The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: student

Kindle for law students

I got a Kindle for my birthday this year and I think it’s a great thing. The interesting thing is that I think it’s deeply flawed in a few ways (the annotation features and the keyboard for two) but regardless think it’s amazing.

In particular the current model begins to puts a dent into the logic of using photocopiers. I’m a huge fan of photocopying, of course, because it’s the best thing ever and all law students love doing it.

Interestingly, it’s suggested that students are actually doing more reading than they used to because of the increased use of computer resources. There isn’t the same need for students to spend time buried in the stacks fighting over the one copy of a set text and that leaves more time for them to read the set text. Whether or not students pouring over endless piles of PDFs is a good thing is, of course, something humans are not allowed to agree on.

2011 EWHC 1578 (Admin) is R v Hookway

The photocopy metric

I’ve written about paperless law students before and, although it’s getting better, the economics still don’t quite stack up. My university does 5p/sheet photocopying and this is relatively high as photocopying costs go. Nonetheless, at £111 for a Wifi-only Kindle you break even when you read the equivalent of 2220 A4 pages on your Kindle and I’m aware that’s a big number. I’m not sure exactly how many pages I read at uni but my impression is you are going to manage that at some point during your degree (it’s not all that many 20-30 page cases and journal articles spread over the years). That said four and a half reams is a big chunk of pages and it won’t pay for itself quickly compared to a photocopier. You’re still paying a fair bit for convenience.

You can’t completely replace photocopying with a Kindle because you may still need it for copying books and paper only periodicals as well as printing out submissions, bundles and so on but you’ll not need to spend quite so long printing out case reports and journal articles and it’s easier to read a kindle on the bus than a thick stack of A4. Bear in mind that, as you go through your degree, you start reading fewer and fewer textbooks and more and more journal articles so it becomes increasingly handy. In terms of reading it should be perfectly fine for law students. I can understand that certain disciplines are unsuited to a device which is designed to display text but law is not one of them.

The "flip through" problem continues for ebook readers and I still don’t see any practical way to fix it. I don’t think this is such a concern for journal articles as it is for textbooks. I think that you consume journal articles from beginning to end and flipping to the middle of an article doesn’t make sense in the same way that flipping to the middle of a textbook does.

Display

The Kindle’s stand out feature is its display. E-ink is effectively an electromagnetic printer which applies and removes ink onto a surface on demand. The screen is incredibly paper like and I’ve experienced no eye strain (to be fair I don’t really get eye strain looking at a backlit display either) when using it. It’s like using paper which changes which you press a button.

The black and white flicker effect when you change pages is a bit annoying but it lasts for a fraction of a second and it’s the very definition of a first world problem. The display works extremely well (perhaps better) in strong light which means that it can be used by windows or outside but there is a slight sheen on the display which can cause some reflections. As someone who has sat inside on nice days reading case reports on my laptop that is worth the price of admission alone.

Annotation

The markup features on the Kindle are just alright. They’re not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. The lack of a touch interface means that highlighting is fiddly and there doesn’t seem to be a way to get your highlighted documents onto your computer. You can copy your highlighted text over a USB cable but you can’t display highlighted case reports on your computer. I prefer to write notes rather than highlight the text so this wasn’t a huge concern for me but depending on your style it could be substantial. I think Amazon should really make it easier to use your annotated "personal documents" (ie. documents on your Kindle not purchased from Amazon) with the desktop software.

Keyboard

The keyboard on the Kindle is frankly not designed to be used. It’s a waste of space in its current form. The only things on the Kindle that require typing are 1) the browser and 2) notes but the keyboard really hamstrings them. Amazon has to fix that.

iPad

There are some rather more substantial PDF based tools available on, for example, the iPad (which really blows the photocopy metric out of the water: the break even point on a 16GB iPad is 7980 pages) which I’m not going to recommend for a student. I think a student has much more pressing financial concerns than owning two computers, especially if one is just there to annotate PDFs. If you can afford it and you want one you should go ahead. My view on the iPad is that it’s a good device but it’s pretty expensive for a student.

Calibre

My main use of the Kindle in practice, mostly due to getting it in the latter part of my honours year, has been newspapers. There is a fantastic program called Calibre which lets you email the paper to your kindle every day and I find that convenient for the bus in the mornings as well as being cheaper than buying a paper.

Calibre also handles converting most document types into a format that the Kindle can understand (and Amazon can also directly convert documents themselves). The device itself has a relatively narrow range of supported formats but conversion programs exist to allow a wide range of documents to work.

I think all Kindle owners should install Calibre pretty much as a matter of course because it is such a useful piece of software.

Conclusion

As you can see I think the Kindle is a flawed device in many ways but it does something, for a very reasonable price, which is pretty hard to complain about. The e-ink display is fantastic and really makes the device, with the battery life and easy over-the-air sync being why you should it love it.

The Kindle won’t be your one-thing-to-get-you-through-law-school computing device but there is no such thing anyway. If you’re looking for a good, reasonably priced device for reading case reports in the park or on the bus I think you have to consider the Kindle.

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Saddleback Leather Company

I’ve found myself reading the artofmanliness.com (links to a competition thread – very best of luck to anyone clicking it) over the weekend. I happen to think that it’s a really good idea — it’s a blog dedicated to the idea that it’s good to be manly, in a self-reliant and skilled way rather than a boorish or overly FHM way. I agree with this, I think it’s a good model for someone to aim to be. I actually think that’s a fairly good model for everyone to aim to be, just to be modern.

The blog mainly divides into posts about how to be manly — how to camp, how to put up shelves, that sort of thing — and things that are manly — the pocketknife, hats, Frank Sinatra, that sort of thing. In the second category lies the Saddleback Leather Company’s products, their site is frankly one of the most tempting boutique shopping sites I’ve ever seen. Generally I can look at boutique items and say “right, it’s lovely but it’s wholly impractical as well as very expensive” but in this case I’m looking at leather satchels and bags built to last for generations and thinking “it’s lovely and dammit that’s probably quite practical too.” I do like the idea of buying a bag that’s just not going to wear out, and I say that as someone with a cracked laptop from hitting pavement after a zip on a backpack burst.

I think the idea of me buying a briefcase just now, as an undergrad, would be a massively presumptuous act and I think the smaller items are disproportionately expensive compared to the bags to consider buying one – I think the $140 leather document wallet is a particularly shocking act of pricing that frankly reflects badly on the other items but that doesn’t change the central issue: those are some lovely looking bags. They’re too much money for a student to spend on a single bag in my view (I get by very well with a beaten up Berghaus daypack at uni – you just need something that holds your books) but I think these might be worth looking at when money is less tight even if just because they’re quite pretty.

Edit: I’m at the “know enough to be dangerous” stage of my tax education just now. Would someone get a letter from the revenue if they imported one of the $519 (small) – $607 (large) briefcases?

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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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Website recommendation: Typographyforlawyers.com

Of all the websites I could recommend here this will not be the immediately most useful one but I think it’s definitely worth having a look at. www.typographyforlawyers.com is both an example of just how big a country the US is and also a very useful resource on how to set out readable text. I am not a lawyer, but my official day job still involves putting words on and therefore typographyforlawyers.com is useful for me. It’s not designed to teach you how to draft a contract or how to write a letter but it is designed to teach you to set it out attractively and to optimise for readability. It is written by a man who changed careers from typographer to lawyer (and, to demonstrate the number of people in America he is not the only person to have done this) who presents both sides of the argument neatly. He also provides guidance based on the practice guidance of American courts. It would be interesting to know the guidance from our own courts compares.

Given the amount of work that the average student would naturally pour into their words it makes sense to then learn a little about how to present it in an attractive and professional way. You don’t particularly need a huge investment of time – you can certainly put more time in if you feel inclined – but the site itself is a quick read which is logically arranged into a sensible introduction and beginning, intermediate and advanced sections.

The main lesson that I took from the site was that you need to treat printed text differently to onscreen text – I think because of the markedly higher resolution involved. That means that some fonts, for example the ones included with an operating system, are optimised for screen use as opposed to print use and this is not ideal. A more important lesson to take from it is that typography is an effective way to make a document more persuasive and more intelligible. It is not able to make a document’s content better than it is but it can make it clearer and give it a touch of style at the same time.

Student Food

Although this blog’s mainly been about the more technical aspects of the law student’s life I thought it might be a good change of pace to make a comment about actual student life. I don’t mean where can you get cheap drinks in Glasgow – there’s much more highly paid people working at advertising that. I’m thinking about the simple things in life, cooking for example.

There’s always a bit of charm inherent in seeing a ruffled looking student wandering through his student union with a Pot Noodle in his hand but that’s not how you build muscles or indeed, stave off malnutrition. There’s better alternatives out there involving real meat.

One of my schoolmates who is starting uni this autumn was given a cookery book as a present for getting in. This is an ingenious move and a much better gift than other choices – it’s much better than pens for a start (to all parents – they’ll honestly have them there, I’d recommend replacing stacks of ballpoints for a single nice one that’s more momento than notetaker) and it’s a great way of starting out in higher education. Eating (and living) healthily is the single best way to perform better at university than any other. No matter how much guilt you feel, it’s nearly always better to get an early night before an exam than to sit up trying to read what you think you don’t already know and people have pounded out essays in a state of stupor that they’ve not even been able to read, it’s not the right state of mind to be in when you work your academic magic.

The particular cookery book that my friend was given was Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food which I think has exactly the right message and aim that the average student needs – he costs everything out to a few pounds a head and focuses on food that’s nutrious and quick while still including dishes that look good enough to cook as a bit of showing off.

I’ve always really enjoyed Heston Blumenthal (his “World’s Best Burger” was something I told complete strangers about for about a week after seeing it) for the wonderful over-the-top search for quirk and quality that he pulls off but while I’m happy to let a professional chef go to that hassle for his book I’m not so interested in the concept of starting from the absolute scratch for everything and being told to use supermarket pasta is much more convenient.

That’s a good thing for students, simple, cost conscious and quite easy.

Jamie Oliver does a very good set of free video podcasts for the Ministry of Food which are available on the iTunes Music Store – each is about 5 minutes or so long and lays out an entire recipe from pot to plate and doesn’t need much more than an oven and a frying pan. The book is available from frankly nearly every bookshop out there.

You don’t necessarily need to use Jamie Oliver’s book – any book is a good foundation to being able to cook simply and well. Don’t underestimate how good having a filling meal after a long day can be, it’s worth investing a little bit of time in.

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.