The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: March, 2009

Reading the Manual

I’m going wildly off topic today but I was reading a post by Danny Sullivan about his new MacBook Pro.  Now, I love Macs and I make no secret of this but I cannot afford one.  I also love computers and make it a point of pride to develop an all round understanding of how they work, I’ve dabbled in everything from DIY radio frequency networking (actually not as interesting once it’s finished as when you’re researching the regulations, sourcing parts and generally getting it working) to a spot of programming and now I write a legal blog so I consider my proficiency in most areas to be pretty high.  I consider my proficiency directly related to my willingness to sit down and read documentation, whether that be a glossy user manual or a UNIX man page, if I want to learn something I’ll look it up.

“First challenge. How to get the software into the Mac. See, the Mac DVD player is cool. Nothing slides out. You just shove the disc in. But I wondered if it was working since the disc didn’t get “grabbed” until it was almost entirely in. But nice — it’s a pain having the disc carriers slide out. Ejecting was another issue. I could not figure it out. Totally lost.”
(http://daggle.com/080312-192557.html)

Yes, I understand that this man is indulging in a bit of comic excess here and I’m cherry picking (he later installs an entire virtualised operating system, so he’s not a novice user) and blowing it out of all proportion but the fact remains.  He got a disc stuck in his fully functional and highly expensive laptop and I find that slightly surprising.  Even without owning a modern Apple computer I happen to know:

  1. There’s a key on most, if not all, Apple keyboards since about 1998 marked with the internationally recognised eject symbol*  and pressing it will make the drive spit its contents out. I’ve not looked at the new MB/MBP closely enough remember if it does and I suspect the MacBook Air might not need one but I’d be comfortable assuming for now.
  2. I also know that dragging the CD’s desktop icon to the Trash will make the disc eject.  (Not the most intuitive step, I know but if you’re used to it it’s very fast and that’s just how Macs do it)
  3. Pressing and holding F12 for 2 seconds will eject the disc.
  4. You can even perform a Command-Option-O-F boot and type “eject disc”.
  5. If all that fails you can push a straightened paperclip into the little hole next to the drive slot to trigger the physical button.
  6. The old versions of Mac OS (not checked this way in years, never needed to, see 1-5 above) had an eject disc option in the Special Menu

That’s purely from my computing general knowledge which has been picked up from my general life experience as someone who is reasonably willing to fix a friend’s computer.  I wouldn’t expect someone else to just instinctively know all that, I didn’t – I had to go out and learn it, but I would be comfortable expecting them to know what the quick start guide says about ejecting discs.  They don’t have to read it religiously before the computer is even unpacked but when they have a problem perhaps it’s worth a look.  I believe in trying to help yourself and a good way to do that is letting the manufacturer help you.  Apple knows that most laptops have buttons on the side that makes the CD come out and that theirs are different.

The odd thing is that this post has triggered a surprising reaction of what I suspect is jealousy in me.  I simply cannot afford a MacBook Pro if I factor in ongoing financial commitments like buying food and I understand that.  Instead I use a cherished collection of primarily hand assembled and carefully tuned computing equipment which serves my purposes extremely well and I’d only like a Mac because I used one as a child and the marketing has brainwashed me and they’re nice.

That said, I’d like to think that I’d read at least the quick start guide for my new couple/few thousand pound laptop (if not the full manual) even if only for the sake of checking there wasn’t some feature I didn’t know about.  The reaction of my enthusiastic amateur self to the mental image of someone sitting in front of a shiny new computer that’s out of my economic league and idly poking at it with a murmured “Huh, look at that, it’s eaten my CD” is unexpectedly shocking.  That’s slightly worrying food for thought I think.  I’ll have to seek out a glamour model using one of the high end MacBook Pros to check their MySpace for comparison.

Is this the scotslawstudent admitting he’s a closet sociopath and voracious reader of technical documentation?  Well, kinda actually. But really I’m trying to make a point about the best move a computer user can make if they find themselves in an unfamilar environment is to stop, take stock of what they want to do and dig out some of the paper they previously ignored in the box. It’s often very, very helpful. Also, MacBook Pros are awesome, aren’t they?

The internationally recognised eject symbol

*The internationally recognised eject symbol

Twitter as a legal blogging tool

Twitter is a microblogging system which is currently getting heavy media coverage. Microblogging is exactly what it sounds like – it’s small blog posts. Whereas you might need to sit down and fire up the word processor to write a blog post you should think nothing of firing off a quick status update if you’ve got a spare half minute. The integration with various other bits of modern computing is particularly impressive – I have a Twitter client built into my notification panel on my desktop and mobile Tweeting is highly polished. Twitter provides an API for anyone to hook their system with whatever front end program that they care to make and that’s very good and means we might see some very interesting applications which include it.

Twitter is great for status updates, and this is also something that it’s been criticised for – with the typical argument being why would people be interested in knowing what you’re doing all the time? It’s built around the SMS text message standard and that means that there’s a size limit on the messages – 140 characters. 140 characters is this much:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut at diam. Sed odio odio, aliquet ac, luctus ac, suscipit sit amet, sem. Nulla jus

How much content can you fit into that? Quite a lot actually but it’s quite hard at times and it’s very hard for legal discussion.

The 140 character limit

This is the biggest problem of Twitter while at the same time it leads to its biggest strength. It’s hard to say very much of anything in 140 characters and needs a marked change in style – phone users have adopted an entirely novel code of abbreviations to eke out as much room as possible in the same space but that’s not suitable, I think, for serious debate.  On the other hand we’re taught that conciseness is a virtue it’s a nice change to start thinking about your thoughts in smaller pieces but sometimes you just need that extra space to set out your thoughts, and particularly arguments. It’s hard to fit a balanced, reasoned argument into the space you’ve been given and, as an adult living in a complicated world, I’ve found very few issues come down to a straight uncontested yes and no. Lawyers might be paid to only fight one side but that naturally involves being able to see at least the two arguments in question (and then shoot the other one down, but the adversarial system’s another issue). Some knotty issues are extremely hard to express in a couple of sentences and that doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to discuss these hard topics, just that Twitter isn’t the best medium for them.

What Twitter is fantastic for is simple fact reporting: [So and so] spotted in [such and such a place] doing [something], for example, or Govt to pass new law doing [something]. It’s short, it’s sharp and it doesn’t require any superfluous characters for opposing points of view. Opinion Tweets tend to need sharply edited just to fit into the space allowed. Twitter has been used to great effect to provide election observers with a forum to quickly get their updates out to a large group of people.

The problem of reporting quick, up to the minute facts has often been plagued by the lack of communications links – in fact, for a very long time the quickest way to get news communicated was to write a note and give it to a man with a horse, only recently replaced by running to the nearest phone. Twitter skips over any concept of having to go back to the office because it can be used anywhere. The biggest strength of Twitter is simply (and like many things that are simple to use that’s very complicated to actually make work) that it can be used from everywhere that gets mobile phone reception.

Mobile use

You can tweet from any mobile phone by using SMS or you can access the web site on newer phones. This means that you can use Twitter even where other modes aren’t possible – for example Stephen Fry, a hugely popular Twitter user was stuck in a lift for a few minutes and took the chance to keep up a running commentary of what was happening which he posted on Twitter. That sort of speed isn’t just useful in cases of comedians stuck in lifts, it’s good for matters of life and death. There was a case of a man lost on the mountain who was tracked down through his mobile which was itself tracked down by Twitter. Sadly that proved too late for the lost soul but it’s a far cry from only being able to email from a desktop computer stuck in an office which used to be how people accessed the online world.

Social networking

I’m not the biggest fan of social networking in its current form – I think the people who post every detail of their lives online for anyone to read are unwise and those posting every detail of their lives online for them to be sold to advertisers are being taken advantage of but I quite like the Twitter follower system. It’s less a friend list and more a whitelist for content – you only receive tweets that are written by people you actually want to see. There are options to communicate with users (eg using Direct Messages, @replies and so on) which are extremely useful for users who want to debate. I think the debate capabilities of 140 characters are again difficult to get used to but are very good for instant reply. It’s effectively a public chatroom where two people can talk and be watched by others. That harks back to the philosophers of ancient Athens. There’s no need to go away and write a thesis, you can simply send a quick tweet back from wherever you are. Does that improve the quality of debate? I’m not so sure. Firing off quick answers is no way to debate the laws of physics, for example, but it’s good for softer topics where strict fact checking isn’t as crucial.

The hashtag is a particularly interesting concept though which allows people to tag, just like I’ve tagged this blog post, tweets by topic.  For example, #pmq is intended to be used by people discussing Prime Minister’s Questions and particularly while it’s going on.  Rather than having to have added everyone who talks about Prime Minister’s Questions prior to them making their statement so I get it I can simply filter all tweets with this #pmq tag and read them.  This makes sense to me because it lets you focus on topic rather than users and I simply don’t know all users on Twitter and what they’ll post on but I do know about topics I want to discuss.

Conclusions

I’m not convinced by Twitter. I like it and I use it and I’m using it increasingly as a communications tool rather than a way of simply announcing new posts on the blog (although I still do that) but I think that there’s still advantages in being able to set out what you think in as many words as you need. Judges should never think about reporting back decisions over Twitter, for example. Twitter is good but still for a very particular purpose. It’s very good for pushing out facts to an increasingly mobile audience but it has natural constraints that make it difficult to debate that awareness you’ve raised.   It is a very good awareness raising tool for the lawyer but it is not itself a forum for academic debate.  As part of a lawyer’s online presence I think a healthy, interesting and popular Twitter feed can only be a good thing but it should not be overestimated and may only be of marginal help in attracting professional trade (the Twitter userbase is statistically still small) but not useless and provides a good platform for attracting traffic to a website – my figures have increased somewhat since using Twitter to announce blog posts.

Tagging is a concept that I find particularly interesting as a way of sparking topic centric debate, helping other users find debates they’re interested in and collecting news they’re interested in.  i think this, combined with mobile access, is the killer application of Twitter.

An example of a good legal Twitter feed is, as in most things online and legal, Joel Fights Back.  The students representing Joel provide regular Tweets which keep the campaign’s profile up and often provide hooks to interactive material on the project website.