Law is not code

I have not yet read Lawrence Lessig’s ”Code and other laws of
cyberspace
”, but I like its catchphrase, ”Code is Law”. Sadly,
the reverse do not hold, particularly not in the real world.

As a programmer, it’s natural for me to view any legal text, be it a
law, an agreement or something else, as a set of definitions,
conditions and other instructions, similar to a computer program. Most
of the time, these instructions are badly written; they do not strive
for simplicity, they do not cover corner cases, and for many inputs
the outcome is impossible to determine without resorting to case law.
In computer terms, way too much checking is done at runtime (when laws
are applied) instead of compile time (when they are written).

There’s an interesting
article
up on Kuro5hin
which argues along the same lines, and how the awful quality of most
laws makes for a very opaque society, where only legally trained
people with a lot of time on their hands can fully understand the
rules.

The author draws paralells between the way laws are written and
computer programs are constructed, and suggests that the law making
process should be ”open sourced”; I think the process is already about
as open as it can be. What’s lacking is good engineering: the will to
strive for clear and simple designs.

Computer programmers realized the need for a structured approach to
programming almost as soon as programming was invented. This was
needed to be able to construct and maintain large programs. There is,
no doubt, a lot of structured thinking in law as well, with its 3000+
year history, but somewhere along the way it seems that clear and
unambigious writing fell off the list of things to prioritize.

Of course, my reasoning is a classic example of someone, new to a
field, thinking they can apply all lessons learned in another field. I
might have more insightful commentary after a few years of law school.

Back to school

As a part of my ongoing preparations to apply to law school next
year, I’m currently studying the history of the world. In Sweden you
can, if you find that your old school grades aren’t so good, do a
general nationwide test for applying to the university —
”Högskoleprovet”, and if you get a good score on that, you can
use that instead of your old grades to apply for any university
program.

Well, my old school grades weren’t that hot, and so I took the test
some time ago, and it went really (really!) well. I might have gotten
smarter in the last ten years. But then I discovered that in order to
be a laywer, you need to be a history buff. Or at least, your old
history grade must be at least 3, regardless of your
Högskoleprov-score. Mine was a 2 (graded from 1-5, 5 is
best). Oops. (This isn’t specific to law school and history, every
university education can have some subjects for which applicants are
required to have at least a 3 as their old school grade. This wasn’t a
problem to me before since I’ve only read computer science, for which
history is not considered that important.)

But there’s a second chance for people like me. We can re-read the
high scool history curriculum and take a day-long test, and if we
pass, then we still get to apply to law school. And so what I spend a
lot of nights doing now is reading and re-reading history books at an
increasingly frantic speed. The date for the test is Sept 13th, for
which I have to be as historically versed as I’ll ever be (actually,
there is another test the 8th of november that I can take, should I
fail this, but I try to keep that possibility out of my mind for
now).

Anyway, I’m finding that history is really an interesting subject,
which really DOES help me to understand the present better. I wonder
why I never liked it back in school? I guess it’s harder to see the
use of it before getting interested in current affairs and in general
seeing the world.

On another note, since I won’t be writing so much about programming
anymore, I have been thinking about starting to write this blog in
swedish instead, as it will be of even less interest to people outside
Sweden now. Then again, if I’m going to link out to lots of people all
over (and I will), it might be nice for them to know what I’m writing
about. If I had put up a talkback system, all you trusty readers could
weigh in with your options, but I’m a lazy lazy man.

New directions and challenges

Well, about that blog writing hiatus. Since all you loyal readers
have so obviously been waiting for new posts, I feel I should tell you
why I was gone, what I’ve been doing, and where I’m going. Or
something.

I’ve decided to quit programming, and working with computers in
general. At least as a way to make my living. I’ve been working as a
programmer for eight years now, but for some time now I’ve begun to
feel that the challenges that this profession offers don’t interest me
the way they used to. Therefore, after some heavy consideration, I
came to the conclusion that maybe I should stop doing it.

But what to do instead? Since I’m only (well…) 28, I feel I have
plenty of time to try to learn something substantially
different. Which is why I’ll go to law school starting next year
(can’t start this autumn, my employment contract says I should work
til the end of December). I took a introductory course in law about
ten years ago, when I was studying CS, and found it pretty
interesting. There are a lot of paralells to be drawn between the
legal system and any computer system, mainly in that they are both
really complex sets of rules, intendet to describe of how we would
like things to work, but since the people writing the descriptions are
fallable, the resulting system has idiosyncraties, holes and other
bugs.

I think the general mindset and methods that I’ve deveopled as I’ve
been designing, developing and debugging computer software systems can
be very useful for most kinds of intellectual works, but particularly
law. Also, I guess it can be very useful to have a solid understanding
of technology in general, and software development in particular, when
working as a laywer, paralegal or whatever I’ll end up as.

But before that, I have 4 1/2 years of studies to complete. It’s
going to be interesting to see if I’m better or worse at studying than
I was ten years ago.