The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: theft

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.

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.

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.

Notes

I take notes in lectures using a ballpoint pen and seemingly endless pads of paper which all get collected together by subject into a big file in my bookcase at home, this year I managed to fill and a bit extra a lever arch file with handwritten lecture notes. There’s a lot of material covered in lectures.
I was warned that bringing too many notes into university leaves me at the risk of losing huge amounts of work in the case of my bag being snatched or misplaced, or perhaps just falling in water. (Glasgow has a couple of big rivers running through it and I’m comfortable admitting that if my bag fell into either I would just have to let it go.)

I’ve not seen the levels of crime that seem to affect students at other universities, we have the odd warning about opportunists in the library but nothing approaching a crime wave so I feel alright carrying relative valuables (not real valuables, I’m a student remember) and I could claim those back on my insurance if I really had to. But notes are awkward to replace – I’d have to hunt down a colleague and photocopy sheet after sheet to get back to where I was before. It’s a thought that I’m more concerned about my notes than my laptop.

I’ve tried typing notes during a lecture, but firstly I felt self conscious with my happy, noisy typing style. there’s a bit difference to writing down every word the lecturer says with a quiet pen and tapping it into a computer, so I was immediately put off the lecture. Secondly, remember to disable any alerts you have on your laptop, if Outlook is retrieving email at the same time as you’re typing it might not disrupt your typing but it will distract you. A lot of my problems stemmed from being distracted by the fact I was typing instead of writing. The other point is the speed of setting up a laptop is more than the same process with paper – pretty much uncap your pen and pull a pad out of your bag, so you spend a little more time at the start of the lecture getting into the right mindset. This does not even begin to consider if you get distracted and accidentally wander onto bebo.com or youtube.com at which point you can consider your participation in a lecture to be over.  It’s hard enough to catch up in a lecture that you’ve come late for never mind one which you have tuned out of and given a generally more interesting distraction.

The benefits of typed notes are clear though – they are searchable, always legible (although still with the same hazard of not necessarily making sense to you afterwards) and more compact. Other commentators who do take typed notes admit they are more likely to look back over typed notes than written notes, which means that as far as a revision aid goes the typed notes are better.

There’s a lot to be said to taking notes with a pen – firstly there’s a pragmatic issue of muscle memory, your brain is likely to associate writing with language from a much earlier age than typing on a keyboard so you’re more likely to retain the information, the information is also being reinforced in a form which is the same as how you want to be able to express it – with a pen during an exam making it a more efficient process. Clearly, if you go into an exam and your secret weapon to pass is the fact that you’ve written your lecture notes out you may be disappointed but the issue is there – your brain will have a delay interpreting your typing revision to be the same as the written essay answers because it’s a different motor skill.

Remembering that university is supposed to help you build skills for later life, remember that there’s an entirely different body language given off by someone writing notes and someone typing notes. In a professional legal situation, the fact your lawyer is scribbling notes and the fact your lawyer is typing those same notes into their computer mean exactly the same thing – your story is being listened to and the trained legal professional is taking a record of important details. They just look different – the person behind the counter at the bank also types into a computer as you give details but as a profession the law tries to get away from the image of themselves as the people behind a counter, the creative lawyer writing stories for you to get you out of a problem is a better look to go for. You may work as a person behind a counter for money as you study but no one endures the work load a law degree involves hoping to become the equivalent of the person behind the counter.

It’s a tiny difference but there’s a lot to be said about small differences in body language which significantly affect the overall experience. I also find that I write considerably faster than I type, and I can simply get more details onto paper in a lecture if it’s through a pen – in this your mileage may vary, I was actually using my sister’s computer for university before my primary school gave me chunky pencils but I can still write faster than I can type no matter what I try.

I would never, ever submit a handwritten document to a paying client, whether as a lawyer or as a plumber, (Actually, I might submit my hand written receipt as a plumber because the illegibility might hide what I charged for) because I feel the look of a handwritten document, particularly a messy one, would take away from the hoped for quality of the content. If my penmanship was infallible and looked professional I would reconsider this immediately. This is similar to taking notes, for your own use, by hand for the image that it lends. It’s a matter of appearance for a world where appearance is extremely important – sharp suits are as much an indicator of your economic success as they are a pleasure to wear and people may not like to see a lawyer in an expensive suit but nevertheless like to be represented by someone who appears successful, and therefore good at their job. It’s just as important to try to distinguish yourself as a lawyer from other professionals who someone might deal with, you’re not being paid to tell someone what they can’t do, you’re being paid to use your imagination to tell them how they could do it and acting in a way that implies your creativity is never a bad thing in that situation.