Jul 292008

I’m slowly gaining ground in the war against paper.  I’m a packrat, which immediately calls into question the structural integrity of my house and garage.  However, I’ve discovered that technology transcends the limitations of corporeal space.  I can still hoard precious tidbits for posterity in digital form without risking premature burial under collapsing stacks of old bills.  I scan the pages that I just know I will need to review again in a few years and store them on a network-attached hard disk.

Welcome to the new me: I’m a digital packrat.

I hear your smirks and chuckles, but to those who understand packratting, the digital difference cannot be understated. How often do you get to say “Hey, I didn’t know we had carpet in here!”

Digitization is helping to reduce the paper pileup, but it still takes time to do the scanning. Not that storage is really an issue, but pixels that look like text take up a lot more space than actual text. 

Why not use paperless billing?  Most of the major credit card vendors now offer some sort of online alternative to sending trees through the mail.  Most of them even offer the documents in PDF format.

What I don’t like about paperless billing is that it requires that you log into each individual bank’s web site to retrieve your bill.  It takes time and effort to go get that bill each month, from a different location and menu tree for each bank. Letting the paper bill come to me and scanning it when I get around to it seems like much less of my energy than running all over creation to pluck one apple from every orchard.

Email delivery might work, but then again I’m a techie who isn’t afraid of a “Save Attachment as…” dialog. I don’t know of many banks that offer to send bills electronically by email.

What would be really nice is if the monthly statements for all my recurring bills could be deposited into a storage location of my choice, online or on my local machine or network.  I’d set up a different “drop zone” for each vendor and map that to a location on my hard disk (my home network hard disk, actually).  The vendor could write documents into the drop zone I created for them, but nothing more.  They can’t read, delete, or modify anything else, and they don’t have direct access to my local hard disk.  The list of drop zones is only visible to me.  I wouldn’t have to do anything to receive my monthly statements, store them in location(s) convenient to me, and ensure data safety through redundant storage.  Packrat heaven!

Microsoft’s Live Mesh already implements nearly everything required for this scenario to work. You can define a folder in Live Mesh that is accessible only to certain Live Mesh users, and Live Mesh will take care of replicating that folder to local storage on devices you indicate. So, conceptually, I could create a different Live Mesh folder for each vendor, configure the Live Mesh folder to replicate to a local directory on my home network, and invite the vendors write the monthly statements into their respective folders.  My home network could even be offline at the time a vendor writes a new statement to a Mesh folder – the mesh will sync up as soon as my network is online again and deliver the new documents that are missing from the local copy.

The missing piece is write-only access to a Mesh folder.  The current public beta of Live Mesh does not appear to support granting someone write only access to a Live Mesh shared object, such as a folder.  If that can be taken care of, then the only remaining piece to solve is to convince my banks and vendors to update their billing systems to deliver monthly statements into my Live Mesh drop zones.  Compared to getting new features into a Microsoft product, that should be a piece of cake.  ;>

Digital packrats of the world, unite!

  6 Responses to “Live Mesh Wishlist: Paperless Billing Statements”

  1. Hey Danny, you should come and live with us in Norway! :)

    Here I often sign (online) an agreement allowing my creditors to electronically charge my account up to a specified limit per month.

    It is also possible to have the invoice delivered electronically through my bank. I can choose to have them send me an e-mail reminding me that a new bill has arrived.

    But for businesses, paper bills are still the most common.

    …which is nice for me, because where I work we have a system to handle all that… http://paperless.no/ allows businesses to scan all documents and track their flow throughout their organisations up to the point where we let the accounting system know about the invoice. We have some ideas for the next logical step, although I am not at liberty to say at the moment… :P

    I am still more of an old-fashioned packrat. Sure, my photographs are all digital, but I collect comic books (I’ll never grow up!) and I like to keep those on paper.

  2. Hi Rune,

    We can do that here in the US as well – allow the vendor to automatically withdraw the monthly payment from your checking account. It’s called electronic check payment or electronic funds transfer (EFT) or somesuch.

    I use EFT for only one bill – the electric bill – because it fluctuates a lot and PG&E gets really ugly when you’re late on a payment.

    I don’t like using EFT to pay all my bills because in a sense it gives vendors access to your bank account. You’re trusting them to only withdraw the appropriate amount, and you’re trusting their security measures to make sure nobody else can get your bank info to make withdrawals for themselves. I trust individuals, but I’m wary of placing too much trust in corporations. I don’t like “pull” payments, as it feels too much like everybody has their hands in the till.

    I prefer “push” payments – paying bills electronically through my bank. I give my bank the vendor account number and mailing address and payment amount and my bank makes an EFT to the vendor. Most of the time, the payment never hits paper and clears in 1 to 2 days. Some vendors aren’t set up to receive “push” payments through EFT, so the bank then sends them a paper check through postal mail. Postage is at the bank’s expense (yay!), so they’re incentivized to get things off paper as much as possible.

    I set up automatic “push” payments through my bank for all my recurring fixed payments, such as mortgage. Most variable bills I pay using one-shot push payments too.

    I prefer push payments because it keeps me in control of to whom, how much, and when payments are made, and nobody but me has the ability to withdraw from my bank account.

    Anyway, this blog post was about delivery of the itemized billing statement, not about payment of the bill.

  3. I recognize myself in the digital packrat description.

    I have a “few” directories filled with snippets of code that no longer is useful, wisdom that I already have forgotten, jokes that weren’t that funny, and URLs to sites that no longer exist. I think I even have a index.html somewhere from when Yahoo was just a single page with a collection of links.
    Hell, I even collected my spam until it just became too much.

    I haven’t actually thought about digitizing all my receipts etc… not a bad idea… *googles for decent scanner and a cheap SAN system*

    Jokes aside, Mesh is interesting. We all see the need for perpetual non-local storage. “My Documents” helped a lot for content management, at least you no longer have to scour the entire disk to find all your “transfer-to-new-computer-worthy” files (well, atleast not in theory). Ideally, you just want that area to be accessible whereever you are, regardless of computer. It would be great not having to migrate your “ratpacks” every time you get a new piece of hardware.

    But, as you say… “I trust individuals, but I’m wary of placing too much trust in corporations.”

    How do I know that my files and their content are:
    – private and secure?
    – always available and never lost?
    – not held hostage by “show us the cash before you can access”?
    – not a subject to overpriced storage charges?

  4. Hi Lars,

    When shopping for scanners, look for auto paper feed. It really helps with multipage documents. I’ve used a few different scanner types – flat beds give great quality, but require a lot of babysitting to change pages. Our all-in-one fax machine has a pretty good scanner and sheet feeder on it, with scan-to-PC-over-network capability, but while it can scan color, its forte is really only monochrome scans.

    My fave is the Canon DR2050C It scans mutliple pages, in color, and scans both sides of the page at the same time! The bundled scan software writes PDFs and does OCR much faster than Adobe Acrobat.

    As to your Live Mesh questions:
    – private and secure? Look for info from the vendor on how data is stored and who does the security audits.

    – always available, never lost? Having the mesh replicate to storage on my local network takes care of most of that. As for access when away from home, look for service level agreements.

    – not held hostage by “show us the cash..”?
    – not subject to overpriced storage charges? Again, replicate to local storage. If the vendor changes policies or pricing in a way you don’t like, cancel the account and use a different vendor, replicating to the new cloud using your local storage. Live Mesh has some cool new services around it, but fundamentally cloud storage is already a commodity.


  5. I have a Fujitsu ScanSnap S510 on order – it should be faster than the DR2050C and scans at both sides too. It should arrive next week when we get back from holiday.

    Have tried HP 2840 all-in-one, but they never get their drivers right. USB scanning fails too often; network scanning never works and a lot of times the scanner is not recognized at all. Worse of all: the automatic feeder often is more like a paper eater.
    Printing is OK though, but I rather use my 9500 hdn for that :-)

    Storage is on my NAS. Pitty my UPS failed after 10 years of service, so when we return at the end of the week it’ll be online again.
    The really important stuff (indexed by LookOut) is on a VM on my laptop: easy to backup.


  6. […] Danny Thorpe wrote about this a while ago… time for someone to step up and do it! […]

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