Friday, February 27, 2009

The Cause of the Credit Crisis Explained in Pictures

There is a really informative video by Jonathan Jarvis at Vimeo which provides an overview of the credit crisis. 
If you have found yourself struggling to understand how everything could get so messed up, you might find this video to be quite enlightening.  


[caption id="attachment_368" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The Credit Crisis Explained"]The Credit Crisis Explained[/caption]

Check it out The Crisis of Credit Visualized

Thanks Jonathan for the excellent explanation which was quite easy to listen to!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Carpooling puts CA$H back in your pocket

By carpooling I probably save over $1500 a year in after-tax dollars.  I think there are other advantages to carpooling that you should know about which you may not have considered.

Let me start by saying that I never thought I would carpool.  The idea was fine for other people but, I liked the convenience of being able to come and go as I pleased, even though I arrived at work and left work like clockwork.  I thought I was probably a better driver than anyone I would carpool with, so from a safety perspective I didn't want to put my life at risk.  I also didn't really want total strangers in my personal space yet worked in an office that probably had 20 people I knew driving the same commute.  So I had objections which no longer apply at this point.

[caption id="attachment_363" align="aligncenter" width="160" caption="Carpool"]Carpool[/caption]

In commuting all year with 2 other people on a 1 hour commute, we have gas costs of about $10 per day and the mileage driven is roughly 100km/day.

I have discovered the following benefits when carpooling;

  • Less wear and tear on my car because I drive about 15,000 kilometers less per year

  • Less parking costs when we are able to use one parking spot for all 3 of us

  • We have personally reduced congestion in traffic by taking 2 cars a day off the road

  • Saving about $1500 a year in gas

  • By removing 2 cars per day from the road we have each reduced our contribution to air pollution by 2/3rds

  • By reducing our gas consumption by 2/3rds we are reducing North American dependence on imported oil and conserving existing fuel stocks

  • By leaving my car at home 3 days a week, my wife can use it to run errands, and we can operate our household on 1 vehicle rather than 2 (Save $1500/year on insurance, Save $2300+ per year on the capital cost of purchasing a car + financing)

  • Since I drive only 1/3rd of the time, I am less exposed to an accident in my vehicle (which would be on my insurance).

  • I've become a better driver through closely observing how the other drivers drive.  Jen calculates an optimal route and sticks to the plan.  Claudiu does not sweat the small stuff in traffic and maintains his cool etc...

  • I experience "debriefing" time on the way home which allows me to get work out of my system with people who will listen, before I get home which benefits my family.  Along the same lines, conversing with my co-workers outside of work improves my perspective on things that happen in the office and gives an opportunity for me to solicit input outside of formal work channels.

  • Those in our carpool have benefited from increased sleep time (mornings only), video time (backseat only), cellphone, reading and crocheting time and "staring out the window" down-time.  All of these are best done while someone else is driving.

  • Improved safety in traffic because there are extra sets of eyes in the car which can help spot hazards earlier.

  • A team dedicated to getting me home quickly and safely who work together to scan radio and websites for traffic and routing information when traffic get congested.  (Reading websites on your phone is not recommended while driving)

Others may realize additional benefits like:

  • Access to carpool lanes which may reduce commuting time, stress and gas consumption/cost.

  • Reduced car insurance costs if the number of kilometers they drive and the number of days they drive qualifies them for a reduced premium.

I think this list is pretty impressive, and I never would have seen all of these benefits if I hadn't started carpooling.  In a future post I plan to address carpool etiquette, and getting a successful carpool started.  I hope you find some of these reasons compelling to start thinking about whether a carpool could benefit you in your situation.

Leave your comments below if you have any questions or if you have realized other carpooling benefits.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Crying Wolf in Traffic

When we cry wolf in traffic, we desensitize drivers to real dangers and real warnings and reduce the overall safety of traffic.

Growing up I was told a fable about a bored little shepherd boy who "cried wolf" to amuse himself.  The townsfolk responded quickly, coming to the boys aid only to learn there was no wolf.  Several times he played this game and each time the townsfolk rushed to the field to defend boy and sheep.  At last a time came when there was a wolf, but no willing townsfolk to answer the boy's cries.  For the little boy who cried wolf, was the threat real? not at first.   There was no wolf, until he had consumed the good will of the townsfolk.

Crying Wolf in construction zones

We see the same principle of crying wolf applied in traffic warning signs located at construction zones.  Now I'll start by stating that being cautious around construction workers and  construction zones is important.  Where it gets silly is when the warnings stop protecting workers and instead start desensitizing people and effectively teaching them that the signs don't mean what they say.

[caption id="attachment_354" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="Construction Zone Warning Fines Double"]Construction Zone Warning Fines Double[/caption]

 At 3 AM in the middle of the night on the weekend when there are no construction workers around, the construction speed zone sign applies just as much as it does in the middle of the weekday when workers are just feet away from the roadway.  So when there is no obstacle or risk to workers, the signage causes motorists who would normally drive 110 KM/H must slow to 80 KM/H although the road may be clear, safe and intact.  Do you think the public can continue to take the warning signs seriously?  I suggest to you that we are not doing these workers the justice of making the construction zone safer during work hours because we wear on the patience of motorists with unreasonable demands. One such work zone is on the Transcanada highway near Abbotsford which has been in place for about a year, while a freeway improvement was being made.  A year of reduced speeds?  (where full speed still seems safe)  It is silly to stretch our warnings to cover too much time.

We also do a disservice to these workers by exagerating the area where speed must be reduced. Often in BC, 1-2 KM before the construction zone, there are signs telling drivers to drop their speed by 30 KM (20 below the limit since the limits in BC seem to be arbitrarily about 10KM/h too low and most drivers compensate.)  So you drive for 2 KM at that speed limit until the “real” construction zone begins.  As you drive slower, everybody is piled up on your bumpers because nobody else is willing to obey the ridiculous speed reduction.   If I drive at the reduced speed, before, during and after the construction, I impede the flow of the other drivers who (reasonably) are not slowing.  Likely I'm contributing to an increase in their frustration and that makes the roadway less safe, not more safe. Most drivers know that the sign isn't to be taken seriously, even though there is an accompanying sign saying that "traffic fines double in a work zone", and another flashing sign warning that "speed limits are strictly enforced" (which they aren't) It is another lying sign. I know they are not enforced, it is another rule with no teeth. The police are never there when I go by, pulling over the entire freeway to give it a ticket. STOP LYING!

So too many of these warnings exagerate the danger in area and time. A reasonable person looks at these warnings and they disregard them  as silly.  I’ve watched ambulance drivers, truck-drivers, Police officers and normal commuters all ignore the “STRICTLY ENFORCED CONSTRUCTION SPEED ZONE” and drive 110 KM/H through the 80 KM/H.  In fact the other day there was a whole freeway of us driving at 110KM/h in an 80 zone, nobody flinching or looking guilty, nobody checking nervously for police officers. These freeway commuters have been completely desensitized to the speed limit signs and just don’t believe them anymore because the signs are not reasonble.  I imagine that they must be set by some beaureucrat who has never seen how wide and straight and flat this highway is, or how little construction there really is out here, who is out of touch with reality. One of the signs I saw today was a bright orange diamond shaped construction sign, saying “warning no lane markings!”. I drove past that sign on a road that bore, probably the finest lane markings I’ve ever seen, crisp and clear and bright, not confusing in the least. I drove for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer over these new lane markings. It doesn’t make sense that thousands of dollars would be spent on painting the markings on the lanes, only to leave up the warning signs.  The irrelevant sign clearly needed to come down the night the lane markings were painted. Construction signs in particular tend to be irrelevant in this area. “Sign Management” does that have to become part of the project manager’s job? Is it already? It doesn’t make sense to start saying something unless we know when to stop.  It doesn't make sense to overstate the danger.  Just looking at how people drive indicates how ineffective the signs are. (and should be if they are unreasonable).

Crying wolf in school zones
Here is another example. All summer long I see school zone signs warning motorists to slow to 30 KM/H. but I know that school zones are only in effect on school days, but school days are not during the summer unless “summer school” is in session. But how would a member of the public who did not have a child in summer school know which schools had a summer school running and which didn’t? A law abiding citizen who wants to stay on the right side of the law would have to drive 30 KM/H through every school zone year round just in case a summer school was in session. The same problem extends for the rest of the school year when there are professional development days when the students are not in school. The average commuter has no way of knowing that this is a day when the school zones are not in effect, whereas the 16 year old driver who gets the day off would know this and would drive 50KM/H through the school zone. This is a case of special knowledge.  Not enough information is available for the driver to make an appropriate decision. The people have to obey a warning, that really doesn’t apply, they have to drive 30 KM/H just in case the school zone is in effect. How simple it would be to make the principal of the school (who could certainly delegate this) responsible for covering the signs on days when no school is in session. Issue the principal some heavy burlap sacks with zippers he could use, or make the sign hinged, so it could be locked open or closed.

Another traffic oddity I’ve seen in school zones is those “extra” bright yellow little plastic bag signs handed out by the auto insurance companies, which are posted in school zones as children head back to school. Saying “Drive Carefully” “School Zone”. The problem is not with handing these out or setting them up when school is back in session in September, those are great ideas, the problem comes when they get left up all year long and they mean nothing, or even worse, when the school principal and all the teachers have grown so incredibly numb to these signs, that when the school breaks for summer holidays and there are no children at the school, they continue to leave the signs up throughout the summer, only to replace them with new signs when the students actually return to school in the fall.  (You can't make this stuff up!)

Crying wolf at the local Thrift store.

Now not related to traffic I saw something similar the other day in a Christian thrift shop here in Abbotsford. There was a sign there warning about the security camera that was recording people and that shoplifters would be prosecuted.  As I looked around at the $0.30 teacups and other discarded items that had been donated. I thought this was ridiculous, who would prosecute anyone for stealing such low value items? Then I looked carefully at the camera, and sure enough it was one of those fake cameras you can purchase at a novelty store with some silly name l ike “view all” or “sky eye” or something. Cheaply composed from plastic. The sign was an attempt to scare people to do the right thing. There was no means of enforcing it, and it was a Lie! “DON’T STEAL OR WE WILL VIDEO TAPE YOU”, well you aren’t going to video tape me, so don’t make that threat.  How about you just say “Don’t steal”. In the case of a Christian thrift shop perhaps the sign should have read; “If you need something just take it” since that would fit more with Christian charity and giving to someone who is in need.

We need to be asking ourselves these questions; "Is the warning reasonable?", "Is the threat real?".


When I ask you to do something for me and you do it because you honestly believe you are helping me, I’m relying on your good will to meet a need. Now if I keep asking you and you keep helping me because you believe it is benefiting me, this is good, we have a healthy relationship and there is trust. Now if you find out that I’m asking you to do something I don’t really need, but I’m just amused by watching you serve me, or I’m too lazy to stop you when I don’t really need your help, then you will get tired of helping me, and rightly so. This is what is taking place on the freeway. The whole “enforcement side of things” would not be necessary at all if we could ensure that we are not abusing the good will of people.

Thanks for reading, maybe you will find yourself in a position to offer an unreasonable heavy handed warning and you can instead offer something more reasonable.  Maybe you put up construction signs.  The point is that you can make changes to improve the world we live in.  This is about improving things for all of us, because we’re all in this together.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Useful Portable Apps for Your USB Drive.

Not only are USB drives now commonplace, but with increasing frequency, applications no longer require installation and can run from those USB drives.

[caption id="attachment_317" align="alignright" width="200" caption="USB drive / USB Key"]USB drive / USB Key[/caption]

I got the idea for this post from Cam who observed that KeePass (mentioned previously) was portable.  I thought I'd share some portable apps with you that have been really useful.

If you are new to the subject of portable apps, a good place to start learning about them is "", Wikipedia also has some lists of portable applications to get you started.  There are a number of reasons you might want to use portable apps including;

  • You are borrowing someone else's computer and don't want to install software

  • You are not allowed to install software at work

  • You don't want software to clog up Windows' registry and slow down your computer

  • There is a set of familiar tools you want to use when moving from computer to computer.

  • Portable applications that can run from your USB drive, don't make changes to your computer's registry startup files or hard disk. (unless you ask them to)

  • Portable apps won't set themselves up to load when you turn your computer on.

  • Sharing your most useful applications is as easy as copying some files

I've placed these in order of utility.

Texter - A powerful text replacement utility; we've looked at Texter previously

KeePass - Useful for securely storing your passwords We've also looked at KeePass previously

Firefox Portable - Run the popular open source browser from your USB key

Notepad++ - Thanks to Darryl for recommending this powerful editor which supports regular expressions and syntax highlighting.

7-zip - A lightweight archiving and compression utility

Open Office - An open source office suite similar to MS Office, which maintains a high level of compatibility with popular office products.

VLC Media player - Is described as a highly portable multimedia player for various audio and video formats; it can play almost anything.

RocketDock - This one is just for fun, but its portable, and makes your applications easily accessible.

Xampp - More for died in the wool geeks, it is a portable collection of Apache web server, the PHP scripting language and the MYSQL database.  All open source and freely available, this is the easiest way to run a web server with web applications and data from your USB key. (ever think of your USB key as a web server?)  Now you can run any PHP/Mysql web app from a computer without installing a thing. (some assembly required)

Note: Many of these applications come in non-portable versions, so pay attention to which version you get. (I recommend starting with Portable Applications).

Friday, February 13, 2009

Are Myths about Clean Energy Hindering Innovation?

I have been observing clean energy since 1999, and since then I've watched some pretty amazing advances, and some pretty pathetic progress. Technology is making advances, but the practice and social aspects of change are not keeping pace. I live in North America, and here we use more energy per person than anywhere else in the world, something like 5 times as much per person as other industrialized nations. We are wasteful, affluent and often appear to not care about the impact that our “lifestyles” have on others around the globe, and on the environment. Looking to the future, it seems that this cannot continue forever, and that it would be better for us to change while we have the choice, rather than waiting until we are forced to make a drastic change.

[caption id="attachment_303" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="coal power plant Flickr Photo Credit: Velaia (ParisPeking)"]Velaia (ParisPeking)[/caption]

Energy is required to manufacture, to transport, and even to consume what has been manufactured. Currently much of the energy we have is produced by large corporations in a polluting, unsustainable and inequitable fashion that by definition of corporation and free market, has as its primary goal “making corporations money” and as its secondary goal “maintaining the status quo of those making the money”. Neither of those two goals will necessarily; Protect consumers from unfair profiteering, protect the natural environment, promote innovation, or allow for sustainable development of energy infrastructure.

[caption id="attachment_304" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Clean energy from wind power, flickr photo credit: kilobar"]kilobar[/caption]

I propose that we are stuck in this place because of some of our beliefs. I don't claim to have a complete picture, but I'd like to suggest that there are a number of myths that support the status quo and thereby hinder us from moving towards cleaner energy. Lets debunk some myths that are commonly circulated:

Myth: There is a shortage of energy:

Actually every hour, the sun showers the earth with more energy than the world’s entire population consumes in a whole year. (source:

Myth: Clean energy will result in a loss of jobs.

Recently I heard a statistic that more Americans are employed by the US wind industry than the US coal industry. I think we will see a shift in jobs. New jobs might include designing, producing, selling and delivering parts for; solar cells, geothermal systems and heat exchangers, bio-gas facilities, wind turbines, hydro turbines, power storage and regulating equipment. Research and development to improve the efficiency and quality of these systems.

Myth: Clean energy costs too much money

From a consumer perspective, in British Columbia, the residential rate for electricity is 7.2 cents per KWH and 85% of our power comes from hydro dams. In keeping with Moore's law, solar cells are becoming about twice as efficient every year (as solar cell manufacturers purchase the technology no longer needed by the likes of Intel and AMD). A Geothermal system installed at a cost of $10,000 when a house is built can provide heating AND cooling at about 1/4 of the cost of conventional methods. So if $275 / month is normal, that means $825 in annual savings and a breakeven point of about 12 years. (Those with better numbers are welcome to comment). So likely a case by case comparison depending on what options are available and what energy costs are needs to be done. Certainly some forms of cleaner energy production won't be available in all locations. When we start factoring in "health" and "social justice" (no blood for oil etc) it quickly becomes apparent that there are some costs not fairly represented on the balance sheet.

Myth: Clean energy is only for granola eating hippies or tin-hat wearing wackos

Since utilities buy and sell power using the infrastructure of electrical transmission lines, your power could be purchased from anywhere. Without you knowing, your utility could purchase some power from a coal plant or a wind farm, and that clean energy would seamlessly appear in your house's electrical system. As stated earlier, in British Columbia, 85% of electricity used is from renewable (rainwater powered) hydro dams. So clean energy is something any of us could be using, whether we enjoy granola or not.

Myth: Clean energy is experimental or in its infancy, not ready for serious commercial use

Despite the persistence of solar energy displays and fuel-cell displays at local science fairs, these technology are actually well developed. Consider early designs of the steam engine which used "wet ropes" to ensure a seal for the piston. We have much more advantage now. In Denmark, the last time I checked, 20% of the nation's electricity was being generated via wind turbines. Denmark with it's shallow coastal areas realized that 7km offshore, the wind farms have nothing blocking the breeze and they are essentially silent and invisible as far as humans are concerned. Solar found a boost near its inception with the space race of the 60s if I recall correctly, and so represents a technology that has received barely 50 years of serious development. Perhaps solar finds itself in an awkward adolescence where we can see the potential, but we aren't quite ready to turn over the reins. Solar is a de-facto standard for remote installations like track side railway equipment in the Rockies, marine equipment marking channels, roadside traffic signs and solar calculators. So it seems the technology is there, the adoption however is wanting.

Myth: Coal energy is cheap

Not really, you need coal mines, transportation infrastructure, generating plants or furnaces to burn the coal, lots of air land and water to receive the sooty pollution and CO2. There has been the human health cost of mining and breathing that dirty air. An amazing amount of effort has been invested in coal energy, some of the excavators have buckets as big as a house. Leaving giant scars on the surface of the earth. Since the mining of coal and burning of coal are centralized activities, this concentrates the energy in the hands of a few (those who own large coal generating plants), now there is the added cost of distribution, such a system puts a wealthy few in a place to set the price of electricity for the people who purchase it. Coal is a non-renewable resource, which means once it is used, there is no more coal to replace it. Much like the dinosaurs who contributed to the coal, it will soon go extinct.

Myth: All energy needs to be generated using one method (All wind/ All hydro etc)

All or nothing thinking makes it very easy for a person to dismiss clean energy. However, a diversity of generating methods allow for a lessened impact on the environment and resilience in the event of a shortage of any one kind of energy generation (a shortage of rain one year might reduce the power that can be generated using hydro dams, when the wind stops blowing wind turbines are idle, when there are no waves, wave generation produces no power, when it is nighttime, solar generation isn’t effective.

Myth: Energy production must be entirely clean.

While that is a worthy goal, it isn't immediately attainable by most of North America. The myth is an error in thinking, a false dichotomy that says a half way solution, or a marginal improvement is worthless. This flies in the face of experience that teaches us that most real improvement is incremental and continuous. In other fields marginal improvements are celebrated and embraced, like the medical discovery that consuming baby aspirin fights the chance of strokes and heart attacks occurring. If we can even REDUCE our dependence on unsustainable dirty energy generation, we are moving in the right direction. So lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater, when we see improvement. Lets embrace any move in the right direction. One encouraging tidbit I have to share is that according to the Danish Wind Association (sorry if I got the name wrong guys). A wind turbine cancels out it's own environmental impact (refining the steel, machining, transportation, installation, access roads etc. in 2 months of full-time operation. 2 months is a fantastic payback for erasing ones own tracks so to speak.

Myth: Doing the right thing must provide higher profits than taking the lazy way out.

Somehow many of us have adopted the moronic thinking that somehow doing the right thing should be cheaper. We hear things like "Gee that wouldn't pay for itself for 10 years, I'm not interested", or "Gee that has a $10,000 initial capital cost" (as the guy signs a 30 year mortgage for the $500,000 house...) Sometimes doing the right thing will be as expensive or more expensive than doing the thing that will potentially poison the air.

Myth: Higher efficiency stoves/ furnaces / etc will allow us to be responsible while still using carbon based energy

While it's true (and commendable) that efficiency for gas furnaces and other items are improving, this is really little more than damage control. (putting the filter on the cigarette and claiming it's healthier to smoke). Carbon based fuels are not renewable, meaning we can't sustain their consumption. Carbon based fuels release CO2, CO and other pollutants into the air we breathe, risking our health. It is telling (and not commonly understood) that many furnaces burning "natural gas" may expel 20-30% of their heat energy up the chimney where it does not benefit the homeowner. "Higher efficiency" generally means cleaner more complete combustion so you are wasting less energy. We need to move away from dirty unhealthy unsustainable methods and start seeding the clean sustainable technologies that will outlast carbon. (Anybody know how much longer the Sun is expected to last?)

Myth: North America is innovative in energy production.

If Green-wash were a clean energy innovation, this would be true. It would seem that GM killed the (EV1) electric car despite people offering to buy out their leases. Many subdivisions in attractive neighbourhoods have covenants on the properties preventing people from putting up clothes lines or solar installations on their roofs because they are "unsightly". North Americans consume more energy, more products and more packaging than anyone else in the industrialized world. Most jurisdictions in North America have been very slow to permit/encourage net-metering and other progressive measures which would encourage de-centralized independent power production. North America keeps proposing "carbon offset credits" and other measures which essentially permit some fancy accounting and transfer of money without fundamentally addressing how the power is created. (Essentially it is purchasing the "right" to pollute by putting money in the pockets of folks who are doing the right thing.) Did you catch how the goal isn't to improve, its to "offset"? North America has incredibly skilled labour, good working conditions, lots of money and.... we are not showing anywhere near the leadership that is required to turn energy production around and get it pointed in the right direction.

Myth: If I can't buy it at Walmart it isn't really "available" (yes I heard this one)

Somewhere along the line we lost our spirit of invention, our willingness to risk, research and investigate. Anyone reading this, has the most powerful research tool (Google?) and the most powerful shopping network. (Ebay?) at their fingertips. Don't wait for Walmart to stock the $10 home fusion generators. Take some initiative and be the first on your block! :-)

I hope...

that if we could clear the air by addressing more of these myths, by getting the green-wash out of the room, by recognizing how bad the situation is, by encouraging government that would promote innovation that ordinary citizens could participate in. That we would see noticable progress. (Note: this is not the same as us sitting around watching our big TVs, waiting for government to "fix it".) Then we could find ourselves in the environment that nurtured the Renaissance of clean energy. Lets hope! Actually, join me and lets get out there and start making a difference. Anyone want to start an "at cost solar system/ geothermal system" mail-order charity?" :-)

Are there some other myths you've been observing? Add them in the comments.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Protecting your privacy on Facebook

Over at there is a great article showing 10 privacy settings every Facebook user should know about.


So if you are like me, and you want to use facebook to stay in touch without having your information being used in ways you didn't expect, this is a good read.  For me, the most useful tip was the first, to create "friend lists".  These lists allow you a finer degree of control over who (which friends) see your information.  If you have "work contacts" and "personal friends", like I do, you can appreciate how you might want to have a bit more control over who can post things on your wall for others to see etc. Its all in the article Enjoy.

Now I'll just make this comment that these settings protect your information so long as FaceBook is not doing evil private information sharing (selling the information, being careless with their backup tapes etc.)  AND it assumes that whoever buys facebook in the future also is not doing evil things, AND it assumes that their servers won't get hacked and have all the private information stolen and sold on the Internet.

So if you trust FaceBook, and are banking on them not getting badly hacked, this tips should help keep you safe.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Honda videos on Quality and the Future of Transportation

Honda has some beautifully produced short films addressing quality issues in production.  They consist of a series of exerpts from interviews with quotes from Honda engineers as well as others you might recognize for their vision for the future like, Orson Scott Card.

There are 3 short films ranging between 6 and8 minutes with the following themes;

It's encouraging to see a large corporation thoughtfully discussing important issues like quality and sustainability.  My cynical side sees this simply as effective marketing, but we have certainly enjoyed Honda quality when we owned one of their cars.  Enjoy the informative eye-candy.

Have you seen other really well produced videos on Sustainable living and social issues or Quality and excellence in design that you would recommend?  Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Protect your Passwords with KeePass

Remember all your passwords easily by storing them securely in a password safe.

When it comes to password security, we continue to hear about the importance of choosing passwords;

  • that are too complex to be guessed

  • that are unique from every other  password we use

  • that aren't real words or dates or names

And it works great to keep our accounts safe...  until WE forget our own password.  Then we wish we'd re-used a password, or picked something we could guess.  God help us if the account locks itself after 3 wrong tries.  I am at the point in my Internet experience where I can't keep track of all the places I have accounts (never mind my passwords).  So I needed a tool to help me, because apparently large amounts of fair-trade coffee isn't enough to jog my memory

I needed a place I could keep all my passwords.  I needed a password safe.  It had to hold; passwords, URLs, usernames, comments, the ability to organize those passwords in a hierarchy that would make sense, and it needed to be secure lest it fell into the wrong hands.  For several years I have used PasswordSafe which promises Simple & Secure Password Management.  It worked great, but I had one problem using it.  I could rarely remember which subfolder in the hierarchy contained my entry... I needed search.  Enter Keepass.  Keepass offers all the above features including "search" if you type in some text it will match every entry in the encrypted Keepass database that matches this.

[caption id="attachment_260" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="way better than a post-it note!"]way better than a post-it note![/caption]

I have been absolutely Loving Keepass, and as long as I'm disciplined to put my passwords in there, they are available to me when I need them.  The Keepass website makes this introduction; "KeePass, the free, open source, light-weight and easy-to-use password manager."

Keepass logo

So there was one more problem I needed to address and it was the question of how do I synchronize keepass databases across the multiple computers that I use in a week.  I don't have a magical 5 minutes every time I'm done using a computer to make sure my database is copied correctly.  So the fear would be that an old copy overwrites a new copy, or that a password is in one location and not the other location where I need it. (What computer was I sitting at when I signed up for that account?).

Dropbox logo

To synchronize files, I turned to Dropbox. The promise of Dropbox is that you can "synchronize files online across computers" .  On the downside Dropbox requires you to install some software on your computer which runs at startup (or else there is little point of automatic synchronization).  It probably uses more memory than it needs, but hopefully someone on the Dropbox team will be working at reducing that memory footprint further.  Essentially you share a folder with yourself via the Dropbox website.  Your application checks every so often to see if the file has been updated, and if so, you get the most recent copy.  For myself there is no synchronizing via this method at work in order to respect policies around automated Internet traffic and not installing unsanctioned software.  So I have ALMOST solved my problem right?  The rest of the solution is provided by Keepass itself which has a handy importing feature.  You can import from another keepass database into a specified folder, and then the passwords themselves have a unique identifier to help make sure that you are truly synching the same password.

I hope this is helpful, let me know how you make out.
What password strategies work for you?

Friday, February 6, 2009

How many emails are in YOUR inbox?

I discovered a very useful set of articles from Manfred Mann over at 43folders titled "Inbox Zero".  I happened to be in the middle of wrestling with my email inbox at work which had at that time between 400 and 500 emails sitting unsorted in various states.  Some read, some ignored until later, some replied to, some unopened.  I knew something was broken, but I just couldn't find the secret to getting on top of my inbox.

Inbox Zero - At 43folders.comI had heard stories of people (mostly rumours and legends) who had zero emails in their inboxes.  Having immediately speculated that these folks must not be very busy, I was surprised to learn that in several cases they were just as busy as I was.  Now my inbox situation wasn't for lack of trying, I just kept getting "stuck".  I would start into my inbox to clear things up and then I'd come to an email that required some thought or a detailed response, and by the time I'd dealt with that email, I'd be onto other work and out of "cleanup mode".  Manfred gave me real insight into deleting emails rapidly, mostly it was "how" he spoke of email.  From references to "email bankruptcy" (deleting all your emails and sending your entire contact list a simple message stating that if they were expecting anything from you, they should let you know) to his sage advice that "The first and most workmanlike filter in your email processing scheme must involve very quickly deciding whether a given message can be deleted or archived immediately upon receipt."

In Processing your inbox Manfred highlights 5 possibilities for every email in your inbox.

  • delete it

  • archive it

  • defer it for later response

  • generate an action from it

  • respond to it immediately (if it—literally—will take less than 2 minutes or is so Earth-shattering that it just can’t wait)"

You may recognize the pattern from Getting Things Done the organizing strategy developed by David Allen.  If you practice GTD, you will find that Manfred supplements the system with some of the necessary energy and perspective for following through on processing.

If you are going to check out any of Manfred's Inbox Zero content, be sure to watch the video.

Thanks for the help Manfred!


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Texter a great text replacement tool (that's free)

OK my lifehacking friends, head on over to and pick yourself up a copy of Texter their free text replacement tool.  Think about the way you use your computer and the way that you end up repeating yourself as you type.  

[caption id="attachment_256" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="Texter replaces text snippets to save you time."]Texter replaces text snippets to save you time.[/caption]

Unlike software-specific text replacement features, Texter runs in the Windows system tray and works in any application you're typing in. Texter can also set return-to markers for your cursor and insert clipboard contents into your replacement text, in addition to more advanced keyboard macros. Did we mention it's free?

By way of example, while in a support capacity, I had to explain (in great detail) how customers could take a screenshot and send it to us, so with texter, I defined a "hotstring"  called "screenshot."  that results in the detailed instructions being filled in.  So now, instead of trying to remember all the steps for creating a screenshot, texter remembers for me.  AND for the quality nuts in the audience, if I realize my instructions are unclear, I can improve them and consequently EVERY time I use it in the future, they get the improved instructions.  So there is a consistency benefit, a memory benefit, a typing less while communicating more benefit and a quality benefit.

In another capacity we had customers calling to ask for intranet services, and we needed to ask them a number of questions. (pcname, user's network login, deadline, manager's approval etc.)  So for each of these requests we would send back an email asking all of these questions.  You guessed it, texter to the rescue, saving us most of the effort in each of those emails.   10 minutes of careful wording was replaced with "cmsrequest."  Brilliant!

Let me add that texter works almost everywhere.  I've seen it work in dos based applications, in browsers, on webpages, in office applications and more.  But you are wondering, how much time does that save?  Well from my experience, while working in a capacity where very little work was repeated, in a little over a year texter estimates that it saved me 2 days of typing.  Thanks Texter!

So don't delay, head on over to and pick yourself up a copy of Texter their free text replacement tool.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Free Videos of Inspired talks by the world's leading thinkers.

If you are like me, for you broadcast TV is almost dead. I don't want to reschedule MY life because some corporation decided the show will air at 9PM instead of 8PM. Also, of the 30 channels that are available on basic cable, only about 2 channels will have compelling content. (if that many) So there is un-compelling content on an inflexible schedule. For favourite tv shows like Lost or the office, I keep seeing re-runs in the middle of the "season". If a season is 24 weeks, there should be 24 shows... The math seems very simple to me. If I miss a show, its GONE. Thankfully, the internet provides some more flexible options in terms of when you watch your "video content".

One such bright light on the Internet which is providing high quality video content that is worth watching is TED.  TED.Com is worth checking out. It has amazing talks available online for free. Most are 20 minutes long, and feature themes like "design" "greener living", "what makes us happy" and more.

[caption id="attachment_249" align="aligncenter" width="280" caption="Ted, Ideas worth spreading."]Ted, Ideas worth spreading.[/caption]

If I can say one thing, it is that TED talks are top quality and very interesting. TED obviously does a great job of filtering who they invite to speak. I find myself sending friends links to TED talks which often strike me as the most carefully thought out, succinct, presentations I've ever heard on the subjects. There are lots to choose from, so if architecture doesn't interest you, "Whats wrong with what we eat", or "Inventions from tomorrow", or "The real difference between liberals and conservatives"might.

I discovered TED quite by accident while using an open media player MIRO  that highlights channels that have free content. So if you enjoy learning and challenging yourself in your spare time, consider TED.

So check out TED. The things I am seeing there

Getting Things Done (beyond collection)

If you’ve been reading this blog for any time at all you will know I’m comitted to continually improving myself, and how I do my work. 

For the last year or so, I’ve been watching with interest as the ideas from David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) have been bouncing around some of my favourite lifehacking websites. The term lifehacking refers to finding and using productivity techniques and tools to cut through information overload and organize information, work and time. 

It seems that while the concept is simple, it does require a significant adjustment to implement, so there is lots of room for tool techniques and coaching to help people pick up GTD.  David Allen himself says that it can take people up to 2 years to master GTD.  So why would anyone want to “re-learn” how to manage their life?  Why are there 1000s and 1000s of people out their building tools, developing techniques and publishing their experiences in the hopes of helping others “do” GTD successfully?

The benefits are immediate is the simplest answer I can devise.  First let me back up and give you a brief introduction or high level summary of GTD.   The basic premise is that people these days are juggling many things in their heads like todo lists, promised work, schedules and more.  Juggling in the literal sense is only sustainable for a short period of time, so why would we expect juggling in the metaphoric sense to be any different.  Simply put, people DON’T multitask, we task-switch.  We focus on this, then we stop, and we focus on that, then we stop and we focus on this other thing.  We are good at switching, but our brains are wired to focus, and our minds become their most powerful and creative when they are clear and free of clutter.  So the idea is to take all that clutter out of your brain and organize it into a system you can trust.  In addition to clutter in our brains, there are 2 other conditions which can contribute to a feeling of being overwhelmed.  Not having a clear perspective of our workload, and not being in control of the items we are responsible for.  GTD promises to address all 3 by freeing our minds, providing a more realistic perspective or our committments, and by creating a patern of behaviour for controlling our own work.  It breaks down roughly into the following:

Collection:  All of your inputs.  Emails, Lettermail, Faxes, Voicemails, Ideas you get out of head and write down, action items written on meeting minutes, business cards, all of the STUFF.  And it all goes in your inbox. Once critical success factor is to have as few inboxes as you can live with.  For me, my voicemail is entered into email or my paper inbox (by jotting down a note).  Ideas are written down and tossed in the inbox.   This is where I started realizing immediate benefits.  Because all that stuff was out of my head, I immediately started to feel less hectic.

Processing: Simply put, you go through your inboxes. From top to bottom, one item at a time, never putting an item back in without addressing it.  

Your first question is; “Is this item actionable?” or “Can I take an action related to this item?”  If the answer is “no”, then either it is

  • Trash (throw it out)

  • Reference material (file it in an alphabetically order file drawer)  Note: filing should take less than 1 minute, and it should be “out of sight” so you aren’t distracted by your files.

  • Ideas you can’t act on right now which require more development go into your “someday/maybe” file

If it is actionable, ask

  • Can it be completed right now in only 1 step?  If so, do it. 

  • If it is more than one step to complete then it is a project.  (move it to your project list)

  • If it is a single step or project (more than 2 minutes) Either defer it or delegate it.

  • Defering means coming back to it later.  If it happens at a particular time, put it in your calendar, otherwise, use your “bring forward” file, or your “next actions” list to hold the task which must happen.

  • Delegating means you are waiting for someone else to do some work (this doesn’t have to be a person who reports to you, it could be anyone of whom you ask a question.  The work moves to the “waiting for” list. 

Organization: Lists hold tasks and include: “Projects”, “Someday maybe”, “Waiting For”, “Next Actions”, 

Files hold information and and ideas and include: ”Bring Forward”, “project support materials”, “A-Z reference” 

Review: This takes place at a minimum Daily as well as Weekly.  

  • Daily, there is an opportunity to consult your “Calendar”, “Bring forward”, “Next Actions”, “Waiting For”.

  • Weekly, there is an opportunity to look at; “Meeting Minutes”, “Projects” and do a “Mindsweep” to capture any thoughts to free your mind.  

  • Less frequently you can stop to think longer term with a more strategic focus.

Do:  Work is done intuitively according to;

  • Context (where you are)

  • Time available

  • Energy available

  • Priority

Sound like a lot to get a handle on?  I thought so too, so I’m relying on pictures.  The best GTD Flowchart I could find was an adaptation onFlickr.

So I think I’ve mastered Collecting.

This week was a phenomenal breakthrough for me in terms of processing where I took an unusually large 2? thick stack of papers and reduced it to 5 papers (almost zero) in about 2 hours.  The key for me was understanding that many of my “papers” were triggers for projects (defined here as multistep work).  As I collected my papers into folders for the projects, and made use of a handy stack of folders, the inbox slowly melted away.   I think GTD holds lots ofpromise because it does have fairly simple answers for most of the questions you will face in trying to organize your information overloaded life.

I hope you find what I’ve shared helpful.