The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: Christmas

The paperless law student – part 2

Earlier, in the back to school period, I discussed the benefits and costs of going paperless as a student. I think it’s a really worthwhile choice which has a lot of benefits down the line. My main concern is simply the high initial cost of converting from paper to paperless which means that it is a better option for people who are making money from doing it as a job because it will severely cut into your beer money.

I think it’s hard to talk about people going paperless in 2009 without mentioning the eBook reader, the new group of devices which are being marketed as a way to replace the printed book.

The science bit

The market has pretty much expanded from very little into the next big thing based almost entirely on the invention of a small (but growing) American company that worked out how to make very small magnetic objects reliably rise and fall in a grid pattern. Unlike the great majority of modern technology this relies on moving part because once you’ve moved the parts to where you want them you can leave them there with no extra energy use. This means that the ereader expends energy “printing” the page – putting the eInk particles where they’re supposed to be – but then doesn’t need any more to keep the text on the page.

This differs from a traditional display because earlier technologies do not create a fixed image – a CRT monitor draws images onto the screen with a scanning electron beam on a phosphor screen and an LCD monitor uses an arrangement of gates which produces a coloured filter for a backlight to shine through. That electron beam and that backlight both require continuous power to operate. The main benefit of a fleeting, dynamic way of generating images is that it can be very good for conveying moving images, whereas eInk is limited by the physical speed of the particles. That’s bad for movies but text has never moved in its life and that means the technology is good for dedicated book readers.

This is really all by to the by, because how the underlying technology works rarely affects how good it is for users.

Ebook readers

The message to take away is simply that because it’s not a continuously operating device means that you don’t measure the battery life by how long it can be on for (because the device is only on for short spurts) but by how many times the display changes. That’s why the Sony Pocket Edition is rated as having enough “battery life for nearly 6,800 page turns.” The amount of time that is depends on how quickly you can read that number of pages.

Ebook readers have the option of, generally, being used to display books licensed from the sponsoring bookseller’s shop which is great if that’s how you buy books (it isn’t personally). I think it has great potential for updateable textbooks which apply their own errata and apply the differences between editions if that’s the way publishers want to play it. Right now I think the potential lies in the ability of these devices to display your own documents. I think the ability to load up an ereader with a load of case reports and then read that on the bus is paradigm shifting.

This has additional benefits in that because the image is static it doesn’t cause headaches from forcing people to squint at flickering displays and because there’s no backlight you aren’t forced to stare at a light.

The competition

Just because the underlying technology is well suited to displaying text this doesn’t mean that you should buy every product which uses it and displaying text on its own is something that computers have been able to do for a very long time. Ebooks readers are not the only option available here.

Your laptop

The obvious alternative is just a laptop – it will read any format you should care to name, runs off a battery, is portable, does more than just text and you probably already have one. It’s not ideal for reading on the bus, the LCD screen is backlit and the battery won’t last particularly long. But it does so many other things as well and it is likely to be a product that many people will already own, and that makes it practically free to use as an ebook reader.

The mobile phone

An unexpected new contender is the mobile phone, people have been using PDAs to read text for many years and the phone is converging on the same areas. These are good because they’re so much smaller and more portable and have long battery lives. On the other hand, this all depends on the quality of the screen. One of the most often recommended devices for reading books is the iPhone, which has an undeniably pretty screen, on the other hand it is an excruciatingly expensive way to read on the bus. It’s a good product and if you use it as a phoning, mobile emailing, mobile webbing, app running device then it’s really good. If you’re only using it to read Westlaw PDFs on the bus, though, the initial cost and monthly fees make it a difficult purchase.

The photocopier

A good photocopier costs many thousand pounds and weighs an unbelievable amount. It is beyond the dreams of any student to own. However, many facilities give you access to such a photocopier for around 3-5p a sheet. That means that you can have a 5 page report to read on the bus in black and white for about 25p, and the truly frugal student will take steps to get that price down further – by printing on both sides of page or by fitting more than one page onto each physical page. I think the photocopier is the main enemy of the ebook reader because you need to print between 3600 and 6000 pages before you would have saved money by buying Sony’s cheapest ebook reader (the Pocket PRS-300). That’s a really long term investment to save a bit of paper. I think you’d need to really need the extra advantages of the ebook reader to make it a more convincing option.

Reasons to buy right now

This is the hard thing, I don’t see a reason to buy just right now. I think the technology is extremely impressive and I think the datapad from Star Trek is nigh but at present buying one is a huge expense, particularly because you know it will get better and cheaper as time goes on. It’s hard to justify the expense when centralised photocopying exists. Once prices come down I think we’ll really reach a point where it’ll be hard to tell why you’d ever print a document out but we’re really not there yet.

The main reason to buy now is simply if you want one, it’s not long til Christmas, but I imagine this will rapidly change as prices come down (and they will).

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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.

The Office Party

The current economic climate is bad for people looking for work, let me tell you, but it’s also eroding the perks for people who have one. One of the first casualties of the downturn is the office Christmas party. Presumably to avoid the cost of replacing the photocopier yet again many companies are either greatly downsizing or cancelling altogether their staff do.

The most interesting move I have heard of is that a recently bailed out bank has been reported to be paying its staff back for parties they have booked outside of work and are now ordered to not attend. I think that’s a strange move, especially because initially the staff members were supposed to absorb the loss themselves.

The staff party is just as much a carefully researched and cost analysed productivity tool as any machine in a factory – big companies are not known, generally, to throw money at things they don’t get a benefit from.

The reason that Google  famously gives its staff (now only programming staff) free meals is that it keeps them at their desks, where they can get work done, for increasingly long hours. It’s not a wish to feed the starving masses – it’s to have people who “just happen to be around the office so I did some work on Project X” for longer hours than usual , say if an employee is salaried for 9 til 5 but dinner is at 6.30 he could decide he may as well stay on till then.

Likewise the office party is useful because it’s a reasonably cheap way to, contrary to appearances, boost employee morale and thereby productivity. Happy staff are better with customers and better employee/customer relationships leads to increased revenue – it’s an accepted economic principle.

Apparently happy employees only make sense in a boom time. The party must go.

The writer of Single Guy Money reported the changes to his Christmas party:

• Instead of an open bar, we were given drink tickets. Each person was given 2 drink tickets while equalled 2 free drinks. You could drink more but you had to pay full price after your 2 free drinks. Luckily, I am pretty good friends with the ticket holder so I was able to score a few extra tickets.
• Our party was held in a large hotel in downtown Atlanta. In past years, the company would pay for rooms for employees that live more than 50 miles from the hotel. For those who lived closer but were not able to drive, you could get a reduced price room. This year, everyone had to pay for their own room (full price).
• Instead of a buffet style dinner, the food was mostly appetizers. In years past, they usually went all out with the food selection.

Compared to banks and political parties (who simply don’t want employees associated with them looking happy because they don’t want the public to think they’re enjoying our (well, Ken Dodd and my fellow students are taking a moral stand on this) tax bailout too much) that sounds extremely generous. Anyone who has had a wedding knows that the open bar is a quick way to spend a great of money and hotel rooms are expensive when you have to buy enough of them to not end up with harassment suits so these are pretty much common sense cost cutting measures.
It’s actually only when they’re compared to the year before that they become so stark, the fun isn’t spoiled, the concept of paying for your own drinks shouldn’t be alien to any one old enough to actually attend an office party and it doesn’t leave the company looking like it’s in desperate financial straights.

Frankly, if I was a director with millions of pounds of stock options that are on the knife edge of becoming much less I might even consider paying for those drinks myself. Is that not a rational economic choice?

Why don’t other companies follow this example? A company party which is obviously cut price or one which is entirely cancelled reflects badly on the company and will be received badly by the staff.

Isn’t company image and employee morale worth a few rounds of drinks anymore?