June 16, 2021

In Praise of Cronseventies-era automation for the working lawyer

The UNIX shell was a very good idea. If you can command a UNIX shell, like a Bash shell on a Linux computer, to do something, you can also automate doing that thing. All you have to do is key it into a file—a “script”—instead of to the command line, and then tell the computer to follow that script, one or many times. Each time, the computer will read the file and follow each of its commands, as if you were typing them in on the keyboard yourself, but a lot faster. A person still needs to tell the computer to read the script. Or they can start a program that tells the computer for them.

One such program is cron. cron is a program that always runs in the background. Minute by minute, day by day, cron reads a file called your “cron table” or “crontab”. Your crontab lists commands along with schedules for running them. When a command’s scheduled time comes up, cron follows that command. So cron lets us write scripts along with instructions for when to run them, when we’re at the computer or when we’re away.

I rent a “cloud” computer that runs cron for me, among other things. It costs me $10 per month. It is not a very powerful computer. But it doesn’t have to be. Mostly, it just stays on all the time, connected to the Internet. Even when I’m asleep. Especially when I’m asleep.

Here are some of the many kinds of jobs in my crontab:

And on and on. Mostly in the dead of night, California time.

Many tools make this possible, because my scripts need to do many different kinds of things. At the moment:

I can’t help pointing out that none of these tools are “legal technology”. They are just good technology. Good in the sense that they are broadly useful to a great many people in many fields. Which is part of the reason so many programs and companies have developed and looked after them.

Of course, a lot of this whiz-bang automation really comes down to pestering myself via e-mail. cron sends me a lot of e-mail. But as much as I need to be pestered, that would be a lot of work.

I’m grateful that a computer will do it for me. Otherwise, I might take it personally. And frankly, it probably wouldn’t get done.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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