The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: June, 2011

Lord Rodger RIP

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry died yesterday aged 67.

This is very sad news and means one of the leading Scottish legal minds of this generation is no longer with us.

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Trams, whether you like it or not

Macbeth complained that “I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” and it seems that Edinburgh City Council is up to its knees in something as well.

BBC news reports that it would now cost £750m to not have trams in Edinburgh, which is a far cry from the £545m it was supposed to cost to have them.

You're definitely getting them

I’m regularly disappointed with public building contracts which seem to utterly fail at setting deadlines, cost ceilings, penalties, or even just exit strategies. The trick to running a public building project in the UK seems to be that, if it’s nice enough, people will eventually forget the nightmarish cost and delays involved in getting it there.

The sad thing is that it does seem to work like that. The Scottish Parliament is an example I’m old enough to remember imploding horribly and then being accepted over time.

I’m also regularly impressed with the way government contracts manage to make what are obviously unreasonably low starting bids so large to begin with (IT projects are particularly jaw dropping for me because a fair few of them seem within the reach of one guy with a laptop) but it’s how they can grow from that which is really shocking.

I have no experience with major building projects but even I can see that you’d want to agree on a price with a builder and not pay an extra couple of hundred million on top of that. I can think of a fairly basic way of incentivising a builder to finish on time, charge you what you agreed and not go on strike. It’s called a contract.

I think that contracts, particularly several hundred million pound taxpayer funded ones, should be written carefully and fairly. It seems strange that it’s even possible to be hundreds of millions of pounds over budget on something and every time I see this I have two equal thoughts, firstly “that’s a lot of money wasted” and secondly “I should really get on that”. I’m serious about the second one; the money seems to be fantastic and I don’t know how to manage a major building project either so I should be fine.

BBC News reports:

Andrew Burns, Edinburgh City Council’s Labour leader, said: “This is a project which Audit Scotland gave a clean bill of health in June 2007.

“Since then it has totally unravelled.”

“I believe it would be wrong to commit further public money to trams.”

And the problem is not so much that a project can unravel, it’s that the suppliers seem to be able to use a project unravelling as a way to bill quite a bit more.

It seems that public projects suffer from being too big to fail. A contractor who catastrophically bungles building a housing estate will simply have their ass sued off by the developer who’ll calmly add their per day losses, which the commercial contract probably put onto the defaulting party, for as long as the court process takes. On the other hand, a contractor who digs up a major city’s high street and then threatens industrial action unless they get eighty million pounds simply needs to be paid off as quickly as possible. We desperately need to get away from that power imbalance.

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On editing

“Editing is just like writing, except hateful, and in reverse. Instead of birthing words and ideas out of nothing, you’re murdering them in cold blood, culling them like sickly sheep weakening the flock.”

Robert Brockway, Cracked.com

One of the most shocking tips I ever got for producing decent written work for uni was to spend half as long again on editing as I did on writing. Thankfully that doesn’t include research time.

Half as long again. Yup.

There are three big stages in written work: research, writing, editing. In larger pieces of work these steps are even iterative.

Editing is one of the stages that I feel has the most potential for grabbing marks from so it’s worth your time. I often found that I’d leave assignments to the last minute and, looking at deadlines and editing seems temptingly optional at that point. In my experience it’s rarely a good idea. Beyond feeling like a luxury intended for more organised people it also hurts to delete words that don’t fit. I compromise by having a clippings file where I keep bits of what I’ve written that didn’t make it in the final submission. It’s a depressingly large file.

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The value of spam

A must read paper has been published:

Levchenko, Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain, Proceedings of 32nd annual Symposium on Security and Privacy 2011 (PDF)

It really goes without saying that someone must click on those links that come in spam emails or they wouldn’t send them. Spam isn’t a pointless annoyance; it’s a form of direct marketing. The basic technology behind spam is just vast networks of computers (often botnets) sending email and is fairly pedestrian as it goes. The only impressive thing is really the scale and a very healthy proportion of all human communication in history is spam.

The technological side of spam has been fairly well researched but spam has not really been examined from a technical-economic perspective and certainly not in an end-to-end fashion. This is what this paper does. It works out where the money goes and that’s revolutionary.

The weak link in the money chain seems to be the relatively few banks willing to handle the credit card transactions. Spam regulation, if we want to regulate it, could do worse than target these organisations.

Why wouldn’t we want to regulate spam? For me the most interesting lesson of the paper is the sheer quality of the spam based retail service. You tend to get what you ordered, it tends to be the real thing and you tend not to get your credit card ripped off at the end of it. I had pretty much assumed that even just clicking on a link in a spam email would be signing up for viruses and credit card fraud. It turns out some of these people even have pretty decent customer service set up.

H/T: Bruce Schneier Crypto-Gram 1106

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Excellent advice

From Bad Metaphors:

“If ever in life you find yourself thinking of a group of human beings as nonhuman — be it cartoonish caricatures or monsters or whatever — you’ve gone wrong. If you’re ever making an entire race or gender the watermelon in your Gallagher routine, you’re making yourself a worse person and making the world a worse place.”

-David Wong, Cracked.com, on racist jokes

It’s aimed at racist jokes but it’s great advice for everything. It’s very easy to start thinking about the “other side” without thinking that the other side is nearly always going to be you with a different perspective and that hurts your options for dealing with them.

Universities to change degree results?

This is a fairly dramatic proposal.

Currently, as I suspect every single reader of this blog knows all too well, three or four year honours degrees are effectively summarised into a final year mark of first, upper/lower second and third class honours. This leaves you with an easily conveyed measure of academic achievement to give to potential employers. The problem tends to be in the margins where the difference between scoring 59.9% and 60% can end up being what job you do for the rest of your life and even policies of rounding up can’t completely eliminate the boundary.

Unfortunately it’s getting to a point where larger graduate employers using automated job application searches are simply not looking at anything below a 2:1 and it’s leaving a large chunk of graduates invisible. There are proposals to change this to a portfolio based scheme called the “higher education achievement report” (HEAR), where an employer gets a summary of what you’ve done over your whole university career which, depending on your class:union ratio is either a great idea or a bit terrifying.

The LLB is quite good for bringing in more than just final year results (which just adds to the pressure I found) for further law qualifications but it seems to be less keen on extra-cirrcular material which the HEAR would bring in.

H/T: The Guardian

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Checklists

I’m enjoying some time off after my exams (I got an email from uni telling me to pay my library fines or else today) and I’ve been catching up on things on the blogosphere. I was reading Ben Goldacre’s Secondary Blogtoday and found an old, in Internet years, post (26 May 2011) about newspaper corrections.

There is a site, regrettheerror.com which includes a checklist for not getting things wrong. The writer suggests that working from a checklist provides a memory jogger which helps you check that you’re not forgetting anything while doing the primary thing you were doing. Memory is not fallible, especially if you’re distracted, and jogging it is important.

Part of the checklist is about getting your ducks in a row as a working journalist: having your interviews recorded and research saved for future reference and so on. Some of it is simply checking the details: checking your maths and, because it’s writing, if you’ve dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

The interesting one for me is at the end of “While Reporting”:

Ask sources what other reports got wrong.

This is a genius move. Kudos to Craig Silverman for sharing it. Finding out that there are common mistakes in an area is a good first step to avoiding falling into them (you’re probably not special enough to make entirely novel mistakes).

It should go without saying that being accurate is an extremely important skill for just about anyone. It’s hard to see a sphere in life where being wrong is a benefit.

H/T: Ben Goldacre’s Secondary Blog

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