2021iii29, Monday: Wad some Pow’r…

Why condemning a little less and understanding a little more leads to better advocacy, and better humanity. Plus: 20 years of a timeless operating system. And woodblock prints to take your breath away.

Short thought: I can date the birth of my fundamental politics to two things. The first was when we moved from Hertfordshire to just outside Stoke-on-Trent in 1987 (I was 16) and I came face to face for the first time with the destruction that government policy had wrought, knowingly, on people’s lives over the past near-decade. The second was in 1993, with a single phrase uttered by the prime minister of the day. It was John Major, now a Bencher of my Inn (the Middle Temple) who – in a country rocked (rightly) by the conviction of two 10-year-olds for the murder of a child far younger than themselves – told a Sunday newspaper that it was time to:

Condemn a little more and understand a little less.

To be fair to Major, who since leaving Number 10 has proved to be one of the saner, calmer and more thoughtful and understated politicians of my experience, he wasn’t saying understanding had to go altogether. Not for him – then or now – the blood-soaked hang-and-flog tendencies so common in the Tory party, and particularly in its current Home Secretary.

But still, it rankled then, and it rankled now. Still more did it reek to me after 9/11, when so often efforts to understand what drove such attacks was labelled almost as treachery. 

The mistake, as so often, was to confuse empathy with sympathy. To empathise, appreciated correctly, is to strive to see the world as another sees it. To understand a worldview. To see what drives someone to behave as they do.

This is not sympathy. Tout comprendre, ce n’est pas tout pardonner. It’s not agreeing with the person in question. One can empathise and still loathe, whole-heartedly, what someone does and why. 

Now, I admit I may not be the poster child for empathy. I’m as short of it as anyone else, on some days. But personally and professionally, I prize it – perhaps as a supreme virtue, from which wisdom flows.

Personally, because – as Sherry Turkle put it in a recent interview – it’s a survival mechanism. It saves you from seeing only the worst in people. It can show you that some behaviour you’ve interpreted as simple malice may have a deeper driver; something you can understand, so that it stops eating away at you and sets you free.

And professionally because, first as a journalist, then as an investigator, and now as an advocate, I’ve always been an asker of questions. It simply isn’t possible to do that successfully without empathising with the subject of the questioning. (Just ask anyone who’s any good at interrogation.) Be it an interview or a cross-examination, step one is to try to see the narrative as the other sees it. And only then craft the questions to take you where you need to go: be it facts, knowledge or the raw material for the argument you need to make. If you can’t empathise, you’ll get nowhere. 

So yes. Just as I mistrust anyone who’s certain, I mistrust anyone who refuses to show empathy. There’s something fundamentally inhuman about such a person. As Pratchett (I think) once said, true evil begins when you start treating people as things. And a lack of empathy is at the heart of that. 

Put more simply: Robert Burns, bless the Immortal Memory, was right

All our yesterdays: Other than the BBC Micro my folks bought me when I was a kid, I’ve only ever owned Macs. Between me and my beloved, we’ve probably had a couple of dozen. I’m comfortable on Windows, but I live in Mac OS. I have done since my college days, when my first modern computing was on the old-school all-in-one Mac SE, and continuing on from the first one I ever owned, a PowerBook Duo.

So I remember the travails of the late 1990s, when Mac OS was showing its age and Apple was trying and failing – often flailing! – to find a replacement. (Jason Snell tells that story wellvenerable Apple site Tidbits does too. Not for nothing is Copland a bit of a trigger word for those of us around at the time.)

That came in 1999, with the developer previews of the brand-new Mac OS X (pronounced “ten”, although admittedly only by geeks and long-time Mac-heads). It was slow, it was buggy, and it was amazing. The first market release of OS X 10.0 Cheetah (the first of the big cat nicknames that lasted right through to 10.8 in 2012) came 20 years ago last week. 

Lord, the memories. So much has changed – when you look at the candy stripes and brushed metal in the original, the recollection can be rather painful. But as MG Siegler notes, the fundamentals of the interface really haven’t changed that much. “Beautiful,” he calls them. “Timeless.” I’d agree.

For those in need of a retrospective, Ars Technica does well. For the real nerds, the immense, and terrifyingly detailed, reviews by John Siracusa of each release from the first DP in 1999 through to Yosemite in 2014 are worth a look. Memory lane, people. Memory lane.

Someone is right on the internet: I’ve written before about Brain Pickings, the weekly email on a Sunday which rarely fails to produce something thought-provoking, heart-filling and beautiful. Yesterday’s email was all that, and more.

My love of woodblock prints is no secret either, so perhaps it’s inevitable that this email should suit me. But honestly, I don’t think you need to know anything about woodblock prints, or even ever to have seen one, for these to take your breath away. They’re by Kawase Hasui (I can’t write his name forename first; as a Japanese speaker, it feels disrespectful), made a Living National Treasure in 1956 the year before his death.

Words can’t describe. Please – just enjoy.

(I should add that Kawase – whose personal and family names, wonderfully, both have water characters in them, somehow fitting for an artist in a medium whose most famous expression, ukiyo-e, translates as “pictures from the floating world” – isn’t the only beauty in yesterday’s email. There were wonderful musings at the bottom of the message about the importance of treating love not as a noun, something you receive and which you must seek out, but as an active verb, a practice to which you commit yourself. A simple grammatical shift, but with such depth of meaning…)

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2021iii5, Friday: look closer.

Why taking the time to let the details sink in is critical to good advocacy. And a confession about football.

Short thought: My love of ukiyo-e (woodblock printing) is no secret. But I never thought it would help me think about my advocacy.

The trigger here is a piece from Craig Mod, about whom I’ve written in the past, entitled “Looking Closely is Everything”. Craig starts by discussing a famous Hiroshige print, comparing his own capsule description of it to a previous writer’s much more detailed one. He describes the thought-paths that spin off the in-depth word picture, and uses them to draw a lesson:

The point being: Looking closely is valuable at every scale. From looking closely at a sentence, a photograph, a building, a government. It scales and it cascades — one cognizant detail begets another and then another. Suddenly you’ve traveled very far from that first little: Huh.

I’d say that that huh is the foundational block of curiosity. To get good at the huh is to get good at both paying attention and nurturing compassion; if you don’t notice, you can’t give a shit. But the huh is only half the equation. You gotta go huh, alright — the “alright,” the follow-up, the openness to what comes next is where the cascade lives. It’s the sometimes-sardonic, sometimes-optimistic engine driving the next huh and so on and so forth.

“Huh”. I agree with this. That moment where the meaning, the import, of something changes. Fundamentally. It can be an almost physical sensation. And you see anew as a result.

This is the advocacy significance, I think. When you’re faced with a bundle – 600 pages for a case tomorrow morning – the temptation to speed-read is overwhelming. And necessary: it just isn’t possible to spend too long with any one page. But you have to spend enough time; enough so that you understand where each page fits into the big picture, and so that – as the narrative evolves through your reading and consideration – your sense of the shape of the documents is sufficient to bring you back to a critical detail on page 332 (or wherever) whose significance will change if you can take the time, in the context of fresh understanding, to look closely at it.

There’s an analogy with one of Edmund King’s rules on how to lose a case (yes, I know – but it really is worth coming back to). Rule 8 tells you not to prepare cross-examination on your own. If you’ve time, and you have a team, read the whole thing individually – then read each page together, and talk about it. Truths and implications will emerge far more clearly.

Similarly, looking closely is akin to enjoying the small things. It’s all about the trees, as well as the wood – each complementing the other, and each deserving attention and care. Even love.

Whenever I lose cases (at least, those which had a decent chance in the first place), often it’s because either I haven’t put myself properly in the shoes of the opposition, or there’s some detail whose significance has escaped me. I’ll be trying to look more closely. Thanks, Craig.

Something beautiful: Cephalopods are cool. They just are. As I’ve written before, there are those who see octopuses in particular as something akin to sentient, and I wouldn’t disagree.

So this picture is both gorgeous and unsurprising. An underwater photographer left his camera in a rock pool – and its resident decided to have a play with it. With fabulous results. Enjoy.

Someone is right on the internet: Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not so much allergic to team sports as largely indifferent. Basketball’s the only one I’ve ever really enjoyed playing (very badly, but there you go); and I’ve occasionally watched live cricket with an appreciation as much of the occasion and the rhythm as of the sporting action itself.

(I’m a twin, and this was a source of unending frustration for my sporting brother when we were kids. The universe had given him a sibling of precisely the right age as a permanent playing partner – and made him a sports-hater. Thanks, universe.)

Football’s different. My feelings go beyond indifference and into active dislike – not so much for the sport itself, which is fine, but for the English expectation that everyone – at least, every male – is going to be into it. I’ve got no problem with those who love and live and breathe football. I have a huge problem when I’m sometimes classed as weird (or even antisocial) because I don’t.

This may of course be my age. I grew up in the days when a good deal of English football was primarily about muscularity rather than grace, or so it seemed to me. And Route One summarised all that was worst about it: the idea that booting the ball up the pitch was the only really English way to play.

I always wondered why (aside from the insane idea that finesse was somehow un-English) Route One came into being. I’ve seen the idea that heavy old-fashioned balls meant passing was too tiring. Well, maybe. But this piece on Fivethirtyeight (via FT Alphaville), about an early sports statistician called Charles Reep, rather appealed as an alternative explanation:

It probably wasn’t entirely Reep’s fault when England flamed out at Euro 1992, or when they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. But it couldn’t have helped that they were playing a misguided style, informed by well-meaning but faulty statistical principles.

To find out where Reep went wrong – which is a lovely example of getting causation the wrong way round – read the piece. Not at all sure it stands up as an explanation of Route One, but it appeals nonetheless.

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