The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: library

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.

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Student Law Review

I dropped by my law school this week on the way to the library and picked up a copy of the current student law magazines while I was there.

The Student Law Review, published by Routledge Cavendish is a publication bordering on the “terrifyingly polished” and I find it to be a very interesting read that I try to pick up whenever I can.

I’ve done a quick and rough digest of the contents of this edition, and it’s a very, very long post so I’ve added it after the break. I will be back later to fact check but right now I’m just impressed at myself for getting this typed up. These are in no way the whole articles, or indeed perfect outlines of the articles themselves, I was more interested in putting out what the publication covers instead of violating the copyright on the articles themselves:

Read the rest of this entry »

How to generate pdfs of books or case reports while in the library

I’ve been looking at programs which may help me in my studies. One of the most promising I’ve found is one which is intended to allow people to create multi page pdf copies of any documents, books, whiteboards or cards they can photograph. The whiteboard mode is surprising and I’m not certain it fits into my current teaching style, however, there is nothing quite like being able to see exactly what the teacher has written on a whiteboard long after the lesson has finished.

It’s called Snapter and I’m pleasantly surprised with how effective it is. I tested it out with my camera phone and a copy of 100 Cases Every Scots Law Student Should Know and and as long as you remember to abide by the rules the program gives you: take the photos from straight above with the spine vertical in the image then you can reliably create a very readable pdf from the images. It’s not a quick process, and it’s almost certainly the most processor intensive application you will ever use for your legal studies but the results are very surprising and usable. I’ve done an example here with Scott Adam’s “Way of the Weasel” which I chose because it includes text boxes and images alongside text – so it’s actually more complicated to scan than most law textbooks.

Snapter has a deceptively simple design of interface for what is a powerful program with many features and controls hidden in the boxes, for the best results you should set the controls each time you use Snapter but the defaults manage well on their own. I found the most useful option was the “original size

Basic photographic principles apply If you used a higher resolution camera and better lens with a tripod you would see better results than these, these test shots came from my 3.2Megapixel SE k800i camera phone which I chose because it’s the only camera I routinely take to the library. Users with newer phones with 5 or more megapixel cameras will almost certainly find that the pdfs produced are extremely readable even on small text. I intend to use Snapter to replace my photocopying, this makes the $50 pricetag for the full version (needed to fully enable the program’s Book mode after the free trial expires) extremely affordable. With photocopying running at about 3-6p per sheet the expense of photocopying personal copies of cases becomes substantial. Also, filing the vast amounts of photocopying which you naturally generate as a law student is a task which requires considerable discipline to avoid the dreaded student “pile of paper under the desk”, being able to directly create pdfs of reference books without needing to photocopy them is more economical and more ecological, with the added advantage of not being able to lose the files as easily as the photocopies.

There are other book scanning solutions but these tend to rely on the user being able to scan the book using a specially designed flatbed scanner(for example the PlusTek Optiscan) which is less than ideal in a law library. Snapter’s advantage comes from the convenience of being able to take a record of the exact text you need on the fly using nothing other than the devices you would already be carrying.

You can use it to inexpensively produce copies of cases for other people as well, instead of needing to recopy each page of your own photocopy for others you can simply email the pdf around, and you can also do the processing on your laptop as you are in the library, all while using your university’s reproduction licence. It’s not the fastest process so be aware that it will both drain battery life and take its time but it’s the only example of automatically transforming photos of books into documents that I’ve seen.  It’ll save paper, money and the environment in its own small way.

The direct competitor to this are the online legal databases which also give you the option of downloading a digital copy of the report to your computer and I find these a better option than hurriedly produced snapter pdfs, however, Westlaw does not provide copies of textbooks nor does it provide copies of cases which are either very old or very obscure and it is these situations where snapter shines.  If your law library provides paper copies of journals or law reports which are not available online in full text format then you need some way to make a copy for yourself.

With many of the most sought after books only available on loan from the library for a matter of hours a student may sometimes find that they spend the entire time they have with the book running it through a photocopier instead of reading it. A fast camera can take photos of every page of a textbook within a university’s stort loan time, this means that books which are extremely sought after (for example the set textbook) can be copied out. The prohibitive expense of photocopying a textbook is considerably lessened when you are operating in the fixed cost of a digital camera and a copy of Snapter, and remember that with law textbooks retailing for around £40 (and science subjects cost even more) from the university bookshop any use that a student can get from the library is to be pounced on.

For those students who are also looking using snapter to produce copies of music, students in Glasgow can use the libraries of other higher education institutions, including the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama on a reference only basis which means that you can use the RSAMD to find sheet music for yourself.  I read here that Snapter was less impressive at capturing music books but I disagree based on my experiences using the newest version.

I was so surprised that snapter gave such poor results on capturing music that I immediately grabbed a book of scales off my shelf and tried it for myself, I believe I have a newer version than was tested since I downloaded my copy last night. Again, I used a Sony Ericsson k800i camera phone which is only 3.2Mpx and although some of the text is smudged (small bold text had a harder time of it) because of the resolution and the height I had to take the picture at to get both pages in frame the edges of the picture were detected perfectly and there was no issue seeing marks on semiquavers or the like.

I’m all for snapter, I think it’s designed for times you couldn’t bring an automated book scanner with you – in my case when I’m at the reference library and it does very well using even phone photos in those situations. It beats having to scan photocopies at home or having no copy at all, that’s for sure. I think it will provide a very important service for students above all, but remember that the possiblity to generate digital versions of paperwork is often very useful even just for collaboration with other people by email. For instance emailing digital copies of forms to other professionals. Consider Snapter to be an extremely flexible (allowing for the easily foxed edge detection), inexpensive digitiser which can be used anywhere that a photocopier or a scanner would also work, with much less footprint and less time spent with the original.

Software for law school

Having shelled out for your shiny new (or shiny used, both suit law school) computer you will need to fill it with software. You will not find yourself needing a great deal of software for your study at law school – as requirements go it’s a pretty straightforward list.

Firstly, you will need a word processor, this is a given at law school and it will be difficult to use a computer without one for any school. Generally the only requirement is that you submit marked work in a format which your law school can understand – in my case this means .doc (or .rtf, but you lose some of the features of the former). These formats cover nearly every word processing system in the world. .Doc is officially Microsoft Word’s format but it has been reverse engineered a number of times over the years and is now available in nearly all competing products.

I personally use Microsoft Word 2007 for writing my papers and even these posts but there are a number of extremely good competing programs available. The most famous is probably OpenOffice.org which is available for all the systems a law student would consider using, the best element in OO.o’s favour is that is sold free. Another is Google Docs which has the advantage of letting you access any documents you have written using a web browser – this avoids problems of leaving files on your computer at home. You are able to edit the documents as you would in any other word processor and, like the others, this also supports .doc. If you are willing to convert files between programs you may be interested in using a program such as DarkRoom (originally seen on the Mac as WhiteRoom) which allows you to simply write onto the screen with no other distractions, it’s a good move if you’re using your computer for taking typed notes, but beware – DarkRoom lacks features such as a spellcheck, word count, most certainly does not complete words for you and cannot save in .doc format, but never the less it is an entirely different way of writing which can avoid you being distracted by any other items on the screen and that is a valuable .

Secondly, presentation software – today you can often use the Powerpoint slides that a professor has lectured with to help you study. These files are a lot less compatible with competing products but I have had good results from both OpenOffice’s presenter and Google’s in displaying the slides. Fortunately the first casualties in a compatibility problem are fancy effects while you are really only concerned with the content of the slide. PC and Mac versions are available for each of the options given. OpenOffice and Google Docs will also run straight away using Linux if anyone wishes to use that option – probably most likely on an ultra low cost laptop like an EeePC. Running Microsoft Office on these ultra low cost laptops is very possible but somewhat more convoluted.

Third is a good pdf reader. I happen to prefer PDFs to doc files for files I want to have a permanent, read only record of – like case reports. I would not want to run the risk of having accidentally erased part of a case which I would like to later rely on and it also helps me physically distinguish my own work from research at a glance.

Options abound for pdf readers, Adobe’s own free Acrobat Reader is very effective but is becoming increasingly bulky with features added which are not necessarily helpful. You may get better performance from a lighter program such as Foxit Reader which provides the same functionality – you’ll still be able to read your case reports but you’ll also be able to annotate it as well, which is a major advantage that the free Acrobat Reader can’t do, the $299 version of Acrobat can but that’s extremely expensive and not really intended for students to use. All of the major legal databases provide an option to save cases to your computer in pdf format so this makes a lot of sense while researching.

Finally, a web browser, as mentioned there is such a thing as a online legal database which you will use a lot at law school, my personal favourite is Westlaw but there are many others available which provide subtly different sources and interfaces for you to use, some resources such as HUDOC (the European Court of Humans Right’s portal) are nigh on essential for taking part in some classes. I’m still waiting for someone to develop some form of meta search for these but I think that day cannot be long off. Through these your web browser will give you access to case reports, journal articles and legislation. In fact, the internet is rapidly becoming the best research tool you have. Critically, your university library will almost certainly use an electronic record service, this may allow you to browse the catalogue and reserve books until you travel to the library physically, one of the sneakier moves is to reserve books from the lecture hall as they’re announced to improve your chances of getting the rare library copies of assigned textbooks. This saves a lot of time looking for books and time saved away from fruitlessly perusing the stacks is worth its weight in gold when you are working hard on assignments. Your web browser will probably be the only program that you use for degree work more than your word processor.

I should mention that LexisNexis has changed greatly since even I started my law degree and is much more responsive when used with a browser other than Microsoft Internet Explorer. I was disapointed with the need for Lexis to reload its sources page every time I clicked one box, as opposed to letting me select a number at once, this has now been fixed and the main draw of Lexis – the dizzing array of searchable sources – can now be properly used in Opera and other non Internet explorer browser. This also makes the choice of using a Mac or Linux computer a better option than it used it to be as there is no loss of functionality when using Lexis.

My copies of Word and Powerpoint are official versions which came as part of Microsoft Office 2007 Ultimate, normally this is hugely excessive and I would not recommend it but in the first part of my first year Microsoft started a teachers and students only service allowing them to buy the Ultimate version for £40 if they could provide a valid .ac.uk email address, which I consider reasonable enough to purchase, considering that I will use the program for years as it has all the functionality that I need. Had this deal not come around I was planning to use OpenOffice but decided that I wanted to use OneNote so this made the deal very good.

OneNote is really a good program – it provides you with a mixed media digital notebook, it lets you combine your pdf case reports, typed (or recorded) lecture notes and supports handwriting support. I’ve even been able to use the movie insert function for webcasts. It means that all your notes are combined into one searchable form, and searches are not always perfect for law students to use (I advise everyone to avoid searching for words when reading cases), but being able to find specific points in textbooks or lecture notes (like being able to search for “remedies” for instance) very quickly is a great time saver which would have taken a good deal longer even with a casual scan through yourself. I find the virtual printer that it adds to your system indispensible as a way of getting a permanent record of a page without using a printer. I also use OneNote as a way of saving my receipts from online shops without wasting paper, if it should happen that I need to print a copy of the timestamped record off – I have one stored in OneNote.

Computers have really revolutionised the way that people study law and if you plan out your methods in advance you can really benefit from having a computer with you while on campus. Don’t underestimate how much of your degree can be solved through books and there’s nothing worse than reading a book later in the year and realising it would have been helpful.

I personally try to do as much research as possible online, as far as finding reports and journal articles goes – simply because photocopying begins to be a considerable cost when you factor in the amount of reading that we have to do – and not to mention that I find myself sidetracked by getting into conversations with people once I’m at the library. I also prefer having a .pdf record of the case on my usb stick rather than a thick and heavy paper stack in my bookcase, not to mention the effect this must have on the environment. When presenting you should have a hard copy of the case or article which you are relying on, ideally with a copy to hand out to the significant parties, such as the other side and the judge during a moot, ready to hand in case clarification on a point you do not personally remember is called for but when researching to type up assignments there is a lot less difficulty in simply using the copy on your computer, especially for bibliographical data.