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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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The difference between reluctance and refusal.

I don’t think (legally speaking) employers outside care or healthcare are likely to be able to force staff to vaccinate. But even in those areas, in these early days it’s best to talk about it. Which will enable you to spot the conspiracy theorists putting everyone at risk…

A good friend of mine, Daniel Barnett, recently let me loose on his HR Inner Circle, presenting an hour-long ask-me-anything about employment law on Zoom. Great questions, from thoughtful HR professionals. (including a nice one on TUPE. I’m mad. I actually like TUPE stuff.) It was a delight, and a privilege.

(Daniel, as I’ve mentioned before, terrifies me. His entrepreneurial existence is scheduled and planned apparently to the microsecond – he says thanks to online outlining tool Workflowy. Tried it. Not for me. I’ll stick with Craft for the moment – which I’ll get round to writing about in detail once these cases are over.)

Two questions were about vaccines – specifically, whether an employer could require staff to take them as a condition of employment. It turns out that Daniel – unknown to me – had posted a video about this shortly before the session. We came broadly to the same conclusion: no, usually they probably can’t – but the unpalatable and impoverishing alternative for the employee might well be to resign or be fired, and sue for unfair dismissal. (Possibly automatic unfair dismissal on health and safety grounds, but that’s trickier. Another friend, Gus Baker, is a good guy to go to on that.)

That said, the situation’s likely to be different in care homes and the NHS. There, there’s a strong H&S obligation to protect service users and staff in a high-risk environment. I (and I think Daniel) would reckon an employer would have a far better argument there, as they undoubtedly do for mandating regular tests.

What Daniel didn’t get a chance in his video to consider, and what I discussed on the call, was whether it might be different in these early days of the vaccine. I think it may well be, even in care environments. Many people could be forgiven for some nervousness: I’ll be at the front of the queue once my turn comes, but given the unprecedented (and bordering on miraculous) speed of development and rollout I wouldn’t be surprised to find people thinking they might want to leave it a month or two, to see if any unanticipated side-effects kick in. On the whole, I’d think it’s worth employers talking to staff and understanding reluctance; that’ll probably go some way towards encouraging participation in due course. Certainly much more than a hard line from the get-go.

This approach may seem obvious – but its roots are in the same kind of “harm reduction” approach to healthcare that created needle exchanges for drugtakers, stressing that shame and stigma don’t work, but trying to understand where people are coming from does.

But what about those who aren’t reluctant but rather refuse? Particularly those who seem to be imbibing Facebook-driven madnesses concerning 5G, Bill Gates-designed microchips or other lunacies? And – still worse – try to persuade others to boycott the thing as well?

Like Daniel, in a care environment I think employers might have a good case for taking a hard line on this. Particularly if you’re not only refusing but agitating for others to do likewise. The risks are too high, for too many people.

And it frankly scares me. A relative of mine who works in a care home had his first jab just before the New Year. He says two thirds of his colleagues have refused – and a number of them are definitely of the “it’s all a plot, tell your friends” variety. I despair. Humans. Really.

2021i7, Thursday: How to read.

Yes, I know. A staggeringly arrogant title. But we lawyers have to get through huge piles of stuff. And finding ways to curate the pile is a genuine bonus.

Shortish thought: I haven’t got time to write a long thing I was planning on curation of online content. Not with one multi-day hearing finishing today and another starting next Wednesday. But I can take a moment to preview it with one critical tool for reading stuff: RSS.

(For the uninitiated: many websites, particularly news and blogs, publish what are called RSS feeds – which a dedicated app or site can use to drag down headlines and either whole pieces or summaries for you to read at your leisure. My blog’s is at https://remoteaccessbar.com/feed/.)

I know, I know: with Twitter, Facebook, and the rest, who needs RSS?

Any sensible lawyer, that’s who. I’ve been curating feeds for about 15 years now. Originally, like almost everyone else, I used Google’s Reader site to do so. Then Google shut down Reader in 2013 and a world of alternatives blossomed. I use Feedbin as the back-end to manage and grab the feeds; it costs me a few bucks a month. And Reeder as my app of choice for Mac and iOS for actually reading them. Costs me about a tenner every couple of years; I have no problem paying for major updates for something I use a dozen times a day. (There are loads of alternatives – both backend and reading/processing. Honestly, we’re spoiled for choice. Just stick “RSS reader” into your search engine of choice.)

Why is it good? And why is it good for lawyers? Well, think of all the chambers, law firms, legal academics and bloggers whose stuff you see linked to on Twitter etc, or get emails from, or glance at from time to time. Now think of how much you probably miss as the firehose of the Twitter feeds and unread emails shoots by. Now imagine if you could get all that stuff in one big list. Then (and this is the really game-changing part) use your cursor keys to shoot down that list, scanning headlines and summaries before starring anything you want to read later and dumping the rest. Once you get into the habit, you can keep-or-dump a couple of hundred entries in a minute or two. And then read them. Often offline. Whenever you’ve time. On any device.

Now tell me that doesn’t sound fantastic.

Still need convincing? Check this. Yup: that’s feeds for BAILII. Thank me later. Those, as they say, are my submissions.

Someone is right on the internet: It’s been a weird 24 hours, hasn’t it? What with the quasi-putsch attempt in DC (David Frum suggested that word – a good one, better than coup) and all, maybe everyone needs a boost. Here you go: a work of breathtaking, glorious artistry. It made my day.

(Don’t forget – if visiting a site doesn’t float your boat, you can get this stuff in your inbox. Subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

Back to Things.

I’m a serial experimenter with task tracking. But Things keeps pulling me back…

It’s a terrible habit, and the GTD crowd (and many other, far more sensible, people) will look aghast at me. But I can’t help switching task tracking methods from time to time.

Life at the Bar means running multiple cases and projects simultaneously. Lots of juggling. And deadlines which vary from the immediate to the months-ahead. So I just don’t understand how colleagues can manage that without some way of keeping track. For some, paper is best – and I respect that. For me, though, I need an app.

I’ve tried loads. But Things – a horribly expensive, yet beautiful, Mac/iOS system – has been my mainstay for several years.

I say “expensive” because unlike almost every other app or service out there, Things’ inventors, Cultured Code, charge separately for Mac, iPhone/Watch and iPad. A total of £80 for all three. Ouch. (Although that’s the lot: no ongoing subscription fee, which somewhat justifies the expense.)

But it’s lovely. Keyboard shortcuts to die for in the Mac app (and on iPad, if using a keyboard). Smooth animations. And really thoughtful design: including (lord, I love this – it’s so obvious I wonder why others don’t do it) making sure tasks for Today are permanently Today, rather than slipping automatically overnight into Overdue.

Still, every so often I wonder. Kanban boards attract me, for instance, but only if they allow a global overview. So Trello is out. And I miss the “type it all, let the system work out what you mean” way of entering info (for instance, typing “Do stuff on Monday in Projectname”, or some such, instead of picking dates and projects separately) which keeps me happily in Fantastical for calendars.

So I wandered into Todoist for the past week. The “just type it in” was fabulous. Nested projects were really useful – it does annoy me that I have to use workarounds in Things. Subtasks with their own due dates were very nice, too. And while I don’t add files to todos – my work doesn’t really lend itself to that; not where I’m not confident of where they’re being stored – being able to do so might be a real nice-to-have at some point.

But after a week, I’m back in Things. I can live with the additional step for adding dates and projects, since Things doesn’t make it too hasslesome. On iPad and iPhone, being able to drag down and search feels incredibly natural. Its smoothness and thoughtful, app-first design gets out of my way. And being able to work wholly on a keyboard – no mouse, no trackpad, no reaching up to the iPad screen – is just liberating.

So I’ll stay for a while. If I need a Kanban board for a specific project, I’ll drop into Notion. (Which reminds me – that didn’t work out as an overall option, despite my earlier optimism. And Scrivener has given way to Ulysses. I’ll get to writing that switch up – well, when I can. The tl;dr version being that Scrivener is lovely, but I just can’t work successfully without really good and simple sync.)

I can’t promise the lure of greener grass won’t crop up again. But for the moment, Things, once more, has my back. And it feels good.

Can apps or services relieve the burden of bundling?

tl;dr: Not without some pain, and considerable cost if you’re a solo practitioner. But we have a winner. Albeit at the cost of breaking a fundamental rule of British journalism.*

It turns out my blog on nested emails struck a chord. Several cries of pain rang out. Clearly it isn’t just me for whom this is a needless annoyance.

Fortunately, there are a number of web services and apps which take the misery out of bundling. Surely they’ll step in and sort it?

Well… yes. Some of them. But at considerable cost. And with a lot of bells and whistles that I just don’t need.

The ask

I admit it; my requirements are idiosyncratic. So I may not be the target market. But honestly I’m not convinced I’m so far out of the bulls-eye, particularly among the growing number of barristers who are comfortably digital-first, that there isn’t a viable customer base for what I’m after.

Put simply: I don’t want mark-up. I don’t want the ability to add comments, highlights or otherwise mess about with the text. PDF Expert (for me – I recognise Adobe Pro will suit others) is a far better precision tool for that, particularly since it means I can move smoothly from iPad to laptop in native apps without fuss or bother.

So stripped down to the bare essentials, all I want to do is bundle. And in doing so, the app/service/whatever needs to be better at merging PDFs, moving stuff around, adding page numbers or creating hyperlinks than PDF Expert already is. (It’s great at the first three, and not bad at the fourth.)

So in short, I want something that does the following, with minimal fuss:

  1. Sucks in a variety of filetypes. Including, blast them, nested emails.
  2. Puts them together into a single PDF, allowing me to reorder and retitle.
  3. Creates an index page, with each entry linked to the first page of the document it represents, whose format I can define.
  4. Also creates a table of contents (in PDF Expert terms, Outlines), again in the format of my choosing.
  5. Adds page numbers – and yet again allows me to choose how they’re formatted, since different courts have different preferences.
  6. Exports as a PDF with a reasonable file size.

(If it OCRs the lot of it as well, with a file size that’s not stupidly big, then so much the better.)

And that’s it. This really is table stakes. None of these five things (with the exception of number 1) is anything more than what the courts near-universally now require.

The options

There are probably loads. But a quick canvass of colleagues, and a moderate amount of DuckDuckGoing (yeah, I refuse to use “to Google” as a generic verb) brought me to three options: Casedo, Bundledocs and Hyperlaw.

(There were a couple of others; but they were PC-only. So no.)

I tried Casedo first, and was pleased to find it a native app rather than a web service. From a security perspective, I rather like keeping everything in file locations I can control. It’s very good value – about £12.50 a month. And it sucks in documents quickly, and makes organising them a breeze. Its interface is designed with care, and works well.

But… but, but, but. Its limitations are pretty huge. It only takes PDF and Word documents, so no Excel, PowerPoint or even emails without converting them first (and certainly no nested emails). Its OCR takes (I kid you not) 30 seconds a page, and often far longer. Its index page is pretty inflexible. And its page numbering seems only to allow a couple of formats, neither of which comply with the requirements of some of the courts and tribunals before which I appear. (And I’m always sceptical about apps which make my laptop fan scream. It’s not the fastest machine in the world, but it isn’t a slouch.)

So no. I wanted to like it, but no.

On to Bundledocs. Lots of law firms use it. Again, its intake worked well. Its index pages were well-thought-through, and at least to some extent customisable. Its page numbers likewise, although the settings to do so were like some ghastly throwback to Windows Vista. I didn’t get a chance to test its nested email-handling, since that didn’t seem to work on the demo version I was using.

But I loathed the interface. Clunky, clumsy and a poor use of a webservice. Worst of all: they wanted £48 a month. After advertising that your prices start at £15 a month, to slap a sole practitioner like that is just a joke. It’s clear that Bundledocs isn’t interested in us independent barristers. So I’m not interested in them.

Lastly, Hyperlaw, which comes out at £300 a year (£25 a month). I tried it out as part of a chambers-wide trial earlier this year, and wasn’t impressed. I liked its nested-email handling (and other intake), but spent too much time on its markup functions, which I didn’t like at all and which were near-useless for someone who spends a lot of time on an iPad.

So I’ve now given it a do-over, with a focus solely on bundling.

And… it’s pretty good. It sucks in nested emails quite happily, a big win. It appears to OCR stuff reasonably effectively. And it churns out usable bundles with a good deal of customisation of page numbers and tabbing.

I’m not entirely dancing for joy. Its interface, again, is horrible. Wholly unintuitive. It took me forever, even with the manual, to work out how to ensure documents were sorted in date order. Although it does a great job of detecting dates in documents, nine times out of ten it selects the wrong one, requiring one manually to tell it, for each document, which of several dates it’s extracted it should use. Overall, this is an awfully long way from being a pleasure to use.

But it pulled in a whole bunch of documents, of varying types. It OCRed them. It enabled them to be split, ordered and bundled. It created (again, with a certain amount of fiddling) a workable hyperlinked contents page. (Although please, Hyperlaw – if you’ll allow me to use Bates page numbering, as a number of courts require, could you put that on the index as well? Thanks.) And I should be able to design a standard template into which to squirt documents, so that bundles come out as I want them to look.

The outcome

People, we have a winner.

Of course I don’t have my ideal scenario. I’d infinitely prefer something native, rather than a web service. And huge chunks of Hyperlaw are essentially useless to me, and it hurts to be paying for something I have no intention of using.

But is avoiding bundling pain worth £300 a year to me? I think it may be. I haven’t signed up yet. But I’m certainly well on the way to doing so.

That said, I’m sure I’ve missed options. Do tell. I’d like to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Let me know.

(*Footnote to the headline: It’s an old adage in British journalism that if a piece has a headline posing a yes-no question, the answer is almost always “no”. Mostly because if it wasn’t, and the piece was on solid ground, there wouldn’t have been any need to put in the question mark in the first place. It’s a bit like headlines with quote marks in – they mostly mean “we haven’t actually stood up this quote, and it might well be bollocks. But it’s a great top line, and we just want the clicks.” Sorry to have broken the rules there.)

Scrivener. Wow.

Ten days ago, I wrote about Scrivener. I said I thought it might help me get through a book project with a tight deadline. Boy, did I understate things. I think I’m in love.

So that’s (nearly) it. 25 days and some 30,000 words later, the first draft of the book chunk I’ve been working on is done. (Nearly, because I still need to read and no doubt do some rewrites and cuts tomorrow. But I’m fine with that.) It’ll be with the friend and colleague who commissioned it by Monday morning.

And I couldn’t have done that without Scrivener. (And to a lesser extent Notion, the other app I wrote about.)

I wrote about Scrivener 10 days ago, lauding it (although complaining about its iPad app) and hoping it’d help me get this thing done. (And incidentally giving said friend and colleague the fear – which I can understand; after all, I did say, explicitly, that I was indulging in displacement activity by trying it out.)

I was wrong. In that I understated things. Truthfully, I don’t think I’d’ve done this, in this time, without the app.

I recognise that I’ve barely scratched the surface of it. Its manual, a wonderful old-school single PDF (albeit one with full and loving internal linking), is 921 pages long. I’ve probably looked at a dozen of them. I haven’t even begun to experiment with its ability to compile documents into specific formats. Frankly, right now, I don’t have the time.

But simply by encouraging one to split the project up into logical chunks, and then make it staggeringly easy to see, manipulate and write or edit them separately, in groups, on a pinboard, as an outline, or as a cohesive whole, it makes writing anything of any size conceptually straightforward. And it’s blindingly fast. The only downside is it seems only to sync through Dropbox, as far as I can tell, which I barely use. I’d prefer not to have to have it running all the time. But it feels a relatively small price to pay.

I finally understand why another friend, Naomi Cunningham, now pretty much refuses to use anything else.

I’m now actually going to RTFM. Honestly. I want to get under the skin of this thing.

A quick word about Notion, too, the other app I was experimenting with. I haven’t settled into it as an “everything bucket” yet, not least because it doesn’t seem to have a Safari web clipper – so I’m still on Evernote as a “clip web pages and store PDFs” dumping ground. But in other ways, it excels. I’ve pages running for several projects, and for a live case list. Each page is using a different kind of design – a list in one, a kanban board in another (that was for the book – I finally get the point of kanban, although it’s definitely a project thing rather than for general todos), a straightforward wiki in another. Once I’m used to it, I may simply import the Evernote stuff and stick with just the one. Time will tell.

In the meantime, though, Scrivener – wow. Just wow. And thanks.

(UPDATE, following a bit of further reflection. I might have been able to do this without Scrivener. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything else. Whereas instead I’ve managed to keep other work running alongside – admittedly with long hours, but Scrivener has really helped me keep focus even in the wee hours. Now that’s the real miracle…)

New tools.

Amid deadline hell, I’m doing what geeks always do to procrastinate: try out new stuff. But two new toys are actually pretty tasty…

I feel guilty. Not only am I weeks behind in writing stuff about PDFs and bundles (page numbers. Oh dear…), but I’m also whingeing about having deadline pressures. When so many of my friends and colleagues at the Bar are desperate for work (and thus for earnings), it feels pretty selfish to complain about deadlines right now.

But there it is. In particular, there’s a book, or a third of one, which I’m revising, updating, and rewriting. The deadline looked fine before I lost the best part of three weeks to the Bug. Now – not so much.

So in the finest traditions of geekdom, I’m using my time wisely by trying out new tools which – if I squint hard enough and ignore the weight of experience – I can convince myself will actually help me get the job done.

Yeah. Right.

Honestly, though, two are breaking through, because they solve problems that have nagged me since forever. One I’m now wholly convinced about (thanks to my friend and Chambers-mate Naomi Cunningham, who’s been swearing by it for ages). The other – well, I’m only 24 hours in, but it’s hitting all the right buttons.

The first is Scrivener. It’s an Apple-only app, albeit iOS as well as MacOS [CORRECTION: it’s Windows as well], that makes writing long-form text far more straightforward. Books, long skeletons, things like that – anything which tends to end up as “chunks” rather than a single unbroken screed – Scrivener excels at. It makes it easy to add notes or synopses, to attach files for ready reference, and most important can compile the whole thing into a single sweet file, which looks like you want it to.

OK. That last point rather skates over the complexity of getting compilation to work for you, not to mention the sheer depth of the thing. And in other imperfections, it’s very Mac-first; the iPad app is satisfactory, but definitely an adjunct rather than an equal partner. (Unlike, say, Ulysses, which also sells itself as a block-by-block writer’s tool. Its iPad app is lovely – but it doesn’t handle attachments, and its export let me down too often when I tried it during another deadline crisis. Not that there’s a pattern.)

But I’m convinced. I’m flying far faster through the book than I had before. For what it’s designed to do, it just – as the phrase goes – works.

The second new toy that I’m loving is Notion, which does the exact opposite of one thing well. The “everything bucket” grail will be familiar to many with geekish tendencies. God knows I’ve tried loads. Evernote stuck for years, but I drifted away. I tried OneNote, but its sync is just appalling, or used to be. (With sync, once bitten…) Bear is my current dump-and-forget favourite. (Anyone remember I Want Sandy? Showing my age there. But it was lovely while it lasted, before Twitter bought it and killed it. Sob.)

But I’ve always loved wikis. I’ve tried a few. And Notion is the first wiki-style tool since Backpack (now long retired) back in the day to grab my imagination. Instead of just having a list of entries a la Evernote or Bear, possibly arranged into notebooks/folders/whatever and tagged, Notion allows you to build your own pages. Containing kanban boards, database-style lists, todos, embedded files, or just plain old text. And everything can link to everything else.

Again, it’s complex, and in a couple of days, I haven’t even started to scratch the surface. But it just feels… right. And it’s got a free tier that now comes with unlimited “blocks” (the basic construction unit of Notion pages). I haven’t seen how it deals with web clipping and adding stuff on iOS, but if that’s OK, I’m probably hooked. Worth a look.

If the complexity and sheer whatever-you-want of Notion is alien to you (and that’s quite understandable), there are lots of alternatives. One is Workflowy, which despite the name (adding a Y doesn’t make anything better. It just doesn’t) is one of the nicest outliner implementations I’ve seen. For its aficionados – Daniel Barnett, also from Outer Temple, is one, whose Workflowy setup is so comprehensive and efficient it terrifies me to my very core – it can work wonders. Not for me, though. I’ve tried outliners before, and they’ve never suited me. I tried Workflowy, and it was the same. Shame.

Really, though, the everything bucket is probably the most personal kind of app out there. Everyone’s pain points and needs are different. Some want radical simplicity – for which something like Bear is great (fabulous search, excellent quick addition through iOS share sheets, and Markdown syntax – what’s not to like). I like it myself. But Notion’s got me. My notes for the book are already in it, on a page where the chapters I still have to write are arranged on a kanban board and cross-linked to other pages detailing relevant cases. Let’s see if it works. Ask me in about 11 days. Gulp…