Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Convert Clickfree Automatic Backup Drive to External Hard Drive

I have a Clickfree HD10373 Automated Backup drive that I have hated for basically as long as I have had it.

The software was not, as advertised, "click free," and it attempted to sell me something that I didn't want.  No deal.

I recently upgraded my computer, and wanted to see if it was possible to use the Clickfree as a straightforward external hard drive.  Turns out it is, but it's complicated.  The chip in the Clickfree behaves as if it were a CD drive, and auto-runs the software on it no matter what you do to the hard drive itself.  So you have to flash the chip to get it to act like a regular external hard drive.

I used the instructions at this site to do it.  Your warranty is voided, of course, but mine had expired anyway.

The exact model I had is HD10373. In the flashing utility, it showed up as a 551/539 series chip, if I remember correctly. The instructions say to look out if it says anything other than 539, but I tried it anyway.  The link on those instructions for the driver doesn't work, but if you look on that site, you will find the one you need.

Despite the instructions, I used windows disk manager to create the volume, and started up Windows 10 File History.  So far, no problems, and I'll update if there are any.

The warnings in those instructions are important.  Don't do it unless you are willing to lose everything on the drive, and brick the drive itself.  But it worked for me.

Friday, August 28, 2015

10 reasons your lawyer is taking so long, and what to do about it

Lawyers are notoriously slow.  Here are 10 tips that help you understand why.

You only have one lawyer, but the lawyer has dozens of clients.  Depending on the type of lawyer, "dozens" might be an underestimation.

Therefore, lawyers have to prioritize.  Everyone is going to do it differently, but here are a few of the things that are going to get prioritized:

  1. If your lawyer is taking a long time to do your file, then they are probably taking a long time to do a lot of files, and they will probably want to address all of the files older than yours before they get to yours.  That's only fair.
  2. Lawyers are occasionally contacted by the Law Society or Bar Association in their jurisdiction.  Failing to respond in a timely matter to those organizations can result in professional discipline, up to and including disbarment.  Those requests get prioritized.
  3. Lawyers are occasionally ordered to do certain things by certain dates by the courts.  Failure to meet those obligations would put them in contempt of court, which is a serious problem.  Orders from courts get priority.
  4. Lawyers often have to do things that require them to be in a certain place at a certain time, such as trials, hearings, questionings, and those things can take a considerable amount of time both to do them and to prepare for them.  Once it's scheduled, there's no way around it: preparation and attendance get priority over non-scheduled activities.  And preparation general takes just as long as the hearing itself.
  5. Lawyers often have to do things that must be done by a certain deadline, or they face the risk of being personally liable to their own clients for not doing it.  Those things get priority.
  6. Lawyers are always also attempting to find more work. A steady income depends on a steady flow of work, which means that they cannot ever stop taking on new clients, in addition to working for the clients they already have. Finding and selling yourself to new clients takes time and effort.
  7. Emergencies happen.  Sometimes a lawyer will cover for a friend or colleague who falls ill, sometimes one of their other clients has an emergency.  And for a lawyer, an "emergency" might be something that doesn't happen for two weeks, but a two day special chambers application is essentially one week of work.
  8. Lawyers have paperwork to do, not all of which is billable.  A good estimate is that an experienced lawyer will be working on billable matters for the clients no more than 2/3 of the time they are working.  And if they are a small or solo practitioner like me, they are directly responsible for a greater portion of the administrative work, so that ratio goes down.  But if they don't bill, they can't eat, and they are no use to anybody, so invoicing in particular gets priority.
  9. A great portion of the lawyer's time will be spent responding to communications, and attempting to keep people informed. That has real value to each individual client, so it should be prioritized, but it also means that the actual legal work takes longer.
  10. This is not an issue of prioritization, but it is a major cause of delays: Often, steps can't be taken without the cooperation of the lawyer or party on the other side, and they are just as busy, or busier.  So your matter is put on hold until the other side is ready.  For example, finding a date that everyone can meet, particularly if "everyone" includes a judge, can cause major delays.
How bad is the problem of communications, and paperwork, and emergencies, and new clients interrupting what the lawyer would otherwise do in a day?  When I was an articling student, I asked one of the partners.  She said "I come in with 10 things I want to do that day, and I'm lucky if at the end of the day I have completed one."

So what should you do?  My advice is to write your lawyer a short email, that says three things:

  1. I know you're busy.
  2. What can I do to help move my file along?
  3. What is the next step, and when can I expect it to happen?
That will let the lawyer know that you are not blaming them or angry.  No one likes talking to people who are angry with them.  It will let them know that you are willing to help, which makes them feel like you are on their side.  And it forces them to think about your matter, and to create an artificial deadline for it, which might motivate them to prioritize it, because they have made you a promise, and they like you, because you are nice.

But remember, the gears of justice grind slowly.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

VPN for Solo Practitioners

Image taken from VPNBook.com
You will have heard that you shouldn't use public wi-fi connections to transmit confidential
information.  The exception is that if  you connect to a virtual private network (VPN) over the wi-fi connection, your data will be encrypted, and protected from snooping.

Most solo practitioners will not have a dedicated server available to connect to as a VPN server, and even if they do most won't have the technical expertise necessary to configure it properly.

There are alternatives available, such as VPNBook, which is free to use, and allows you to create a VPN connection to a server, and use that connection to access the internet, making it impossible for people on the same free wifi as you to snoop your data.

I installed and tested it today and I was pleasantly surprised.  The install process was painless, and it works well.  I had to take a couple of extra steps to get it to work on Windows 10, but nothing major.

With that sort of free VPN service, solo practitioners have another way to compete with larger organizations despite having fewer resources.

The down side is that if you are using a free VPN service instead of accessing your own computers via VPN, you need to trust the organization from which you are receiving the service. VPNBook claims that they don't save any user data except access logs which are deleted every few weeks.  You have to trust them on that.

VPNBook uses the OpenVPN client, which provides a degree of comfort because it is possible to verify that the connection software does not pose a risk to the machine it's installed on.

But the remaining risk means that even if you are using a VPN service like VPNBook, you should still be taking the sort of precautions necessary on free wifi networks anyway, such as ensuring all of your communications are encrypted by using SSL for connections to email servers and HTTPS for connections to web applications.

Free VPN is not a perfect solution, but it has the advantage that if you make a mistake and send data over an un-encrypted connection on free wifi, the total number of people who can potentially snoop the data is one, you know exactly who they are, and all they know about you is your ip address.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Electronic signatures in Alberta

What can you use an electronic signature for in Alberta?  The easier-to-answer question is what can you NOT use an electronic signature for in Alberta.

Taking a quick look at the Electronic Transactions Act of Alberta, here's what you learn:

You can't use an electronic signature if

  • there is some other law or a regulation that says explicitly you can't use an electronic signature or that this law doesn't apply. A good reason to ask a lawyer to make sure there isn't an exception that applies to you.  If you are dealing with private or medical information, the chances are higher.
  • the thing you are doing is under the authority of the Legislative Assembly Act
  • it is a will or an amendment to a will, or has to do with a trust created in one of those
  • it is an enduring power of attorney
  • it is a personal directive
  • it is a guarantee
  • it is a record that creates or transfers an interest in land, like a transfer or a mortgage
  • it is a negotiable instrument, like a cheque
Under most other circumstances, an electronic signature is just fine.

What constitutes an electronic signature depends on the circumstances.  Public bodies can set out their own requirements.  For everyone else, it is essentially data that is stored and associated with an electronic record that makes it possible to figure out who signed, and what they signed. How sure you have to be depends on the jurisdiction. Federal regulations are more severe than Alberta's.

The gold standard, of course, is an electronic signature using paired key encryption, with key pairs issued by a publicly registered certificate authority.  But I've never actually seen anyone use that standard.

Because there is no requirement for contracts to be signed (remember, verbal contracts are real contracts, and they involve no signature), there is no requirement for an electronic "signature" in order to electronically agree to a contract. All that is required is some action intended to result in electronic communication. Clicking "I agree", for example. However, to enforce a contract in court you will need to be able to prove who agreed to the contract.  So real electronic signatures may still be a good idea.

Some things to think about when considering electronic signatures:
  1. Can you prove who controls the email address?
  2. Can you prove they are the only person with access to it?
  3. Does your electronic signature provider (if any) provide you with everything you need to prove who signed and what they signed, even if the electronic signature provider goes out of business?
  4. Does your electronic signature provider (if any) meet the same obligations you have under privacy law and professional ethics?

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Advanced Document Automation in the Cloud

So you want to do document automation, because everyone says that's the future.  But you want to do it in the cloud, with google docs.  And you want to be able to do more than a mail merge.  You need advanced features like nested lists of unknown length.

You need UltraDox and Cognito Forms.

UltraDox is... well... it deserves its own series of blog posts for the things it can do.  It's very wide-ranging.

For today, the important thing is that it allows you to create an "UltraDoc" workflow in Google Drive that will take data and use it to fill in fields in a Google Doc, and then save that Google Doc to a location on you google drive.  Again, only one of MANY things it will do, but the important one for our purposes today.

For testing purposes, I created a google docs document that looked like this:
This is a list of authors and books generated by ${Username}.
${foreach Authors author}
${author.AuthorName} has written
${foreach author.Books book}${book.Title}${if book.HasYear}(${book.Year}), which ${Username} really liked${end}
No plug-ins required, nothing fancy.  Just type that into your google document.

Now, I know that is going to look like Gibberish to people who haven't done any coding.  And yes, there is going to be a learning curve between where you are and where you need to be if you want to get into document automation.  But let me re-state the above in human language, so that you can compare, and see that the code is not quite as mysterious when you understand the syntax:

This is a list of authors and books generated by (Insert the username field here).
(There will be a list of Authors.  For each one...)
   (Insert Authorname field here) has written
   (There will be a list of Books.  For each one...)
      (insert the book title here)(If the user has indicated that the book has a year, include the following)(insert the year of the book here), which (Inster the username field here) really liked(That is the end of what should be inserted if the book has a year)
(That is the end of what should be inserted for each book)
(That is the end of what should be inserted for each author)

You can see that this document requires a nested loop, which is a relatively advanced feature.  The document doesn't know how many authors it is going to include before it is generated, and it doesn't know how many books each author is going to have.

I then created an UltraDoc that consists of two blocks: create PDF from Google Doc Template, and Upload PDF to Google Drive Folder.  I could also have opted to email, or do any number of other things.

I then went into Cognito Forms, and used their "repeating section" feature (which, I point out, is the only place that I found this feature exists, so kudos to Cognito Forms).  I created a Username text field, and then a repeating section called Authors.  Within authors, I created an Author Name text field, and then a repeating section called Books.  Within books, I created a text field for the name and the year, and a checkbox (yes/no) for whether it had a year.

To make sure that I was using the right field names, I configured the submit button on the Cognito Form to send JSON data to a temporary webhook at RequestBin.

Once I had the names for the fields that Cognito Forms was going to send sorted out, I went into the File-Intergrate menu in Ultradox and got the webhook address for running the UltraDoc workflow.  I put that into the "Send JSON Data to URL" option in Cognito Forms.  I then went into Cognito Forms and created a test entry.

Immediately, the uploaded PDF version of my list of authors was uploaded to my google drive folder.

And it just worked.  Not even an error.

What do you have to pay for this capability?

Both services offer tiered subscriptions.  The lowest level for Cognito Forms is free, but limits the number of users to 1 and the number of documents to 500 per month.  The lowest level of UltraDox is $5.00/month for one user, 100 documents, and 250 automated emails.

So if you're looking for a way to get started, and you don't anticipate needing hundreds of automatically generated documents per month, you can get into advanced document automation for the overwhelming expense of approximately $60/year.

That is a degree of magnitude less than what the leading locally-installed document automation solutions will go for.

And the leading document generation tools will not allow you to integrate their forms into your wordpress site, or have the data sent to a webhook at Zapier and integrated with lookups from Google Sheets to grab additional client data, or.. or... or... the list goes on.

With the additional workflow capabilities of UltraDox, which I imagine I'll get to in a future post, the possibilities are truly remarkable.