Reading ChallengeReading a book per week isn’t really a challenge for me – I learned to read early, and typically read quite a bit for entertainment as well as learning – so I was interested in the Reading Challenge that originated on PopSugar. Note that some of the categories are ridiculous in that they represent a huge portion of books read so are not much of a challenge, such as a book by a female author or a book set in a different country or an author that I’ve never read before, but there are a few categories that I will have to actively search for.

I created a spreadsheet with the categories in the first column of each row, then added each book that I have read to a column header, and ticked off the matching categories. A summation on the left shows me how many matches I have for each category. If I assume, however, that each book can only be used to check off one category, then the matching will get a bit more complex as the year goes on. Haven’t come up with an automated optimizing algorithm yet to decide which category to assign each book to in order to maximize the category coverage, but I have several months to work on that. Smile

January started off with a few of the “best of 2014” reading lists, plus recommendations from friends, plus books that I saw in reviews or even referred to in other books. In all cases, I was able to borrow the books from the wonderful Toronto Public Library, either as an e-book or paper book; so far, I ended up purchasing one e-book since I found it valuable for ongoing reference. I have a long reading list ahead of me, and looking forward to it.

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Station Eleven was the first book that I read in 2015, and possibly my favourite so far (or a close tie with The Bone Clocks). It’s post-apocalyptic and futuristic, with lots of good themes. I saw it on some of the best-of lists, and it was recommended by a friend.

Categories checked:

  • Number in the title
  • Female author
  • Set in the future
  • Author I’ve never read before
  • Takes place in my hometown (Toronto)
  • Recommended by a friend
Before I Go To Sleep was recommended by a friend when we were discussing the book (and movie) Gone Girl; there are definitely some similarities in creepiness. It was a good read, and I didn’t twig to the ending until it was upon me. Good escapist reading, although you may find some scenes of domestic violence disturbing.

Categories checked:

  • Became a movie
  • Mystery or thriller
  • Set in a different country (UK)
  • Recommended by a friend
  • Author I’ve never read before (that is going to come up a lot this year)
I tried to read Hilary Mantel’s  Wolf Hall, but just could not get that into the history of Thomas Cromwell; maybe that will become the book that I started but never finished for the year. I did a bit better with her short stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, although I found it a bit of a mixed bag. Some were good, some were not very compelling, and some were downright weird. In all, readable but not my favourite read. I’m also not a big fan of the short story form: I would rather dig into a longer novel than a book of short stories, so probably good to have this category out of the way early.

Categories checked:

  • Female author
  • Short stories
  • Set in a different country (UK)
New Slow City had a ton of great tips on living slow and consuming less even when you live in the middle of a big city (as I do), not out in the wilderness (which is the author’s previous experiment). 

Categories checked:

  • Set in a different country (US)
  • Nonfiction
  • Antonyms in the title (I’m considering “slow” and “city” as antonyms in this context, although will search for another title that matches this category in the remainder of the year, as long as I don’t have to read War and Peace)
  • Author I’ve never read before
How To Deliver A TED Talk is the only book that I’ve purchased so far this year, and I did it after I read the e-book from the library. Although I will likely never give a TED talk, there is a ton of great advice in here on preparing and delivering excellent presentations, and I do many presentations each year at clients and conferences. In particular, chapter 2 “Organizing Your Talk” is completely applicable to any type of business presentation.

Categories checked:

  • Non-fiction
  • Can finish it in a day (although I kept it around for reference)
  • Author I’ve never read before
I decided to read Pomegranate Soup after seeing the terrible story about the author’s tragic death: it appears that she starved herself to death while obsessed with writing her next novel in a remote village in Ireland. A contrast with her novel, which was quite funny – with some very dark bits – and about new beginnings. It was quite reminiscent of Chocolat, with the magic qualities of foods plus cultural melding. Also, recipes. I have her sequel “Rosewater and Soda Bread” on my to-read list.

Categories checked:

  • Became a movie
  • Author under 30
  • Funny
  • Female author
  • Set in a different country (Ireland and Iran)
  • Author’s first book
  • Contains magic
  • Author I’ve never read before.
I really wanted to like Lila, but just couldn’t. I abandoned it about halfway through. Depressing, Dust Bowl-era drifters, and a whole lot of the bible.

Categories checked (although not sure if this counts for a book I didn’t finish):

  • Female author
  • One-word title
  • Set in a different country (US)
  • Didn’t finish Sad smile 
I really liked The Bone Clocks, and didn’t realize that it was written by the same author as Cloud Atlas until afterwards. This is a long book, but I burned through the first half in 24 hours: I started one evening and finally put the light out at 2:30am, finishing it a couple of days later. The supernatural bits leave just enough mystery to keep you guessing, but not so much that you’re totally lost.

Categories checked:

  • More than 500 pages (in paper form, although I read the e-book)
  • Non-human characters
  • Set in a different country (UK and others)
  • Set in the future (ranges from 1984 to 2043)
  • Contains magic
  • Set during Christmas (not the entire book, but some pivotal scenes)
zombie The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home is a delightful collaboration by Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman, available on Wattpad.  Quick read, fun, and some practical advice on the use of garden implements and rhubarb on repelling zombies.

Categories checked:

  • Non-human characters (if you assume post-human zombies to be non-human)
  • Funny
  • Female author
  • Set in my hometown (Toronto)
I didn’t quite finish The Sixth Extinction by the end of January, the last few chapters are lined up for tonight’s reading. It’s a beautifully-written look at how humans are causing massive species extinction, and have been doing so for 40,000 years. It appears to be well-researched (I’m not an expert in this field) and the writing reminds me of the wonderful descriptive prose of Oliver Sacks talking about cycads in Island of the Colorblind or Diane Ackerman’s The Moon By Whale Light, mixing history, science and culture.

Categories checked:

  • Number in title
  • Female author
  • Set in a different country (several of them)
  • Nonfiction
  • Author I’ve never read before

That’s ten in total, although I only got halfway through Lila and haven’t quite finished The Sixth Extinction, so more like nine. February and March I have a lot of work and travel, and the numbers probably won’t be as high, but I will start on the books related to the TIFF Books On Film series that I will be attending over the next few months. Plus, some interesting things on hold at the library.

I’ve included the Amazon links above, if you click through on one of those and buy the book (or anything else), I’ll get a few pennies. However, I encourage you to give the money to your local library instead, and get the books from there.

The street in front of my condo building does not permit parking during the day, but a few months ago, I noticed that the same few vehicles were parked there every day, arriving in the morning and departing in the afternoon. They all displayed Toronto Accessible Parking Permits (a.k.a. handicapped parking permits), which allow them to park in no parking areas and otherwise ignore most parking laws. I thought it was a bit odd that so many handicapped people would all of a sudden decide to park on our street each day during business hours, so started to watch for them arriving in the mornings.

What I saw (and still see) is a blatant misuse of accessible parking permits by people who appear to have no physical disability that would prevent them from parking in a nearby paid parking lot, or in paid street parking spots. Many of them appear to be working at the construction sites in our neighbourhood – of which there are many – although a relatively new one seems to be a local shop owner. They are mostly expensive vehicles – a Mercedes, a BMW, a Lexus and a couple of Ford F150s – which means that the owners can probably afford to pay for parking.

A call to Toronto Parking Authority, which would normally ticket and/or tow cars that are illegally parked, won’t touch anything with an accessible permit; they said that they would send someone to put a “notice” on the cars one day, but never showed.

Normally, I would just live and let live on this one, but there are a few problems with this: first and foremost, I have a friend in the building who uses a walker, and has the TTC WheelTrans service pick him up in front of the building several times each week. When the “fake” handicapped drivers have the entire front of the building blocked, he has to negotiate between the cars, or walk down to our driveway, in order to get to the WheelTrans vehicle. In today’s snow, I imagine that he won’t try to venture out at all, since there is no guarantee that the WheelTrans vehicle – which must be reserved several hours in advance – will be able to stop at the curb in front of the building to pick him up.

The other problem is with deliveries and garbage pickup: with the vehicles parked there, our garbage and recycling trucks often can’t get to the curb to pick up the bins, and trucks making deliveries have no place to stop in front of the building and may refuse to make deliveries.

Here’s a couple of examples. In the first pictures (taken earlier this week, without the snow), the driver parks in front of the building in the no-parking zone, gets out of his car, walks around to check that he is clear of the driveway, then puts the handicapped permit in his windscreen and walks away around the corner. This car has been parked there every day from early morning until evening for the past week or more. The later pictures (with the snow) show one of the worst offenders, who has parked in the no-parking zone several times per week for the past three months; today, there were other vehicles already parked in the no-parking zone so he went around the corner to the side street where parking is allowed but requires payment – except if you have an accessible parking permit. First, he parks his truck, then gets out and walks away across the park without purchasing a parking ticket from the machine. The last two shots show the accessible parking pass in his windscreen (I have taken close-up shots of this same truck and the parking permit on other days).

I am not a doctor, and do not claim to be able to diagnose any kind of physical condition, especially from afar, but every person who I have seen using an accessible parking permit on our block seems to exhibit the ability to walk several blocks to their place of work, then back again later in the day. Other residents in our building have made the same observations.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any recourse to curb this behaviour: calls to 311 just get the standard line that the city won’t ticket the cars because of the accessible parking passes, but they also won’t bother to investigate if the passes are being used improperly. I’ve put notes on the cars asking them not to park there on garbage pickup days, which works for a day or two before the same activity restarts, and I really don’t want a new job as a meter maid. I sent an email to Jack Lakey, a.k.a. The Fixer at the Toronto Star, who investigates problems with Toronto municipal services, but haven’t heard whether he will take this up. Other than that, we seem destined to wait out the heavy construction that brings out this sort of parking behaviour.

I’ve been at many technology conferences this year and heard a lot of different speakers, but one struck me in particular: a well-known analyst from a large analyst firm gave what was likely a very well-paid keynote. He’s known as being a “funny” speaker (a label that is up for debate), but he definitely crossed a line from maybe-funny to definitely-unfunny when he made references to his wife in jokes. In particular, he was talking about how he’s a big audiophile, and he started with the statement that “no man should have speakers smaller than his wife”. Okay, a bit cringe-worthy, but I would have let that pass. Not content with the first laugh, he followed with “If your speakers are smaller than your wife, you need to get rid of your wife”.

Aside from the veiled reference to how women are to be judged on their size – by a man who is well beyond the normal range of the BMI scale – there are two explicit problems with this line:

  1. The “wife” in his joke is a commodity; another piece of chattel like his stereo speakers.
  2. The line was specifically delivered to the men in the audience –  “if your wife…” – which sends the message that he considers the women in the audience to be invisible and unimportant.

This is not funny, it’s just misogynistic bullshit. It’s completely unacceptable from someone who is in a position of authority in the industry, and it’s completely unacceptable for companies to continue to hire a speaker who includes material like this unless they want to be considered to hold the same opinions. I’m pretty sure that customers of both the analyst firms and the vendors would hesitate to support this behavior, and might choose to spend their budgets with companies more aligned with their values.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: in another keynote at another enterprise software conference, a senior executive from the host company used an analogy about children playing with bows and arrows, with the comment that that activity only pertained to boys. I had to double-check to see if I misheard that, it was so blatantly gender biased. How can we expect women to feel welcome in an industry that has “thought leaders” with those sorts of thoughts?

I suppose that it’s a small mercy that enterprise software vendors behave somewhat better than their startup tech counterparts, where there have been a number of gender discrimination scandals lately and this sort of crap has been going on for years. And enterprise software conferences don’t have the toxic environment of sexual harassment that many geek conferences do, I suspect because of the high number of women customers attending. But those are minor victories in the overall landscape of the treatment of women in the technology industry: it’s slowly shifting, but a few old dinosaurs still need to evolve or go extinct.

The new Toronto streetcars have been running on Spadina for more than a week now, and I confess to going out the first day and taking a ride just to try them out. A lot of other people were doing the same; I ran into a friend on the car and we rode together up to Spadina Station, where she departed to head home, and I stayed on to ride back down to my point of origin.

2014-08-31 18.05.56One thing that’s different is how you pay for your ride: you can board at any door of the streetcar and you don’t interact with the driver, so you need to show proof of payment (POP) if requested by an inspector. To get your POP, you can pay using the machines on the platforms or on the streetcars directly. Here’s how it works:

  • If you have cash (coins only, exact change required) or a token, use the machine to print a POP receipt by entering the cash/token and hitting the Print button.
  • If you have a student or senior ticket, validate it in the small machine on the left of the machine, and that validated ticket becomes your POP.
  • If you have a Metropass or a transfer from another line (subway, bus or streetcar), nothing for you to do: just get on the car and ride. Your Metropass or transfer is your POP.

This should speed up boarding considerably, since you can board at any of the four doors, and pay on the streetcar if you don’t have time before you board. The low floors make it easy to board – a nice change from the big step up on the old cars – and a ramp can be deployed at the second door using a pushbutton from the inside or outside.

They are still running old streetcars on the Spadina line as well as the two new ones (thanks to the Bombardier strike that stopped production after two of the new cars), and the old streetcars now also require POP onboard even though you board at the front: the driver will hand you a paper transfer even if you think you don’t need one. I’m not sure if they are actually going to use POP inspectors on the old cars; this would be good, since it would mean a switch to boarding at all doors even on the old cars.

All this will change in a few months when Presto is rolled out for payment; it wasn’t ready in time for the August 31 new streetcars, and apparently these machines are a temporary stopgap.

A point of new streetcar etiquette: if you’re on a streetcar and see someone get on and not purchase a fare onboard, don’t openly accuse them of being a fare cheat, since they may have purchased the fare on the platform before the car arrived, or have a transfer or Metropass. I had to wave my Metropass to appease some random passenger last week when he accused me of that, although maybe it was me calling him a dickhead that shut him up.

I have a brand new Frigidaire fridge, purchased at The Brick Warehouse less than 3 months ago. We made our first service call within 48 hours of delivery, and are now working on our fourth service call. They have finally agreed to fix a deficiency in the freezer door, although that will take another few weeks, but every service person from The Brick and their post-sale warranty service outsourcer, TransGlobal Service, has told us that this noise is “completely normal” (starting at around 10 seconds in):

It’s sort of like popcorn popping, only without the delightful smell. And no, there’s no ice-maker in the fridge, so it’s not that.

Here it is another time, starting at around 18 seconds:

This is not an occasional noise: it happens every time that the fridge starts up, and runs for several seconds. We live in an open loft-style apartment, and it is clearly audible everywhere in our home. Not good.

I’ve had a lot of fridges. I have never heard a noise like this, and don’t consider it normal, or acceptable. It is also clear that the TransGlobal Service people (and possibly the one person from The Brick who finally responded to my request for assistance) have been coached to say that about any noise, since most of them said that the noise is normal without having even heard it. In fact, one of the TransGlobal technicians told me that this model was “known for being noisy”, which may be news to Frigidaire.

It’s probably clear that I won’t be buying from The Brick again, and likely not from Frigidaire either, but I’d really like to get the noise problem resolved so that the $1,000 that we spent on the fridge doesn’t go to waste when we chuck the noisy thing over the balcony.

A couple of years ago, I discovered my grandfather’s WWI journal, which he wrote in from the day he left home in November 1916 until the day he arrived back in May 1919. I wrote a day-by-day blog publishing his journal, which was a wonderful exercise in family history.

During his time in Europe, he took leave in Dublin a couple of times, and appears to have struck up a friendship (or maybe more) with a woman named Hannah, and referred several times while he was in Dublin to visiting Pembroke Cottages for evenings of dancing. I looked up the address entries in the back of his diary and found a page that is almost certainly Hannah’s address at the time, based on various references:

Misses K. & H. Whitston
29 Pembroke Cottages
Donnybrook, Dublin

He wrote about her often in his diary, apparently they traded letters quite regularly, and one entry noted that it was her 22nd birthday on April 6, 1919, which means that she was born in 1897.

So here’s what I have about Hannah Whitston:

  • Born April 6, 1897 (probably in/near Dublin) – may have been 1896, as per census records (see comments below).
  • Had a sister (probably, although could have been a cousin), first initial K.
  • As of 1919, living with her sister at 29 Pembroke Cottages, Donnybrook area in Dublin.

I would love to find out more about Hannah, especially if there are any journals or letters that she may have written or received mentioning my grandfather, Frank Kemsley.

Anyone have any ideas?

This is not a post for dummies or idiots: this is for smart people who want to take control of their personal finances. I’m inspired to start a series on personal and small business productivity based on the positive response to my post on a paperless small office – I use exactly the same methods for keeping paperless personal files as well, so that’s a good place to start.

This post is about keeping your personal finances organized, not about budgeting or investing (which you can read about in a variety of other places), so covers more about the paperwork and tracking of finances.

Here’s how I keep my personal finances organized:

  • I use credit or debit cards for almost all purchases. Since these transactions are downloaded and categorized (see next point), it lets me see exactly what I’m spending on what. If you’re going to do any budgeting, this is essential.
  • I enter/download every financial transaction into Quicken. You can use a different package, but my point is, get it all in one place. I’ve been using Quicken for many years, and once I got over the initial chore of setting up my accounts and got into the routine of updating it frequently, it’s become my primary source for information about my finances as well as a huge timesaver when I’m doing monthly expense reports and annual tax returns. It tracks my bank accounts, credit cards, investment accounts (both taxable and retirement), lines of credit, money owing to/from my small business, and even my assets such as my condo. It’s really valuable for seeing when I need to move funds from one account to another, such as from a savings account to a brokerage account to make a new investment. One thing that I do not track is what I do with cash once I withdraw it from the bank: I just show the withdrawal transaction. I’m not that anal, and since I use credit or debit for most purchases, my cash spending is pretty minimal.
  • I monitor my finances frequently, usually only spending a few minutes at a time. Once I was organized, it was really easy to just start monitoring any changes to my finances:
    • I download bank and credit card transactions directly from my banking site into Quicken and check for any unusual transactions every couple of days, rather than waiting for my monthly statement. Several years ago, when I was just moving back from the US to Canada, this helped me spot a forged cheque drawn on my US bank account and uncover the underlying identity theft before it could spread, all within two days of the cheque being cashed. Recently, although this is quite rare, I found a duplicate transaction for an airport limousine service on my credit card, which I then called Visa and had reversed. If I hadn’t been tracking the transactions, and had a way to search through old transactions, I likely wouldn’t have noticed the transaction on my monthly statement since I take a lot of airport limos and occasionally misplace receipts.
    • I apply meaningful categories to transactions in Quicken. Since this is my primary source of financial information, I make sure that (for example) a business expense on my personal credit card is categorized as such, so that I will catch it in my month-end expense report. Quicken is smart enough to auto-categorize transactions that it recognizes when downloading, so it knows that a charge from Fido is a business telecommunications expense, not a personal expense.
    • I enter investment transactions manually (my discount brokerage doesn’t support manual downloads of these) at least once a week. If I actively make a trade, then I enter it immediately, but I use the other times to record things such as dividends and fees on my accounts. When I notice that the cash balance of any investment accounts gets above $100 from accrued dividends, I immediately reinvest it into a money market fund since my brokerage doesn’t pay interest on a cash balance, which earns me a bit of extra cash each month.
  • I reconcile my investment accounts to the monthly statements. Although I regularly enter transactions, I still reconcile to the statement since it allows me to compare the number of shares/units held of an investment as of the statement date, to ensure that I didn’t miss any transactions during manual entry. I don’t do this with bank statements, since I have them set to auto-reconcile every time transactions are downloaded, which alerts me to any difference between the online and Quicken balance.
  • I use automated debit for recurring payments whenever possible. This includes everything from property taxes to phone bills to my credit card, which I pay in full every month. I set these up as recurring payments in Quicken, which then reminds me when these are coming up in case I need to move funds around to cover payments. I never pay late fees or interest charges because I forgot to pay something on time.
  • I track expenses as they occur, and capture the receipts. I use a spreadsheet for tracking business expenses, although there are a number of good applications out there such as Expensify. I haven’t found one that’s quite flexible enough for me, since I often have multiple currencies as well as monthly recurring expenses such as internet. If a receipt is available online (usually), I download it right away, or I scan the paper receipt. By the time I get to the end of the month, usually all I need to do is check Quicken for any business expenses that I might have missed (I have a custom report saved in Quicken to display transactions from the business expense categories), create a PDF of the expense report and attach the scanned (or downloaded) PDF receipts. For personal expenses, I only scan the paperwork if I might need it, such as for a product warranty. An example: today, I received my property tax bill in the mail. It’s already set up for pre-authorized monthly payments, so I opened Quicken and added the five recurring payments noted on the bill: they will automatically show up as a reminder in my Quicken cheque register three days before the automatic payment is made, giving me time to transfer funds if I need to. I then scanned the bill, added the resulting PDF document to my condo tax folder, and shredded the document. Total time, less than five minutes, and this was a complicated transaction because it involved recurring payments for a half-year of taxes. I also discovered by reading a bill insert that I can receive future tax bills via epost.ca, so I signed up for that: from now on, I’ll receive my tax bills electronically and won’t need to scan them.
  • I use online money transfers for one-off payments whenever possible. Between this and using credit/debit, I no longer write personal cheques. I have some stashed away just in case, but typically only use them as proof of my banking information when I’m setting up for automated debits. It’s easier than writing cheques, and all the details of the transaction are right there in my bank account and downloaded to Quicken for easy tracking.

A huge part of my personal finance organization is around my use of Quicken. I also use QuickBooks for my small business, since it has better accounting features such proper double-entry accounting and a general journal, but that is completely separate from my personal finances since my company is incorporated. Transactions between myself and my company – payroll and expenses – are the same as with any employee and business, although the timing of my paycheque is a bit more sporadic. I do most of my company purchasing using my personal credit card (for the airline points) and submit an expense report each month.

As with the paperless office (and home) methods that I discussed in the previous post, this might seem a bit daunting to start. There’s really just two things to do, however: first, start changing habits to use direct debit, online payments and the other paperless (and automated) techniques; this is a one-time effort, probably spread over a couple of months as you figure out where all your transactions are occurring. Second, start using personal finance software such as Quicken by picking a point in time – like January 1st – and entering your account balances as of that date, then all new transactions from that date forward; there’s an initial effort to set this up, but then it’s just a matter of setting aside 30 minutes each week to download or enter new transactions, and reconcile accounts.

I love the internet. I really don’t understand people who say that they need to get away from the internet in order to take some time off: my time off is enriched by online access to a wide variety of services and information, and I wouldn’t want to lose that even if I am not taking the time to respond to (or even read) business-related email. For me, the key is avoiding email and phone calls, not avoiding the internet: there are too many things on the internet that I use as part of my leisure activities to turn it off altogether.

Case in point: last night, we decided to watch an hour of TV. We both like NCIS, and since we cut the cord on cable TV over three years ago, I pulled up the latest episode on the GlobalTV iPhone app (Global syndicates CBS shows for Canadian broadcast) and sent it via AirPlay to the AppleTV. That’s right, nothing but an internet connection, an iPhone and an AppleTV, and we’re watching this week’s episode of NCIS on our own TV. If I bothered to set up a US proxy for the AppleTV, I probably could have done this without the iPhone app, but this works just fine. Without the internet: not possible.

But that’s not all. I’m planning a trip to visit some friends for a few days, and will take only my Nexus Android tablet (for reading), my iPhone and my Nikon Coolpix camera – no netbook. Although it’s a short trip, I was a bit concerned about uploading the photos during the trip: when I have my netbook with me, I copy photos from the camera SD card to the netbook daily as a backup, and upload them to Dropbox if I have internet access. If I fill the memory card, I can delete photos from it since they’re backed up, and if my camera (or even my netbook) were lost or stolen, ditto. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with watching TV on the internet, but in that particular episode of NCIS, the murder victim had a wi-fi memory card in his camera that was automatically transferring photos to his tablet in the back seat of his car; the killer wiped the memory card but didn’t find the tablet. “Wi-fi memory cards? OMG FTW!” I thought (thereby missing a few minor plot points), “Where do I get one of these?”. Since my iPhone was busy serving up the TV show, I grabbed my Nexus and searched around. Eye-Fi was apparently the first to offer these, but Transcend offers higher data transfer speeds (during photographing, not the wi-fi connection) and is putting them out at a lower price. I bookmarked a couple of sites for later, and went back to NCIS. After the show, I searched around, found the Eye-Fi cards on Amazon, then found a camera shop in New York selling the Transcend cards through their eBay storefront, with shipping to Canada. I ordered the Transcend 16GB card, scheduled to arrive before I leave for my trip, and downloaded their iPhone and Android apps in preparation. Product research, comparison and purchase within an hour of discovering that a particular product type even existed: again, not feasible without the internet.

Taking full advantage of on-demand internet (rather than the internet having you on-demand) is a bit like turning off your phone ringer, and only using it when you want to: it only controls your actions if you allow it to. Turn off your push notifications, and your ringer if you like, but don’t disconnect if the internet adds value to your leisure time.

This post is cross-posted from my business blog. Because of the positive reaction over there, I’ve decided to write a few personal finance, organization and productivity posts here, based on my own experiences. Although I am not obsessive about organizing, having run my own small businesses and household for 25 years has taught me a lot about keeping things in order.

Earlier this week, I linked to the Paperless 2013 website, a vendor-sponsored initiative that encourages businesses to cut paper, ostensibly for environmental reasons. The products featured by the sponsor vendors – Google Drive, HelloFax, Manilla, HelloSign, Expensify, Xero and Fujitsu ScanSnap – can certainly assist with this, although I run a completely paperless office using only one of those (Google Drive), and that one only in a secondary role. The interesting part was a conversation that ensued with another small business owner, although she was primarily interested in going paperless with personal documents (which I have also done), which made me realize that most small businesses are a bit clueless about how to go about this in a secure and legal fashion. I’ve been involved in large-scale document scanning projects since the 1980s, and I’ve gathered a lot of ideas about how to do this on a scale suitable for organizations of any size, so I thought that I’d lay out a plan suitable for small businesses.

Keep in mind that although I run a single person business, it’s incorporated, so I have the same paperwork requirements as any other private company: invoicing, payroll, government filings, income tax and all. I also do some amount of document collaboration with other small businesses, as well as for some non-profits with which I’m involved.

Here’s how I keep paperless:

  • If I receive a document in electronic form, I leave it in electronic form unless I absolutely need to print it.
  • If I generate a document, I leave it in electronic form unless I need to physically sign it (such as a contract) or take it to a client meeting (since many of my clients have not embraced the paperless way). This is not just Microsoft Office documents, but any document including things such as invoices, which I generate from my accounting software (QuickBooks) directly as a PDF and email to clients: I keep a copy of the PDF invoice, but it is never in paper form in my office. Services such as Freshbooks pride themselves on offering electronic invoicing, but you don’t need to switch if you’re happy with what you have, just install a good PDF generator and send it via email.
  • If something is in paper form but I can get the electronic version instead, I do. Although my bank doesn’t provide electronic bank statements for commercial accounts, many other banks and service providers do. Most of my monthly expenses receipts, including travel and telecommunications, arrive in PDF, since most airlines, hotels and car rentals will email a receipt to you if you ask. My most common question at a client site when they hand me a huge printed document or presentation is “can I get that in electronic form"?”
  • As a last resort, if I receive something in paper form (or have to print it in order to sign it), I scan it and shred the paper as soon as possible. This is the crux of most document imaging projects, but in reality is a fairly minor part these days if you do most of your communication electronically and can keep paper out of the mix altogether. Yes, it’s legal (more on that below). Since my volume is very low, I use an inexpensive Epson scanner that I picked up at Costco, and the software that came with it. That’s fine for a few pages a day, but anything more than 10 pages at a time gets tedious because it doesn’t have a sheet feeder. I would highly recommend a sheet feeder if you have a backlog of paper to convert, or if you regularly receive large paper documents. For smaller receipts when I’m travelling, I snap a photo with my iPhone, back it up to the cloud, then destroy the paper document.
  • I use automated backup to replicate everything offsite. This eliminates the risk of losing documents, and allows me to access documents from my netbook when I’m travelling.
  • I use online backup/sync services for shared content management when I collaborate on a project with other small firms and independents. Even if I were working with people in the same office, I would use the same methods since there’s no need to own your own servers.
  • I manually maintain retention policies on the electronic documents, and delete them appropriately. In Canada, that means I need to keep all corporate and tax-related documents for six years past the end of the fiscal year: I just deleted my 2006 files and shredded the paper files, since that was the last year that I kept any paper records. For any files with a retention policy, I keep them in dated folders so that I can quickly purge them without having to search through files; this means a bit of electronic reorganization at the year end, but it takes only a few minutes.

The result: I have no paper files in my office, except for a small pile in my in-tray waiting to be scanned. No filing cabinets, no boxes of documents in storage. As an added bonus, I have offsite backup, which most people with paper files don’t.

Quelling the nay-sayers:

  • “I don’t like to read on a screen”. Get a bigger/better screen, or dual monitors, and a tablet for taking it with you. Cheaper in the long run.
  • “It’s not secure”. Back everything up offsite, not just locally, in case of a physical disaster (fire/flood/theft). I use Jungle Disk (a division of RackSpace), which encrypts my data on the desktop, then uploads it to an encrypted Amazon S3 bucket. I hold the key, not them, so they can’t decrypt my data. My backup runs automatically, so I don’t need to do anything to make this happen.
  • “It’s too hard to create electronic documents”. Get a good PDF printer/document assembly application. I use CutePDF Pro, which allows me not only to generate PDFs from any application that can print, but also to assemble multiple PDFs into a single document, rearrange pages and other functions. This is useful when I need to append a timesheet to an invoice before sending to a client, or to concatenate all of my expense receipts to attach to a monthly expense report.
  • “I can find things easier in my filing system”. Easier than searching through full-text documents? I don’t think so, unless you have a really trivial number of files. Learn how to use search capabilities of your desktop environment (built into Windows, for example), install a third-party search utility, or (if your company is large enough) use a shared content management system.
  • “I need to keep these paper documents for legal/regulatory reasons”. Probably not. Most government taxation bodies have long accepted digital copies (scans of paper, or original digital documentation such as an invoice received as a PDF) in place of paper – what they refer to as "electronic record keeping". You can see the Canada Revenue Agency’s take on this at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/bsnss/tpcs/kprc/menu-eng.html, and similar policies exist for the IRS and other agencies. The Canada Labour Code has similar requirements for human resources records. You may need to research for your type of documents in your jurisdiction, but electronic record-keeping is most likely allowed.

If you’re starting from ground zero of a paper explosion, this might seem a bit daunting. Keep in mind that you can do this on a day-forward basis, since many of your old paper files can be shredded as they pass their 6th birthday: just go paperless starting today (or from the beginning of your fiscal year) and let the old paper cycle out over time. If you really love it and want to get ambitious, you can start doing some back scanning, but it may not be worth it. When I started in 2007, I was already keeping everything electronically that originated that way, but added in scanning of expense receipts (my biggest single paper volume) and government documents, which was not a big change. I still didn’t start scanning contracts for another few years, since they’re big and I don’t have a sheet feeder, but eventually went back and scanned all of the old ones just to clean out the last of the paper files.

A lot of these ideas, of course, are not limited to small business, but form the core of any ECM initiative. Things get more complex when you add in automated business processes to move those documents around between people, but the basic concepts, motivations and nay-saying are the same.

Worst Air Canada check in service ever, flying from Miami to Toronto last week. My first choice is to check in on my phone and get an electronic boarding pass, but Air Canada doesn’t do that for cross-border flights to the US (although it works fine for flights to, for example, the UK). My second choice is to go online and print my boarding pass, but the hotel didn’t have easy facilities for that. My third choice is to use an automated check in kiosk at the airport to print my boarding pass, but there weren’t any in Miami for Air Canada. My fourth and dead last choice is to check in with an Air Canada agent, even though I have gold status and can go through the fast line – it just takes longer. When you have the most inefficient check in agents in the world such as Air Canada has in Miami, it take even longer.

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The two pictures above were taken at the Air Canada check in counter at Miami on November 9th at 11:42am (my flight left after 2pm so there was no danger of missing my flight). At that time, I have been waiting in line for at least 10 minutes, and had about another 10 to go. Note that there are 12 (!!) agents behind the counter: 4 at the left (one is almost hidden behind the waiting passenger), 2 just to the right of that (at the right of the leftmost picture), 4 just to the right of that, then 2 at the far right. These 12 agents were serving 3 customers in this set of photos, and taking an incredibly long time to do so. The leftmost counter, which would normally serve gold passengers, had 4 people working on one family’s check in for the entire time that I was there. The next counter, which would normally also take gold passengers, waved me off several times with a “we’re not ready yet”. The next two lines, ostensibly for non-gold passengers, would normally wave over gold passengers if they were waiting in line; they served 2 or 3 non-gold passengers but mostly put their heads together over their computers and provided no indication that they were serving customers. One person who walked over was checked in by one of the counters, another was waved off.

I really have no idea what all of these people were doing for the 20 minutes that I waited before being served. Some of them were tapping away at their computers. Others were chatting amongst themselves. None of them were providing anything approximating good customer service.

To the Air Canada check in staff who complain about cutbacks: this is why I want you to be replaced by a kiosk.