The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: backup

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:

4dd6465fc78a86d0987870f88dffcb9c

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.

4dd6465fc78a86d0987870f88dffcb9c

Advertisements

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.

5 Backup Strategies for students

Ever since the student was invented centuries ago the worst thing that could happen to him was he could lose his notes and this is just as true if the student is using parchment and quills or solid state drives and the latest ultra portable laptop. He needs a way to keep track of the files he has and a good way to back them up. This used to be a massive undertaking in the days of hand writing notes (and I still look at my overflowing lever arch files and decide that I’m never going to copy them out again) which became only slightly easier when the photocopier was invented. The computer, however, revolutionised copying in a way which can (and has) give a music exec the cold shakes and it’s now so easy to keep multiple copies of every file you use that it’s no one’s fault but your own if you don’t use the same logic on your work as your music collection. The only problem for someone wanting to protect their files is picking which method you want to use*.

The best method

This is your humble author’s best bet for simple file protection while you’re at university:

Wikipedia

[A USB drive ready to be plugged into a computer, source: Wikipedia]

There’s a lot of sense in using these small, inexpensive devices to store your data while you’re studying. They are extremely portable, not only between locations but also between computers. I could plug my USB stick into a university lab computer, hand it to a print shop or plug it into my own laptop and the files on it can be read off with no problems or issues whatsoever. I often copy files that I wanted printed copies of to my USB stick so that I can print them off on the much cheaper bulk laser printers in libraries than on my inkjet at home.

It depends on your requirements, obviously, what you need but generally I would go for a stick with a capacity of a few gigabytes. There’s really no reason not to do this now because costs have dropped so much. Fancier models are nice but speed and security are often overpriced in the eyes of users who just want a plug and play flash drive. I picked my 8GB stick off Amazon.co.uk for about ten pounds. An 8GB stick will be effectively limitless as far as your homework is concerned. I keep a great deal of information on my USB drive, case reports, journal articles, coursework, etc but try to ensure that there is no personal data on the stick, just in case I leave it lying in the library or have it stolen from me and 8GB goes a very long way when you are using it to store text.

I use a [Windows briefcase (remember those?) on my flash drive which will sync with my home computers with a single click. The Briefcase is an ancient feature in Windows since Windows 95 but one which proves very useful to me nearly every day.

For other people simply dragging the folder over will be more than enough to keep a copy of your work but it lacks the synchronization features that using a Briefcase (or another sync program) will give you.

The online method

Online storage is a relatively old phenomenon but one which has only recently taken off. While people have had the opportunity to store their files remotely for many years the tipping point has come when it became easy and fast to do so. While people who still have dial up connections will gladly tell you how slow it is to browse web sites this is nothing compared to the ~3kb/s effort of sending a substantial amount of data the other way.

The most common domestic Internet connection is the Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) which divides a phone line up into various bands for upstream, downstream and voice. This allows the connection to do all three operations at once. That’s great for being able to answer the phone at the same time as use the internet but the way that the phone line divides up the data frequencies does not divide it equally – it’s asymmetric. Generally people will have hugely quick download speeds and considerably slower upload speeds, maybe as little as 10% of the download speed. This provides a massive barrier to anyone who wants to send a lot of data across their connection because it simply takes a lot of time.  For smaller amounts of data, though, it’s very convenient.

There are many options for online storage:

The handiest application I’ve found for my online storage has to be the Gmail Drive. This shell extension for Windows allows you to mount your googlemail account as a drive in Windows and copy files to, save to it from programs and generally use it as you would any other drive. The only difference is that the files are saved in your Gmail account as attachments in emails which you can access from anywhere you have Internet access. The storage limit is about 8GB and no single file can be more than 10MB but if you only use it to back up your text file homework and notes this is more than enough. You may have to reduce the length and complexity of file names to get it working just right but that’s a rare issue for most users.

You could do this manually by emailing yourself files as attachments which will let you access them from wherever you have Internet access but the drag and drop of Gmail Drive is particularly convenient for me.

A slightly more involved method is simply to use an online storage provider; these can be free but often charge monthly fees for their services and provide gigabytes of easy to access storage which you control through an often very colourful and polished downloadable application. I find these to be too much for my requirements which are served by not much more than an email account but they are a good, easy to use option for people who don’t want to get too involved in the technical background.

The network method

If you have more than one computer in your house, for example I have my work laptop and I have a more powerful desktop computer that I use for games and other entertainment tasks, you can use them to store your data in more than one place and improve the redundancy. I personally use a simple Windows SMB based network to create network shares that I can mount and use as regular drives and that does everything that I need the network to do, backup wise.

Even if you don’t have another computer you can still use a network to back up your data. Most people on broadband connections use a router to connect their computer(s) to the Internet and the router is a device which is naturally good at connecting lots of devices to networks. The standalone option is a NAS device:

One example of a consumer NAS

[One example of a consumer NAS, source: Amazon.co.uk]

Network Attached Storage is a previously only business technology which suddenly became considerably cheaper and suddenly a lot more economical for the home user. These devices are roughly speaking specialized, low cost computers that have enough power to control a hard disc and a network connection and some have features like automatic Bittorrent downloads, which allows the device to run all day and night and not tie up a “real” computer. They come in two main varieties – prebuilt and barebones. Barebones units tend to be a cheaper purchase (but there can be a premium once you factor hard drives into that price too) than complete versions but you have to provide your own hard drives but that gives you flexibility as to your capacity. Prebuilt versions already have drives installed and generally arrive at the user ready to be plugged in the wall and used.

The sneakernet method

Sneakernet [sic] is a term that describes when instead of electronically connecting two computers you save the file you want to share to a disc and physically take it to the other computer. This is useful in situations where you want to save a copy of your work for future reference and want it to be safe from hard drive failure or being stolen from you while you’re out. It is not a bad plan to burn coursework and other essential pieces of your own work to a CD so you can store it at home if the worst should happen. Given the size of coursework files you could get a sizeable portion of your entire written handiwork stored on an old school floppy disc, I certainly remember family members finishing their entire university career with a small stack of floppy discs tucked into their notes. Those discs will still faithfully hold the files that were put on them in years past and that’s all that can possibly be asked of a backup.

No matter what method you use, remember to do it often!

Backups are of no use to you whatsoever if you haven’t got a recent copy of a file that’s suddenly disappeared. If you leave your backups for too long you risk running into a situation where the copy you have is not one which can really help you. I personally keep my USB drive nearly perfectly up to date because I keep the USB drive plugged in a lot of the time and it’s a moment’s work to click “Update All” in My Computer when I’m finished working.

Try to get yourself into a habit of backing your files up regularly when you’re working so you’re not left with outdated copies when disaster strikes.

Hopefully habits picked up in university with stay with you throughout your professional life and in an era where data losses seem to occur on a weekly basis you will be the professional who knows to keep a redundant copy of your client records locked up in a safe place and to use encryption (more on this later) on data that goes out of the office.

*If you’re particularly fervent in your quest for data protection you can bear in mind that the protection that backups give you is redundancy and the only thing that using more than one of these systems can do is improve your security. I personally have copies stored on both my computers as well as on flash drives.

Eugh

I’ve made a rather major mistake. This is what I write an anonymous blog for – it’s not anonymous for my successes, I’d much rather my successes were projected onto the moon but it’s the mistakes and the “non-successes” and controversial news that anonymity’s good for. I’m about to give the reader an object lesson in keeping on top of your uni work.

I was 2 days late with my holiday assignment. That’s not the end of the world but it’s a big thing at uni, that’s a 10% deduction right off the bat. I took a very relaxing and unproductive Christmas break assuming that my one piece of imminent written work was straight forward and short and could be dealt with quickly and I would be able to pretend that my break was more intellectual and less lazy and fattening than it happened to be.

It was not. I came home from a lovely weekend away the morning before it was due and looked over it. It was gargantuan and meandered across three vastly different areas of law. I swore, loudly, because there was nothing else I could really do.

I then gritted my teeth and sat up until it was done, as it happens that was two days of solid 4 hours sleep one night, none the next toil, and grabbing food to eat at my desk. The room I’m sitting in currently is a bomb site with plates and cups strewn around sitting on top of open books and a sleeping bag in the corner and I’m only just calmed down enough to start tidying it up.

The desk’s surface is inexplicably covered in a detailed pencil study of a tree I can see from my window that was drawn at a particularly bleak point around dawn this morning that saw me hit a wall. It’s actually rather beautiful and I’m much prouder of it than I am the assignment.

It’s very grim. I have read enough to produce a treatise on three areas of law and then boiled it down to produce an essay far short of the word limit (read: word suggestion), that and the long hours staring at a computer screen have left my eyes bloodshot and weepy and I’ve never appreciated being able to sleep more in a long time. I can’t sleep though, I’m still feeling far too flush with adrenaline from trying to make it to the deadline (or at least before I ended up 3 days late) and that’s why I handed in such a small effort. I checked the delivery status of my assignment with my heart in my mouth and then I immediately got up to stand under the shower for 40 minutes.

I’m concerned because this is one of my feared “professional subjects” – the ones that decide your application to the post graduate Diploma in Legal Practice that’s pretty much a required step for the wannabe lawyer and the assignment was for a great deal more of the total mark than my other subjects and not only do these grades affect your entry to the diploma, they also affect the quality of the scholarships you may or may not qualify for. It’s a very expensive couple of months and a scholarship’s not to be sniffed at. As it happens I get my undergraduate degree fees paid for by Mr Salmond, if I’m honest I’d much rather he paid for my post graduate studies because I can much easier meet the subsidised fees I get written off by the SAAS each year.

Flunking an assignment for a professional subject isn’t the end of the world but it’s stressful and a needless headache if you had weeks with not much in the way of university obligations and it’s a task to make up the difference in the written exam later on if, really, you could have avoided it by just working through the new Jonathan Creek (although it was quite good) and Wallace and Gromit (which was its quirky, nostalgic, British golden self) . There’s a few subjects that you want to make sure you actually pass – your big credit earning ones, your professional subject and anything you took because a professional regulatory body told you to. This class here happened to be all three.

And when I say “you” what I mean is “me.”

My advice to any and all students is:

  1. Read your assignments over, not just the question but also the other bits of helpful paper you’re given.
    I thought I was dealing with a cute problem solving scenario to tear through using the textbook, Westlaw and the 4 part structure right until I discovered I was supposed to make it  the length of a small book the day I was supposed to send it to be marked.
  2. Have a diary or calendar that you use every day.
    I personally use my mobile phone’s calendar which lets me plug in all the dates that I’d possibly need (I’m not that busy a person 😉 ) and I’ve set it up to remind me either the week before or the day before before every appointment. It’s crazy and it’s over kill but it means that I know when I need to drag the sleeping bag under the computer desk. This particular assignment was left out in a memory full bug that was cured a good bit after the homework had slipped my mind and I thought it wasn’t due in until next week.
  3. Have a backup diary that won’t run out of memory at the worst possible time.
    I know, it’s incredibly tedious keeping a handwritten diary up to date but if I did it better I’d be sitting here thinking how generally smug I was that I got my coursework in on time.
  4. Be honest that you (meaning I) have the impulse control of a crack addict when it comes to doing anything that isn’t schoolwork.
    Sometimes, even if you’re even the most ardent law fan (as I like to think I am) you’ll realise that the holidays with all the friends who moved away to other towns coming home and seeing family and all the other parts of holidays is just much better than sitting reading the works of the institutional writers in an all-too empty library until your eyes start to puff up. Bite the bullet and get any work you need done, done. Then sit back and think how smug you get to be about it. One of my friends gets her assignments done at least 2 weeks before the due date and I’ve known her two years now and I still think she must have the discipline needed to only take one After 8 mint and I admire her in the same way I admire astronauts. That’s a bad sign. I’m great at reading but not so good at sitting down and doing the written work, try and get a balance in your own studies.

Merry Christmas from SLS (And “Don’t mess with my computer”)

christmas-tree

Merry Christmas to everyone who reads this, I hope the holiday is relaxing and no one needs to do too much today. I’m looking forward to ridiculous calorific intake over many hours today, it’s at least one day of the year when the Pot Noodle is simply not on the menu for students after breakfast.

I thought I’d mention a story from across the pond which might reassure everyone who thinks they might be taking this law thing “too seriously.”

Alex Botsios is a 1L (first year of law school) at Arizona State University. Like many students his dorm room is a ripe target for thieves. One particularly bold individual appeared in his room through the unlocked window during the night brandishing a baseball bat. The thief (committing aggravated theft, of course) demanded he hand over his possessions. Botsios, being trapped in a room with an armed man, agreed and later said:

“ he had no problem giving a nighttime intruder his wallet and guitars. “

However, greed was to be this thief’s downfall, not content with the gift of music he went back for more:

“When the man asked for Botsios’ laptop, however, the first-year law student drew the line.

“I was like, ‘Dude, no — please, no!” Botsios said. “I have all my case notes…that’s four months of work!” “

I agree with this feeling, I slipped on ice during the recent freeze and escaped a pretty nasty injury by landing on my laptop and cushioning my fall with a mighty cracking sound and I recall, straight through the sense of embarrassment at decking it and the pain of landing so heavily that I felt physically sick, firstly because I might have had to find the money to buy a new computer from somewhere and also because I might have lost my work right before I was to submit assignments.

Botsios, unlike myself, had a target to vent his rage at and attacked his robber. Literally, he managed to hospitalise a hardened robber in his quest to save his laptop.

“ At that point, the law student wrestled the bat away and began punching Saucedo, Botsios said.

“I basically grabbed him and threw him this way, and he held onto the bat so it threw him to the ground,” he said.

Police said they took Saucedo to the hospital for stitches before they arrested him on charges of armed robbery and kidnapping. Other than a bruised knuckle and a few scratches, Botsios was unharmed.“

In a fairly amazing job of rubbing salt into the robber’s not-only-figurative wounds he left with this final quote:

“It’s my baby,” he said. “Don’t mess with my computer.”

A sentiment I think we can all get behind at T minus 1 hour to a deadline.

And the man who suffered all this?  This is the robber, stitched lip and all:

This is the man after the law student was done with him

NB: Speaking as a not very secret IT person I would recommend that anyone else who has invested enough into their work to fight to defend it from robbers should invest in a reliable backup strategy so that even if you wake up or come home to find your dorm / house trashed and your laptop missing you can still get back to work quickly.

The thought occurs that this is a big enough topic and important enough to be a blog entry on its own at a later date, so stay tuned.