Monthly Archives: March 2007

bml-smartco-blog-070328

Last week my father rang me and asked me to resend a document he had lost. After doing this, I started thinking about how much time is lost looking for documents you know you have but can’t find.

The Microsoft Office default name for documents is Document1. Consequently, my Dad has hundred of documents name Document1, spread through hundreds of folders. Because every document has a meaningless name, when he searches his hard disk, the search has to look inside every document to find the one he is missing. This makes the search dramatically slower.

Of course, my father wants to have unique meaningful document names to make life easier, but he doesn’t have a system and consequently resorts to Document1 as soon as he is a bit rushed.

Now I would argue (with him regularly) that from a document name you would want to know the following things:

  • Ownership. Which organisation does this document belong to?
  • Content. What is inside the document?
  • Author. Who wrote it? (in the case of the Churchill Club, not required).
  • Version. What version of the document is it?

To make like easier for my father, I have let him in on my system, which has served me well for a decade.

I split every document name into three sections. The first part is ownership (“tcc” for the Churchill Club and “bml” for me). When documents come in from other people, I don’t change the document name as it makes it obvious it’s not for me.

The second part of the file name is the document title (eg, “event-sponsorship-template” or “letter-to-accountant”). Note the hyphens between the words, rather than spaces. I do this because some computer systems don’t like spaces in file names and corrupt the document.

The third part of the file name I use for version control. I use two different types: a date for one-off documents, or a numbering system for controlled documents.

For dates, I write the year, month and day in reverse (eg, 070326 for March 26, 2007). This means that if I have multiple versions of a letter written on different days, they will all sit nicely in a directory, sorted for me in date order. If I update a document on the same day, I normally add an “a” on to the end.

The numbering system for controlled documents is a little more complex. The first major release of a document, I give the number 1.0, the second major release 2.0, etc. Minor releases (small changes) after 1.0, I number 1.1, 1.2, etc. Minor releases after 2.0, I number 2.1, 2.2, etc. Drafts before the first release are numbered 0.1, 0.2, etc.

Using this system a letter to my accountant from me would be called “bml-letter-to-accountant-070326.doc” and a letter to my accountant from the Churchill Club would be called “tcc-letter-to-accountant-070326.doc”. If I wrote three letters to my accountant on different days, and they were all sitting in my accountant’s directory, it could look like:

tcc-letter-to-accountant-070221.doc

tcc-letter-to-accountant-070315.doc

tcc-letter-to-accountant-070326.doc

Now I think this system is fairly simple to remember but powerful, as it means I can write unique, useful file names every time without having to think about it. What does my Dad think? The answer to that is a whole lot more complicated than this blog.

Who goes there?

Once in a blue moon I check the Churchill Club’s bank transactions online. A couple of weeks ago I did this, but after a while I was automatically logged out. When I tried to log back in again, I got the password wrong and it wouldn’t let me log back in. Sound familiar?

I then rang the bank. A call centre operator asked me how many business internet accounts I had. I answered “two”, but apparently I only had one, because my online credit card account wasn’t a business internet account, but a merchant services account.

Apparently this mattered to the operator. I was advised I would have to go to a bank branch to have the account unlocked; the call centre could ask me the question once and I got it wrong. Sound familiar?

After I showed my ID at the branch, I was told the account would be unlocked later that day and that I would be contacted. Of course I didn’t receive any call, and had to go back to the branch the next day to repeat the process. Finally, my accounts were unlocked.

This got me thinking: what is the point of this security? I am continually told it is to protect me, but I am beginning to believe that’s completely untrue.

I now have about 10 different banking passwords and account numbers and perhaps another 50 or so general passwords (such as the one for my SmartCompany subscription). Each organisation I deal with has different rules for their passwords, including:

  • The minimum number of digits.
  • How often the password must change.
  • What characters are OK to use (numbers letters, special characters).
  • Whether I can use a previously used password.
  • Patterns are not allowed (such as my surname).

My world is now so complex that I now have a standard set of different secret passwords that are used, just so I can manage my accounts. So for each individual account I have good security, but overall my security is massively reduced because once you know one of my passwords, you can easily access any number of my accounts.

Therefore I am compromising my own personal security just to cope. But the banks don’t care because if I compromise my security by reusing passwords, it’s my problem not theirs. So they are protected.

I heard a great example the other day about the staff of a national organisation, who have to change their password every month and must use a unique password with a minimum of 5 characters. To cope with these rules more than half the employees in March this year will have the password “mar07”. Where is the security in this?

But back to banks. I would suggest that bank security for online accounts is much more about protecting the bank than about protecting customers.

I note that when you are issued your new credit card you are told “you must sign the back for security”, but since you are not responsible for any debts until you sign the card, the security they are concerned must be theirs not yours). No wonder when someone found Lloyd Williams’ platinum credit card on the beach the other week, it was unsigned.

Anyway, I used to use notes in Outlook to store my passwords, but I have come to the conclusion that this is too insecure because others can look at it, plus it’s open to being accessed by evil software.

I have instead downloaded a program called Password Safe to manage my accounts and passwords. Password Safe is free and secure and user-friendly. It comes from http://passwordsafe.sourceforge.net/ I haven’t solved all my password problems, but at least I have improved my own security.

Tools to support creativity

Twelve months ago, I started having a conversation with colleagues about putting on a sporting event. The conversation fluttered about for most of the year, occasionally gaining energy but constantly changing focus on what was important. I had to speak to many people about priorities and who would be involved.

Now considering I have had nothing to do with professional sports, I ended speaking to quite a variety of people on what issues they felt were important, and who would have a voice at the table. An absolute mess of notes whose connections kept changing.

Because I am a tech at heart, I wanted a tool that would help me manage this evolving conversation without becoming a chore. Then the thought hit me. Years ago I had been introduced to mind mapping, and found it fascinating but effectively useless to me (I was an accountant at the time), however it struck me that this could be the tool I was looking for.

On a search for mind mapping tools (Google is my friend) I came across a product called Free Mind. Free Mind was a full-featured piece of Mind Mapping software that runs on Windows, Linux and Macs.

Free Mind also had one other thing going for it that was seductive to me — it was free! That’s right, free; and not free for 30 days, or free but full of ads, but absolutely free.

It was created by a team of people interacting via a kind of techno’s social network called Source Forge. Source Forge is a place were software engineers get together in teams and write software to work as they feel it should, and licence it for free use. Currently there are more than 140,000 software projects going on there that are generally known as “open source”.

Anyway, back to Free Mind. The software installed without hitch on my Windows XP notebook. It was incredibly easy to master (I just wanted to insert new thoughts and move things around) and would allow me to export my mind maps as a pretty picture (JPG or PDFs) or in a table of contents look to a web page.

Result -> My creativity is supported and I am a happy camper.

Got your name right

This morning when I was driving to work, minding my own business and listening to the radio, two things occurred to me. First, I have become old, because I find listening to talkback much more interesting than music. Second, there was something seriously wrong about the vehicle in front of me.

The van in front had some signwriting on the back about being a private investigator. But this wasn’t what was wrong; it was the email address.

Now, note I have changed the exact email address (to protect the owner) but not the thrust of it.

The email address was astraltravel@hotmail.com. There are two things wrong here.

Firstly the astraltravel bit. How can I take anyone seriously when they have an email address that indicates they are into astral travel? By the way, that also goes for “metaphysics”, “bionic” and “alienabduction”, all of which I have seen in a business context.

The second thing was the domain “hotmail.com”. That domain name tells me that the person isn’t overly computer literate and is so tight that they would prefer to use a free service, from Microsoft rather than develop their own brand online.

So what makes a good email address?

I would strongly suggest you get your own domain name, for four reasons:

  • They are very cheap, with a .com.au name available for as little as $27.95 for two years.
  • They allow you to extend your brand online.
  • They’re portable so you don’t have to change your email address every time you change ISPs.
  • They are flexible and there is a lot you can do with them. But I will get into that later.

I would also suggest that you think about what mailbox names you use (generally speaking, the part of the email address before the @ symbol).

Here it’s a bit of a tradeoff. Large companies tend to use full names, because they need so many different mail boxes; eg, brendan.lewis@

Smaller companies tend to use first letter and surname e.g. blewis or lewisb. Companies that haven’t thought about their online brand tend to use nicknames as the mailbox name, such as lewy, davo or macca. The tradeoff of, is transparency vs simplicity. “brendan.lewis” is a much more obvious mailbox name than just “bl”, however the more letters mean more chance of making a typo.

Choosing a consistent format for email addresses is a double-edged sword, though. Consistency allows me to guess your email address from knowing your name, and the email address of someone else inside your organisation. If I lose your email address, it is easy to guess. But if I haven’t got your email address and want to send you an offer, I can also guess.

In regards to the flexibility that comes with owning your own domain name, here are a couple of ideas.

I can block email that comes to my domain, but not to a specific email address, such as emails to kjhsgydfkjgf@l2i.com.au. This is useful for stopping spam.

I can forward all email that comes to my domain, but not to a correct email address, such as berndan.lweis@l2i.com.au, to one mail box – a kind of catchall for when people make spelling errors when typing in my email address.

I can setup a whole lot of email addresses that forward email to my mailbox, such as sales@l2i.com.au, accounts@l2i.com.au or feedback@l2i.com.au.

This can make my organisation look bigger. I can setup a whole lot of address that forward email to people who have mailboxes inside my organisation. For example, sales@l2i.com.au forwards email to john.smith@l2i.com.au. This way, I would not have to notify everyone and change all my literature and website if John Smith moves on.

I can setup sub-domains for mailboxes belonging to a different office – sales@melbourne.l2i.com.au, sales@sydney.l2i.com.au, sales@queensland.l2i.com.au. This allows me to have each office get their email from a local computer.

I have my email hosted by an organisation called Bluehost in the US. It costs me about $100 a year for the service (The service has actually a whole lot of other things going on for the $100, including up to five websites hosted).

Bluehost has a website-based control panel that I can use to implement any of the ideas above, at no extra charge. I can suck my emails down into Microsoft Outlook, or can check my email from an internet café, whilst overseas, just like Hotmail. I should add that I don’t necessarily recommend Blue Host, they were just the right service for me, with my skill level.

So, my advice to the private investigator is to get himself a serious domain name and set up some serious email addresses. I wonder how much more business he would get from enquiries@national-investigations.com.au, compared to astraltravel@hotmail.com.