Much of the non-lawyer world knows that Google released a new, free browser the day after Labor Day, called "Chrome." I've spent a couple hours yesterday and several today with it, to evaluate whether lawyers should be considering changing what browser they use.
There's a lot to like about the program. But based on my experience at three different machines, it appears to have a drawback that -- for now at least -- makes it a non-starter for most lawyers.
Among the positives, it feels faster than Internet Explorer or Firefox on most web pages. Its features as described in its comic book presentation of its raison d'être (yes, comic book) include some that should be welcome to lawyers who want to spend their time practicing law, not becoming security geeks, including (1) greater security via sandboxing (isolation, jailing) of potentially malicious processes, and (2) leverage of Google's data on websites to flag phishing and drive-by malware risks. Of course, there's no magic software bullet to keep one safe; good habits and a touch of mild paranoia (or at least a heritage of Missouri "show-me" attitude) are still needed.
I also like the fact that the location bar and the search bar are one and the same. In addition, the auto-compete feature is limited to the actual website name, not the whole address down to page and jump; and the domain is bolded. This in itself may help lawyers or their staff who think URLs are just gobbledygook, and are satisfied if some part of the long address string looks like it "belongs" (even though it's not the operative part). Of course, it handles https: and extended validation fine, showing "https" in green, and a lock symbol, for EV-SSL sites. So it had no problem allowing secured log-in to the MSBA's member-only services, such as practicelaw.org and Fastcase for legal research. And there are other things to like in general use outside a law office, but I shan't cover them here.
The biggest downside for lawyers is that it was dog-slow showing PDF files. I used it to check and send the decisions for the MSBA's Court Opinions by E-mail service for members. That requires reading a couple of dozen PDF copies of the decisions from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States District Court. Login to the federal ECF system was no problem; but display of PDFs there (or indeed from anywhere) was frustratingly slow. This matched my experience on two other machines, with PDFs from non-court sources.
To be sure, there are work-arounds. One can simply download the PDF and then open the local copy. It was always faster to do that, than to wait for Chrome and then to try to navigate the PDF within Chrome. I used to recommend "first download, then open from the downloaded file" to members who'd have problems "just opening" a PDF in their browser. But it seems awkward to have to do so now. And lawyers so often have to read from PDFs that this is, for the time being, a show-stopper for any notion that you would use Chrome as your only browser.
Obviously, this could change tomorrow. Google has a decent history of improving its offerings, and this is a beta 0.2 release, after all. Also, it might be worthwhile using it as a browser for non-PDF use. But I suspect that most lawyers prefer just to use whatever browser "does it all" (at least, outside of Windows and Office patches).
I'll keep using it. But my advice to MSBA members for right now is to take your time, and stick with Firefox for its excellent plug-ins like Noscript, which can help keep your office safer from browsing "accidents."
For the past couple of years, I've used two monitors. Doing so required installing a video card that would support an extended desktop, but having the extra display space was often useful. Much of the same convenience can be had by using a wide-screen monitor, and without the need for a new video card. A single 22" diagonal 16:9 widescreen has almost the same area as two 15" diagonal 4:3 screens.
Now lawyers using Windows have a good third way of getting more space for programs, while making what's displayed track what one is working on. Linux users have had this way for a long time, whether in command-line mode or "standard" desktops or with the eye-candy of rotating cubes; but it's fairly new for Windows users. It uses virtual desktops (also known as "Spaces" on Mac OS X).
Virtual desktops can help you focus, by committing different desktops to different groups of work: say, devoting one desktop to one client's brief, and another to generic office programs like your tickler and email. Such separation can help you focus on one task at a time, without potential distraction or clutter, or the risk of accidentally closing the "wrong" window of work.
There are some limitations. I didn't find any immediate way to have different desktop backgrounds on different virtual desktops. Firefox didn't want to open in a second virtual desktop when it was already running in a first. And the control-shift-esc keychord to bring up Task Manager brought it up only on the first desktop, not in the added virtual desktops. But it costs a lot less than three new monitors. It's free. Oh -- and it does allow dual-monitor use on the virtual desktops, too.
If you're at all into organization, it's well worth checking out: free, tiny (just 62 kB!), easy, and effective.
I stopped blogging for most of a year. I found myself tempted to write about minor frustrations, not useful ideas. I should be thankful for days when I can fix a user's problem in two minutes by noticing that the power cord or connecting cable isn't plugged in, or can fix a "non-focusing" LCD projector by taking the lens cover off. Also, for a while it seemed as though there was little new out there. Vista and Office 2007 seemed old hat. What would catch my eye would be either for techies as such instead of lawyers (most lawyers won't get any benefit thinking about text editors or SQL statements); or else would be actually law-related, as I sent out the court decisions.
But just because I've seen something a hundred times doesn't mean most readers know about it. There are new things out there useful to lawyers in their practice, including ways to make the tech end of it easier. And even a mini-editorial about why John Q. Public should love standards of review and the ability of an appellate court to say "we might have decided it the other way around if we'd been the trial court, but we can't say the trial court was outright insane to decide as it did" is technically legal. Moreover, if a few such articles can help the general public appreciate why we need independent judges not swayed by majority opinion or money, then it fits the goals of the state bar association.
If the holidays (or the end of a calendar-based fiscal year) may bring a new computer to your office, you will face the question of what to do with the old one. That question includes many subquestions, ranging from recycling (it's probably illegal to just throw it in the trash) to repurposing or donating.
But if it's leaving the office, you'll want to be reasonably sure that no one else can pull any data from its hard drive that might include client secrets or privileged information or that might allow identity theft. One option is physical destruction of the hard drive: melting, shooting, acid baths, and so on. But short of that, you could use a liveCD with a copy of "shred." Even a few passes should provide a reasonable comfort level. There are other ways to do essentially the same thing. But do use one of them (or have your tech support do it).
Every month or so, someone asks where something connects to something else, such as where to plug in a cable to show a presentation through a projector, or where to hook a printer to a laptop. Luckily, the answer these days is generally the children's toy answer. It's almost always simply fitting shapes: square peg in the square hole, star-shaped peg in the star-shaped hole, and so on. Even hard drive cables are keyed by shape now, rather than requiring someone to match the red cable to pin 1. Software use may always pose problems; but at least the hardware connections are easy.
Live CDs (i.e., an operating system that runs from a CD, without needing to be "installed"—rather as one used to boot DOS from a floppy rather than a hard drive) sometimes come across as mere demos or toys. But they do have some practical uses, even for lawyers.
One such use is for when you're out of your office and can use a computer, but don't trust it not to have had a keystroke-logging program or other spyware already installed. I spent a month in the Czech Republic this summer. As I didn't trust the PCs in Internet cafés there to be secure, I didn't want to log in to my email (let alone to a law firm file-server) with any ID and password. So I used the café just once, using a throw-away email account (whose ID and password had nothing in common with any "real work" ID or password) for some non-privileged communications. The rest of the time, I used a PC that I bought-to-return, but I ran it only from a live CD. That way, no keystroke-logging program ever had a chance to start (and I was reasonably confident that there was no hidden logging device). When I sold the PC back, there were no Windows event logs to indicate that I had even ever turned it on.
(For curious lawyers: "buy to return" is a statutorily defined contract type in the Czech Republic. One buys something, but the contract gives one a right to make the seller buy it back at some determinable price within some agreed time. The end result is much as though the temporary buyer had rented.)
Staying at home (well, in the U.S., but at the office), a lawyer can find practical uses for live CDs in troubleshooting or upgrading her computers. Two examples come to mind.
One is when installing new memory. Bad or intermittent memory errors can be responsible for flaky computer behavior. So if you add memory to a computer, it's good to test it. Several live CDs include the "memtest" program, so after installing the RAM you can boot from the CD, and run the memory test for long enough to satisfy yourself that the RAM is good, before you reboot to Windows. Of course, one has long been able to use memtest from a floppy; but lots of computers don't have floppy drives anymore.
A second is to help diagnose whether some problem is due to a hardware or software issue. If a computer's speakers or some other component work when the computer is booted from a live CD, but not from the installed Windows, you at least know that the hardware is fine. Knowing this much may at least save you from the kind of shoot-aim-fire tech support that prematurely suggests you buy new hardware. Conversely, if the same problem appears even under the live CD, you are on good ground returning some hardware for a refund.
Live CDs have other uses, of course. But most of them are not sufficiently related to real-life law practice to be worth mentioning here. And the field where live CDs excel that is highly law-related (electronic discovery and drive copying) is almost exclusively in a "hire an expert" category for most lawyers. First, you don't want to have to be a witness to the procedures used. (Minn.R.Prof.Cond. Rule 3.7's three exceptions won't apply.) Second, you don't want to run the risk of botching the procedure.
Earlier this week, I was on a "60 tips in 60 minutes" panel for Minnesota CLE. We actually delivered the promised number. (More, in the written materials, as each presenter tucked in some "extra.")
An attendee asked "in Windows Vista, is the maximum length for file names the same as XP or longer?" Live, I didn't know whether it was only the same (256 characters), or in fact longer. Nor did the other panelists.
It turns out that for most users' situations it's the same in theory, but slightly longer in practice. The Microsoft FAQ gives the same maximum length: 260 bytes (or English characters). But that's a maximum path length and includes a null. So "c:\" takes up three of the characters, and the null takes a fourth, leaving 256 bytes left for any combination of folder names and file name. That produces the potentially longer names in practice in Vista: instead of losing characters to
C:\Documents and Settings\Michael Trittipo\My Documents\Litigation\Mom and Pop vs. Goliath Enterprises\Discovery\Spring 2007\filename.txt (138 characters)
Vista has shortened the default document path to
C:\Users\Michael Trittipo\Documents\Litigation\Mom and Pop vs. Goliath Enterprises\Discovery\Spring 2007\filename.txt (117 characters).
The 21-byte savings comes from shortening the "special folder" names: turning "\Documents and Settings" into "\Users" and killing the pointless "My " cuteness. "\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Microsoft" becomes "\Users\All Users\Microsoft" and so on, as Michael Kaplan discusses. Also, some path names are reportedly being shortened behind the scenes.
The examples show why lawyers might sometimes care: it's easy for lawyers to give long names to folders and files, and to nest folders fairly deeply. But in general, here's a 61st tip: don't give a letter the name
Letter Demanding That Michael Trittipo or Any Other Blogger or Bloggers at Technically Legal URL used by Minnesota State Bar Association Cease and Desist Linking, Copyright Infringement, or Passing Off of Information Viewed on April 1, 2007 as Accurate on Any Other Date.doc
That's 275 characters right there: and that's without the necessary leading characters for whatever path it might be put in. There are still good reasons to rely on folder paths (metadata, in a sense) to organize things, rather than try to put every bit of description in the file name itself. "Demand letter of 4/1" will do fine, if the folder path does the rest. One advantage to document or case management systems is that they will take care of path names, without you having to do so (and without the risks of accidents that come from using Windows Explorer directly).
A member recently complained that one of our council email distribution lists was broken. The evidence? It was rejecting his message to his fellow council members. No, it didn't say why.
Investigation quickly showed that the list service program was working fine. I had the member send me a copy of the rejection message and of what he was trying to send. The rejection message said "mail action aborted; exceeded limit; 7812 kB maximum message size." Sure enough, his message was that big, and the list had an "etiquette" limit of 2 megabytes. His response? "But it's only four attachments, only about a dozen pages. They're just some candidates' bios."
That was true enough. There were only four attachments. Three of them were one page each, all between 25 kilobytes and 35 kilobytes. No problem. But the fourth attachment was over 6 megabytes by itself. True, it was only nine pages long. A bit wordy for a bio, but page count wasn't the issue.
The problem was that it was an image PDF resulting from a scan. It all had been scanned at high resolution and high color, as though it were nine large glossy photographs. There was no good reason. Everything except a letterhead logo and a signature on the cover page was dirt-ordinary black-on-white print. Maybe the little spot of color was important to the candidate. But most likely, no one thought about what would happen if nine pages were treated like high-quality photos by Jim Brandenburg.
What could the candidate have done differently? Scanning at a lower resolution would have helped, of course. Scanning in black and white, not even grayscale, let alone color, would have helped. But it would have been best to print to PDF, not print then scan. If it was vital to the candidate that the logo of his firm or the signature be in color, the best solution would have been to scan just that, then insert the image(s) into the Word or WordPerfect document, and then print to PDF.
What could the council member have done differently? He could have had his email program set to show file sizes. Or he could have read the five lines of the error message to notice the part I quoted. Sure, there were a couple of technobabble words. But with only five lines, the "exceeded limit; maximum size" bits should have been close enough to plain English to be seen.
What could I have done differently? I could have used the problem as a teachable moment, and might have saved the lawyer from someday missing an e-filing deadline due to rejection of an overlarge scanned document to be filed.
Of course, what I actually did was to reset the list's etiquette limit to ten megabytes temporarily and ask the member to re-send, because I'd "fixed" what was "broken." I took the easy way out, on the theory that most the council members probably receive their email at the office over a T3. Tough luck for any council member using a modem. (Except that I've now re-instated the two megabyte limit.)
The broader issue, of course, isn't any of the three actors' actions. It's that our computer programs aren't set up to make relevant quantities (the math) clear to us. We can see how big a page is, on paper. But a page electronically might be tiny or gigantic. The problem is, that to most users, the behemoths are invisible, and nothing in their programs highlights the invisible sizes. Sure, they could learn how to find out the sizes. But they shouldn't have to make the effort. They're busy practicing law, and have better things to do. Email programs and scanning programs should add default settings that make file sizes obvious, big and bold and unavoidable: maybe something like a CPU meter or a speedometer, always up front to make the invisible apparent.
Once in a while, it helps to have a reminder that computers are not magic. In particular, they are subject to various quantifiable limits, and it can avoid frustration to remember those limits, even to do a little math about them.
Recently, I had to make copies of partitions on two computers to preserve potential evidence. On one computer, I didn't think ahead clearly enough about the computer's age. I made the copy (using Helix and dd) across a USB cable to the new target drive. It took over five hours. Why so long?
The partition was about 30 gigabytes. The data transfer rate for USB 1.1 (which was all the source computer had) is 1.5 megabytes per second at best. So for 10 gigabytes, elapsed time is about (30 GB / 1.5 MB/s) * ( 1000 MB / 1 GB) = about 20,000 seconds: about 333 minutes, or five and a half hours. The math is so simple that I should have done it in advance and brought along a book to read.
On the second computer, the partition was again around 30 gigabytes. I again used Helix and dd. But this time I made the copy by connecting the target drive through the built-in IDE cable. The data transfer for the cables and drives at issue could reach up to about 30 MB/s: about 20 times as fast as USB 1.1. Instead of 333 minutes, the math comes to about 17 minutes.
Both copies were successful. Their MD5 hashes matched the original partitions'. But guess whether next time I'm going to do a little back-of-the-envelope calculation of the time options available? Yep.