Living without paper

ben-kolde-FaPxZ88yZrw-unsplashThis one is not really about the future. It’s about the present. It’s about using the tech we already have and how I’m doing that. It’s going to be a long one, but most of it is just how I do it. So, no need to read it all, unless you’re interested in the details.

That being said, I find it interesting how often the paper(less) discussion keeps popping up in random conversations even today. We’ve been talking about the paperless office since the 1970’s. Its imminent arrival has been predicted since the 1980’s, usually by computer manufacturers unable to provide so much as a user’s manual without slaughtering a small forest. And at a time, when buying a piece of software was habitually accompanied by a trip to the local book store. Hard to imagine these days, but in the 80’s it was really like that.

So instead of that wonderful new world full of healthy trees and spacious offices (absent all the bulky filing cabinets), we saw an explosion of paper that, depending on various factors, often lasted well into the 2000’s and in some areas is still going strong today.

The tragedy is, that these early false starts seem to have engraved one message into the minds of a substantial subset of the population: the utter impossibility of ever living without paper. Even these days, the “couldn’t possibly do without paper” prophets are still running strong. And some of them can’t seem to rest until they have convinced every single person they meet that the only sensible way to organize information is by dead tree. Well, I was never much for theories when application does nicely, but before I get into that, let me clear up a few things.

Since this is a post on the present, we need to deal with present conditions. And presently, we can’t really fight at least some paper coming in (though we may not need to keep it), and we sometimes need to send out paper, usually to meet certain legal obligations. So we do need to deal with a small number of printed documents, and despite ongoing efforts to the contrary might have to do so at least for the immediate future. So, let’s leave the mandatory external communication out of this as the parts we as individuals have little or no control over. But what about the rest?

So is it possible?

Okay, I’m going to spoil it right away: yes, it’s possible. And it’s not even all that difficult. How do I know? Well, because that’s what I do, that’s what my life is like, and has been for years. My reason for not using paper in my everyday life is rather simple: I’m blind, which makes printed paper nothing but a serious nuisance, and handwritten notes pretty much useless.

Rocky beginnings

samara-doole-3Zzsk2MG2AI-unsplashLosing my eyesight, I was forced to gradually say goodbye to my beloved Time/system, my trusted notebooks, diary, post-its, and to all the books and magazines I kept reading. I needed to find other ways to remind myself of that doctor’s appointment, to make notes in meetings, to write that grocery list, and to all the other little things that paper had seemed so useful to do.  I also had to find other ways to gather information than watching TV, reading newspapers, magazines and (printed) books.

Starting down this road, even for a tech guy and life-long digital information worker like myself, was rocky at best. A lot of research, trial and error, quite a few false starts. But after a few years, things started coming together nicely. Time was in my favour.

Ten or fifteen years ago, at least in principal we more or less had most of the tools I’m using today, but usually they weren’t working all that well. Reading eBooks, synchronizing documents via (sore of) cloud storage, sharing content between (already pretty smart)phone and PC, storing and managing relatively large amounts of files and keeping them safe, all that was already possible one way or another, but the technology for the most part was still pretty costly and somewhat unreliable, and the user experience frequently proved, shall we say, somewhat challenging. Add to that the many, many problems with accessibility, and even with a relatively calm soul like myself over the years you may end up with a sizeable collection of foul language and numerous electronic devices thoroughly cursed to whatever the word hell may mean for a microchip.

Norton_Commander_5.51Fast forward to today, though there still is lots of room for improvement, and some things are still rather cumbersome, all in all I’m pretty happy with the way my little information universe is running these days.

Unexpected benefits

The transition to full digital yielded some less expected benefits. Once I had the initial challenges out of the way, had my tools ready and organized and had got used to them, something happened. Managing information started to feel, for lack of a better term, rather relaxing. It started to feel really comfortable.

przemyslaw-marczynski-oCfkSnqZ0SI-unsplashSuddenly, everything I had was where I need it to be. Whatever I needed on the road I had with me, up to date and readily accessible. And somehow things are almost always well organized. And even if I happened to mislay something, it usually only took a very short time to search pretty much every corner of my little information universe for the wanted item, and that was almost always successful.

At the same time, I started archiving a lot more than ever before. And I mean a lot more. As in many times the number of things I used to. And believe it or not, that has proved useful more than once, while thanks to modern storage technology there were no serious side-effects.

Real life

So how do I do it? Let’s start with some basic components, and then move on to a few specific examples. These are things I use in my personal life. For my job, I use a different toolset.

So, here are some of the key components of my little information universe:

Apple iOS
My most used device is certainly my iPhone. I also own an iPad and a few other Apple gadgets, and I keep my old iPod touch in a drawer for emergencies. Having more than one iOS (or more recently iPadOS) device is a good thing, since I can’t really lock myself out of the AppleVerse if the one should get lost one way or another.
The reason I went for Apple products is simple: great accessibility, including Apple’s focus on not only making things accessible, but making them highly efficient to use for blind people. There’s a reason that Apple pretty much owns the market for smartphones and tablets for Screen reader users.

PC
Over the years, my tower PC(s) turned midi tower(s), then laptop, and finally became a convertible (not the car, just a full Windows tablet with a decent detachable keyboard). And I have a pretty nice one. At home, it lives in a small bookcase next to my desk and communicates with me via a port extender plugged into a KVM switch with full sized keyboard, mouse, monitor and some good quality speakers, not to mention a decently sized collection of various USB devices.

Network Attached Storage
The hub of my information universe is my little NAS. Amply proportioned for my humble needs, it also keeps local copies of several cloud services, syncing automatically in the background. Some things are also synced to my Windows tablet, so I can take them with me (for security reasons, my NAS is not accessible from the outside).
My NAS has multiple safety layers, from RAID 1 to nightly backups on an encrypted USB hard drive to my little disaster recovery scenario, which is simply a revolving set of encrypted USB hard drives updated every few months and kept in another city.

Periphery
As a blind person, I probably have more than my fair share of devices. This includes a refreshable braille display, a document camera for quick reads of printed paper, a book scanner (regular scanner that can more easily accommodate books), and a lot of other bits and bobs I find useful.

Printers
Yes, I do own those, too. One for regular print, which is simply the cheapest inkjet printer I was able to find at the time (39 Euros) and which has faithfully printed at a reasonable guess on average about one page per month for the last three years. Then there is my full-sized braille embosser (a printer for braille), which I haven’t used in years. And another braille embosser, a tiny thing that prints adhesive plastic braille labels. And yep, that one I do use frequently, e.g. to label spices, coffee bags or the buttons on electronic and electric devices, simply retrofitting various items for use by a blind person.

Cloud storage
I’m using several different cloud services, mostly depending on what apps I use and what service those support.

Internet access
On the road, it’s regular LTE via my iPhone. At home, currently I have a 50 MBit VDSL connection, which has ample bandwidth for my purposes, protected by several layers of network security. I also have different Wi-Fi networks, including my own (nobody in here but me), a guest Wi-Fi and one for IOT and other externally managed devices, particularly my…

Amazon Echos
It’s definitely a mixed blessing, I really do know that, but for me as a blind person the benefits outweigh the risks. Every room of my flat has an Echo or Echo Dot, which I use to listen to audio books (Audible is my drug of choice) and music, and to control my smart home devices, of which I also have quite a few. In the living room, my Echo Dot is connected to my 80’s style stereo, providing really nice sound.

And since my job sometimes requires somewhat advanced levels of privacy, those Echos, plus my Netatmo whether station (which has a microphone built in, believe it or not) are all plugged into smart plugs, which in turn are controlled by their very own smart home hub. A smart button next to my desk shuts off the power and thereby turns off any possible, even if accidental, voice recording. That of course still leaves all the other microphones (smartphones, tablets, etc.), but those are a lot less keen on listening in and even my laudably professionally paranoid employer seems to have no real problem with those.

And that’s essentially it. These are the basic building blocks making up my little galaxy. Nothing fancy, all just regular tech you can buy on Amazon or wherever you want.

Of course, these building blocks need a certain amount of maintenance. “Never change a running system”? Pure, undiluted nonsense. In today’s world, any piece of software that’s not up to date is essentially already broken, and it’s a good idea not to wait for some random stranger demonstrating that fact to you when you least expect it. Other than that, it’s my time-honoured rule to change as little as possible. No matter what all the registry tweakers and subsystem disablers preach, IT systems usually work best when you stay within those degrees of liberty defined by their creators. Which, in addition to choosing components and their composition carefully, is probably the main reason why “everything running very smoothly” is the normal state of my tech.

And what about security?

The media, often more or less unwittingly serving various other interested parties, have been flooding us with countless security and data privacy horrors for years. Some of those are quite serious, many really aren’t, and most are rather specific in terms of who they might reasonably affect.

stil-vdaJJbls3xE-unsplashIn all the hubbub, one very simple aspect seems to have gone missing from the discussion: paper isn’t safe. At all. Not even a little. And yes, I know, the comparison is flawed on every level. You can’t hack a French filing cabinet from Brazil. Neither can you bring that filing cabinet to your next doctor’s appointment without serious discomfort, You also can’t tell whether someone took a photo of that legal pad you left in the meeting room during lunch (and speaking as a professional: this sort of thing really does happen much more often than people imagine).

And then there is mobility. Ever crossed certain borders with an electronic device and had some uniformed person threaten you with eternal damnation unless you give them your password? Conversely, ever been in that situation when some helpful admin at the client site hands you a printout of all their admin passwords and then disappears until the next morning, leaving you with no usable safe and no acceptable shredder in reach? You haven’t? Not funny. Not even a little, trust me on that.

So, let’s for the moment Ignore the fact that I don’t have much of a choice anyway.  What about security? The answer is that I simply do my best. I employ quite a number of security measures, most of the usual things, and some far less usual. Whenever possible I have multiple and varied layers of security. Some of my data is stowed away physically and rather well encrypted. Other things I tend to keep a little handier, either because there’s a good reason or because I simply don’t care beyond my existing security measures. So far, and speaking of the last 30-odd years, best I can tell my security concept in its many incarnations seems to have worked well. Again, for professional stuff there’s a lot more in place (which somebody else is paying for).

Do my security measures mitigate the risk? Yep, they really do. Do they eliminate the risk? Nope, they really don’t. Do I have a choice? No, I don’t think I do. Not in any realistic sense. Not as a blind person in an increasingly visual world. Do you have a choice? Well, if you are reading this, you probably already made it to some extent, whether you know it or not.

Tool box

susan-holt-simpson-2nSdQEd-Exc-unsplashSo let’s move on to more practical things. Here are a few examples of how I manage information, again concentrating on my personal life.

Basic tools

Notebooks
This is one of my most used tools: the app Notebook I use it for all sorts of things. It’s very easy to use, can manage different types of notes and it syncs with Dropbox. Which in turn makes my notes available with Windows. The best thing: this app actually stores text files as, well, text files (.txt), so aside from occasional problems with encoding, there is no bother working across different platforms.

Lists
Shopping lists, bucket list, list of people to invite to my birthday party, lists of what to pack on a winter camping trip, I do keep quite a few lists. Most of those are kept in an iOS app called Listbook. Not quite perfect (no equivalent for Windows), but reliable, very simple to use and it can export lists in various formats.

Task management
This is a bit of a sore point for me. I still marvel that no (accessible) app I can find follows even the most elementary principles of self-organization, let alone can be used across multiple platforms. In the meantime, I make do with Microsoft To Do and keep hoping they’ll eventually take some hints e.g. from Google’s Gmail app.

Nutrition diary
Yes, sometimes I keep one. Ever since the sudden demise of FoodDB (which was nearly perfect), I have to do with MyFitnessPal. It’s a good app, though accessibility is pretty wonky, but I can still make it work.

Dictionary
Whenever I need a dictionary, it’s cc for me. There are other good ones, but this is what I’m used to. I also have a folder filled with specialized dictionaries for specific topics, and for the more colloquial terminology I occasionally use Urban Dictionary, even if definitions tend to be cringeworthy at best.

Taking notes
to quickly scribble down a phone number, it’s iPhone or Apple Watch, either dictating or using a voice recorder and transcribing it later. The onscreen keyboard works as well, but with VoiceOver enabled, it’s just very slow typing. Handwriting is available, too, but also rather slow going.
For longer notes or in situations when data privacy concerns prevent me from using the Appleverse with its cloud-based options, I prefer my laptop. I even have a little VBScript assigned to a shortcut key to create a new note, name it properly and store it in my default notes folder. Works great, and certainly much better than paper. And as for the laptop on the table: wake up, people, it’s the year 2019 CE, or 12 PiP (see if you can figure that one out), and half the people are toting laptops in meetings anyway. If I could see, I’d probably be using something a little flashier (like my tablet with a smart pencil, but at least for now I still need a proper keyboard to be able to enter text quickly and easily.

Tickets – airlines, busses, trains
Not a problem, every carrier I use has electronic tickets, and most of them I even have on my Watch these days.

Keeping up to date

matthew-guay-Q7wDdmgCBFg-unsplashAnd what about news? Well, I actually dislike the usual news apps. I want much better efficiency and, more importantly, a lot more control over the content than some news mix which despite all the promises never really adjusts to my needs. My information sources also include a lot of blogs and some rather unusual websites, many of which only occasionally publish something, making checking them one by one rather tiresome.

All of which makes RSS the perfect tool for my needs. In practical terms, I manage my feed subscriptions with Feedly (despite its abominable accessibility) and read with Fiery Feeds (just amazing). It’s a nearly perfect system:

  • 1024px-Feed-icon.svgI can organize my feeds any way I like
  • I only see what I haven’t read or at least looked at
  • I can mark articles for later reading
  • Once I’ve browsed through a particular feed or category, I can mark it all as read with a single tap
  • I can share any article with pretty much anything, including e.g. my Notebooks app
  • While reading, I move from headline to summary to full article, giving me the choice of how much detail I want
  • Less of a thing for me these days, but still: configured the way I want it, pictures and videos stay absent unless I want them. That allows me to simply read the text without any (shock) images or videos trying to bypass my mental filters. And the ads are mostly gone, too.

I also frequently use Facebook for the more interactive experience, Twitter less often and Instagram almost never (again lack of accessibility).

In the past, I also used to listen to podcasts quite a bit, but that has gradually fizzled out over the years. Podcasts simply contain way too much random noise, and as there are more and more demands on my time, I suppose I lost patience with listening to 30 minutes of podcast to obtain the same amount of information I could usually have read in a written article in 30 seconds. Okay, I admit it, my screenreader’s synth voice perhaps reads a tiny little bit faster than human beeings tend to speak…

YouTube is a very important source when I want to find information about specific products, learn new skills or generally want to obtain any kind of “how to” information. Fortunately, many videos contain enough dialog to make them worth my while.

And speaking of research, Wikipedia is a daily go-to for background information, other Wiki-based services like WikiMedia Commons, Wiktionary or WikiHow are in the mix as well, but less frequently.

Of course, I have many other sources of information, but by RSS reader most definitely is information central for me.

Books

As I already mentioned, my drug of choice for entertainment is Audible, and my library has grown to pretty impressive proportions over the years. Occasionally, when I’m feeling nostalgic and in the mood for some Arthur Conan Doyle or some early Sci-Fi, I also use LibriVox. It usually takes some searching, but there are actually quite a few really good recordings in there, and it’s all free.

For some things, I also use traditional eBooks, Kindle for the commercial stuff and Voice Dream Reader for anything that isn’t DRM protected, but as someone who is listening to synth voices all day long, I definitely prefer a real human voice for relaxation. Voice Dream actually has some really good artificial voices, but without any emotional connection to the content, listening to a book this way for me still ranges somewhere between mildly tiresome and downright disturbing.

Bridging the gap

bruno-figueiredo-nKqS7Q2hHy8-unsplashAs mentioned above, paper can’t be avoided all the time. For me, the question is how to read it. At home, and generally for anything that might contain sensitive personal data, I use my PC and either my document camera or my scanner. On the road, I sometimes take that camera with me.

In other cases, I use a variety of iPhone apps, including Microsoft’s Seeing AI (really great stuff) and KNFB Reader, which is usually insanely expensive, but I got it pretty cheap a while ago.

In Germany there is even a service to intercept your snail mail, scan it and send it to you electronically. And it’s not even that expensive. You can have things archived, and if you should need the actual paper, you can request it any time. But as tempting as that sounds, I’m not using that service. I hardly receive snail mail anyway, and for me the extra convenience doesn’t mitigate my concerns regarding privacy and reliability.

To recognize groceries, it’s again SeeingAI or some barcode scanner, usually Codecheck. I also have a specialized device, but it’s data set is so limited it simply doesn’t make much sense anymore. And if someone finally manages to create an app that can reliably read expiration dates, things will be even better.

User manuals

I’m afraid every printed user manual I receive (and, fortunately from my point of non-view, there are fewer and fewer of those) goes straight into the bin. Instead, I download the PDF and store it on my NAS, and for things I carry around it’s my Dropbox, so I can look stuff up when I’m on the road. Since some PDF files are in fact scanned paper manuals, I occasionally need to pass them through some kind of OCR, either the built-in OCR of my screenreader or Abbyy Finereader Pro.

Archiving

This is a tricky one. While omnipresent in the business world, when it comes to personal use archiving seems to be like that weird cousin no-one likes to talk about. And until Microsoft decides to make this part of Windows, and makes it really easy to use for whatever you need to archive, I’ll probably keep using my own system.

Currently that includes keeping a lot, only occasionally going through the archive share to remove in bulk some stuff I no longer need. But even with this crude approach, available storage space remains plentiful, so at this point in time I see no reason to come up with anything sophisticated.

All in all

My little musings end the way they started: yes, it works, with very few exceptions. And yes, it works very well. Turning digital all the way has made my life more organized and more comfortable. There may be situations when pen and paper would be more convenient, but that’s mostly because quickly jotting down something when I can’t use dictation is just a little slow using a screen reader. But those situations are rare, and I gladly accept those for the convenience of having everything ready and well organized.

 

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