The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: mac

Soulver T&Cs

I am a big fan of a program called Soulver for Mac (I’ve never used it but Lifehacker says that OpalCalc is a good copy for Windows).

Soulver is basically a notepad application that lets you write out what calculations you’re doing and then does the computation next to it. I like it because my fundamental failing in maths is keeping track of what I’ve done, what I’m doing now and where I go from there. Soulver lets you type out a document, with variables and dependent answers if you want, that neatly sets out your working. It means that you don’t feed numbers into a calculator and, on going back, wonder “where did that 50p come from?”. It’s also great used as a more regular text editor to take notes where numbers are involved.

Calculating a company's dividend, line by line

For example, the above is a question I worked out in a tax tutorial (by the way, if you rely on my figures here to calculate the dividend in your own company you’re literally crazy). I typed out the numbers again but I could also have dragged and dropped from the right hand side into the text window on the left. That has the advantage of putting in pointers which can change as the calculations they rely on change, just like a spreadsheet formula.

Soulver costs $24.95 (about £15) and, as standard for a piece of software in this is price range, tries to back away from as much liability as possible. I think this is only sensible — I found Soulver as a Mac Switcher through a recommendation from David Sparks (MacSparky), a California trial attorney who, as far as I understand, uses it at work. The Terms of Use put a $2 limit on total company liability.

Two provisions from the Terms of Use say:

The developer makes no claims for Soulver’s accuracy, reliability or correctness. You should always check the accuracy of the results, and not rely on them being correct.

Soulver should not be used in cases where errors or inaccuracies in a result would lead to death, personal injury, financial and economic losses, losses, damage to property, or any other form of damage.

I suspect that whoever wrote that had the Mars Climate Orbiter in mind when doing so. The MCO crashed because of a communication error between multiple teams — one team did their work in metric units, another team used imperial ones. The resulting disparity meant that the spacecraft crashed. Similarly, my own example of using Soulver to calculate company tax creates opportunities for some crazy liabilities. Soulver’s killer feature here, every calculation is neatly written down and stored line by line, means that there is a paper trial built up for exactly where the error happened; that’s not the same as blaming Casio when your tax return gets audited.

I think this makes a dramatic contrast to the “use at your own risk” EULA found by Michael @ Law Actually.

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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.

Reading the Manual

I’m going wildly off topic today but I was reading a post by Danny Sullivan about his new MacBook Pro.  Now, I love Macs and I make no secret of this but I cannot afford one.  I also love computers and make it a point of pride to develop an all round understanding of how they work, I’ve dabbled in everything from DIY radio frequency networking (actually not as interesting once it’s finished as when you’re researching the regulations, sourcing parts and generally getting it working) to a spot of programming and now I write a legal blog so I consider my proficiency in most areas to be pretty high.  I consider my proficiency directly related to my willingness to sit down and read documentation, whether that be a glossy user manual or a UNIX man page, if I want to learn something I’ll look it up.

“First challenge. How to get the software into the Mac. See, the Mac DVD player is cool. Nothing slides out. You just shove the disc in. But I wondered if it was working since the disc didn’t get “grabbed” until it was almost entirely in. But nice — it’s a pain having the disc carriers slide out. Ejecting was another issue. I could not figure it out. Totally lost.”
(http://daggle.com/080312-192557.html)

Yes, I understand that this man is indulging in a bit of comic excess here and I’m cherry picking (he later installs an entire virtualised operating system, so he’s not a novice user) and blowing it out of all proportion but the fact remains.  He got a disc stuck in his fully functional and highly expensive laptop and I find that slightly surprising.  Even without owning a modern Apple computer I happen to know:

  1. There’s a key on most, if not all, Apple keyboards since about 1998 marked with the internationally recognised eject symbol*  and pressing it will make the drive spit its contents out. I’ve not looked at the new MB/MBP closely enough remember if it does and I suspect the MacBook Air might not need one but I’d be comfortable assuming for now.
  2. I also know that dragging the CD’s desktop icon to the Trash will make the disc eject.  (Not the most intuitive step, I know but if you’re used to it it’s very fast and that’s just how Macs do it)
  3. Pressing and holding F12 for 2 seconds will eject the disc.
  4. You can even perform a Command-Option-O-F boot and type “eject disc”.
  5. If all that fails you can push a straightened paperclip into the little hole next to the drive slot to trigger the physical button.
  6. The old versions of Mac OS (not checked this way in years, never needed to, see 1-5 above) had an eject disc option in the Special Menu

That’s purely from my computing general knowledge which has been picked up from my general life experience as someone who is reasonably willing to fix a friend’s computer.  I wouldn’t expect someone else to just instinctively know all that, I didn’t – I had to go out and learn it, but I would be comfortable expecting them to know what the quick start guide says about ejecting discs.  They don’t have to read it religiously before the computer is even unpacked but when they have a problem perhaps it’s worth a look.  I believe in trying to help yourself and a good way to do that is letting the manufacturer help you.  Apple knows that most laptops have buttons on the side that makes the CD come out and that theirs are different.

The odd thing is that this post has triggered a surprising reaction of what I suspect is jealousy in me.  I simply cannot afford a MacBook Pro if I factor in ongoing financial commitments like buying food and I understand that.  Instead I use a cherished collection of primarily hand assembled and carefully tuned computing equipment which serves my purposes extremely well and I’d only like a Mac because I used one as a child and the marketing has brainwashed me and they’re nice.

That said, I’d like to think that I’d read at least the quick start guide for my new couple/few thousand pound laptop (if not the full manual) even if only for the sake of checking there wasn’t some feature I didn’t know about.  The reaction of my enthusiastic amateur self to the mental image of someone sitting in front of a shiny new computer that’s out of my economic league and idly poking at it with a murmured “Huh, look at that, it’s eaten my CD” is unexpectedly shocking.  That’s slightly worrying food for thought I think.  I’ll have to seek out a glamour model using one of the high end MacBook Pros to check their MySpace for comparison.

Is this the scotslawstudent admitting he’s a closet sociopath and voracious reader of technical documentation?  Well, kinda actually. But really I’m trying to make a point about the best move a computer user can make if they find themselves in an unfamilar environment is to stop, take stock of what they want to do and dig out some of the paper they previously ignored in the box. It’s often very, very helpful. Also, MacBook Pros are awesome, aren’t they?

The internationally recognised eject symbol

*The internationally recognised eject symbol

Computers for law school

I’ve been planning to make a post on this for a while now but I thought it would make the most sense during the summer. A computer is, near enough, a requirement for law school nowadays. We may not be at the level of business students who need a laptop with them to be taught how to present but there is still a lot of benefit to having a computer with you. My university has embraced IT in a big way and there are plenty of computers available for students to use on campus and it is very possible for someone to get by on these alone for their typing use.

The question is if someone needs to use a computer at irregular hours (typing a paper at 11pm for a midnight submission is not impossible) or for a long time because then using one in a university computer lab might not ideal. Having a computer available to use on your own terms is ideal, and will let you work in a way that you find more natural to you.  People who study at night may particularly appreciate this freedom.

The requirements that law students have are pretty minimal and the most important factor is a word processor which can save in a format which markers will accept, most commonly Microsoft Word files (.doc). If you are shopping on a tight budget never forget that the primary medium you will use during your degree is the written word – coursework assignments for a media student stretch to DVD sizes, coursework for a law student can be around just 100 kilobytes of nonetheless painstakingly researched text. It could be just as much work but you don’t need nearly as powerful the computer to do it. It is very possible to buy a used computer and use it successfully during your degree: you will not be at a disadvantage if you use a non Core 2 Duo laptop.

PC or Mac?

This is a very general decision and the choice to use an Apple computer will not hinder you at law school. If you are able to afford a Macbook Pro or are happy to settle for using some older models of Powerbook you may find the particularly good keyboards make typing assignments a little more comfortable but it is a very subjective issue and the best test will be to try the keyboard out before buying the computer. Apple hardware is well made in my experience and is a useful accessory for university. PCs are just as useful and the programs you will need for your degree are generally very similar, a word file saved on a Mac will be identical to a word file saved on a PC and the reference databases are generally exactly the same on either platform. LexisNexis is picky about the system that you use to access it, however but is still usable without the Windows and Internet Explorer it recommends.

Desktops

Briefly, I think that students who are living on or near campus are perfectly able to operate a desktop as their main computers, using portable storage and campus computers as needed. However, I do not recommend that someone buy a new desktop for law school over a laptop – many students in this situation will end up buying a laptop for themselves anyway.  Desktops are bulkier, heavier and more flexible than laptops and there is still a price premium for portable computers, so there are benefits for a student aiming for one of these.  As a student who is fond of using wireless networks to check my mail in the park I think it’s really worth the (now invisible) cost. However, you also eliminate a lot of the theft problem. The problem is that the primary benefit of desktops is the extra power that is available. It used to be that a basic desktop cost much less than a comparable laptop but the difference has narrowed greatly. Instead the advantage is now the extra power available – additional power which law students do not honestly need for their studies. If I was doing a media degree and needed to process video or similar at home (but universities allow you to process your video on their workstations) for coursework I would consider having access to a computer with a fast processor, big screen and lots of storage to be a positive investment for my education. Instead, I’m doing law, which is much less strenuous on hardware. A law student only needs a word processor and a web browser and for the most part everything else is extra functionality.

Laptops

The quintessential law school laptop was highlighted by the movie Legally Blonde, released in 2001, and it contains a scene where every student (except from Reese Witherspoon) sat behind an IBM Thinkpad, which is now produced by Lenovo. This visual joke has a lot of truth to it; a Thinkpad is a wonderful tool for a law student. My own (slightly dated) experience of the keyboards is that they were as good as billed, and a law student can expect to be typing for their degree enough to be sick of it. A good keyboard is a very good idea for your own health and productivity.

Interestingly, Witherspoon’s own choice from Legally Blonde – the Clamshell iBook – is still a passable option for a law student’s word processing machine as it will provide all the functionality which they will need for their studies, at a price premium due to its rarity and sought after nature and at the cost of being under powered compared to newer computers – lowendmac.com can explain how to work with these older computers.

Personally, I use a budget laptop which I bought online new for a few hundred pounds a bit over a year ago. I agree that looks are important so I chose one which was powerful for the money but still pretty timeless in style. It’s black and grey and it’s a little over an inch thin when closed, thin and black will never be unacceptable in a laptop. It uses an older, single core Pentium M processor which does not provide the same power as the newer models (but cut around £100 off the price when I bought it) but I have hooked up an extended life battery and I get around 6 hours away from a plug, which covers me perfectly while I’m out of the house. I back up my files to a flash drive which also means I can use them on the campus systems – useful for centralised printing. The combination means that my work is secure enough to protect it from accidents like drive failure or, in the worst case, the theft of my laptop.

My very functional HP 510 (pdf) gets well looked after and will continue to serve me as a portable typing, emailing and browsing machine well after university, it is not a speed demon but the combination of low cost, highly clocked processor and long battery life means that I consider it to be one of the best purchases I have made in a long time. For people who want more power from a laptop, there are pricier options but my lower end option works extremely well for me as a typing and researching machine.  All the posts on this site are typed on this machine.

Finally, if you are not a very technical person I suggest the first thing you do is find a techie friend at your university, my first love was computing so that shows it’s even possible to find one within your course, who can talk you through what can be pretty complicated configuration for campus networks etc which will save headaches in the future.