The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Category: Tech

Kindle update

I have waxed lyrical about my love for the Amazon Kindle before so I’m naturally interested in Amazon’s revamp.

Regular readers will remember that my only complaints about the Kindle were its annotation features (particularly export) and the keyboard. Therefore, I’m quite happy to see what they’ve done now:

Kindle Touch

Kindle Touch

  • faster hardware
  • slightly smaller
  • lower price
  • eInk display
  • touch screen
  • that awful keyboard is gone

I’m focusing on the eInk device still because I think it suits my purposes better. I just want to read a large number of documents on the bus without having to kill someone’s printer.

The Kindle Touch is not available in the UK yet but it’s surely a matter of time. I think the new touch screen should make the annotation feature more friendly than it used to be. The iPad’s great advantage for marking up documents is that you can swipe your finger across the text you want to highlight. This is a bit of a half way solution as it’s still necessary to get your highlights off the Kindle unless you want to type it out manually and I haven’t heard anything about that. I’m not sure that I’ll ever justify an upgrade to a touch screen device just for easier highlighting.

I also think I’d some how miss having a button to press to change pages when reading. I’m not convinced about swiping between pages.

Kindle Fire

Kindle Touch
The Kindle Fire seems like an interesting device but it’s very different from the Kindle Touch. It’s an Android based device with an LCD touch display. I suspect it’s going to be fantastic for media use. It’s fundamentally a Kindle with a colour screen but I don’t think it’ll be as good at living in your bag overnight. The Kindle Fire will need charged much more often than an eInk Kindle.

However, if you need more power and any sort of colour graphics in your Kindle this is the only option.

Kindle

Kindle Touch

My recommendation though, based on what I know of the Kindle 3 and what I don’t like about it, is the Kindle. It’s essentially a slightly smaller, faster, cheaper Wifi Kindle 3 without the rubbish keyboard (it has a probably much, much worse virtual keyboard instead).

The new low end model, the Kindle, is now keyboard-less and operated by a small 5-way control and 4 buttons (I assume Home, Menu, Back, and Text) with a virtual keyboard available. Amazon.co.uk is selling it for £89 and that’s a tempting price. The photocopy metric on that is “only” 1780 pages. I think that’s the the one to go for if you’re buying a new Kindle today.

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Dropbox ToS becoming less of a sure thing

Not so very long ago there was an absolute staple of my computing life: Dropbox. Friends who got new computers would find themselves signed up for Dropbox and I would keep one year of university files in my Dropbox at any time for access from the web interface or my laptop. The versioning system was very useful sometimes.

That was fine when they were a reasonably interesting startup company. They supplied a service which was great, necessary and I can’t think of anything quite like it just now. It’s not all been good though.

They released some new policies following of some fairly terrifying security lapses in which the entire nature of their product had to be re-assessed. Dropbox’s big USP back when I started using it was that everything was encrypted — you could send your files off to some strange company knowing that it was encrypted as it travelled and encrypted as it resided with Dropbox (stored communications are important too). Then it was revealed that, obviously, Dropbox could decrypt your files when they had them and there’s confusion about just how much encryption is really used.

They then had a bizarre security breach where they apparently turned their password system off for a few hours but left the file sharing system up. I didn’t really think that the two were separate.

I have two main thoughts about the new terms of service, one is about the terms themselves and the other is the reaction that the new terms have generated.

The terms

The policies are drafted in a deliberately non-threatening plain-language way, so as to try and fix their image. It’s interesting to see contracts being used as public relations devices but I don’t think it’s really worked; most people didn’t read them (of course) and the people who did are picking at how they’re written.

Plain language drafting is a bit of a holy grail – the idea is to draft clearly and precisely and well duh, because the alternative is stupid. Drafting should be as simple as possible. Fluffy, non threatening drafting isn’t what is required. You can clearly see what Dropbox meant when it wrote the terms but, from my reading, the terms don’t strictly line up with that.

One of the stand out issues for me is the cute “your stuff” that they’ve used: your stuff is defined as your information, files, and folders and your stuff gets to be used however they like, for the purposes of running Dropbox. Although I wouldn’t have lumped my personal information in with my files and folders (I certainly don’t expect Dropbox to process any of my personal information contained in the files I store with them) that’s a mostly stylistic choice but it does mean that every time they say “stuff” later on they’re talking about a huge range of material, some I want distributed to other people, some I want kept limited to my own machines and some I want locked in a safe. I’m not entirely comfortable granting a licence allowing Dropbox to distribute and copy my stuff when, strictly speaking, my stuff includes any payment details I have on record with them. I’m not even sure that the Privacy Policy would definitely overrule me voluntarily granting them a licence.

The main flaw in the agreements is the lack of definition of “the Service”. I can imagine my legislation tutor’s reaction if I handed in a drafting assignment that failed to define “the Service” in a “Terms of Service” agreement. Dropbox can do what they need to do with your stuff to provide you with the service but don’t say what that service consists of. I can assume that the service involves taking a copy of my files and spitting them out over the Internet but anything more detailed is a mystery. If it was easy you’d do it yourself.

The reaction: contracts as PR

One of the main complaints is that the update was the 4th of July weekend so it seemed that they were burying it. I personally don’t see that Internet companies really need to bury changes to their terms and conditions because no one reads them anyway.

The other side is that people who got the announcement (sent by email) despite the holiday weekend promptly got out magnifying glasses and looked to see how Dropbox was trying to screw them. A lot of people don’t trust lawyers and by extension they don’t trust contracts. This is why I think it’s interesting to see contracts being used as PR devices. Users who have pointed out that the terms are pretty broad have been accused of “presuming malice”.

I can’t really believe that Terms of Service agreements will ever be particularly effective as a public relations tool. Almost no one reads them, the people who do don’t trust them (if you trusted it to be acceptable you wouldn’t read it) and your audience may not be able to read them in the first place. The plain language drafting has left it vague enough that, as far as I can see, pretty much everyone blogging about it has made reasonably sensible interpretations of the terms and they’ve all been supported by provisions in the agreements.

However, pretty much no one blogging about this has actually agreed on what the terms say.

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Kindle for law students

I got a Kindle for my birthday this year and I think it’s a great thing. The interesting thing is that I think it’s deeply flawed in a few ways (the annotation features and the keyboard for two) but regardless think it’s amazing.

In particular the current model begins to puts a dent into the logic of using photocopiers. I’m a huge fan of photocopying, of course, because it’s the best thing ever and all law students love doing it.

Interestingly, it’s suggested that students are actually doing more reading than they used to because of the increased use of computer resources. There isn’t the same need for students to spend time buried in the stacks fighting over the one copy of a set text and that leaves more time for them to read the set text. Whether or not students pouring over endless piles of PDFs is a good thing is, of course, something humans are not allowed to agree on.

2011 EWHC 1578 (Admin) is R v Hookway

The photocopy metric

I’ve written about paperless law students before and, although it’s getting better, the economics still don’t quite stack up. My university does 5p/sheet photocopying and this is relatively high as photocopying costs go. Nonetheless, at £111 for a Wifi-only Kindle you break even when you read the equivalent of 2220 A4 pages on your Kindle and I’m aware that’s a big number. I’m not sure exactly how many pages I read at uni but my impression is you are going to manage that at some point during your degree (it’s not all that many 20-30 page cases and journal articles spread over the years). That said four and a half reams is a big chunk of pages and it won’t pay for itself quickly compared to a photocopier. You’re still paying a fair bit for convenience.

You can’t completely replace photocopying with a Kindle because you may still need it for copying books and paper only periodicals as well as printing out submissions, bundles and so on but you’ll not need to spend quite so long printing out case reports and journal articles and it’s easier to read a kindle on the bus than a thick stack of A4. Bear in mind that, as you go through your degree, you start reading fewer and fewer textbooks and more and more journal articles so it becomes increasingly handy. In terms of reading it should be perfectly fine for law students. I can understand that certain disciplines are unsuited to a device which is designed to display text but law is not one of them.

The "flip through" problem continues for ebook readers and I still don’t see any practical way to fix it. I don’t think this is such a concern for journal articles as it is for textbooks. I think that you consume journal articles from beginning to end and flipping to the middle of an article doesn’t make sense in the same way that flipping to the middle of a textbook does.

Display

The Kindle’s stand out feature is its display. E-ink is effectively an electromagnetic printer which applies and removes ink onto a surface on demand. The screen is incredibly paper like and I’ve experienced no eye strain (to be fair I don’t really get eye strain looking at a backlit display either) when using it. It’s like using paper which changes which you press a button.

The black and white flicker effect when you change pages is a bit annoying but it lasts for a fraction of a second and it’s the very definition of a first world problem. The display works extremely well (perhaps better) in strong light which means that it can be used by windows or outside but there is a slight sheen on the display which can cause some reflections. As someone who has sat inside on nice days reading case reports on my laptop that is worth the price of admission alone.

Annotation

The markup features on the Kindle are just alright. They’re not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. The lack of a touch interface means that highlighting is fiddly and there doesn’t seem to be a way to get your highlighted documents onto your computer. You can copy your highlighted text over a USB cable but you can’t display highlighted case reports on your computer. I prefer to write notes rather than highlight the text so this wasn’t a huge concern for me but depending on your style it could be substantial. I think Amazon should really make it easier to use your annotated "personal documents" (ie. documents on your Kindle not purchased from Amazon) with the desktop software.

Keyboard

The keyboard on the Kindle is frankly not designed to be used. It’s a waste of space in its current form. The only things on the Kindle that require typing are 1) the browser and 2) notes but the keyboard really hamstrings them. Amazon has to fix that.

iPad

There are some rather more substantial PDF based tools available on, for example, the iPad (which really blows the photocopy metric out of the water: the break even point on a 16GB iPad is 7980 pages) which I’m not going to recommend for a student. I think a student has much more pressing financial concerns than owning two computers, especially if one is just there to annotate PDFs. If you can afford it and you want one you should go ahead. My view on the iPad is that it’s a good device but it’s pretty expensive for a student.

Calibre

My main use of the Kindle in practice, mostly due to getting it in the latter part of my honours year, has been newspapers. There is a fantastic program called Calibre which lets you email the paper to your kindle every day and I find that convenient for the bus in the mornings as well as being cheaper than buying a paper.

Calibre also handles converting most document types into a format that the Kindle can understand (and Amazon can also directly convert documents themselves). The device itself has a relatively narrow range of supported formats but conversion programs exist to allow a wide range of documents to work.

I think all Kindle owners should install Calibre pretty much as a matter of course because it is such a useful piece of software.

Conclusion

As you can see I think the Kindle is a flawed device in many ways but it does something, for a very reasonable price, which is pretty hard to complain about. The e-ink display is fantastic and really makes the device, with the battery life and easy over-the-air sync being why you should it love it.

The Kindle won’t be your one-thing-to-get-you-through-law-school computing device but there is no such thing anyway. If you’re looking for a good, reasonably priced device for reading case reports in the park or on the bus I think you have to consider the Kindle.

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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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Edge (TM)

Words and symbols are funny things and some people attach particular significance to them. By some people I mean lawyers, obviously, and I also mean consumers. Trade marks are an important part of business and some times it’s amazing what has been trademarked – Intel has a common law mark in 5 musical notes and a famous, formerly British chocolate company has trademarked the colour purple. I don’t think I need to name the company because I told you their distinguishing trade mark – it’s obviously Cadbury’s. Although perhaps my sweet tooth is showing through there. You’re not allowed to wrap your chocolate bar in Cadbury purple and put it on shelves because consumers, fairly reasonably, would associate your product with the goodwill built up in the real Cadbury’s chocolate products and be confused into thinking that your product was a Cadbury’s product. Emotive writers would say it’s effectively using deception to steal their customers.

There are some exceptions in what you can trademark – there’s the Barcelona.com v Barcelona cases in which a city council tried to assert proprietary rights in the name of their geographical location. That didn’t fly and http://www.barcelona.com remains in private hands. But even very common things, like a sound or a colour or the first word you learn in school can be trademarked till the cows come home – just ask Apple Computer and Apple Music.

What about ’Edge’ ?

Therefore in principle there’s no reason why you couldn’t have a trade mark in the word ’edge’ and, in fact, quite a few people do. However one guy who almost certainly doesn’t is Tim Langdell who has suffered quite a substantial setback to his campaign of, a lot of commentators think, pretty ludicrous patent (technically also trade mark) trolling in the decision of Langdell v EA not to grant Langdell an interim injunction against EA’s rather successful video game ’Mirror’s Edge’.

The judge, unfortunately for Langdell, seems to have been persuaded by EA’s argument that this guy is kind of full of it. They showed a poorly Photoshopped cover of Edge magazine (presumably a trade mark of… Edge Magazine) which was used to show how Langdell had good will built up in the mark.

Pro tip: if your application for IP protection involves shoddily Photoshopped covers of magazines that belong to other people you should generally reconsider your business model.

Langdell’s angle

He seems to have got by thus far by simply telling people who use the word edge in a product that he has something similar and it’s always been easier and cheaper to just buy him off. The something similar can be laughably poor, and often effectively taken from someone else and retrospectively licensed to him, but it creates enough doubt in the generally very small companies that he targets that the only thing to do is avoid a crippling intellectual property court battle and settle. It seems to have worked out really well for him.

The issues involved in working out if a trade mark has been infringed are complicated. You need to work out pretty exact figures for loss, confusion, competition, scale, distribution and so on. The general independent (indie) games producer just can’t afford to fund a legal battle as well as make a game that will sell and make the money spent on it back for the creator and it is a crippling thing. There is a company called Ad-droid which is being sued by Lucasarts for infringing on the Droid trademark they have from the Star Wars movies – ’These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’ etc – and that’s just hanging over the company because they don’t know what will happen and if they can afford it. You need to be a pretty large company just to be able to defend a full intellectual property case.

Fortunately Electronic Arts (EA) is one of the biggest games companies in history, certainly the biggest video games company, and they looked at this request to stop selling a multi-million dollar game and pay damages to him and decided they wouldn’t do that. Instead they took him straight to court where they’ve won a major (though not decisive) victory.

EA is also one of the most hated video games companies in history, so seeing them throw around their considerable corporate might in a David versus Goliath legal struggle and not appear to be quasi-monopolistic bullies must be a wonderful change for them. Please keep it up EA, this is really good of you.

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ACS Lulz

ACS Law is one of the controversial law firms which mass mails file sharing cease, desist and pay letters to tens of thousands of people at a time. They often do it with seriously limited information and end up getting a lot, a lot, of false positives. One of the senior employees for the firm put out a tender looking for a program to be written which could sit on bit torrent swarms and record the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of the people involved – he’s thought to have only paid about £250-£750 for it. They may use that software (they did pay good money for it after all) or they may use different software, no one actually knows how they do it, but they end up with a long list of IP addresses. They then send the screeds of IPs to ISPs (Internet Service Provider) and ask for real world identities of the computers identified in the swarm. They send out letters to the people the ISP identifies asking for money – they average about £900 a letter.

Shockingly, the ISPs generally comply with this. Only two British ISPs – Virgin and TalkTalk – actually insist on you having a court order before they give out personal information. That sounds like a data loss incident in the making.

The IP tracing method is unable to identify a particular computer or particular person. It’s even iffy about how well it can assess the particular time it took place. It certainly cannot tell if you have the file at present. The most common example of why you might be falsely accused is simply because your ISP gave away your IP address to someone else. It’s not your address to keep (unless you make a specific arrangement to keep it) and if you’re not using it someone else could. There are stories of university printers in the US (the little grey box that paper with words on comes out of kind of printer) being served with IP (Intellectual Property this time) infringement litigation because an IP address was identified as being involved with file sharing but now that IP address has been given to a printer.

The long and the short of it is the printer didn’t do it.

The other common way that the IP method fails miserably is if someone is using your wireless connection. In this case it is your IP from your ISP that is downloading the file but you have absolutely nothing to do with it. The problem of proving (even just to the balance of probabilities) that someone you don’t know exists is using your wifi without your knowledge to download files without your permission is a pretty big ask, especially when the cost of defending a copyright infringement action is around £10,000. “A big boy did it and ran away” didn’t work in school and you certainly wouldn’t bet ten grand on it.

Despite the methodical flaws in the system the firm continues sending letters out regardless (is this a case of happily promoting bogus methods a la Singh?). Some of the examples of false positives are both horrifying and darkly funny – the elderly, computerless couple accused of downloading a gay porn movie called “Army Fucking”, for example.

So, they’re a dodgy, greedy company and they have been for ages. Why am I writing about them today?

Well, they’ve been Anon’d. Hard.

Anonymous (big A) is an anonymous (small a) group of internet users who basically troll – that is, annoy – certain people who either deserve it or are funny in some way. They have some horrible moments (there was the time that they decided that a teenager had committed suicide because he had lost his iPod and decided to prank call his grieving parents to tell them so) and some quite impressive moments – Scientology, which for the purposes of French law and South Park is a fairly dangerous way of getting money out of people on the basis of religion, no longer has any web presence worth the name because Anonymous systematically destroyed it.

They have pursued a strategy of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on the websites of groups that fit the deserve it or funny in some way criterion and their current target is www.acs-law.co.uk. Feel free to click that link, if you’re reading this anytime close to when I wrote this it’s not going to work.

A denial of service (DoS) attack simply bombards an internet service with so many requests that it stops working. Sending a fax machine hundreds of 100% black pages until it runs out of paper and toner is a denial of service attack. A distributed denial of service attack is simply getting lots of people to do it so that it is more practicable to do – so rather than you sending the fax machine hundreds of black pages at your expense you get hundreds of people to send one black page each to the machine, splitting the effort but achieving the same result.

That means that the site was taken offline, to protect other people who have sites on the same server, and it then became a rush for ACS Law to get the site back up in a form that let them do business (they are a predominately mail and internet based firm at this point – they’re yet to go to court over one of these file sharing allegations) but in a way that doesn’t get immediately taken back down again.

They did it horribly wrong.

They somehow managed to post up, instead of their company website, a back up of their entire corporate network. Including, notably, their email database. This was rapidly downloaded and is now on bit torrent, just for some extra irony on top. I’m not sure about the specific legality of the files – I suspect that posting your email on the home page of your website means that you’ve effectively waived confidentiality and privilege in terms of the information contained in them but you would need a judge to say for sure.

I suppose they do still own the copyright in them though.

The emails are pretty damaging stuff. They basically show the inner lives of people who basically seem to run their whole lives from their company email (he has fights with his ex-wife in some of the messages). They show that companies that ACS actually works for are uneasy about the sort of coverage the firm is getting. They show that ACS law made warnings towards suing Which? for libel over their coverage of old grannies being sent impossible file sharing letters.

The torrent is about 400MB and has to be one of the top results if you search for ACS law at this point. I’m not really going to read through it all but the extracts are pretty gripping stuff. Torrentfreak is going crazy over it.

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Apple iPad

Here’s one that’s been sitting my drafts for a fair while so here is some light of day for it.

Apple has released a new internet device yesterday (relative to when this was written) which has pretty much filled Twitter ever since. You have probably heard of this if you used the internet in the last year or so.

I particularly like the built in iBooks program. I actually own an iBook so I find this slightly confusing, the iBook was a laptop and iBooks is an online ebook store. I really think that having such a big player in the market will really change what we see in the ebook market. I hope it means that we will have the sort of really amazing media features that you can do with computer technology. The New York Times has already shown off an application where you can read their newspaper and have inline video content. I think that’s really very impressive. Apple is not a publishing company, it wants to sell books so that people have a reason to buy their iPad device. Therefore things which are good for selling the iPad will be pushed for. I think that bodes well for user experience and possibly price if not necessarily choice. Also they’re selling them in ePub format and more stores should do that.

There’s been a real internet backlash against it. I think this is probably because it’s been the single biggest tech story of the decade. The “Apple Tablet” was the big non-surprise of the year. People expected it to just about make your tea for you. The main complaint is that it’s just a big iPhone. I think this seems to forget that people really like their iPhones. Saying something is just a bigger pile of happy drugs won’t mean it isn’t awesome.

I think the comments that the name is stupid because it sounds like a feminine hygiene product are just facile. That gives the anti Mac brigade a bad name. When it says pad think “of paper” and “oh, that’s a play on iPod” not “that’s a lady thing” and snigger to yourself. It’s not a good look.

I haven’t used one (of course I haven’t) but I think it goes without saying that it will sell like hot cakes and some market will be affected by it. But I went to the Glasgow Apple store on launch day and I have used one by now – it’s smooth and very impressive. I didn’t get one, I didn’t see the need it would satisfy and I’m not earning enough just now to spend £400 on fun things.

The big news is that they’ve ported iWork to the new device which means that you can actually do pretty honest work on what is primarily a music, book, movie and photo browsing device. I don’t know how much work will be done on it but the potential is there and that’s a good reason to consider buying it. I think that you shouldn’t buy it just to make documents in iWork (especially if you have a laptop already) but that it is a nice to have feature, a little bit like how my phone works as a torch in a pinch.

The Guardian has come out yesterday (relative to when this post was posted) with a scathing review about how it’s so expensive to buy the big model. I’m a big fan of having quite small storage in my mobile devices (2GB seems to work well for my phone and mp3 player) because it’s massively cheaper and there is a genuine limit for how material much you can physically consume in the periods between plugging it back into your computer to charge it up anyway. I think at around £700 for the ultra high end 64GB model with 3G and GPS it’s nice if you have the money but it’s not going to be any better that the small model. I personally don’t see the benefit in getting the 3G upgrade but I can see how it would be useful to a certain group of people (lorry drivers are experimenting using it as a huge satnav for example).

It just seems like a very expensive way to be connected on the move but, then again, it’s a £400-£700 internet appliance so frugality isn’t the overarching principle to begin with.

WordPress.com customisation

In a recent comment Michael (of Law Actually) asked if I had thought about tweaking the previous theme. In all honesty I hadn’t considered tweaking the theme at all. I’d sort of sublimated the idea that WordPress.org (the web application) is very customisable but WordPress.com (the hosting service) is very locked down. You can do things like advertise on a self hosted blog that you aren’t allowed to WordPress.com and the files are much more readily available if they are on your server instead of Automattic’s. However I discovered it’s not as locked down as I thought when I went to the Dashboard to have a look around.

I’ve been fiddling with the blog layout recently and I’ve also given it a change of fonts thanks to Typekit. Typekit is an interesting technology which lets you include any font (that Typekit supports) in your web page, regardless of whether or not you, your blog host or your readers have the fonts installed. I would actually sincerely doubt that anyone reading this would have these particular fonts installed – I’m using Calluna for headings and Droid Sans Pro for the body text. These are commercial fonts that you would need to have spent $174 to have (fonts are hard work to make and cost a lot of money). I think it’s a little excessive to have to spend $174 just to read my blog properly. However they are good looking typefaces. The alternative is to use something like Typekit which lets you see the glyphs without needing to install the fonts.

Typography is an interest of mine and it’s a fairly important thing to consider if you are looking at effectively writing for a living, which is basically how I see practising law. According to research humans find it easier to read serif fonts (like Times New Roman etc) on paper and sans serif fonts (like Arial) on screens. Therefore I’ve used a serif font for the headings (which are shorter and larger) and a sans serif for the body text. I generally use the reverse for printed documents. There is method in ‘t.

I’ve mentioned typography on the blog before and have recommended Typography for Lawyers to anyone looking for a detailed and useful introduction (and a bit more) to the subject without actually having to enrol in an art school.

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The workflow

University is pretty much an industrialised way to exchange essays for potentially higher earnings in the future. There’s really not much more critical to the orthodox university experience than handing your essays in.

I imagine the general way people do this is they open a new document in Microsoft Word before alternately staring at it, typing words into it and checking the word count. They then sort their footnotes and bibliography, run it through TurnItIn or similar and then either print it out or submit it electronically. That way works but there’s so many other ways to do it.

I think Word is an amazing program, it gets a hard time but it basically does everything to text that you, and pretty much anyone else, could ever want to do to text. It’s such a substantial program there are many, many courses and books purely on the various intricacies of it. I do encourage everyone to do these, it helps to know how Word works. It’s so much more than it seems at first glance.

If you want to go beyond just writing all your stuff in Word the workflow you’ll come up with is one of the most individual decisions you’ll make. You’ll probably use a collection of various things.

My favourite tools for writing are:

  1. Plain text
  2. Text expansion,
  3. Templates,
  4. Backup and,
  5. Word

Plain text

I don’t think I really need Word to write my essays. I type just about everything I write into Mousepad, (even things on blogs in case my browser crashes). It’s a lightweight plain text editor – just like Notepad. You type your words into it and nothing else. The biggest change is that I’ve started to use the Harvard citing model because Mousepad doesn’t support footnotes. I check my spelling with Aspell and check word counts with wc.

Text expansion

Is a surprising feature I never thought I needed. I first came across the concept through Low End Mac, where one of the principal writers has serious joint problems which make typing uncomfortable. He uses text expansion to let him minimise the amount of typing he needs to on health grounds. I use it for various things, I have some commonly typed terms arranged to expand – for example “pomo” becomes “postmodernism”- but the big thing I use it for is dynamic scripts. One of the big ones is that it will change $date into the current date and time which makes it a lot easier to type the date for record keeping purposes. I use Autokey for this. It’s Linux only but it’s the spirtual successor of AutoHotKey which runs on Windows.

Templates

One of the better features of many operating systems is that you can create new documents of various types by right clicking in the file browser. Ubuntu takes this as far as I’ve seen and lets you create a new copy of anything in your ~/Templates/ directory. For example I use a template for blog posts that looks a lot like this:

Start:
Title:
Word count:
Tags:
Category:
Posted:
Link:

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This gives me all the details I need for a blog post in one file and the fingerprint I use to track when/where my posts get scraped because I keep forgetting to put it in. Having it there gives me a checklist to work through. I just do “right click > create document > blog post” and fill in the fields so they’re there for WordPress when I come to post it. I also have another for essays which includes things like the deadline, the question, the word limit and so on. The idea is to make a checklist for things I need to remember.

Backup

Backup is utterly essential, you just can’t afford to lose your work at any point and it’s really easily done. I’ve found that Flashbake is good for both backup and versioning. The creator explains it is,

seamless source control tool for ordinary people. Automated backup is nice unless you have files for which you want to view an incremental history. Source control is great for that history but most tools expect the author to manually commit their changes along the way. A seamless source control solution combines the convenience of automated back up with the power of source version control.

I’ve set it to save the changes I’ve made to my files every 15 minutes and these backups are copied to my Dropbox account. It’s a bit like the Time Machine backup system in new editions of Mac OS X in that it’s both backup and versioning, and it’s smart enough to check if the file actually has changed before it backs it up. You probably don’t need versioning but it’s the sort of feature that you are not going to regret having if you later find out you need it.

Word

I have a copy of Word 2007 installed on this computer which I run using WINE. I’ve never really got it to work brilliantly well but I don’t need to do very much in Word. After I’ve written the text in Mousepad I copy and paste it into a Word document and convert the Harvard citations into footnotes. I can then submit it like everyone else.

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Needless video

I own an iPod Nano. This is not to show off about my latest toy, it’s actually one of the very first iPod Nanos from 2005. I keep using it because it still works and it was quite a lot of money at the time. It does sound, photos and it plays Brick. On the other hand it doesn’t have a touchscreen and it doesn’t run Apps. These are things that I’d probably use if my iPod had them but I’m not bothered enough to buy a new one. The one thing that I’m currently disappointed about is that it doesn’t do video.

the original iPod Nano

The original iPod Nano has a tiny 1.5″ screen and really is only supposed to let you see the name of the song that is currently playing. I don’t really want to watch video on the thing. What I do want to do is copy video podcasts to it. I think this is acceptable because in many cases the video podcast is just a podcast which has a video with it. The video element is seeing the speaker talk to a camera or something else which is nice to have but not enough to add extra content.

A podcast is effectively a recorded radio show which you can download. It can have interviews, fiction, non fiction and so on as long as it is recorded and published as a digital file for download. CharonQC does a very regular, good legal podcast – “law casts” naturally – which illustrates the concept very well. A video podcast – tenuously a “vodcast” – is simply a video file rather than an audio file.

Quite a good example is the really good, highly recommended David Mitchell’s Soapbox which can be effectively summarised as the guy from Peep Show complaining about things. They are speeches which are jazzed up by superimposing Mitchell onto a thematically suitable background, for example in “Waste” he is pictured sitting in a bin. Beyond that the real meat of the content is the speech. It’s just that it could work as a audio file too and if it was an audio file I could put it on my iPod and listen to it while I’m out and about.

This simply comes down the issue of choosing your medium when you prepare a presentation. A podcast about learning to paint is something that benefits from having a video whereas an audiobook does not (an audiobook which adds enough visual content to benefit from having video is called a movie). I think most people’s work will fall in the middle of those extremes and the judgement call has to be made. The take home lesson for today is that it’s important to realise that there actually is a judgement call to make.

The broadband revolution, improved processing capacity and the reduced cost of data storage means that the technical difference between making a podcast and making a “vodcast” is now reasonably narrow – downloading a 20MB video file is now only a couple of minutes, will disappear into a terabyte hard drive and will not strain a quad core processor. If you’re in this position, technologically you really may as well point a camera at stool in front of a blank wall and talk into it. I’d encourage you to avoid picking video because you may as well instead of because it’s better for what you’re doing. A good option if you want to have the best of both worlds is simply to do both, strip the video using your favourite video editing software and just post the sound in a separate download.

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