2021iii26, Friday: Monster beamy.

Fat ships and hydrodynamics. And GCHQ makes the most of the fact that one of my heroes is now on a banknote.

I’m sorry. I’d intended to write something on empathy – a hugely undervalued and misunderstood trait, for us advocates as much as for everyone else. But I’m facing the usual barrister clashing-deadline problem today, so I have to content myself with a couple of links.

Someone is right on the internet, 1: One of the benefits of blogs, and now of the less toxic corners of social media, was always said to be that genuine, unfiltered expertise was never more than a click away. (Let’s not do the “experts suck” thing. Please?)

But good old-fashioned mainstream media also has an important role here. Not all experts can communicate. But the best reporters excel in taking expertise and translating it for us lay people, without diluting its true value.

For anyone puzzled, baffled or just plain incredulous about what’s happening in the Suez Canal right now, the FT does a glorious job of dealing with the hydrodynamics behind the grounding – or as the writer, Brendan Greeley, puts it, “walling”, of the Ever Given.

(The main story is here. Sorry, subscribers only; this is a gift link, but it’ll only work for three people, so if you do have an FT subscription please use the first link.)

A taster:

By any historical standards, the Ever Given is a monster. But it’s a monster in a specific way: it’s fat. The more containers you can stack on a single ship, the cheaper the marginal cost of each new container. But the specific engineering of container ships mean that they can’t get longer; they have to get wider. An oil tanker is a shoe box with a lid: hull on the bottom, oil in the middle, deck on top. But a container ship is a shoebox without a lid: hull on the bottom, then containers all the way up. It’s not as strong without the lid.

Why no lid? Because there’s a limit to how long you can make something out of welded steel plates, given the forces at play in the open ocean. So for container ships, you make them wider – “monster beamy”, as Brendan puts it – and pile them higher. And what did this mean for the Ever Given?

Wind definitely played a role, but there was probably something else happening, too. The ships keep getting bigger. But everything on Earth stays the same size.

That’s how he ends, but I’m not really giving anything away by quoting that. The piece is great. If you can, read it.

Someone is right on the internet 2: Of the UK’s three main intelligence agencies, the funny thing is that the least prominent in popular culture is both the most overt, and the most expensive. It’s the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ, whose main site is a huge round building in Cheltenham (the shape of which is rather elegantly reflected in its logo and typography).

As the government’s code-makers and code-breakers, as well as the outfit responsible for securing and penetrating networks and systems, their importance has in fact never been higher. So it’s no surprise they’re making the most of one of their own now appearing on the new £50 note, in the shape of Alan Turing.

My first real brush with computers was in the Turing Room at King’s College. Back in those prehistoric days when most students didn’t have their own computers, the Macs arrayed in the Turing Room were – for those of us who by the 1990s had already moved away from hand-writing essays – a home from home. (And also cemented me on the Mac vs PC side of the equation.)

However, I didn’t know much about Turing himself. I didn’t know he’d formulated much of the theoretical basis for computing. I didn’t know he’d been the linchpin of the UK’s efforts to crack Enigma at Bletchley Park (home of the Government Code and Cipher School, GCHQ’s precursor) in WW2. I didn’t know he was gay. I didn’t know he was hounded for it. I didn’t know he was charged and convicted for indecency as a result. I didn’t know he lost his security clearance. I didn’t know he was compelled to take drugs as an alternative to prison. And I didn’t know the misery of this compelled him to kill himself.

I learned later. Marvelled at the man. And grieved for him, in despair that a mind like that should be thrown away by such paltry injustice.

He’s been posthumously pardoned. His home town, Manchester, has a statue to him, with a plaque that reads:

Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice.

All true.

Turing was a marvel, and an icon – to me and many others. Despite the controversy that sometimes attaches to banknote choices (and the fact that generally I don’t think UK ones have been terribly attractive), I love the fact that Turing will, from his birthday date in June, grace the £50.

And it’s probably fitting that GCHQ is marking the launch with a series of puzzles. While cryptography today is fundamentally a computing problem, for most of human history it’s been about someone pitting their brain against someone else’s, and seeing which (forgive me) cracks first.

Cards on the table. I sorted the first, which is a straightforward bit of general knowledge. But after that, I’m stuffed. (I may love Cracking the Cryptic, but mostly as a spectator. I can only do their puzzles with a lot of handholding.) For smarter and more corkscrew minds than mine, though, I imagine this should be fun. Let me know how you get on.

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

2021iii8, Monday: even the wisest can stumble.

A small and humble disagreement with the UK’s best commentator on the law. And the joy of newsletters: a welcome return to pre-Web habits.

Short thought: Joshua Rozenberg is fantastic. He is the best reporter of the law I’ve ever encountered. (Although the late, and wonderful, Marcel Berlins – who taught me media law many years ago – probably runs him a close second.)

I subscribe to a lot of newsletters. Almost always, I only take the free version. But I pay for Joshua’s, willingly and happily. As a working barrister and an ex-hack, I find his insight and wisdom unmissable.

But even the wisest can stumble. And I think Joshua’s just done so.

He ends an otherwise (characteristically) excellent piece about the welcome elevation of Dame Vivien Rose to the Supreme Court with the following quote from the President of the Court, Lord Reed:

Having spent a substantial part of her career working in government and parliament, Lady Justice Rose will add significantly to the diversity of experience on the court. Her outstanding legal ability and breadth of experience will be invaluable in maintaining the high quality of our judgments and our reputation as an international centre of legal excellence.

To which Joshua adds:

He’s right. Diversity of experience is the most important diversity of all.

In one sense, he’s right. England’s judiciary (and its Bar) is less pale, male and stale, less monocultural, than it used to be. It still has a very long way to go. Dame Vivien, like Lady Hale before her, isn’t from the “traditional” career path of the independent Bar. And also like Lady Hale, we’ll be much the better for having her on the Court.

But he’s also wrong – not so much in the underlying sentiment but in putting it this way, in this context. It reads altogether too much as though Dame Vivien’s “diversity of experience” – as a Government lawyer as opposed to a product of the self-employed Bar – is distinct from, and more valuable than, that which emerges from actively looking to get more non-men, non-white and non-public school/Oxbridge people into the judiciary.

If Joshua meant it that way, it would be a ludicrous, and foolish, tension to encourage. It would be so at any time, given how often we still here the old, old voices that seek to paint every attempt to broaden the pool of gender and ethnicity in particular from which the benches and the Bar is drawn as a dilution of quality, rather than the other way round.

But right now, when government ministers use “woke” as a rude word, when all it really means is “genuinely aware that bias and prejudice are still alive, kicking and deeply rooted in how our society works”, it’s more dangerous than ever.

Our Bar and judiciary need diversity of experience. And they need it as much from throwing open our profession to as wide a base as possible, in every way possible, as they do from making sure lawyers with non-traditional career paths – even truly fantastic ones like Dame Vivien – get the nod.

I should make one thing clear. I can’t believe Joshua did mean it that way. I’m confident that giving comfort to those who, deep down, see righting the wrongs meted out on the grounds of race, sex, faith, gender or sexuality as some kind of discrimination in itself – or who may not think that, but find it a convenient punching-bag for political gain – would be the last thing he would would want to do.

It’s a shame that, inadvertently I’m sure, that’s what he’s done.

Someone is (pretty much always) right on the internet: More about newsletters, I’m afraid. This time, not a lawyer, but an academic.

John Naughton is one of the people I turn to when I want to understand what’s happening in the online environment. He’s been studying and writing about it for years. And his writing is accessible, thoughtful and considered.

Unsurprising, then, that I’ve been following his blog – Memex 1.1 (for those who don’t know what Memex 1.0 was, here’s a rabbit hole to disappear down) – for longer than I can remember.

These days, John writes something every day. A curated series of pictures, music, commentary and links. How he sustains it I don’t know. And I can’t remember a single edition which hasn’t included something I’m desperately glad I was pointed to. Not one.

And while it appears on his website, he also sends it out via Substack (for free) each morning. Needless to say, I subscribe.

The funny thing is, the wildfire growth of newsletters (yes, I know – like this one) is something of a reversion to the early days of the online world. Remember that the public Web is less than three decades old. Before then, and for many years thereafter, email newsletters in plain text were the standard way of “publishing”. I’m a huge fan of their return.

While I’m not giving up on RSS, I’m happy to have a dozen or more people’s newsletters popping into my inbox on a regular basis. I may have less time to read them than I did (the one thing I miss about commuting). But the habit of regular writing is a valuable one, and those who commit to it tend – counter-intuitively – to think before they write, and write thoughtfully as a result.

John is a pre-eminent example of that breed. I commend his newsletter warmly.

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

2021iii1, Monday: One person to read re The Bug.

A US publication has two writers I revere. One is simply the best reporter on Covid-19 that I know of.

Someone is right on the internet: I’ve only a few minutes, ahead of a hearing this afternoon. So a short word only today, about a writer whose work I adore.

The Atlantic, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a US publication of more than 150 years’ standing. It mostly writes about US stuff, from a US perspective.

And despite the fact that I live in Essex and haven’t been to the US for years, I pay $50 a year to subscribe. For two reasons.

Both reasons are writers. The first is James Fallows. One of the smartest and most thoughtful politics and society writers I know, a guy whose work I’ve followed since university (he used to live in and write about Japan). He’s had a line over recent years in examining towns and cities across the US, and how they are revitalising themselves (or sadly sometimes not). Important, ground-up journalism that honours the trade. He’s humble, he writes like a dream, and I love his work.

But the second is the key right now. Zeynep Tufecki made her name on big data, the attention economy and AI, and has been consistently on point on those topics. Equally, she’s had interesting and sobering things to say about the trend towards authoritarianism and populism. But her true value right now – and the reason why I read literally (I’m a pedant – I mean this, ahem, literally) everything she writes – is in her coverage of The Bug. It’s been consistently accurate, ahead of the curve, pragmatic, free of hyperbole and helpful. Her latest, on the pandemic communication mistakes that keep getting made – is brilliant, and is an example of the rest. It makes the point, for instance, that harm reduction should be a primary goal – so since human beings need to meet one another, encourage them to do so outside. Even mid-lockdown. Help people understand how to reduce the risk, to themselves and others, and most will take the advice – rather than meet in secret, indoors, and run a far higher risk.

Unsurprisingly, she’s got a newsletter. I never fail to learn from it. I recommend it warmly.

In the meantime, though, skim through her more recent work. (I know the Atlantic has a paywall, but you get several stories for free. And subscribing is always an option.) As we crawl towards a vaccinated world, with all the pitfalls and traps ahead of us, I promise you’ll come away smarter, better prepared, and as a result safer.

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

2021ii12, Friday: Different ≠ worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…)