The Milk Calendar

Every year around this time households in Ontario (and elsewhere in Canada, I believe), either through their local daily paper or other means, receive a copy of The Milk Calendar. Apparently this started back in 1974 but I only became conscious of it in the ’90s. Kathy and I had moved to Oxford, UK, in September of 1994 with little more than one suitcase each. We had a flat in the draughty, cinder-block, married-student accommodations in north Oxford. We didn’t know anyone, and we really aren’t predisposed to meeting and making new friends (though despite ourselves we did eventually discover the very best of friends). Dreary November and December days stumbled toward the holiday season. But with no funds for travel home or onward we knew we would be left to our own devices.

It must have been some time in December that the package arrived. A well-labelled and multi-stamped box from Kathy’s parents. The shipping label declared, unceremoniously, an itemized list of the “Christmas gifts” contained therein. Nothing grand, but we were so grateful to receive this bundle of cares and well-wishes. There may have been tears. It turned out, however, that the greatest gift was not in fact identified on the shipping label. Perhaps including it had been an afterthought. I’ve never asked. There amidst the crumbled newsprint used as packing material lay The Milk Calendar for 1995.

I’m sure we still have that calendar, though the recipes (yes, recipes!) it contained have long since been transferred to other media. What makes The Milk Calendar distinctive is that it always contains a set of recipes (at least one for each month) for dishes or desserts that are easy to make, taste great, and, naturally, involve milk somewhere in the instructions. What they don’t mention is how those recipes can transport you across time and space. In that slender calendar was the essence, or so we thought that winter, of Canada.

I don’t recall now how many of those recipes from the 1995 calendar we actually used more than once. But I’m fairly certain we did try each one at least once. I remember writing letters to Kathy’s mum to tell her about them (those were the days before email was ubiquitous).  Each one a reminder of how that calendar helped us beat off the damp chill of the English winter.

The Milk Calendar for 2011 arrived today. I can’t help wondering whether any Canadians far from home will be opening a package in a few weeks and discover within that things aren’t nearly so dreary as they imagined. I hope so.

More is easier

I have a tendency to follow the line that less is more. Maybe it’s because I’m short. I like short sentences. Short paragraphs. Bullet points. And one side of A-4, no more!

But sometimes I have to admit that more is better. What would Proust be like without the long, meandering, sentences that wrap you up and spin you round until your own thoughts are as mixed and muddled as the memories his narrator is dancing through? That must be the very effect he is aiming at. More is also sometimes better when it comes to software and learning.

I am continuing up my learning curve with Drupal. It’s getting better. (Well, I mean I’m getting better at it.) I’m discovering the efficiency that comes of managing multiple Drupal sites. I’ve got three live ones on the go at the moment as well a few test sites. For the live sites I’m trying to follow good practice. Part of that is implementing only what you know. The efficiency comes in when I am able to propagate something new across numerous sites. Repetition, as Proust knew well, has a strengthening effect on memory. My learning curve gains breadth as well as height.

Not so long ago I met up with a number of people who make their livings setting up and maintaining Drupal sites. One thing that struck me was how many of them stuck to a very constrained set of parameters for clients. But it makes perfect sense. Their objective is both to provide the client with what he or she wants/needs while at the same time taking advantage of whatever efficiencies they can build into the process in order to minimize the time and labour cost of developing a new site. One person I spoke to said he could produce a new site, top to bottom, in 15 minutes (he was using the Drush Package Manager, which I’m not even thinking about at the moment).

There is a sense in which the more opportunities you have to exercise a new skill the less cost that is needed to reach a satisfactory end point for any of those opportunities. Which sounds rather convoluted. It’s probably simpler to say that: less is more and more is less.

Writing club demise

Not so long ago I was enthusing about a local writing club. I had been involved in this group for a year and was looking forward to the new year (it’s meetings ran from October to July).  Alas, a cloud has formed over that group and I find myself at loose ends.

Perhaps I should have seen that cloud on the horizon. Information about the Writers’ Collective disappeared from the KPL website. My email queries to the person from KPL who had faithfully organised the collective for some years went unanswered. And then for two months in a row I received no writing submissions from the other members of my group thereby obviating the point of any meeting.

Maybe it’s me. Last year the group to which I had been assigned seemed vibrant for about 4 months and then folded. I shifted over to another group within the collective for the remainder of the year. Now it too seems to have folded. I know that the two originating groups have persisted despite difficulties with communications (they have been sharing their work directly rather than going through the KPL intermediary). Since I have met some of the members of those groups, I could ask them if I could join in. But I think I would feel a bit like a distant relative who is taken in out of some misplaced familial obligation. (That’s only how I would feel, not how I expect I would be treated.)

It turns out that writing is indeed a solitary activity. To which the corollary can now be added that writing clubs, at least in my experience, tend towards solitariness. Which, I suppose, must contribute to more writing. Or at least I shall take that as my lesson and move on.

Content still matters

Content is still king. I’m thinking here, initially, about blog posts but I also want to extend this thought to other forms of communication.

An old hobby-horse of mine is the empty, redirecting blog post: I can’t stand them. Almost nothing irritates me more than a blog post that is merely a “pointer” to some other content on the Internet. Worse still is the post that is a pointer to a blog post which itself is merely a pointer to some further content. And so on.

I am stressing merely there (and here) because I think there is a useful place for secondary and even tertiary communications. A post that merely points to some other post is little more than a contextless citation. A post that, in the course of making some point or other, provides a link to some supporting documentation or content about which it is commenting employs secondary communication.   There are even some sensible posts that are really tertiary communications surveying, often, a set of secondary communications. I can see the point of such posts or even such web pages though, yes, they tend to come from librarians.

But I would maintain that content, i.e. primary communication, is still king. Ultimately no matter how much fluttering you have (or need), communication is still about communicating content. And what is content? It might be an opinion (ideally backed up with reasons, but we can only hope). It might be substantive research. It might be reasoned argument, an amusing anecdote, a description, or a story.

I can illustrate this with the posts from this very blog. Looking at the stats that are available on the blogger dashboard I can see that some posts attract a considerably larger number of views over time than others. (And no, this series on communications is not one of my big hitters.) By orders of magnitude.

Which brings me to Twitter. I was wondering whether or not my observations would hold true in the land of 140 characters. And it seems that even there content rules. If you look at the tweets of those with massive numbers of followers, you will find that only the tiniest percentage of those tweets are pointers to some other content and almost none of them are contextless citations or mere pointers. Even on Twitter, primary communication is still valued.

This might be a good opportunity to raise a related point.

Twitter tweets, and FaceBook (FB) status updates did (although I don’t think they do anymore), constrain the tweeter to a limited number of characters. Since some URLs are long, possibly very long, there is a clear need for some way to provide shortened URLs for the links one wishes to share. Fortunately there are very useful services that provide just that: http://bit.ly/ and http://tinyurl.com/ . Using these services you can transform a lengthy URL into something manageable. Great. The downside, of course, is that the now minuscule URL gives no clue as to the site it will take me to if I should click on it. Maybe that isn’t a problem for most people, but I like to know where I’m going (as far as that is reasonably possible) on the Internet. Combine an obscured URL with an already constrained communications window of 140 characters and you have a near-recipe for the contextless citation.

It appears I’ve finally found something I dislike even more than a blog post that merely points me somewhere else. It’s a tweet that points me somewhere else and doesn’t give me any real clue as to where it is pointing me. Now there is a metaphor for something or other!

Cave imitator. Let the follower beware.

Gathering resources

So far in this series I have been concentrating on websites and blogs over which I have direct control. It turns out, however, that the Internet, almost inevitably, contains a wide array of sites where you are mentioned or where material you may have written or contributed to appears but over which you have no direct control. Test it yourself by Googling your name, and be sure to use double quotes ” ” around it for a more useful set of results. (C’mon, you’ve done this before, you know you have!)

When I did this recently I found out two interesting things: first, there is still a fair bit of dross out there where my name appears but which has absolutely nothing to do with me; second, I re-discovered a number of presentations and articles I had written that I had forgotten about or lost track of. I immediately began to wonder whether it would be useful to draw the latter together in some way in order to make it easy for someone (e.g. a prospective employer, conference organiser, journalist) to get a quick overview of my output in a particular field over the years. A portfolio, if you will, but in particular a portfolio of items which I do not myself have the power either to remove or change.

If your name is more common than mine, or perhaps unfortunately shared with more famous individuals for whom you would not wish to be mistaken, then this might be even more pressing for you.

I have placed links to these presentations, articles, and briefing notes of mine on a Resources page on my main website and made that easily accessible. I suppose if I knew more about search engine optimization (SEO) I would know whether this helps or hinders the relative rankings of those resources in search engines. In any case, I haven’t done this to aid search engines, I’ve done it to aid searchers. It isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but it is a list of resources with which I am proud to be associated. Moreover, if in future other things I write show up on the Internet on web pages I do not myself maintain, I will have a sensible place from which to link to them.