Thursday, 31 May 2012

Utrecht and architecture

I sometimes have the feeling that I am too negative about the university. It is just in a Dutchman’s nature to complain about everything. The great things about Utrecht University are eventually taken for granted, which is not a good thing for a blogger like me who is out to give international students a fair look at their possible destination.

Obviously there are many great things I could talk about, but I want to focus on Utrecht’s architecture. Utrecht is situated in the middle of the Netherlands, but it has the Rhine flowing through it. A lot of the buildings next to the river have a lower level just above the water and a main floor where there is no risk of flooding if the water rises.

The Wikipedia page for Utrecht has a lot of pictures and background for those interested. The buildings all look very authentic and most university buildings inside the city center are just renovated on the inside to accommodate a great number of students. One building, Achter Sint Pieter 200, used to be a very big bank and still holds many authentic details while being a very modern building once you get inside.

Inside the city are five churches, which form a Christian cross if conntected on a map. In the center is the Dom, a huge cathedral, with gorgeous details. I believe you are allowed to climb to the top for only a few euros, which is well worth it if you are not too afraid of hights.
What I find really amazing though, is that Utrecht University also has very modern and strange architecture. The university campus, called the Uithof, is just outside of the city, about 20 minutes by bus from the city center. All the university buildings not in the city center are built there and they all look incredibly modern and amazing. The Educatorium, containing two enormous lecture halls, three examination rooms and the biggest cafeteria I have ever seen. It has a slope down for the cafeteria and one up for the lecture rooms. On the right side of the slope is glass so you can look outside, where there is also a slope and several geographical figures decorating the building.
 The library, containing more than four million books spread over several floors, looks very modern and is very comfortable to be in. It does not only contain legal texts, but it is shared instead with all departments. If you are anything like me and you regularly feel like branching your research, this library is a gift sent from heaven.

The Minnaert building has a fountain inside of it, which provides a green way of cooling the building. Also, how awesome is to have a fountain greet you between classes? This is a physics building though, so you probably will not spend much time in it. Not that the university minds if you peek inside. If you really get in trouble, say you are doing a case study on laws pertaining to construction provisions.

In short, Utrecht looks awesome. Even if you do not decide to study there, it is well worth it to visit it at least once in your life.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Techno geek FTW

In case you had not noticed, I am somewhat of a nerd. When I introduced myself, I already mentioned that I am always in front of a television or a computer (or both), which has made me very familiar with technical issues. The UU has a computer in every classroom that is attached to a beamer for presentations. It is built into a big box with confusing buttons. Confusing buttons always make me curious.

Unfortunately, it was not until my second year that I really got to play with them. I had a powerpoint and needed to handle the computer. The instruction pamphlet by the machine taught me the basics and the professor present, who was a bit of a geek herself, taught me the finer controls. It is nice to be able to help other students and even other professors when they are having trouble with it.

Anyway, I always carry my laptop with me to classes. This is firstly because I can type much faster than I can write by hand and secondly because digital notes can be distributed much more easily and can be shared online on my blog. Originally I just put them online with the idea of students coming along and discussing and correcting my work. Instead, it seems I am the go-to guy for skipping homework and finding the notes to classes people missed or skipped.

Most classrooms in the UU are fit perfectly for laptop use. Well, as long as there are only half a dozen laptop users. The buildings are pretty authentic and not build with an endless supply of electrical sockets. In fact, I often try to be the first one to enter a classroom so that I can make sure I am seated in one of the four of five seats that have the easiest time getting electricity. Lately I have been bringing an extension cord so that more laptops can be plugged in and I am guaranteed a worry-free class.

I have to say though, the technical assistance is amazing. There is standard documentation for most technical questions (like connecting to the protected wi-fi) and the few times I did have trouble, a quick e-mail to the IT crowd resolved the issues almost immediately. And Wi-fi coverage is extensive; I do not know of even one room in University buildings where I cannot connect easily to it.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Using the research

Last week I talked about doing research for my thesis and what that meant. Obviously, the next step is putting that research to good use. Like doing the research, there are a couple of ways to present your findings that are pretty distinct. Here I focus on presenting the findings of research on relevant literature.

The first type is the most factual. You have found out some information, and you present it ordered by source. I did this with my bachelor thesis, talking about the desirability of minimum punishments[1]. I had collected articles of several prominent lawyers, summarized their opinions and arguments on the matter and presented them per writer. I called the chapter ‘views on authors on minimum punishments’ and started 9 out 10 paragraphs with the name of an author. Knigge wrote in 2000 about X. Duker agrees with Knigge on X1, but differs when it comes to X2.

The problem of course is that it reads very much as a summary and is not very useful for actual results. A better method is to use all the arguments and make your own framework. That is, use the substance of the views of the authors, without going into detail who said what. It is what I am trying to do as much as possible in my master thesis. It requires a lot of originality, which also means it is highly error-prone. Also, to make everything fit, it is very possible you will have to disregard some views. This happens mostly when different models have fundamental differences in their starting points.

This happens a lot in criminal law when it comes to the goals of punishments and penal law. Going back to minimum punishments, its desirability depends a lot on what you believe are the primary goals of punishment. When retribution is your mail goal, extra punishments are fully justified. When you actually care about the welfare of society and the criminal as a human being, more flexibility is desired.

A completely different alternative to present the findings is to simply look at one author and thoroughly explain their views, before applying it to another problem. I did this with a paper I wrote for Comparative Legal Cultures[2]. In it I used the model of Hofstede, who has tried to scientifically index facets of national cultures, to chart the acceptance of Same-sex marriage in Europe. The description of the model was far more in-depth than it would have been with the first method of presenting research, without all the risks of overlooking certain aspects that the second method has.

 Obviously, this all is just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it is at least a nice introduction. Now, I am off to stop procrastinating and work on my master thesis… after I finish walking the dog.

[1] Minimum punishments: under certain conditions, a judge is required to give the guilty suspect a minimum amount of punishment; my thesis was about a minimum amount of prison time for repeat offenders.
[2] I have been meaning to put this paper online, but it has  delayed due to the complexity of the format.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Law and science

There is a new field in the Dutch legal scene called ‘civilology’. In a notation of a recent case by the higher appeal court (Hoge Raad), Vranken wrote about this new version of civil law (NJ 2012,182-184). In the NJB (the Dutch Legal Journal), Hartlief describes this notation and he has a few questions.

The example given by Hartlief is of a truck that hit a child playing by a heap of sand. It drove forward a bit and then backed up, seriously wounding the child. The lower court ruled that the driver is not liable because he should not have needed to pay attention to the child; the driver could have reasonably thought that a child would stay far away from such a large and dangerous truck. The higher court disagreed and considered that children are highly unpredictable and that such a large truck would have attracted their attention.

Civilology would roll its eyes at both rulings, muttering ‘merely hypotheses’ before finding an actual answer using the results of empirical sciences. Looking through psychology and biology journals probably will not let you find an article written specifically to test the attractiveness of large trucks on children, but there will be articles with the most accurate information about children’s behavior. The limits mentioned by Hartlief include that those fields of study are not writing articles while thinking about the problems of civil law (they have different priorities), and that the civiloligist needs to be always wary of the quality and relevance of the science.

The questions being asked are whether this is a good thing. I will say, unapologetically, that this is possibly the best thing that has ever happened to the legal system since criminology. At the moment judges make an informed guess. How improved would their decisions be if they would actually based on, you know, that trivial thing called reality?

It reminds of a recent article in the Advocatenblad (Advocate’s Journal) where a lawyer wrote an article meant to scientifically discuss the effects of (prison) punishments. He described the criminology view (based on actual science) and then made up an alternative hypothesis on the spot, acting like he had thusly debunked the entire argument. This is of course not how the empirical debate works and it illustrates the reason why I often sigh and roll my eyes when the study of law is called a science.

There are a few ground rules. If you can use any evidence to prove your hypothesis, it is not science. If you can use your hypothesis to explain any evidence, it is not science. These are among the principles that really ought to be taught to anyone who cares about the truth. Imagining the answer is easy, actually finding it is hard. Civilology is a great step to getting where we should be.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Doing the research

It is always a strange sensation when you are required to research your material. Coming from a background in exact science, I expect research to entail the scientific process and to contain actual experiments. For law, however, most research comes from reading texts that others have written; either a lawmaker who makes the rules or a judge or professor who interprets them.

For my master thesis, I need to do three kinds of research. The first is research into literature and has to do with the principle of legality (focusing on lex certa). Since this is such a famous principle, I can easily find a lot about it from just the handbooks I have available to me already. The handbook by De Hullu, for instance, includes pages and pages of discussion on the principle. Other works are referenced and one needs to double check the logic used, but it still feels like a massive appeal to authority some of the time.

The second type of research is done regarding a new law. I need to get familiar with the new provisions, read the Memorandum of law to understand the intentions and finally read the written transcripts of the lawmaker’s discussions. This is hugely illuminating and I really feel like I am getting useful data about the material… sometimes. Other times I feel like I am just summarizing.

The final type of research is done by comparing specific provisions with other provisions. Since I am talking about a provision that summons a general responsibility for the well-being of animals, it becomes very useful to compare that with the provisions that summon a general responsibility for the well-being of the environment, or for the soil. I have never actually done this before, so I will be a little unclear about its details until I do it for my thesis.

There are other kinds of research, obviously, some even requiring the researcher to look up actual scientific work like Biology or Chemistry. I did this about twice in my four-year study, both times with far less rigor than I would expect to be needed, both times with far more praise than I had anticipated. There are also research methods where you analyse cultures from the past or compare with the provisions of other countries.

All these methods have in common that they are pretty far removed from fully objective research. This bothers me at times, except when I realise there really are not many alternatives when dealing with law. If I wanted an exact science, I should have studied Physics instead. Or Chemistry. Or Biology. Or… basically any other study that actually studies the world instead of an arbitrary system of human-made rules.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Being graded

I have always had a weird relationship with being graded. I hate failing, I love high grades, but I have never truly been able to predict whether I will get a high grade or a low grade. You would think that means I am incredibly nervous when receiving grades, but the opposite is true. Just last week I got a grade which I did not bother to check until a few days had gone by first. Not because I was nervous; I had simply forgotten the grade was published that week.

Basically, I already knew I had a passing grade, just not what kind of passing grade. I can be incredibly confident when it comes to written assignments, maybe more so than I should be. In this case I had received a score of 60%, made into 67% because the whole class had difficulty with the exam. I finished the course with 74% average and I am pretty pleased with the result.

On the other hand, I can never be pleased with the results of individual assessment. That is, when I write a paper and I get anything less than full points I am inclined to argue and fuss. I also get extremely nervous and anxious when receiving the results, because there are far fewer excuses to hide behind if there is negative feedback. It sounds really silly when writing it down like this, but it is still true.

Like mentioned before, I suffer from a pretty bad case of imposter syndrome. No matter what I am doing, I get the sense that if I make the tiniest slip up, people will figure out I have no idea what I am doing and strip me of my bachelor’s degree (and, in a few months, of my master’s degree). Rationally, I know that this is their problem and not mine. If people were really going to critique, for instance, my spelling by saying it is so abysmal that I should have been kicked out of this university on the first day, then it is not my spelling that is the problem but their inability to properly value the properties required of a student. Had my spelling truly been that important, I would indeed have been kicked out sooner.

It sounds a bit Zen, but the important part is your own sense of accomplishment, the way that you value yourself, not some grade that has been given to you by some other person. And yes, I say that fully knowing that I would have been elatedly rubbing my grade in your faces if it had been over 80%.