Going Paperless with Dropbox

Life is full of paperwork, both printed and digital.  Our lives generate thousands of documents that chronicles our existence.  When my mother died several years ago I had to go through boxes and boxes that were a paper trail of her life.  It took months to close out her affairs to the point where I could destroy the paperwork.  In the end I had one small folder of documents and many boxes of photographs.

When I die I hope to leave my wife a well organized Dropbox folder that is a digital snapshot of my life.  I want to die paperless.  I’ve been working on going paperless since 2008.

People have been talking about our society giving up paper for decades but it’s never been practical.  We’re getting close.  By 2025, we’ll essentially be a paperless society I hope.  I doubt the printed document will go away entirely, who would want a digital diploma or marriage certificate?

We still need to save all those digital documents somewhere, and I think Dropbox, or its kin, will be the answer.  Years ago I had hoped regulated data banks would have appeared for us to use, but I guess that was wishful thinking on my part.

What’s needed is transition technology.  Businesses have been using optical imaging systems to go paperless since the 1980s.  Home users have had scanners for almost as long, but developing a complete home system for storing documents safely has not been practical until cloud storage became cheap, and it’s still not as safe as the data banks I imagined.  Nobody is regulating data storage.

Three technologies have emerged that move us closer to the goal of being a paperless society.

  • Dropbox
  • Evernote
  • Scanners with PDF scanning


Dropbox, and it’s competitors Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive, SkyDrive, Box.net, etc., offers us reasonably safe places to put our digital files.  Scanning files to a laptop that could be stolen, burned up in a fire, or eaten by viruses wasn’t a good solution.  Leaving your important paper files at home in a cheap filing cabinet wasn’t really that safe either.  If you treasure your family photos, they’re one disaster away from oblivion if you only have a single copy – paper or digital.  Digitizing important files and keeping them in multiple locations is the prudent way to go.

I’ve been using Dropbox for awhile and it’s taken time to appreciate what Dropbox can do for me.  It’s also taken time to learn how to create a folder organization structure to use with Dropbox.  Although my system is not perfected,  I feel I’m finally on to something.  It takes time to learn all the tricks, like naming documents by date order (i.e. 2009-05-17-connell-letter.pdf) or configuring the default scan to folder.  I like scanning to a \scan folder on my c: drive so I can easily drag and file to another window that contains my Dropbox folders.  Right now I have a flatbed scanner but I’m looking at a Fujitsu S1300i ScanSnap that has simple document feeder that can scan both sides of a document and works directly with Dropbox and Evernote.

The idea is to store all my paperwork and photos digitally in an electronic folder system that makes finding stuff easy, and it’s protected by backing up to multiple sites.

What really made things come together was when my wife got out our old flatbed scanner to scan her family photos for Christmas presents and I noticed the PDF Scan feature.  I tend to let papers and mail pile up on my desk until the top gets covered in a foot paper.  Every year I swear I’ll never let this happen again, but I do.  This year I discovered how easy it is to scan documents I want to save and file them in Dropbox.

At first I didn’t trust Dropbox for long term storage.  I just used it for temporary storage, like if I had a document at work that I wanted to work on at home.  Then I realized how Dropbox functioned.  I had assumed the files were only stored on a remote server.  That’s not how it works.  Your files are replicated from your Dropbox folder on your local machine and the working copy remains on your computer.  A copy is stored at the Dropbox site.  This means Dropbox acts like a backup system.  Not only that, if you have a second computer, the files are replicated to that computer too.  My Dropbox files are replicated to five computers.  I can also call up those files on my iPad and iPod touch.  That’s two PCs at home, and on a PC, Mac and Linux machines at work.

Counting Dropbox’s storage, that means my files are stored on six machines in three locations.  That’s pretty safe I think.  I assume Dropbox backs up my files too because they offer 30 days of free undeletes and for $39 a year, unlimited undeletes.  And Dropbox encrypts files and uses https to transfer files.  I could also encrypt those files again with something like TrueCrypt, if I was worried about Dropbox poking into my business, which I’m not at the moment.

Right now I have 14gb of unpaid space on Dropbox and I’m using 6gb.  That’s not enough for my MP3 songs and audiobooks, but it is for all my writing, photographs and scanned paperwork.  I do have my music library backed up on Amazon and Google Music cloud drives, so I’m well covered for MP3 files.  I also have 20gb of space at Amazon for non MP3 files but it’s not as flexible and convenient to use as Dropbox.  And I have 25gb on SkyDrive.  Eventually, as an extra backup protection I might replicate my Dropbox folder to one of my other cloud drive folders.

The key to making this work is the folder filing system I’m creating.  So far these are my top level folders:


My original idea was to create top level folders based on file format types, but I wanted easier access for my most used folders, so I broke Fiction and Nonfiction out of Word Documents.

Under Biographical I have folders for Medical History, Timeline and Notes.   I was keeping text files of to do lists, phone lists, email lists, book lists, etc. in a folder called Notes but I moved it under Biographical.  Do I want to think, “Oh it’s a text file, so look under Notes,” or do I want to think, “Where’s that timeline of schools I went to,” and think Biographical?  I decided to file by meaning rather than file format.

I also have Photos and Wallpaper which both store .jpg files, and I might combine them, but it’s nice to separate family photos from my archive of desktop pictures, screensaver art and art history galleries.

Most everything I save for reference gets scanned and made into a PDF, which has a more elaborate folder structure.  I haven’t scanned my entire filing cabinet yet, and probably won’t, at least not any time soon.  However, I have scanned current paper work and certain old folders, and it wasn’t that much work.  I wish I had a sheet feeder system like our optical imaging systems at work, but I don’t know if they’re worth the buying right now.   I listen to audiobooks as I scan, killing two birds with one stone.

I had a folder of old letters, some 50+ years old, that existed before email, that I scanned and put into Dropbox.   I haven’t decided yet about banking, tax and other business documents.  I worry about privacy and whether or not my digital copy is valid in a legal dispute.  Some paper documents I might save for sentimental reasons, like old report cards or letters from my grandmother, but I do want them digitized.

I’ve discovered that many paper manuals I’ve been saving for my TV, receiver, CD player, cameras, etc. are online as PDFs.   So I saved those PDFs to my Dropbox and threw away my paper copies.  I also found articles I have clipped are often still online, so I found and saved those to Evernote, and threw away my paper copies.  Others I scanned and saved to Dropbox, although Evernote also will store PDF.  In fact, some of the documents I’m storing in Dropbox might be better suited for Evernote, which indexes files for quick retrieval.

For 2013 I need to study the pros and cons of Evernote versus Dropbox.  Right now if I wrote it, it goes in Dropbox, if someone else wrote it, it goes in Evernote.  Except for ebooks.  Normally Amazon handles all my ebooks, but occasionally I get ebooks from places other than Amazon, and I have to maintain the original.  Although I’m thinking about converting .epub books to .mobi with Calibre and sending them to my Kindle.   So that folder might disappear.

One thing I’ve learned is to depend on companies that maintain my digital purchases like Amazon for music and Audible for audiobooks.

Right now I’m using Dropbox as my primary storage for photographs but that could change if I find a photo site that does more.  But Dropbox is so universal that I find it hard to believe other sites could compete.  And if I combine Pixlr.com with Dropbox I can do snappy photo editing on the fly.

Back in 2008 I started down my road of Going Paperless by cancelling my magazines and newspapers.  This has been a slow process.  My mailbox probably gets 90% less paper each week.  I still have to write companies telling them not to send catalogs.  And I still get mail for people long dead.  Most of the other stuff is official documents I feel I must save.  I’m going to look into seeing about getting my health insurance, 401K, credit card and banking statements online, but I want to research the legal safety issues about that first.

Cleaning Out Computer Files

Once I started filing scanned documents into Dropbox I realized I could clean up my computer drives by copying files to Dropbox too.  I have several computers and many external drives that have filled up with up with decades of digital crap, and backups of crap, and backups of backups.  I’ve been going through them copying important files I want to save to Dropbox and then deleting the others.  I’ve found unique photographs I want to keep hidden on different drives, so this process has helped consolidate my picture library.

I’m still worry about the ultimate safety of Dropbox.  Because it replicates copies to all my computers it makes me feel fairly safer overall.  I’m off for the holidays, so I remotely connected to my computer at work and verified that all the files I’m been saving to Dropbox were replicated to my work computer, and they are.  My fear now is Dropbox will go crazy and delete all my files off all my computers.  If you delete a file from Dropbox it’s eventually deleted from all your computers.  If Dropbox went berserk I could unplug the Ethernet cable before I turned on one of my computers and rescue those files.  I could use a replicating program and copy my Dropbox files to my Amazon Cloud Drive or Microsoft SkyDrive, but I’d really like to trust Dropbox.  Once I clean out all my computer files, scan my paper files and create the perfect folder filing system, I don’t want it to get out of sync again.

I also made Dropbox my default folder in Windows.  Thus I won’t be tempted by having a real folder of files and a Dropbox folder of files to maintain.  It’s all one now.

Future Dropbox Projects

Susan’s family history photo project was a big hit at our Christmas Eve party.  She assembled a three generation history of her family starting with her mother and father that was told in 386 photographs.  I’m encouraging her to move it to Dropbox or another cloud site to expand on it.  I also want to create photo histories for my mother and father’s families, and get my cousins to add their photos to mine to build a super photo history.  When my mother died several years ago I inherited all her family photos, and my dad’s family photos.  I’ve been meaning for years to make copies for my cousins.  Now I’m thinking Dropbox will solve that problem.

The Future of Dropbox

I’m not sure Dropbox is the ultimate digital bank vault for my files, but it’s what I’m using at the moment.  I might get burned.  Dropbox could go out of business.  Right now I have enough free space that I don’t need to pay.  What it’s that’s true with everyone?  How can Dropbox make money.  Right now the cheapest plan is $99 for 100gb.  I wish they had a $49 plan for 50gb, that would make a better introductory price.

Or better yet, I wished Dropbox charged a straight $1 per gigabyte per year and we could buy as few or many as we wanted.

You can get free space on Dropbox.  You start with 2 gigabytes by joining but you earn more by getting others to join, and you get bonus space if you join from a referral.  If you don’t have Dropbox use this link and both of us will get 500 megabytes of additional free space.  That means you start with 2.5 gigabytes by using my referral.

As I switch to reading on the Kindle and iPad, I tend to think my book collection will shrink.  Dropbox works wonderful from tablets.  I tend to think sometime in the near future all my books, magazines, photographs, personal documents, videos, music albums, etc. will be on my tablet computer, and my home office will have just furniture and a computer with a big screen and great sound system.

Other Dropbox Tips

JWH – 12/26/12

Web Sites I Want – Best Essays from Printed Magazines

Even with the social bookmarking sites, reading from the internet is like drinking from a fire hose.  What I’d like to see is highly selective bookmarking site, and in particular, the one I’d love to have most would be Best Essays From Printed Magazines.  The top writing on the net is usually reprinted from the major print magazines, but those essays are overshadowed by the gigantic volume of web journalism.  Hey, I’m a blogger and love getting readers, and I love reading blogs, but the heaviest of the heavy duty essays are still from print magazines.  The cutthroat survival of the fittest in the print magazine industry by its very nature acquires the best writing.

That’s why I’d like a site that helps me find the best essays over 1,000 words.  Adding the length requirement is important because too many magazines have gone to filling up their pages with short web level writing.  Social bookmarking sites like delicious and StumbleUpon are great for snacking on popcorn and candy level reads, but not so yummy if you’re looking for literary steak.  Yes, they will link to long quality essays from printed magazines, but you have to wade through zillions of peanut size stories of questionable value, more akin to Television’s funniest videos in informational nutrition.

No, I want a site that’s very specific and limited.  I’d like an editorial board that selects the Top 100 magazines that publishes their content on the web, and offers a system that lets users bookmark and vote on the best essays they are reading.  Hell, I’d even pay to subscribe to such a site if they got permission to reprint articles that don’t get reprinted on the web.

The web has gotten too big and mangy, so when I want to know something I go to a specific site, mainly Wikipedia.  I’ve given up subscribing to magazines, mainly because I’m against paper for environmental reasons, but also because when I was subscribing to dozens of magazines, all too often I’d only find a good article here and there.  Most of the content was filler, like the web.  I guess I’ve gotten spoiled by the iTunes model – who wants to buy an album when it’s the hit song you want.  This is why I prefer Netflix to cable TV.  We need more ways to cut out the noise.

Here’s are examples of the kind of long essays I’d like to read:

I guess what I really want is a web version of the Best American Series to be published monthly, instead of the yearly printed volumes they have now.  And if they wanted to make extra money, reprint the monthly web site editions as ebooks for $9.99 for Kindles, Nooks, iPads, etc.

JWH – 5/12/10

The Weight of Paper

Nanny, my grandmother on my mother’s side, was born in 1881 and grew up before the automobile, airplane, radio and silent film.  She watched all the technology emerged that in my boyhood I took for granted, like electricity, the telephone, refrigerators, cloth washers and dryers, air conditioners, etc.  She died a couple years after Neil and Buzz landed on the Moon. 

My mother was born in 1916 and grew up with the radio, at a time when movies morphed from silent pictures into talkies, watched the television age emerge, drove across the country before the interstate highway system was built, and lived long enough to see computers become personal, phones stored in pockets and the world wired for computer networks, although she refused to own a cell phone or computer. 

I was born in 1951, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen as much dramatic cultural change as those two women, but I grew up in front of a TV, watching the advent of the space age, the computer age and the digital age, and if I live long enough I might see far more dramatic transformations.  They both lived to 91, and if I could live as long, I will see the world change as much as they did from 1881 and 1916 until 1951.

Computers are changing the way we all live, but have they changed us as much as the automobile, airplane, radio, movie and television?  Current digital technology often makes me dislike the way I used to do things, even though I feel strong nostalgia for how things were. Take reading for instance, all aspects of my reading habits have changed in my lifetime.  I now listen to books on an iPod, or read them printed on small digital screens like in Star Trek.  For a more specific example, my wife is nagging me about my magazine collection, housed in two six foot high bookcases. 

I love magazines, and spent six years working in a Periodicals department at a university library.  My home library contains hundreds of issues from dozens of titles.  Even Susan asks, “Can’t you get them on online?”  I stopped reading newspapers years ago, and I might stop reading magazines soon.  I prefer audio books now, even though I spent my whole life as a bookworm, and 99% of the words I read with my eyes each day come through my computer screen.  I even listen to magazines, like The New Yorker, and prefer it to reading.

The weight of a single sheet of paper is almost unnoticeable, but the weight of twelve shelves of magazines is quite heavy.  Since we had new flooring put in this month, I had to move four bookcases of books, and two bookcases of magazines and the weight of that paper was almost backbreaking.  How many trees went into making all that paper?  What was the impact on the environment?

Awhile back, to do my bit to fight global warming, I started going paperless, and cut my magazines subscriptions from over 20 to just 2 (Sky and Telescope and Rolling Stone – what an odd couple, huh?).  But I kept all my old issues hoping to get the maximum reading value someday, and maybe even clip the best articles to scan into my computer.  I’m at point in time when I’m shifting away from one kind of living, with paper, and moving into another way of life, without paper. 

I still buy an occasional mag at the bookstore, but even that makes me feel guilty, because that means my pile of unfinished magazines keeps growing, and more trees were cut down.  I tend to flip through a magazine and read the shorter pieces and tell myself that I’ve just got to find time for those great longer pieces someday, but I seldom do.  The weight of paper can also be measured in time, and I have a huge amount of time theoretically reserved for that reading.  Throwing all those magazines out will reduce the weight of possessions and free up a lot of imagined obligated hours, probably in the thousands.

I have nice long runs of Sky and Telescope, Astronomy Magazine, New Scientist, Scientific American, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Popular Photography and many others.  I like to think of them as my reference library, but honestly, I rarely refer to them.  Reading online has become my habitual way of info-gathering.  And since I often read online articles about the dwindling subscriber base to newspapers and periodicals, I’m guessing there are many people like me.  If only they made a Kindle-like reading device with a large full-colored screen, I’d probably do 100% my eye reading from online sources.

But I must also emphasize the shift from eye reading to ear reading has been very important to me.  That’s another paradigm shift, and I think it scares people in the literacy profession.

Throwing away my magazine collection would be like throwing away the past.  According to Wikipedia, general interest magazines started in 1731 with The Gentleman’s Magazine, so will we see the era of the printed magazine end before it’s 300th anniversary?  When I was born the pulp magazine format was dying and the science fiction and fantasy digest magazine was beginning.  Today those digests are disappearing and a new crop of online SF/F magazines are emerging.  Read Jason Sanford’s recent survey of these new short story venues for emerging writers of fantastic fiction.  Will getting published be as exciting?  It will certainly be easier to send copies to your friends.

Today I read “Ten things mobiles have made, or will make, obsolete.”  Among the ten items was paper, (also included were pay phones, landline home phones, MP3 players, netbooks, small digital cameras, handheld game consoles, wristwatches and alarm clocks).  It’s quite easy to read on an iPhone, whether it’s a book, short story, magazine article or news item.

There is also talk that the United States Postal Service is failing.  I can understand why, because only 1 piece of mail in 15 is something I actual need, and even that piece could be eliminated by electronic billing.  Nearly everything I get in my mailbox goes right into the recycling bin.  This is especially a shame for all those fancy full-color catalogs, resources terribly wasted because I don’t even flip through their pages.

The era of paper might be nearing its end.  The more effort I put into recycling the more I realize that most paper trees die in vain, and their lives would be better spent absorbing carbon dioxide.  I will agonize over all the people in paper related industries who will lose their jobs, but the history of the world is change, and nothing stays the same.

If I lived until 2042, to become 91 like my mother and grandmother, I might see the end of newspapers, magazines and books.  I’ll probably see the passing of paper photographs, 8-16-35-70mm film formats, LPs, CDs, DVDs, BDs and any other form of audio-visual physical storage.  Stranger still, I might see the end of libraries and bookstores.  Everything will be digital, and the net will be a universal library.  Newsstands are already disappearing fast.  Bookstore business is still growing, but if the Kindle and its kin catch on, that will change too.  And libraries aren’t what they used to be.

The age of wasting natural resources should end in our lifetimes, either from changing our lifestyles to avoid the worst of global warming, or by adapting to the new environments that global warming brings into existence.  It is impossible to know the future.  It is impossible to know what black swan changes are in store for us.  The folks of 1881 could not picture 1916 much less 1951 and 2009 is beyond anything anyone could imagine from the 19th century, so I can’t really predict 2019 or 2042.

However, when was the last time you put a coin in a pay phone or a letter in a letter box?  How many other things have you stopped doing in recent years that you haven’t even notice you stopped doing?  It’s easy to be amazed by new inventions, but will we even notice when the weight of all that paper is gone?

JWH – 11/24/9

Kindle DX versus Netbook as Textbook

The holy grail of ebook visionaries is the electronic textbook.  Textbooks are huge, heavy and expensive and some poor school kids carry more weight on their backs than soldiers on a march.  It’s as common to see backpack humps on college kids backs as seeing cell phones in their hands.  Ebook promoters see dollar signs whenever they spot one of those humpback students lugging around all that printed matter.

And those ebook promoters are right.  Why carry forty pounds of paper when you can carry 1 pound of electronics?  But is the Kindle DX the answer?  I don’t think so.  First, let me give you a little story.  Years ago, before audio books were even common on cassette tape, I took a two semester Shakespeare course.  We covered almost 20 plays, each tested with a very detailed 10 question quiz.  I remember how I faithfully read and studied the first play and was shocked when I only got six of the ten questions.  The professor had a pattern.  Half of the questions could be easily answered with a fair reading of the play.  One question was always about a very obscure detail that kept most people from getting a perfect 10, and the other four questions divided the class between those who really got into the play and those who didn’t.

I realized a quick reading the night before class wasn’t going to cut it, so I went to the library and got each play on LP.  They came in boxed sets of 3-4 discs.  The records were old and scratchy, but usable.  This was in the early 1980s.  I’d play the records while reading the play – it took hours.  After that I always got perfect 10s on those quizzes.  Now my magic retention rate only worked if I faithfully followed the words on the page while listening to the same words spoken.  Reading or listening by itself didn’t work.  Other than these two Shakespeare courses I never used this learning technique again in school.

However, when I started using my ears as my main sensory input for reading back in 2002, I started playing around, experimenting with each form of input.  I paid attention to what I noticed when just reading with my eyes.  Then I paid attention to what I noticed, just from listening with my ears.   I would then read something I had just listened to, or vice versa.  Each time I’d found details I had missed with the opposite method.  I discovered what the eyes learned was different from what the ears remembered.

One book I did this experiment on was Emma by Jane Austen, a book I was reading for a book club.  I listened for an hour.  Then I reread that hour with my eyes.  Listening was great for getting a sense of character and dramatic action, but it was poor on retaining words.  Austen immediately introduced too many characters – that made the story confusing.   Each character live in a house with a name, often set in a different village, with another name to remember, so I was overwhelmed by people and place names.  Seeing all those names in print helped clear up many issues. 

Again, I concluded that to study a piece of writing for academic purposes, I needed to see it with my eyes if I wanted to memorize words and spellings.  However, by listening, I experienced the nuances of conflict, characterization and plot better.  Hearing stories helped me to to imagine 3D action and settings.  I saw color and details better when I heard the words rather than read them. 

Listening, which is far slower than reading, forced me to concentrate on the subject, and that was especially reinforced when I watched the words while also listening to them.  Seeing a word and hearing it made me think about it’s pronunciation and spelling more than when I just read it with my eyes.  But listening alone is terrible for learning spelling.  There are many books I’ve only heard that I have no idea how to spell the character’s names. 

I think these observations are key to the success of future etextbooks.  Strangely enough, the Kindle now offers to read books to their owners, but they also allow Kindle users to play MP3 or Audible.com audio books while reading, although I think few people take advantage of this feature.  I sold my Kindle 1.0 to my friend who prefers to read with her eyes and loves to travel, but I do have the Kindle reader software on my iPod touch and do some reading with it.  However, iPods can’t multitask, so I have to play the audio book on my Zune and read it on the iPod touch.

From this one anecdote you might surmise that the Kindle DX will make a great etextbook, but I’m not so sure.  I found the e-ink technology clumsy for random reading, which is often what people do when they study.  Also, kids studying will be taking notes for writing papers or passing tests, so I think the future of etextbooks will be on netbooks, and those little devices are great at multitasking, allow reading and note taking and even cutting and pasting of quotes.

To really memorize details for a studied subject, I think you need to see it, hear it, and then write about it.  iPhones and Kindles don’t help here.  When I write this blog I keep a browser window open, with tabs to Google, Wikipedia and OneLook (a dictionary gateway site).

The computer literacy movement of the 1980s promised so much but delivered so damn little.  I’ve always wondered why programmers couldn’t write programs that taught math.  Kids will play video games for hours, games that mesmerize them into deep rapt attention, tricking them into learning a myriad of details from game play.  Teaching mathematics via interactive computer animation should be a no brainer, but most software that attempted the job came up with dull drills and tedious flash cards.  That doesn’t mean the concept of computer aided learning is a bust.  Anyone who has played with Mathematica should shout they’ve seen the light.

What’s needed is a synthesis of many learning techniques and technologies.  First, I think etextbooks won’t be ebooks.  That’s way too lame.  Etextbooks should combine video lectures, film clips, audio, computer CGI, and photos to go with old fashion black on white text, plus add tests, quizzes, puzzles, word problems, virtual worlds, games and any other interactive method to get kids to practice math.

If I had the money and resources to create etextbook on mathematics I would build my course around the history of math.  I’d take it from anthropological ancient history to theoretical here and now.  But I’d build it as a suite of components, usable on different platforms in different study environments.  So if the user only wanted voice, in iPod mode, they could spin through the centuries to find MP3 podcasts about the history of math.  If they were in a mood to play with their Nintendo DS, they could load up a mathematical game, or install a challenging game app on their iPhone.  If they were in the mood for a documentary, I’d let them stream video to their television sets.  Hell, I’d even offer to print puzzles for when they have to sit on the pot.

I’d also find some way to create a scoring system, especially one that could be tied to a Elo type rating system, like they use in chess, so students would feel challenged to compete.  It would be great if the American Mathematical Society had a way to rank people’s knowledge of the various Mathematics Subject Classifications.   Kids love video games because they enjoy beating friends with a specialized skill, and they also love competing against a computer too.  Traditional schooling is so boring and passive. Etextbooks need the challenge of competition, but it would be so tired if all they did was offer time competitions on who could finish solving ten equations first.

What if a Civilization type game required various mathematical skills to play, so if a student wanted to build a pyramid in the game he’d need to know geometry, or if she wanted her little Sims to sail across an ocean, she’d have to use celestial navigation to advance the game.

In other words, if publishers are only going to take the text from their printed books and put it in an ebook, that’s not going to work.  Even if the Kindle had full color and resolution to match the printed page, so a Kindle book could contain all the photos and illustrations of the real textbook, I still don’t think it will be equal to using paper volumes.  Modern textbooks are gorgeous compared to what I remember I had to use as a kid.  If I had the choice between 5 books, weighing 40 pounds, and 1 Kindle weighing less than a single pound, I’m afraid I’d shoulder the burden, because real textbooks are far easier to use, and much more spectacular to look at.  I kid you not.  If you haven’t seen a text in forty years, go find a kid and look at theirs.

When I owned my Kindle and subscribed to Time magazine, I found it easiest to read from page one to page last, and endure the time it took to page past articles I didn’t want to read.  There were navigation links, but between flipping back to the table of contents and to an article to see if I wanted to read it, it was just easier to stay in linear mode of page, page, page, page….

Etextbooks will only be better if they offer a variety of ways to study.  Ultimately, I don’t think individual etextbooks will be the answer.  I think students will subscribe to an online textbook service, and pay $4.99-$19.99 a month per course, and access a myriad of multimedia features, paying about the same as buying a textbook for a one semester course.

The old way to going to college involved scheduling a class with a professor and studying a book together in a room with other students for a few months.  Online instruction means studying on your own with a professor you might never meet who shepherds unseen students through a system of requirements.  Wouldn’t you prefer a textbook service that gave you podcasts to listen to at the gym or grocery store or while doing the dishes, and video lectures to watch before bedtime, and online games to play against your classmates, and ebooks to read on your iPhone at break at work.  Local college professors may stop lecturing, and end up becoming educational gurus who help their students find their way to enlightenment in the subjects they paid to master.

The textbook of the future will have to be very flexible.  I don’t even go to school, but I study all the time.  I just finished the audio book The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg about cosmology of the early universe just after the big bang.  I’m about to read the hardback and listen to the audio book of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which will go deeper into many documentaries I’ve been watching lately on The Science Channel and PBS, but I also want something more systematic, so I’m going to get a DVD set or two from The Teaching Company.  Their great DVD courses would be fantastic to keep on a netbook.

The more I study cosmology and physics, the more I feel the need to study mathematics.  I wish I could find something like the RosettaStone language courses to help me.  I also wish I had something that tested and rated my knowledge.  I don’t feel the need to go back to college and major in physics, but if an astronomical association offered online testing, with amateur rankings, I might be tempted by their challenge.  Our K-12 upbringing made most of us to hate learning, mainly because they made gaining knowledge all about passing crappy tests.  Video games are a form of test taking, a fun kind, that addict kids.

It’s a shame that most adults study new subjects like snacking on potato chips.  We constantly nibble on information but are never challenged to do anything with our empty data calories.  People will spend 60 hours a week playing online video games that require an amazing amount of study just to slay imaginary dragons or build pretend lives in Second Life.  Why not set up servers and let players build an historically accurate virtual Tudor England, so they could apply their hobby history scholarship to a challenge.  What if teachers told their students, “Your homework for this week is to create a virtual Mayflower, and show why the Puritans came to America.  Each of you must flesh out one historical character and show that person in twenty scenes from their life interacting with the characters your classmates create.  Please tell you’re parents they aren’t allowed to play this week.”

See why I think existing invention of the textbook shouldn’t be converted into a gadget that only displays electronic words and images on an electronic page because it’s lighter than a bulky book?  Modern textbooks are already bursting their bindings trying to become multimedia experiences.  E-ink would be a huge step backwards.  Go find a 2009 textbook, and flip through it.  What I’m saying will be obvious.  It will also be obvious that the weight of all the knowledge within that tome won’t be easily consumed by your darling rug rat.  Today’s kids chow down on HD video and 1080p Xbox games.  The Sirens of virtual worlds call to kids and the printed black letter on white paper, or gray e-ink, just won’t charm them.

JWH – 7/3/9   

Going Paperless 7 – Junk Mail

It’s been over a year since I started on the paperless path and my life is still full of paper.  I’ve spent this Sunday shredding files with personal information.  When I started this project I was mostly concerned with the tons of magazines I was getting in the mail each month.  Now my mailbox is mostly magazine free, but my paper recycling bucket has plenty of paper in it every week.  After canceling magazines I loved, my mailbox is still full of crap that I never wanted.

Since we bought the house my wife grew up in, we get mail for her dead parents, and after my mom died, I had all her mail forwarded here, and between our five names we get piles of unwanted mail.  Hell, we got a letter the other day for a man who lived in the house before my wife’s folks bought it in 1961.  We also get mail for my wife’s two brothers and several of their children.  And we get mail for two very special people: occupant and resident.

I’ve tried to write some of the regular senders and inform them about the deceased, but many types of mail we get are due to our names being on endless lists.  Lists that are sold from one marketing company to another.  It’s harder to fight junk mail marketing than unsolicited phone calls because there is no official federal do not mail registry, like the National Do Not Call Registry.  (There is a campaign, Do Not Mail, that’s collecting signatures for a petition for the federal government to create a Do Not Mail service like the National Do Not Call Registry.)

The Direct Marketing Association does offer DMAchoice.org.  Of course, these are the people trying to help businesses sell you stuff, but they claim they want to develop good relations between customers and sellers, so you can register for what you don’t want or what you do.  However, many marketing companies do not belong to the DMA.

I have found a number of other web sites with good advice on how to reduce the flow of junk mail:

There are pay services that will do some of this work for you, but I couldn’t find enough information about them to risk hiring them.  All these advice sites require work, and some of the advice requires contacting agencies and giving them your SSN.  I’m still mentally debating that.

I have joined DMAchoice.org but it’s not simple to use like the National Do Not Call Registry, but it is helpful.  DMAchoice divides junk mail into four categories:  Credit Offers, Catalogs, Magazine Offers and Other Mail Offers.  This service helps you to add or remove your address from hundred of member companies mailing lists, or it helps get you onto lists that warns companies not to market to you at all.  But it’s not perfect.  Any company that you buy from, or subscribe to, will continue to send sales offers to you.  For example, I buy from L. L. Bean, and I get catalogs all the time in the mail, and emails about specials.  And my wife would probably get mad at me if I canceled the J. C. Penny’s sale catalogs.  DMAchoice.org expects you to take notes on what you get in the mail and work carefully to thin things out.  Also, DMAchoice.org has a service to stop junk mail to deceased recipients.

I get a lot less mail than I did a year ago.  Because I quit subscribing to magazines, I get far fewer offers in the mail.  I’ve even had a rare day of getting no mail whatsoever, and on many days my red Netflix envelope is the only thing in the box.  I bet my mailman loves me, if he’s not worried about losing his job.  If only I could only convince him not to deliver those weekly bundle of local ads.

Going paperless takes work, a lot of work.  Maybe a year from now I’ll have the junk mail under control.  Not only will that save trees, keep carbon out of the atmosphere, but it will save me time.  I’ve already saved a lot of time by paying bills automatically through bank drafts, so most of the mail I do process now is junk mail.  However, I still get lots of printouts from Blue Cross Blue Shield after each doctor’s visit, and those monthly statements from my banks.  And some companies that I pay by bank draft want to send me their statements anyway, which is a total waste.

My paper recycle bin will always have paper in it because of product packaging, but the amount I put out by the curb gets smaller over time.  In today’s society where most people have a computer, there’s little reason to deal with the printed word.  Email has replaced the letter, and now the web is replacing catalog shopping.  I read far more news stories on the web than I do in magazines and newspapers.  Instead of printing out copies of things I want to save, I just make a .pdf and file it away.  Eventually, I think most of the communications we get in our mailbox can be processed digitally, including any junk mail that we might actually want.

JWH – 3/29/9

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