February 21, 2009

Surviving An Audit: Two Lies and Three Tips

The Two Lies of Auditing
1. Auditor (shaking hands) : I'm here to help.
2. Me (faking a smile): I'm glad to see you.
--- my first encounter with an auditor (1988)

Who wants to get audited? That's not many hands. Getting audited is a hassle. It doesn't matter whether this happens to you personally or to your business. Audit's take time and money. And raise your blood pressure. Much like going through airline security even after removing your shoes and belt.

Then, there's fear of criticism (#2 on Napoleon Hill's list). We're decent, honest people making our way through life as best we can. We don't want to be told we've made mistakes. We're not back in school. We don't want to get graded. We don't want to find that we may have been deceiving ourselves.

There's a bright side, though. We can't fix what we don't know is broken. A fresh look from an outside perspective can help us improve.

Three Tips
I've dealt with three types of auditors over the years --- internal, external, governmental --- and survived. Here are three tips:
  1. Be nice
  2. Be brief
  3. Be clear
The same points work with people in general.

Be Nice
Auditors are people and people are generally nice. They're doing their jobs too. They've got too much to do and too little time. Just like you. Be nice to them. Treat them the way you'd want to be treated. Better still, treat them the way they want to be treated. Best of all, being nice is free. But you may need to smile when you'd rather not.

Be Brief
Some people love talking. That's a problem for time management and audits. You can inadvertently make statements that lead to unnecessary scrutiny.

When we went to the US for Valentine's Day, the customs agent asked if we had any food. Having learned from a prior experience, I said we had snacks. He asked if we had any fruit. My wife, Sharmila, said we had two bananas and three pears. He confiscated the pears (!?!) and let us go. I could have mentioned our pet rabbit (considered food by some) and risked a full vehicle search.

Be Clear
Although we communicate from birth, our messages get misunderstood. Attempting to clarify can make matters worse. Putting your answers in writing helps. This takes more time but that's good because you think more. You can get the replies reviewed before you send them. You save the auditor time and create records for future reference.

A favourable audit gives us confidence by confirming what we hoped all along: we're okay. Until next time.



February 14, 2009

The Weirdest Valentine's Day

The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love. --- Margaret Atwood

What happens when Valentine's Day follows Friday the 13th? 

For some, loss of love, the 4th basic fear identified by Napoleon Hill over 70 years ago. Others say that February 14 eliminated that fear. 

In some workshops you're asked to bond by revealing something no one else knows about you. Would you believe a mild-mannered actuary went to a heavy metal and hard rock concert for Valentine's Day?

Stone Deaf
Back in 1988, my Valentine was far away in Thunder Bay. So I spent the evening with Motorhead and Alice Cooper at the Ottawa Civic Centre, a pairing better suited to Halloween. 

Motorhead was so loud that I could barely tell what Lemmy was singing. In an ode to where they were, they changed the chorus of Stone Deaf in the USA to Stone Deaf in Ontario. After they finished, we were. Truth in advertising. They could have also changed the title to Tone Deaf in Ontario.

Alice Cooper
Headliner Alice Cooper played enough classics to please the crowd. To my disappointment, he skipped my two favourite albums from the days before iPods and CDs, From The Inside (perspectives from a lunatic asylum, like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) and Flush The Fashion (an atypical, catchy collection).

Twenty-one years later we're together ... visiting Pittsburgh. Which one's weirder? 

Happy Valentine's Day. 


February 8, 2009

Your Life Expectancy Exceeds 1 Billion Seconds

There's never enough time, unless you're serving it.
--- Malcolm Forbes

What's a billion? Some say a million million (1,000,000,000,000 or 1 followed by 12 zeroes) but we'll use 1,000 million (1,000,000,000 or 1 followed by "only" 9 zeroes). Either way, that's a big number.

As a kid, I marvelled at McDonalds, which showed how many billion of burgers they served. How could that be possible? When the signs changed to "Billions and Billions Served", I lost interest.

Not True
How can we visualize a billion? An advisor pulled these tidbits from a recent webcast from a mutual fund company
  • a billion seconds ago: The Beatles
  • a billion minutes ago: Jesus Christ
  • a billion hours ago: the stone age
  • a billion days ago: before the first two-leggers
  • a billion dollars ago: about 8 hours of US government spending
What's their point? $1,000,000,000 isn't much? Not true for most of us. It's easy to spend/lose a billion dollars? Hardly inspiring.
A billion here and a billion there, and soon you're talking about real money.
--- Everett Dirksen
The original source is apparently an advertising agency. I can't track them down. Strange. You'd think the creators would want credit. I wanted to see the visuals they used. Instead, I found inaccuracies. Repeated and repeated. But still wrong. 

Here is an updated list using 2009 as the reference:
  • 1 billion seconds: 31.7 years (1977 --- well after the breakup of The Beatles)
  • 1 billion minutes: 1,901 years (108  --- well after the death of Jesus)
  • 1 billion hours: 114,080 years (even before the invention of plasma TVs)
If you're not sure how to do these calculations, use the Google calculator. Just type the conversion you want as your search string. For example, convert 1 billion seconds to years. Yes, it is that simple.

No one who is young is ever going to be old.
--- John Steinbeck
Did you know that a billion seconds is so short? 

If you're 32, you're already a billionaire in seconds lived. Normal life expectancy easily exceeds two billion seconds. Measuring our remaining lifetimes in seconds shows how wealthy we are. We have so much time to invest. Or squander.



February 1, 2009

PersonalBrain 5: Data to Information to Wisdom

If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time. --- George Carlin

You can't have everything. Where would you put it? --- Stephen Wright

In the digital world, we can collect more and more without taking up much physical space.

We collect so much stuff we can digitize. Where do we put it? On ever-larger hard disks. How do we find items? With desktop search tools like Google Desktop Search. Here's the big question: how do we organize the data in ways with meaning to us.

Say you saw or read The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by Irish writer John Boyne and want to store these related items
Where do you put them on your computer? Under the author? Under categories (book review under Books, movie links under Movie)? Whatever you decide, will you remember? Will you be consistent?

Suppose you see a connection between Striped Pyjamas and
You'll probably find other interesting items along the way. The film Australia can connect to Rabbit-Proof Fence (also deals with children forcibly taken away in that country), which connects to Peter Gabriel, who composed the soundtrack. In turn, Peter can be connected to the musical group Genesis to which he belonged or to Witness which targets human rights violations.

You quickly end up with an messy, scattered collection.

We see different connections. We want to find items we saw earlier, but can't easily find again. What can we do?

PersonalBrain 5
Imagine searching for years for something that might not exist. Then finding it. That's PersonalBrain, a hierarchy-free database. You put data (called "thoughts") anywhere you want and create links to show the relationships with other thoughts. You can add or change links later. You can search too. Your collection (called a "brain") can include photos and other attachments.

I started testing version 4.5, then became a beta tester for v5 which has now been released. Version 5 is definitely better. I especially like the easier way items can be tagged.

You get peace of mind when you know you can find what you want when you want. I like the following
  • fast and easy to use (after watching an online tutorial)
  • copying web pages (besides saving the link, I paste the page content and then highlight selected lines for easy future reference even if the source webpage disappears)
  • portable: my files were on a memory stick but are now on an encrypted external hard drive which I move among computers (you install PersonalBrain on the portable device)
  • you can move files into your "brain"
  • uses the same file structure as your operating system, which allows you to use other search tools like Google Desktop Search
  • ongoing updates (every few weeks)
  • excellent online tutorials and live webinars
  • multiple uses: file organization, brainstorming or mindmapping, capturing web snippets, client relationship management
There's lots more that I've yet to explore. I've got several "brains": general, contacts, projects and writing. PersonalBrain makes a great repository for quotations but I put mine online at Spark Insight so you can use them too.

The Main Drawback
These days, you can find many powerful applications that are free or low cost. PersonalBrain comes in three editions
  • Free ($0): may work well for simple needs
  • Core ($150 US): the version most users would likely want
  • Pro ($250 US): even lets you publish your "brains" online
You can only buy online from the company and they don't have sales. Luckily, you can test-drive the Pro version for free. After 30 days, you're downgraded to the Free level. You don't lose anything you've done, but are restricted in what you can do. I got hooked fast and bought Pro.

I experimented with other tools
  • Evernote: interesting online tool but raises concerns about confidentiality, speed and access through corporate firewalls
  • Clipmarks: online tool captures web snippets (too limited)
  • MindJet MindManager (too specialized and for other purposes)
  • storing files in Windows folders and locating items with desktop searches (too hierarchical)
PersonalBrain is a weird name. Try using it in a sentence and see if anyone can understand you. Visual Brain or Virtual Brain are more descriptive. There's plenty more to explore. You know how most computer-based presentations follow a linear pattern? Well, PersonalBrain lets you select relevant material instantly. Think of the impact.

What a way to organize data into information. As you add more and create links, you'll see patterns you missed before and gain wisdom. Highly recommended.

Podcast Episode 4 (10:10)

direct download | Internet Archive page