re describing. I think an administration based on flagrant lying, gaslighting and corruption will probably get found out one day.*

But I at least see the picture they’re painting. And I can understand, particularly in areas which have been so much at the back of the queue for decades that the front is only visible with a telescope (and having grown up partly in Stoke-on-Trent, this isn’t just theoretical to me), how it seems far better than any alternative.

That’s the thing. Yes, there’s the vaccine bounce. Yes, there’s the relief of re-opening – and incumbents (let’s not forget that many Labour and other incumbent administrations actually did quite well) almost always benefit when there’s an economic or social upswing.

But political parties are social engines. They’re powered by human attention and (to some extent) trust. And trust and attention are – yes, here we go again – narrative-driven.

Put simply: you vote for someone when they tell a story that enough people feel they either want, or need, to be a part of. And to do that, you need to act, not just react; and you need to find ways of telling your own story, on your own turf; not the turf the other parties define.

Labour has forgotten this. It forgot in 2010-2015, when it allowed the “Labour spent all the money, so austerity is inevitable” lie to take root. It forgot between 2015 and 2019, when Corbynmania had a story of sorts – but one which seemed explicitly to discard or disdain large numbers of people whose votes, to be frank, Labour needed if it was to win power.

And national Labour, at least, seems to have forgotten it now. It focuses on the stories it tells itself (bring back Corbynism! No, Blairism for the win!) instead of the stories it needs to tell the rest of us. And that’s disastrous.

I want to know how we free up the country outside London. I want to know how a post-pandemic UK could find ways of making sure a kid growing up in Southend, or Wigan, or Warwick, or their Scots or Welsh equivalents, doesn’t have to move to London to have the life they deserve, keeping their cash local and their community thriving. I want to know how workers can be protected and their employers encouraged and incentivised to avoid zero-sum games. I want to know how we can integrate facing down the climate threat into this new model. I want to know how despite all this London can remain the thriving, bubbling, economic and social wonder that it is – but not at the cost of elsewhere. (Other countries manage to be truly multi-centred nations; why not us?) I want to know how we can see the rest of the world and its peoples as opportunities, not threats, and love difference as the vital ingredient of life that it is, without using it as a weapon. How we can stop using the EU as a bogeyman, stop pretending that other trade arrangements will wholly replace the ones we’ve shut the door on, and start making Britain after Brexit work without constantly lying about it.

(For the climate in particular: I warmly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, a new book telling – as if in retrospect – one story of how the world dealt with impending climate catastrophe. It’s fiction, sure; but it’s an example of how to paint a word picture that one wants to climb into. As Todd Tucker puts it: it should be “required reading for anyone that writes white papers for a living”.)

All this can fit into a grand narrative. One which is doable, so long as you’re in power. And almost none of this is going to come from this government, which prefers pork-barrel to policy.

Here’s a picture I want to paint myself into. A story I want to be a character in. A future I’d like to believe in.

But I’m not hearing it. Not from anyone. And that makes me cry.

*Although I always bear in mind the investing dictum that the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. The same can apply to the electability of incompetent narcissist populists, I fear.


Someone is right on the internet: I’ve been sleeping appallingly recently. Insomnia’s been a plague for years, but the past few months? Worse than I can remember. It’s left me often incapable of functioning after about 4pm. And then I wake up before 4 the following morning… and the cycle continues.

There are things I can and should do. Meditate more. Eat better. Talk things through. Exercise. Read rather than rely on devices. I’ll be working on them all.

And on the subject of reading, having something thought-provoking about sleep may not help, but it sure feels as though it might. So this, from Wired on how octopuses seem to dream, is perfect.

The answer appears to be: they have REM sleep, but only for a fraction of the period that we do. Could it be because, as they seem to dream, it affects their skin colouration – normally an expression of mood and a defensive tool for camouflage? Is the evolutionary risk of a long REM period just too high?

No idea. But it’s great to think about. And in any case: sleep study and cephalopods, all in one. Two absorbing interests covered at the same time. What’s not to like?


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2021v7, Friday: Finding family.

Why I welcome the fact that I ache. And a quick link to a writeup of one of the most interesting Supreme Court cases around: Lloyd v Google.

Short thought: “I ache, therefore I am,” as Marvin once put it. “Or perhaps I am, therefore I ache.”

I ache. And I’m happy that I do. Because it’s 48 hours or so since I went back to capoeira for the first time in months.

It’s not the exercise that I’ve missed – from time to time I’ve stopped mid-run and trained a little, solo, in the park.

No. It’s that even for an introvert like me, the community of training with others in this most organic and communicative of martial arts has been a painful thing to lose. That feeling as your mind, soul and body ease into the ginga, the music wraps itself around you, and techniques start to flow the one into the next. As you smile, full of malandro, at the person you’re playing with. As the physical conversation between you ducks and weaves, slow, fast, slow.

God, it’s glorious. Although God, it hurts a couple of days after. I’m 50. I don’t bend as well as once I did.

But every ache is a benção, a blessing.

Because I’m back with family. Or rather, back with one of them.

Here’s the thing. We all have multiple families, which sometimes – but not always – overlap. If we’re fortunate (and my heart breaks for all those for whom this is tragically, painfully, sometimes dangerously not true) our first is with blood.

Another comes from the person we choose to bond our life with: spouse, partner, name them what you will. (My good fortune on this front is boundless; a wife and daughter who are both beyond compare.)

And then there are all the other communities which you find. Or which find you. Some of which will themselves wrap you in love and care, and so will become found families in themselves.

For all but the most wholly solitary among us, these multiple families are the earth from which our lifelong learning, growth, evolution, even our ongoing ability to be human, springs.

My capoeira family is one such. I’m blessed to have so many families. Blessed.

So, yes. I ache. Therefore, I am. Thank goodness.


Someone is right on the internet: Despite my best intentions, I wholly failed to make time to watch the submissions in Lloyd v Google, which sees the Supreme Court wrestle with some fundamental ideas in privacy and data protection.

I’ll try to make the time, then I’ll probably write something. (A radical idea: digest the source material before opining. Good lord.) As usual, the SC has the video of the hearing up on its website at the above link. Open justice for the win.

In the meantime, the UKSC Blog does a great job of summarising the submissions: a preview here, then a rundown of Day 1 and Day 2.

If privacy is at all important to you, and goodness knows it ought to be – it (along with worker status) seems to me to be the critical question of how individual rights interact with contract law and business for the next few years – the upsums richly repay a read.


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2021v5, Wednesday: Stories.

On learning advocacy from story-telling, across genres and styles. With a plug for Carly Simon, John le Carré, and a recent opponent of mine.

Short thought: I can bore for Britain on the subject of story-telling. Indeed, I already have, several times.

But this is because it’s important. For us all as human beings, for whom stories help us understand who we are and – as critically – who others are. (And sometimes, more malignantly, paint others in ways which traduce them.)

And particularly for us advocates. As I’ve said before, a big part of advocacy is in crafting the narrative that makes the facts sing, which simply makes more sense than the other side. It’s not the only thing. But it’s a big thing.

Most of us advocates, unsurprisingly, therefore love language. And we owe it to ourselves to learn from its usage, not only in our own world, but in others.

Songs, for instance. Sure, a good lyric is a million miles away from what you can put before the High Court. But the greatest song-writing is often a peerless exercise in narrative concision. A few verses to relate a whole tale.

A fabulous, fabulous example of this is an old favourite of mine: You’re So Vain, by Carly Simon. Putting aside the frankly tedious argument about whether it was Warren Beatty or someone else who inspired it, it’s essentially a story told – stripping out repetitions of the chorus – in fewer than 200 words.

And what words! I could choose any line, but this one stands out for packing the maximum meaning into only five words:

“And your horse naturally won.”

That adverb does so much work. In context, it’s practically a story all of its own.

Seriously. Listen to it. See how the story builds. See how every word works. And learn.

Fiction, of course, is the same. This is one reason I love audiobooks. When read by a good narrator, in circumstances where you can pay just enough attention, the words of great writers sing out to you and leave you breathless.

Again, an old favourite. While running recently, I’ve been re-listening to an unabridged reading of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré’s peerless classic of loss, regret and espionage – although frankly the espionage, as with much of le Carré’s work, was the canvas rather than the paint. The first few chapters kept hitting me with phrase after phrase, each more perfectly formed than the last, each with every word working.

Will I use it directly? Of course not. But will I reflect on the usage, the choices underlying it, and seek to learn? Without a doubt.

The lesson here for me: narrative is everywhere. Much of it is dross. Some of it is breathtaking. The latter is a masterclass for those, like me, who tell stories for a living. And we ignore it at our, and our clients’, peril.

(As a sidenote here: I heard a wonderful piece of narrative advocacy yesterday, from my opponent in an employment tribunal hearing. I’ll say nothing about the content of the hearing, on which judgment has been reserved. But that doesn’t have to stop me from saying that Rad Kohanzad, of 42 Bedford Row, told his client’s story beautifully, simply and effectively, weaving his submissions naturally into the tale as he spun it. Not too effectively, I hope; obviously, I want to win! And, albeit in a different metre, I think my story-telling was pretty sound too. But credit where it’s due.)


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