The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

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The RPG fallacy

There is an intrinsic human desire to see the world as in some way at least involving you and at least in some way being dramatic. This is why conspiracy theories are so popular – it’s a wonderful feeling to be the only sane man fighting evil. It’s also rarely as simple as that, even if the conspiracy you’ve spotted actually exists. There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch where one SS officer says to another SS officer, ’are we the baddies?’ It’s suprising because no one thinks they are the baddy because no one wants to be the baddy. Even if you’re doing something bad it’s likely you’re only doing it because you don’t have any other option or to stop something worse happening. It might even be that you’re only killing X because you’re actually a self-sacrificing hero – the SS officers were fighting communists. If you’re the baddy and you know you’re the baddy and you’re ok with that, you’re weird.

It goes further than just the Twin Towers being an inside job – countries like to see themselves as the goodies too. In fact, the Western world as a whole does. NATO didn’t go into Kosovo because it liked to blow stuff up; it was there to rescue the needy. They were, in their own minds at least, bombing for peace. People may have got hurt but it was for a good cause.

The world isn’t a story but the people in the world like stories. People construct narratives to make sense of what is fundamentally an extremely random world. These narratives, naturally, often centre around the person making them. I’m going to call this the RPG fallacy but it’s pretty much the egocentric bias.

That’s a big enough deal if, for example, you’re dealing with individuals seeing patterns in songs or paintings and feeling victimised (the Illuminati are out to get you) but if you’re dealing with life and death decisions about going to war as a country in terms of how awesome and heroic you are that’s especially worrying.

The RPG fallacy

One of the modern day methods of telling a story is the Role Playing Game. In the traditional role playing game interpersonal relationships are not generally very fleshed out – the Non Player Characters (collectively known as NPCs) only react to the Player (PC) who controls what happens in the world. It is only reasonably recently that games even bothered to change the game world beyond the player’s own actions or inactions. You might find that the dragon would destroy some towns but some other hero wouldn’t come along and slay it if you didn’t do it. NPCs are limited to a set range of standard responses and reactions to the player NPCs are just there to make the PC look good. Even the Big Bad is an NPC, the purpose of which is to be the means by which the hero proves that he is heroic.

In a way, so are refugees. The purpose of a refugee is not to grow up, get a job and have a family but to be hungry, needy and suffering on TV so that it can be rescued by the good guys so that the good guys can show how good they are. You don’t sponsor a child for 50p a month because they’re at uni and drugs aren’t cheap; you do it because their country has a famine and they need to eat to survive. People should definitely continue to help people in that situation — they genuinely need our help — but you much more rarely see appeals to help someone in a Third World country fund their PhD. People like that exist but that doesn’t fit the narrative.

Consider where people focus on stuff rogue states get up – for example ’US bombs rogue state’ rather than ’Rogue state is bombed by US’. The difference there is more than just passive voice. The rogue state is big and scary (even this post-Cold War baby thinks the USSR was completely terrifying) but it’s not really the star of that show – it’s there to give the other country something heroic to do.

One of the biggest problems of war is that it requires you to dehumanise the other side. One of the principle signs that a friendship has broken down is when your friend kills you: real friends wouldn’t kill friends (unless they really deserved it). There is no question of gassing cities if you think the people in that city are everyday folks just like you. On the other hand if they’re Enemy sympathisers, then it really stands to reason that these people need gassed. That’s what Enemy is for. Of course, none of this changes the fact that, from the other side, you’re the Enemy that’s there to be gassed and they’re the good guys being put upon by the forces of evil. This, along with general apathy caused by rampant consumption, is one of the reasons put forward that the internet will be good for world peace.

We’ll just have to hope and see about that one but I’ve got my fingers crossed.

The worst thing of all, in rushing into humanitarian crises in the Heroic Narrative, is that the sight of starving orphans being saved and fed by NATO troops is heart warming enough to obscure other relationships between the people and the white knights. It’s pretty cold comfort if the reason that there is a humanitarian crisis in the country in the first place is that unregulated arms trading put guns into the hands of the bad guys. Both arming and ending wars is a morally dubious example of having your cake and eating it.

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File formats and the pirate bay

The Pirate Bay is a great source of material for blog posting. Oddly enough this isn’t about the issue of, you know, their big court case. This is actually about their rather entertaining “Legal Threats” page. The Pirate Bay has (had?) a policy whereby if you found someone had posted a torrent with your copyrighted material on the Pirate Bay tracker / search engine you could write to the Pirate Bay and they… will promptly ignore it. Or they’ll send you a cheeky reply.

They post the letters they get on this page. Generally what they have are copies of emails which are very simply the plain text listings of the emails, generally with lots of lawyerly signatures including the words of “STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL” etc. However, one of the documents is interesting because it’s a PDF. The Pirate Bay took this and replied back with a 1 megabyte image in .BMP format which looked a lot like this:

Pirate Bay message

“I can use annoying formats too” they say. But is PDF annoying? I’m not so sure.

With my techie hat on I know that the best form to find text in is simple, human readable plain text, the sort of thing you’d get if you typed it in Notepad. It’s just the words, you can do anything with it, you can copy and paste it into any other program and every computer can interpret it in such a way as to let you see it on any computer you can find. However, with my (law) student hat on I happen to really like the not so humble Portable Document Format.

What is PDF?

It’s probably worth talking about what PDF is by comparing it to the other options for text.

1) Plain text

Examples, created by: Notepad, Text Editor

Pares everything down to the words themselves. There is no option for formatting, fonts, colours, pages, anything. All you do is type a long sheet of contigous text. The great thing is the sheer efficiency of what you produce. The document provides all the substantive content of the fancier formats but without messing with formatting issues.

Pros

  1. Very lightweight
  2. Easily transferred
  3. Easily modified in many different programs running on many different systems
  4. Easily adapted into other forms, not burdened by extra code put in for formats etc.

Cons

  1. No formatting, at all. Need to use things like *bold* or /italic/ to distinguish formatting
  2. No diagrams. It’s possible to do using letters and symbols but no chance for images in the text
  3. Can be hard to set out – things like footnoting and tables of contents pretty much need to be set out by hand in the vast majority of plain text editors.
  4. Can be very elegant, can be very crude.

2) Rich text

Examples, created by: MS Word, OpenOffice

Pros

  1. Most common kind of text – every web page and every Word document are rich text.
  2. Allows visible formatting – select text and make it bold, italic etc. Allows fonts
  3. Allows image imbedding, depending on the specific format this can be within the file itself (eg, Word documents) or through referencing (eg web pages)
  4. Can be very feature rich – templates, automated footnoting, automated table of conents etc are all possible.

Cons

  1. Extra features means compatibility suffers. Documents created in MS Word may have compatibility issues when opened in slightly different programs, eg. OpenOffice, Word Perfect, Abiword.
  2. Although you can choose various fonts for your documents these fonts will only appear on other people’s computers if they also have the same fonts installed. If they don’t they’ll see a fallback option which you may not have chosen. There are ways around this.
  3. Will not look the same on every computer, settings will vary and the resulting document can be affected.

3) Image

Examples, created by: Paint, Photoshop

I might surprise some people by including this option here but I really do think that image formats are a real option (of sorts) for conveying text on a computer. The flexibility that allows the same picture format to contain a picture a funny cat or a world famous old master also allows it to hold the shape of words.

Pros:

  1. Document looks exactly as it did on your computer for everyone
  2. Very easily shared between users – every modern computer can understand the common picture formats, so no need for specialist software to view it.
  3. Very, very good for diagrams. Will look exactly as intended, allows full colour and photorealistic images to included directly with the text.
  4. Very flexible layout – not bound by justification or layout tags, can put elements in anywhere on the document

Cons

  1. Very big files for email etc (the Pirate Bay image was 1 megabyte for 7 words)
  2. Can be hard to edit, and editing it well requires specialist software that’s hard to use
  3. Can be hard to add extra pages
  4. Not actually text – only an image so can’t be copied and manipulated like a text document

4) Device Independent formats

Examples, created by: Acrobat, Foxit, TeX

Pros

  1. Will look the same on every computer (is device independent). Designed to be transferred between computers
  2. Allows you to rely on page, line numbers because it is identical to each user
  3. Allows direct embedding of images, allows for diagrams to be laid in text exactly where intended by the creator
  4. Is still text, so can be copied and pasted as text. Possible to also have original image as well as text, for example if scanning a book, in the same document
  5. Can be pretty immutable, so provides quite a good historical reference. (eg, harder to edit a PDF report from Westlaw than an RTF)

Cons

  1. Can be “annoying” – that is if you’re browsing the internet and you come across a PDF document your browser will need to load an external reader.
  2. Can be expensive. PDF is officially created by Acrobat and that is not cheap. On the other hand DVI,free PDF and so on are open-source and can be produced by many different formats.
  3. Can be pretty immutable, it can be difficult to just change something in a PDF document.

Now, if I point you to 4ii) I think I will show you a huge reason to like PDF (and other device independent formats). The reason here is to look at the ability to rely on the page numbers – so that useful summation of a case’s ratio at the bottom of page 4 is at the bottom of page 4, on everyone’s computer.

I can’t really understand why you would email someone a PDF version of a letter instead of writing your message in the email itself. I find that strange but I don’t think that means that the format is annoying. Feel free to use these formats in your own workflow. They’re good.

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?