The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: August, 2009

The paperless law student

The wondrous instrument of paper has many benefits – I drafted this post out in pen and then typewrote it to post so I’m convinced but it has other problems, not to mention filing and storage.

One approach is to borrow from the cutting edge of professional practice – to go paperless.

Paperlessness

This is simply the act of converting all paper documents to digital files and to keep the whole process digital as much as possible.  This requires a bit more computer power than just typing essays but give you searchability advantages and use everywhere abilities.

The catch

Professional lawyers are pointed towards the ScanSnap 1500/1500M which is a duplex, automatic document feeder model. This means you can simply leave a stack of papers in the feeder and come back to a folder full of OCR analysed searchable PDFs regardless of what other work you have to do.  This is what £400 of scanner buys you.  I consider that to be rather a lot of money to have to spend – my laptop cost me just £330 for contrast – on just the scanner part of the system and that is why I cannot quite recommend it for the average student.

Next is the difference between paper and on screen – you need quite a substantial scree to see all of a page at once – 17-19″ wide screen monitor turned 90 degrees is one option while a 24″ whopper should let you see two full pages side by side without shrinking the text down.  These are big monitors and certainly bigger than those found on laptops. I sometimes turn my laptop on its side and read like a bright, single sided book.  For desktop use, though a big monitor is the comfortable way to go so therefore an external big monitor a good move. That means two quite big purchases are recommended off the bat. If you’ve ever tried to look at a full page PDF (and then type an essay at the same time) you’ll realise how hard the task of researched writing can be in cramped conditions.

Going ahead

While I have made it clear that going paperless as you’re recommended to do it involves spending a fair bit of money I have made a try of it with nothing more than the multifunction printer I use to print off Amazon receipts.  This works but it’s quite slow (certainly at “full laser” resolution of 600dpi – to give good results if you need to print it out. I think that is unnecessary and 150dpi or so will work just as well, while being much quicker and saving you a fair bit of storage space) and I need to put each page in separately.  On the other hand this scanner can do books – which an ADF couldn’t – but feeding it individual sheets takes time.

That said – being able to put all my documents into the scanner and then copying the files to my laptop and having, at this point, years of files to flip through, if I need them.  Being able to search the files makes the range of material pretty broad.  Search cannot replace study and I would rather read paper copies on the bus but being able to put my hands on quotes and citations very quickly is always good.  Even my cut price version of paperless works well enough to be useful.

Thanks to the Lawyerist for the paperless tips and tricks as it relates to lawyers in professional practice.  I think their advice – spending more to get automatic document scanners, setting up workflows to handle the weight of paperwork that may cross their desks – is extremely advisable to professionals working under high pressure and under heavy workloads.  My advice is targetted towards students who probably do not need what is effectively a robot to do their scanning for them and could probably use the money elsewhere.  This needs to be balanced against the cost of waiting for a non ADF scanner to finish a stack of sheets however, since you need to feed each page by hand.

Snapter, a program I’ve discussed previously, is always a good option for mobile paperlessness as long as you get into the habit of following its requirements.

Attached is an example of the problem of monitor resolution – this was the previous blog post in scanned and OCR format. As you can see, the whole page width fits on one side of my laptop monitor and only the edge of the screen is left for the actual word processing document.  That is a strange set of priorities but one that would need a considerably higher resolution monitor than is present on my laptop to rectify.

OCR editing

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Taking a laptop to school or college

Mac Observer has published an article on the tips and details for students wanting to deal with the hassle and benefits of bringing a laptop to university. I think he makes some good points, although the advice certainly doesn’t depend on the brand of the laptop.

Transport

Transport is the biggest concern for students who stay at home and commute to university. Those living in dorms get away with, generally, less travel but with the concerns of possible theft.

I think the best way to transport a laptop at uni is a lot like how you’d do it with a bike. You want to immobilise it to stop it swinging about as you move and stressing the components.

Another good tip is to get a case which you can slide the laptop straight into – so a top opening, padded, laptop compartment in your bag is pretty brilliant. I use a padded neoprene slip case which fits in my backpack like a document wallet. It works and it protects my computer for less than a new bag but at the cost of being slower to unpack and pack when I want to use it, for example in lectures and tutorials. This needs to be added to the time needed for the laptop to be ready for you to use – starting up and loading programs. In this regard good and reliable sleep/suspend modes are a great asset.

Weight

Weight is an important issue but I think it can be overstated. Even for those who will never play prop on the university rugby team it is unlikely that any laptop you decide to pack in your bag will be cripplingly heavy. Today’s laptops are considerably lighter an d smaller than those of yesteryear. At the very worst you may find your bag works as weight training and you build some muscle. Obviously avoid a huge laptop because besides being weighty it will also be unwieldy. Most laptops are still portable enough for university without spending more for an ultraportable model. I think Mac Observer’s suggested MacBook Air is a lot of money to spent avoiding 680g of extra weight and the difference between that and a regular MacBook could probably be spent better elsewhere. Obviously if, on reading this, you realise that your MacBook Air is unsuitable for your university backpack please get in touch with the Scots Law Student MacBook Air Re-homing project because I haven’t got one. You will most likely find the extra weight pretty unnoticeable, especially when you add a single textbook or bottle of water (always an idea to have in your bag) and neutralise that hard bought weight saving.

Security

The security tips are a good move – if you have a couple of thousand. pounds (potentially) worth of computer equipment in a desirable and inherently portable product it is necessary to consider the risk that someone might take it.

This is particularly important for students living in dorms and halls because losing a computer is both a loss of corporeal movable property but also a significant loss of information, work and time.

Think Geek sells, for a lot of money, a wall mounted laptop safe which lets you bolt the laptop, secure inside a metal case, to the firmament of the building itself. I have no doubt this would be an pretty effective anti theft measure.

For people less worried about the threat of theft a cable lock is probably all you’ll need. These bike chain like devices attach to the rectangular slot on most laptops and then loop around a sturdy piece of furniture. This will protect you from people up to the point of lifting furniture / cutting the chain. If these methods both fail you could follow the example of an American law student who simply fought off his robber with a warcry of “not my case outlines!”

I think their encryption tips – encrypted disc images in particular – are worth noting but personally don’t use it myself. I don’t feel I have all that much in the way of files that need protection, I have an encrypted password database and that does me instead.

Insurance

If your laptop is still stolen the best option is to make sure your computer has been insured – you may lose your computer but you report it as stolen (as it may well be), and then replace it on, ideally, your parent’s home contents insurance and you offer to pay the excess. I wouldn’t be a law student if I didn’t point the need to check that your belongings are indeed protected under the policy while you are away at university.

Backup

If your computer is stolen you’ll probably lose a lot of your work. I keep a lot of notebooks, files and boxes of notes but I still have a considerable amount of work on my computer that I would desperately not want to lose. This differs from trying to keep possession of your computer, but is just as important.

Backup doesn’t need to be difficult. Mac Observer points its readers to the Time Machine feature on recent versions this provides versioning backup for all of your files with very little configuration. All that needs is a suitable Mac and a big external hard drive. Apple offer their own Time Machine wireless wireless hubs which are obviously wireless and convenient but any external hard drive will work and with Misco.co.uk offering a 1 terrabyte one for £67.8 – or under 7p a gigabyte (I have used just about 2 GB in my entire university career) so they are becoming very reasonably priced.

Backups don’t need ts be particularly fancy, just as as long as they are regular. Copying your home directory (Mac/Linux) or My Documents folder (Windows) onto a portable hard drive, assuming it’s done regularly, can be just as effective as buying a professional, automated product to do it for you.

A good backup protects your data from accidents that destroy your computer like battery fires etc and even robbery assuming if it isn’t taken along with the computer.

These tips apply to the lowliest netbook to the shiniest boutique gaming laptop, from the sveltest ultraportable to the chunkiest mediacentre. Get a good bag so you can carry it healthily. Get a security setup, make sure losing it isn’t irretrievable and be able to continue with your studies without, it even temporarily. This is particularly important around assessment time.

Blog Recommendation: Mediation Channel

Fallacious argument of the month

Lawyers spend a great deal of time working on argument, and students do as well. The problem is dealing with the point at which argument merely becomes persuasion. It is all fine and well to go out with the aim of convincing a judge about the moral rightness of your submission but if you learned colleague across the bar decides to be tricky and asks you to argue on the law then you may be sunk.

I picked this up by way of Baby Barista’s Blawg Review, I’m still not in it but give it time, and I think it’s an extremely interesting section – on the first Monday of each month the writer intends to post a discussion about bad arguing styles.  Last month’s was the strawman argument – something we’ve probably all succumbed to in one way or another but very dangerous when brought out in serious discussion. Debates about the rationality of religion seem to be particularly at risk to this.

False analogies are a serious problem in today’s discussions. I encountered a serious case of it while discussing the implications of the Sky News IT repair investigation. Computers are a particularly difficult place for analogies and things like “files” which you’d think are pretty comparable to real life files just aren’t. It’s all metaphorical already. The post links to a New York Times article about the decision to stop covering analogy in the American SATs – the article claims that being able to recognise poor arguments is an essential skill in a citizen. The article’s right.

I’m going to keep watching this section for my own interest and I’d certainly recommend it to others.

Website recommendation: Typographyforlawyers.com

Of all the websites I could recommend here this will not be the immediately most useful one but I think it’s definitely worth having a look at. www.typographyforlawyers.com is both an example of just how big a country the US is and also a very useful resource on how to set out readable text. I am not a lawyer, but my official day job still involves putting words on and therefore typographyforlawyers.com is useful for me. It’s not designed to teach you how to draft a contract or how to write a letter but it is designed to teach you to set it out attractively and to optimise for readability. It is written by a man who changed careers from typographer to lawyer (and, to demonstrate the number of people in America he is not the only person to have done this) who presents both sides of the argument neatly. He also provides guidance based on the practice guidance of American courts. It would be interesting to know the guidance from our own courts compares.

Given the amount of work that the average student would naturally pour into their words it makes sense to then learn a little about how to present it in an attractive and professional way. You don’t particularly need a huge investment of time – you can certainly put more time in if you feel inclined – but the site itself is a quick read which is logically arranged into a sensible introduction and beginning, intermediate and advanced sections.

The main lesson that I took from the site was that you need to treat printed text differently to onscreen text – I think because of the markedly higher resolution involved. That means that some fonts, for example the ones included with an operating system, are optimised for screen use as opposed to print use and this is not ideal. A more important lesson to take from it is that typography is an effective way to make a document more persuasive and more intelligible. It is not able to make a document’s content better than it is but it can make it clearer and give it a touch of style at the same time.

Text advertising

Advertising is something that has been on my mind lately – I discovered I’m a little less happy with the advertising policy on WordPress.com than I thought I was.  In short non premium users just can’t advertise on their blog, effectively you have to pay $300/m to put Adwords up, I thought this was a great way to present a professional looking blog and to weed out all the spam bots who set up advertising scraper blogs on blogger etc.  However WordPress.com is able to push text ads to anonymous users on your blog, it turns out that this is how they make their money and not through service upgrades.  I’m not sure how I feel about my (not vast, to be frank) search engine referred traffic seeing contextual advertising despite my choice not to put it up but I’m also surprised how convoluted it was to actually find this out.

Regardless of my WordPress.com woes I am just back from my second holiday of the summer, I think this is the single most influential line of the entire blog in terms of making people look at studying law at university.  I was doing part of the West Highland Way as best as I could manage and I was periodically checking my phone to save the battery. During one particularly nice hilltop break I received a text which read:

“You may be entitled to 6000 pounds compensation for the Accident you had. To claim for free reply with YES to this msg.”

I remember receiving a text welcoming me to France earlier in the year, as soon as the network detects you are roaming it pushes a standard message to you.  I do wonder if this was something related to the route itself, or if I’m just being targeted for advertising.