Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Edmonton's Minimalism Game

I'm in. This pack rat's game - or nightmare - is a challenge to part with one item on the first of December, two on the second, and so on to the end of the month. My daughter, when she catches wind of this, will be so proud. It will take more than a sprinkling of my charm to convince her I won't need her help. I heard of this challenge by Edmonton Journal's Fish Griwosky on the radio last night. You can follow his progress at edmontonjournal/life or tweet the hashtag #yegminimal. If all goes as planned, my household will be released from 495 items.

I'll make best use of giveaway, kijiji, freecycle, and our city's versatile recycling facility as I go. All these things carry my memories, so in honor of each I'll release them with their story.

Day 31

I've been waiting all month to post this; brilliant at the time. I figured it would be hard to find thirty-one items after a month of purging, so I picked these out on the first day of the game. I was wrong. There are so many more corners, cupboards, and collections that could benefit from a little scrutiny, asking, "When might I ever use this?"  

My pencil holders were stuffed, so it was easy enough to find spares. I made sure any I give away can still write. There are a half-dozen swag pens from the Aseniwuche. I had no idea. As I was leaving David kept slipping them to me, the prankster. 

The fuzzy pencil carries a memory of neighbour Kristin and her ever creative parties. We got invited simply for living near. Now she has moved but by way of the magic of Facebook, I still get to keep tabs on her growing family.

This game has been a treat. It is hard to imagine how it might be topped. A side-benefit is I don't need more pencil holders now.

Day 30

Tea. Lots of tea.  Don't get me wrong; Kirkland green tea is great. First of all, it's green. It also keeps it's delicate aroma even with vigorous steeping. The only problem with this tea is that there's just too much of it. We had enough green tea to serve us to the next millennium. This is the insidious threat of Costco, that profits from managing in bulk, then shoves the attendant storage and usage problems downstream. I put aside a reasonable number of bags for our own use (which will still last us through next year), and set the rest aside to donate. I'm thinking of dropping them off at the Mosaic Centre.  Re-purposing this tea opened up a box-sized spot on top of our pantry.

Fifteen years ago I came across an auditor's report on the American Military's warehouse operations, that compared usage rate against supply on hand and found that for some consumables, there was enough materiel on hand to supply the army for over a hundred years. The auditor recommended a complete overhaul of the warehouse management system. Last I looked, the military was obeying this recommendation with dragged heel. The auditor was challenging a hoarding culture, where the military's first goal is to be prepared for any contingency. In that culture, a few crammed warehouses here or there are a minor affair. A retiring sergeant helped me understand this. During the first Golf war, there were fears of chemical warfare. Until manufacturers could respond to this emerging demand, soldiers were issued gas masks squirreled away from the Second World War. Something is better than nothing.

I am sure something similar is at work in the mind of the household hoarder. Who knows when that tea bag may come in handy?

Day 29

Fifty-eight forty-fives, the second contribution from hubby. I found these stashed among my crafting supplies and brightly suggested they might be traded in for store credit? After all, we'd done the same with the LP's. Of course special ones can be set aside. It was a pleasure to let Kyle pick out his favourites. We will be taking the rest to Revolver in Londonderry mall.

Day 28

Books I will never crack open again. I preserve their memory on "I was a High School Drop-In" has survived several purges as it is a fascinating read how an adult illiterate can fake it in modern society. Facing his failure was a special kind of courage. "101 Home Based Businesses for Women" was one of those books that made me so angry I couldn't finish it. By comparison "On Walden Pond" challenged me and intrigued me so thoroughly I argued with the author throughout as he steadily built his argument. What was wrong with 101 Home Based Businesses? It was endorsed by Focus on the Family, offering ways for mom to stay at home and raise her brood. But in the very introduction it warns the budding entrepreneur that the budding business is as demanding as a new child and the entire family will have to be prepared for sacrifices.

As in, you know, mother's time and attention.

Kind of blows the whole "have it all" philosophy, don't you think?

I am convinced a far kinder path for a single parent is to find a salaried position with a big company that offers extended health benefits and if it is particularly enlightened, on site day care.

New York is changed in the past fifteen years; the travel guide can go. I haven't cracked a paper dictionary in I don't know how long. I kept my concordance. Indexing is an individual art, and the author of this index appeals to me.

Nate from Value Village cheerfully took all the books off my hands, giving me a run-down on the many ways my donation helps around the world.

Day 27

Under the bathroom sink. Herbal pain relief slipped to us at a fitness fair. Toothbrush heads that don't fit. More promo items. Expired prescription. Hotel shampoo.

This is a good time to promote safe expired prescription disposal. Your local pharmacist will take them. I am pretty sure they all end up incinerated at a terrifically high temperature at the Swan Hills plant.

I'm not discarding half finished bottles as I figure the least environmental damage comes from using them up, but I'm resolving now to do so.

Boxing Day

Odds and sods from days of rummaging. I have binders, a plus size raincoat, a wind-up clock, skewers I picked up myself from a garage sale, and a plastic table cloth.

I'll take this moment to boast on the a unique service perhaps in North America. This shop and warehouse provides furniture and office supplies, gently used, to member non-profits. We all like to see our donations go to the work we intended, and services like this help to keep down overhead. I'll see if my binders are wanted.

Christmas Day

Sometimes it's in the little things. Vintage lace from my great-grandmother Elizabeth Kesson Barron (1882-1974). I thought this might have been some of her fine work as she used to send us all needlework when we were little, but this has a tag from Haddon Hall. This leads me to wonder if the lace was "lifted". The pearls, badly chipped, I am pretty sure belonged to my paternal grandmother, Helen Hester McMonagle (1913-1961). The the sweater set are also from her. The choker necklace, cleaned up, I am forwarding to my niece, freshly engaged. The pearl buttons I picked up from a garage sale in Innisfail; they are sent in gratefulness to a good friend in Ottawa. 

Dad's work pin from AGT (1906-1991) that must have meant something to my grandfather. Dad worked for AGT from 1959 to his retirement, during the time it was a crown corporation for the province. Dad told me the history of why a prairie province would set up their own phone system. The easterners from Bell, not understanding the breadth of this country, offered a single party line to share for the entire province. Insulted in to action, the new province set up their own phone system, attached to Public Works*. 

A penny, (1969), now doubled in value. 50 pilastres. 25 P.tas Spain (1990). Red rock from a Banff curio shop; the colour rubs off. 

A rock full of fossilized snail shells, a very small rock which I am sure my dad will not mind, which I am passing on to my stepmom. Dawn is an enthusiastic rock hound. Think Lucille Ball in The Long, Long Trailer (1954). 

A lucky star from Norm & Marianne (1960). A quarter (1968). 

I round out the day with a collection of stuffies and stress balls.

Our local Thunderbird club hosts an annual teddy bear drive for the Victims Services Unit. I think I will pass the teddies on that way. 

*The history of AGT is from An Administrative History of the Government of Alberta 1905-2005. 

Christmas Eve

The Christmas stash. Fluffy things acquaintances give each other this time of year. Bargains picked up at New Years sales. None have sentimental value. I made this pile early December, labelled it Christmas in a Bag and posted it on Freecycle. Todd swiftly ran down this deal. I figured people could use these things sooner rather than later. Edmontonians love their Free Stuff. There is still an abundance of trust and good will in this city. Long may it remain so.

The incandescent Christmas lights were all given to Goodwill. I found out from my future daughter-in-law that Goodwill removes the bulbs and strips out the copper to be recycled. Pretty good deal, I figure.

The clumsy hand-painted ornaments from my children, nieces and nephews are carefully tucked back in to a much less cluttered Christmas bin. And I am trimmed down to a single bin. 

Day 23


I can carry grandpa's memories without hanging on to the equipment. It's my recollections that matter. 

That's an iPhone 3G in the bottom right corner, wiped and factory reset before I sold it. John picked it up as my first successful customer on kijiji. Word of warning; cell phones garner plenty of junk interactions. As in, "I am dsprte for phone I need this now!!!! Can you bring it to WEM?" John was a delightful exception to the rule, texting in complete sentences. His phone number showed from Florida so I imagine he's here working, and found an inexpensive way to bypass foreign roaming charges. Long may the 3G serve him.

By the way, you can give your factory reset cell phones to an agent to have it repurposed/recycled. These phones, and headphones too, are literal "gold mines" of rare earth elements.

A list of agents in our area can be found at There's a page on the site that gives instructions on wiping your old cell phone.

The camera stuff was my grandfather's I mentioned before how his generation would compose slide show presentations (real slides in cases with carousels), and present them to their friends. Grandpa and grandma traveled to Trinidad to see us, happily snapping exotic photos while he was there, and also up to Alaska to their centennial expo in 1967. 

Grandpa was handy with tools, though his formal education was interrupted by the depression. So he was a working man, starting out as a lumberjack in the forests of Ontario, and finishing his career as a maintenance foreman at a plastics manufacturer. I think for him, the fine milled construction of the camera represented intelligence and ingenuity in design.

It is harder for us to see this same ingenuity in our modern miniaturized, modularized world. But our plug-in toys carry as much design intelligence tucked away in chips. Nowadays we'd need a hammer and a microscope to see it. 

I have given young cameraman Rene, first dibs on this equipment, and sent off the light meter as part of his Christmas package. 

Day 22

Vintage books from my dad's childhood and mine. I remember reading Uncle Remus Stories. Some may be politically incorrect. The Metropolitan Museum of Miniatures, 1950. To save on color printing costs, miniatures of the Masters were shipped as postage stamps, to be glued in by the reader. Similarly, there's a boxed set "Around the World Program", produced around 1957. That my grandpa kept these books and that dad passed them on speaks to their respect for knowledge hard-gained. I'm going to try and find them homes through Abe Books.

Day 21

More artwork. I found these treasures this weekend, a sampling only, of what was buried in a box in the basement. This is a collage of singularly Albertan landscapes. From the upper left clockwise, all 8x10, 

  • a watercolor of a field near Innisfail; I lived there at the turn of the century. 
  • Ada boulevard with a view of downtown Edmonton, watercolor. Even older than the Innisfail painting.
  • Innisfail again, with a view to the foothills. The blazing fall colors of the rolling prairie; oil on hardboard.
  • Alberta Legislature, oil on hardboard, plein air. 
  • Wetland grasses, oil on hardboard. 
They're doing nobody any good tucked away in the basement. I've got plans on how I might transition these to their forever homes.

Day 20

Obsolete software. Not too many fond memories here, save endless rounds of solitaire Monopoly. Evidence of our accelerating culture, where an ingenious telescoping flash cover from the fifties roots itself as a permanent thing but not a CD. I can imagine the ingenuity and craft of dozens of people from the engineer who designed the parabola to the metalworker who built a template. But a freebie install CD? Meh. 

Day 19

This was another marathon clean-up day. Christmas looms with it's endless commitments so I rummaged through my storage bins and made myself a book pile, a craft pile, a whole new art pile and a garbage pile. This collection is surprisingly hard to let go. The styro balls. I am transported to my childhood and my collection. I kept toilet paper rolls, construction paper bits, cloth, ribbons, poly fill, felt, buttons, anything that might come in handy the next time inspiration hit. I wished for styro balls but rarely had them. 

The tyranny of clutter, though, means I had no idea that I had them and would have no way of tracking them down. I've been hoarding ghosts. 

The release is palpable. I re-purposed Mr. Snowman there on to my Ugly Sweater entry. I used the freshly discovered iron on adhesive to repair a sweater, and crafted a gift for my sister with my findings. 

Day 18
Easy one, inspired by another minimiser. Orphaned socks. I don't have too many; I must be better at cleaning out than I've given myself credit for. I have more matched pairs to give away than orphans. Four moves in six years will do that. Then why do I still have so much stuff?

Which reminds me; have you heard of the Holiday Closet in Europa Boulevard, WEM, collecting for the Bissell Centre? It takes donations until December 22.

Day 17

The camera comes later. Today I am re-purposing seventeen camera roll and tester strip cases. Camera rolls were how we stored pictures before digital.  We used to have to wait days before we knew if a shot worked or not. The shutter button was treated with a great deal more respect back then. I was saving these containers for the funky feature wall mentioned earlier but let's face it; the seventies aren't coming back. The camera is in the shot for colour, but it will be making a reappearance on December 23.

This is one of my grandfather's cameras. Before YouTube or the Internet, grandpa belonged to a camera club who would compose slide shows to regale their friends and neighbours with stories of exotic locales. Grandpa composed slide shows of a grand trip to the Yukon from his home in Renfrew, Ontario, and also his visit to our home in Trinidad. I'll talk more about Grandpa on day 23.

Alaska 1967 Centennial Exposition - photo by Douglas Fraser

Day 16

Everything but the kitchen sink. The season, and the plethora of projects I have on the go, is taking it's toll. I watched the Lynne Singers last night, letting myself be transported by their enthusiasm, while fighting relentless exhaustion. Too many things on the go and not enough sleep. And niggling in the back of my mind was how I was going to find sixteen items to pull. I found my second wind when I got home, and tackled the collection under the sink. A Swiffer duster that's seen better days. Three out of my four scrub-brushes. A worn-out stainless steel scrubbie. Rags. Funny-cutty scissors.

I left the stool in the picture for a reason, even though it is staying. Dad explained at my last visit why the humble stool was his project for the furniture design class he took at the U of A. He told me there is precious little recorded history of the stool, even though it was used widely by both gentry and servant. Ubiquitous, it fades in to the background. But it kept slippered feet off cold stone floors and of course, is handy for a quick step up.

Introverted and quietly helpful, I have gained new appreciation for my dad's furniture of choice.

The rags are going straight to recycle. I decided to keep all my odds and sods of cleaners. I'll be kinder to the environment if I use them up for their intended purpose.

Day 15

On a quiet spring day in 2005, dad invited me over to the house to help him pack up the kitchen. He'd lost his vivacious wife, too soon, to cancer.  I'd stayed in the background through the grinding illness and the funeral that followed, so I was glad to help dad out. Dad picked the child and the activity that would be most meaningful, and he offered me a few collections that would mean more to me than him. This included fifteen Norman Rockwell mugs that Myrna picked up over the years.

These mugs traveled with me over a thousand miles and several house changes, but they haven't been used. They're a cherished memory, and it's not right that they be packed away out of sight. Let them find a new collector and a new home to be loved.

Myrna was a force to be reckoned with, and I hear her voice to this day, reminding me to be beautiful.

Day 14

My paintings, fourteen of them. On day 10 I started posting them to #artAdventCalendar on Twitter. This is my second biggest purge and it does feel like a watershed moment. I no longer worry about losing my art because it lives inside, ready to come out and play any time. It evolves, it does no repeats, and that is fine.

Day 13
Today is a hodge-podge cleaned out of kitchen, office, closet, and basement. My spaces have never looked so good. Vegetable slicers that don't work as advertised. Still-life silk flowers, slightly frayed. A dusky dusty rose garland for this Woman's Room of Her Own. Clip-on lamp for an incandescent bulb; no bulb. Try and explain that to my future great-grandchildren. A scrunchy. M&M containers so cute and empty. And an ink refill kit for a dead printer.

The Skirt of Shame, story left untold.

Day 12

I got this idea from another minimizer. This is a purge of my jewelry box. Only a few orphans it turns out. The snake ring is from an Ardene grab bag; I'll never have an occasion. The lanyard I made at the Native Awareness camp, run by Aseniwuche. Which gets me missing the people. And the mountains. Take Billy for example. When he gets warming up to a story you better be ready to set a while. My city backside begins to wiggle and my mind starts noting all the undone checks on my to-do list. But then Billy's story goes somewhere and I realize I have not met a single soul in the city like Billy, who will hop in his pickup and come help if you need it and give you a good scolding too if you need that. It's the open caring I think that catches me every time. That and the mountains.

There are many more great people in the mountains too and because there are not that many there is time to get to know every one. Billy and the mountains just seem to sum up the place for me.

Recap: The feather earrings and the lanyard are going to my friend Christine. We chummed together in Junior High. The rest are packaged for Goodwill.

Day 11

Board games. I found a taker, Linda through freecycle; I hope to hear from her soon. These games come with a load of memories, difficult to write about even now.  Waterworks is a vintage game, hard to find now, and a favourite of my stepmom's. I lost her too early to cancer. Her personality shines even to this day, as I vividly recall how she would bring out age-appropriate games like this out for the grandchildren. Waterworks is a wonder because everyone can play from smallest tyke to the most curmudgeonly grandfather.  Kids, if you are reading this, don't worry. I inherited two copies of the Waterworks game. I'm shedding one.

King's Crib and Ginny-O were my brother-in-law's games, also now lost to cancer. Remember Movember, and men, don't brush off your annual.  Wesley loved to prove himself at cards.

I think I was the only one who loved Balderdash and the chance to play with words.

Day 10
Books, booklets, and more swag. These are the sensible books, booklets, gadgets and swag that actually helped. The advice is conservative and is consistent with the Canada Food Guide.
I'm going to market it as the secret to weight loss. I'm sure this hasn't been tried before. If I put a price on it I hope to limit the number of flake inquiries.
No magic pills, potions, or shakes. This is vigilance, portion control, and staying active. I've had a terrific team of advisers along the way.

This morning I realized by letting go of these materials I am shedding some history; decades of dietary vigilance, really. I had gradually gained weight year by year, eventually acquiring insulin resistance then type two diabetes. I attended all the classes offered by our health care system. I portioned out my food as recommended by the Canada Food Guide. The watershed moment happened during my stay in the mountains, where I gained yet another ten pounds. The regimen of pills was no longer working and we were talking about insulin. That was when my doctor asked me if I had considered signing up at the Weight Wise clinic?  The past three years it has been a life transformation.

I have shed a burden, and it has lightened me.

Day 9 - Loyalty pins

Swag from ARMA conferences, past Olympics, and old loyalties. Noah's Ark no longer holds the same significance for me. I see from e-Bay that collecting pins is a thing. I might just try and find some interest there. It's not like these things are taking a lot of space. Parlez-vous Yahoo in 2008, and what did you say there?

Day 8 - A simple day; donation to the Strathcona Food Bank. The employees of Opus are running this drive.

Day 7 - Event t-shirts, evidence of my newly active life. I've got Corporate Challenge, Grande Cache Coal, Mud Hero, and Run for the Cure. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. There are other ways for me to hang on to these memories as the trimming gurus remind us. I've got a brag board I will show off early in the new year that will be spared the trimmer's shears. Grande Cache' remote, wild places call to me. The mine is struggling with the price of metallurgical coal so low.

Day 6 - Storage tubes saved from Biosteel packets. My plan was to save enough for a feature wall. I saw some-such thing made from L'eggs when I was a younger, and the image stuck. I bought the Biosteel to annoy my daughter, who prefers all-natural. The powder turns my workout water hot pink, naturally, by way of beet extract. Besides, pink workout water makes me feel righteous.

This weekend ended up being a massive purge and clean exercise, and I've already re-purposed two of the tubes to hold my bookmarks; my downstairs book and my upstairs book. I am with my books as Doug from King of Queens was with his upstairs wife and his downstairs wife; one of my favourite episodes.

Day 5 - Evidence of debt cleared. This is a special sort of house-cleaning, facing our mounting debt and getting a handle on it. In a city where wealth flows freely, this happens more often than we may want to admit. With free flowing funds we find new temptations. Hubby and I faced those bills and asked for help from Money Mentors, a provincial non-profit service back in 2014. They also offer workshops monthly. This debt will finally be cleared in the spring of 2019. I'm booking a party.

So the day five discards are old bill reminders. This does feel clean.

Day 4 - I managed to convince hubby to hand over a pair. He's contributed a Miami Dolphins winter jacket, a Philadelphia Flyers jersey, and a pair of Calgary Cannons (1985-2002) promotional balls. Thank you, hubby, for stepping up to the plate. As you can see, his choices are eclectic. Just to be contrary, all you can count on is that he won't be following any local teams.

OH! I should mention we spent a lion's share of our date nights at Calgary Cannons games.

Day 3 - Penny collection I've been saving for my granddaughter Naomi and her two friends. The penny project  was launched in 2012 by these three girls racing around the neighbourhood, harvesting the little coppers. I saw the day coming, and promised the girls these little discards would be worth something some day. They cheerfully indulged me, and then I web traded to fill in the collection. Did you see the special condition of penny 2001? My daughter found this in her washing machine's pump, along with many more.

Day 2 - Unused leftovers from the memorable family gathering this past May. So much blended family. 

Day 1 - City of Edmonton Coloring Book, mint condition. A compulsive swag grabber, I picked this up at the CityLab event on November 8, a free showing of the movie, Urbanized, at the Metro Cinema. I am sure this will be a collectors item one day.

Monday, November 23, 2015

2015 Christmas Letter

Well, my first Christmas card arrived (thank you Aunt Eleanore) so it is time to put down the annual Christmas Letter. I have the cards out, I know where I keep the stamps, and I was all ready to whip up a few cards, but I've got the letter to write. A year's worth of experiences to cram together. As I drove my twenty minute commute this morning, memories tumbled over each other. I could try and disentangle it all but maybe the flavour of the year will come out better if I just blurt it out.

There were the runs. I started with a grand plan to gradually increase my time, every practice run laid out. But that was not to be. Joints and hips demanded attention so I learned to slow down and listen to my body. And then there were the runs. The Color Me Rad, Corporate Challenge, Mud Hero and Run for the Cure. I've found so many new ways to get dirty. My girls were the inspiration for my runs this year; Claire for convincing me I could to the mudder. That experience was....transformative. Crystal for instinctively volunteering for the pink run, and Naomi injecting her native enthusiasm. Art does not run but more often he'll walk to Tim Horton's with me. A doughnut run. It works. I have no pictures of Art this year as he is waiting for his hair to return to it's former jet-black lustre.

A mud hero shot.

Run for the Cure

This was also the year of the Nieces and Nephews. I am a fan of you all. There's Katja and Christian, forging their own path, Ryan and Kyle, kings of hedonism and finding humor in the most unlikely of places, Tim for sticking with me on the hill, Jeff for your unique wit, Claire for discovery, James for following wisdom against all odds, Kaulona for speaking up and rediscovering her self-ness, John for fatherhood. Renee for gusto. You are all on my mind and heart and I wish all the best to every one of you.

Donald and Tami, you are the cutest couple ever. It was so fun hanging out for the lunar eclipse with you. Keep on trusting and loving and I know you will do well also.
Donald, Tami and me on the night of the lunar eclipse

The turn in the economy has given me sleepless nights but I am grateful to be with a company and have a boss that obviously put people first. It's taken creativity, flexibility, and grit but I've kept working. I got to visit the Redwater facility where they are building a green oil refinery. An amazing enterprise. 

The community garden yielded turnips, scarlet runner beans, onions, squash and a proud pumpkin.

Scarlet Runner Beans
 Naomi got a painting.

A year all jammed up with new experiences. My best wishes to you all this coming year. May goodness triumph always.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Best Meal Plan

Here's another theory on how the First World diet got derailed.  It's not that the foods we eat are that bad. It's our pursuit of the "best".  Having the income, leisure, and abundance to choose, we pick badly and we pick too much.

We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after the [ideal diet]. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he has never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who thought they were (permanent) Seekers after the [Perfect Diet]. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment- until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the [perfect food]. That was the end of the search. The man spent the rest of his hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his [diet] from the weather.- Apologies to Mark Twain, "What is Man?"

There are restrictions that blame individual ingredients, like MSG or gluten. Or diets that glorify or demonise an entire Macro-nutrient (protein, fats, carbohydrates). Diets that increase fiber, ethically restrict meat and dairy, or encourage fair trade practices. And there's the pursuit of "natural", "clean", "non-GMO" or "minimally processed". 

On top of this there's the national guides that typically promote a balanced diet with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Brazil has come out with a divergent plan that emphasizes minimally processed, eating slowly and dining with family. 

One of the consequences of this multiplicity of choices, is that serious dieters are a constant search for the perfect food. I'm of the mind, after three years of logging and dieting consistently, is that it's not one food or the other that makes or breaks a diet. Sometimes the best foods are the ones that sit right in the middle. I came to this revelation as I was browsing around nutritiondata one day, looking for high-protein, low-fat options. After several miserable searches roaming near the peaks of the caloric ratio pyramid, I started browsing the middle. I searched for foods with a ratio of 30:30:40 (Carbohydrates, Fats, Protein). Up popped Edamame. 

Right away, I started to see the advantages of this little bean for the diabetic as it provides a steady stream of energy; no peaks or valleys. The modest fat content provides staying power. I wandered around that magic triangle again today and came up with a short list of foods that naturally fit in this middle

Even foods that may be deficient one way or another, can be combined with it's partners to be so much better. Consider onions, beef, beans, and tomatoes. Together they make something great, possibly better than they can do on their own. When that chili is ready, sprinkle it with a little sharp cheddar and serve it with a buttered chunk of corn bread; even better.  Finish the meal off with a fruit salad garnished with a dollop of whipped cream. There's got to be a reason this sounds so satisfying, right?

So I suggest, for sanity's sake, relax your food choices. As long as you are eating a variety of foods in a modest amount, it's all good. Glory in the middle and leave the extremes. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Battle of the Titans

There's a peculiar type of destructive competition that happens in free market enterprises, when two fairly matched competitors mutually fail to dominate the market. We have Coke vs Pepsi, Ford vs GM. The differences between the products are minute, but human nature being what it is, fierce loyalties can be earned by either side. 

I'm keen on merging and productivity. Our society is going to undertake a major shift in the next fifteen years. Economics will be turned on it's head. We will reach peak population growth. And climate change, an amorphous impersonal threat, will demand collaborative world-wide effort to stabilize. The old ways of competition won't stand up and all of us have to start thinking about getting along in new ways.

Here's one reason why I believe our society is heading for transformational change. 

The destructive competition described above cannot survive this sort of transition. John Q. Consumer cannot expect a steady growth of his income, and so will instead be concerned about conservation of his assets. A free market economy must adapt, so the old consumer model will expire. 

Consider the terrific opportunities and options that has come with world connectivity and personal electronics. We have some major players like Microsoft, Google, and Apple jockeying for dominance, and some critical bit players like the non-profit Wikipedia. Frankly, I cannot imagine returning to a life without my Wiki. But this multiplicity of options and fierce competition is handicapping the big players. I have a Microsoft computer who refuses to hold my Google search preference. I have Google docs who cheerfully allows one-way receipt of Microsoft documents, but won't translate back. Apple is unfriendly to both. And why not? They all grab a very profitable section of the market share, and the market continues to grow. 

But this situation won't remain so, and the change will come quickly. My dream is that these titanic conflicts come to an agreeable end. So that my granddaughter can continue to enjoy the terrific opportunities of connectivity as our world turns on it's head. 

Friday, July 10, 2015


I'm following up on a question I got this week, asking "What is a taxonomy?" The google answer leads to the Tree of Life and the grand classification we've assigned to all living things on earth. That grand structure is getting an overhaul by the way, reclassifying creatures by parsing their DNA, rather than the traditional grouping by observable features.

But in the context of records management, "taxonomy" has been taken over to describe a particular discipline of classification of information. More on that later. I'm going to lead in to this by describing a few other concepts, from the most disordered to the most ordered. This is not the historical progression, by the way. We are now living in the "foksonomy" era, were order, apparently, has been taken over by the mob.

It is in our nature to classify and organize. It helps us leap past the irrelevant, whether literally or figuratively, and swiftly capture our prey. Does any classification schema work as well, or are there some underlying principles? By way of example, please spot the flaws in this hypothetical classification:

The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge
a)     belonging to the Emperor
b)     embalmed
c)      tame
d)     suckling pigs
e)     sirens
f)       fabulous
g)     stray dogs
h)     included in the present classification
i)       frenzied
j)       innumerable
k)     drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush
l)       et cetera
m)   having just broken the water pitcher
n)     that from a long way off look like flies
-         Jorge Luis Borges from “The Analytical Languageof John Wilkins

I suggest you take note of the flaws and take a moment to consider what makes them so wrong, because getting a sense of the possible flaws in a classification schema will save you worlds of hurt later.

The second grade of order is the "folksonomy" where the masses decide how to title and index their entries, with no requirement to align with what has gone before. An example of folksonomy is the photo sharing site, Flickr, which invites users to tag their photos with whatever terms are meaningful to them. Folksonomies are best served by large user groups and sharing, to allow for common terms to dominate. Disorder gradually resolves to order. In this age of mass information sharing, folksonomies may be the only sensible way to establish any sort of order to the internet. There is no one group of dedicated professionals large enough to impose order to the sheer volume of information that is being generated.

Where folksonomies fail us is when a particular record needs to be found, consistently, permanently. We regularly come across these demands in business. For instance, it may not be critical to find the same information twice if we are planning a "california" "summer" "vacation" two years in a row. Google will be our friend and will happily give us the most popular result. There is no reassurance however, that we will get the same result two years' running. But if we need to find the "scope change" to "Project XYZ" that was asked for by our "Critical Customer" some time last fall, we better find that particular scope change. This level of order, where particular records must be found, demands a planned structure that is defined and managed.

The next level of order is covered by the general term "classification", and broadly describes our natural tendency to impose order. The slots or boxes that we use could be any useful structure; whether it be by location, features, or date.

Before computer tagging, selecting the hierarchy of classification was critical, because the first order of organization would govern all that followed, the indexes that would be manually maintained, and so on. Take the classic library catalog card, for instance, and imagine the labor required to maintain the indexing.

This brief index includes the title, author, description, publisher, year published, cross index terms, and classification number (PS3557.R5355 F57 1991). From it's structure, I recognized this reference as the Library of Congress classification.

  • P stands for Language and Literature.
  • PS - American Literature
  • 3557 covers the years 1961-2000 [I feel the whisper of the librarian's sigh. From PS1 to PS699, there is an attempt to sub-categorize American Literature by period, region, subject, poetry, prose..... No more it seems.]
This is an example of a hierarchical structure, that moves from the most general to the most detailed. A good design will guide a user to the most logical place for a record.  

However, when I recall a book from the library these days, the default search screen is a single box. I put in a term that is significant to me, and the search engine cruises the entire index, all levels, all terms. Keep this in mind when setting up a hierarchical structure, that chances are users will bypass the structure altogether to find what they want, if the search tools are available.

Most common these days in business is to recommend a functional classification scheme. Where the hierarchical structure will reflect the functions of the business. This may be similar but not identical to the organizational structure. We don't want to re-order the records every time there is an organizational change. These schemes will be unique to the business, though there are some commonalities.

Here's one attempt to classify all business functions, developed by APQC:

Chances are you will recognize some of these titles as common to your business. In the APQC model, under each of these main categories, the functions are more fully described down to the activity level.

And, finally, we get to taxonomies. A taxonomy is a higher order classification that requires the rigor of organizing by function (what the organization does), in a hierarchical fashion from the most general to the most specific, while also defining synonyms, related terms, and cross references. A fully developed taxonomy will guide a user to the correct section of the index regardless of the term she uses. Development of such a taxonomy demands time with business users, to capture all of their business activities, say, in workflow diagrams, and to record their common terms.

Folksonomies: A User-Driven Approach to Organizing Content by Joshua Porter, April 26, 2005

Friday, May 29, 2015

The dance of governments; a new cabinet

A habit hard to break is to analyse the latest cabinet shuffle. I caved to my craving this week and did a historical analysis of Alberta department creations, merges, and dissolutions. Editorials on cabinet shuffles tend to focus on partisan and regional agendas. Have the North and South been equally represented? How about regional/rural? Is everyone's pet agenda represented? How about gender and generational representation? But my concern is prosaic. How is this change affecting the departments themselves? From my many years working as a civil servant, I know the shuffle of a few cabinet ministers results in a cascading effect resulting in the moving of 35,000 workers to new departments/ministries, new letterhead, different offices. Sometimes it's a simple matter of contracting some sign painters and slapping on a fresh coat of paint. Other times department merges are more like "Clash of Cultures" Version 17.0.

Here's a Mind Map diagram representing all the department changes since the province's beginnings in 1905. In it you can read our government's and province's shifting priorities over time. I'm hoping you can zoom in to the detail.

Solid departments like Justice, Education, and Agriculture have always been with us, with minor adjustments to their portfolio. The minors like Culture and Parks are added, dissolved, re-established, merged, and tweaked to suit the day's fancy. Flash-in-the-pans were here and are pruned back to where they came from or off the agenda altogether, like Gaming and Consumer Affairs. Sometimes splits are reconsidered and two departments are absorbed back to their parent department.

When I finally added the latest cabinet portfolio to my diagram today, I noted some highlights.
  • The Status of Women get priority, not seen since 1938. 
  • Public Security/Safety is no longer it's own concern. This seemed to be a particular agenda of our last two governments. 
  • Children's Services similarly is absorbed in to it's parent department, though children do get a mention in the news release. And the Calgary Young Offender center is off the chopping block this week. 
  • Persons with Developmental Disabilities is also absorbed and gets no particular mention in cabinet. Likely a result of a smaller cabinet rather than a shift in priorities. 
  • Housing does not get it's own department either.
  • And finally but not least of all, Sustainable Resource Development is all but gone. It's functions have been absorbed by Environment, Energy, and Agriculture.
Pairing Agriculture with Forestry is a new one, and here I predict a titanic clash of cultures. The departments serve a different clientele with very little overlap. Both are equally passionate; budgets jealously guarded. I'll enjoy watching the shakeup on that one.


A new chapter in the story of Alberta, news release, Government of Alberta, May 24, 2015
An Administrative History of the Government of Alberta, The Provincial Archives of Alberta, 1905-2005

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Enduring Bureaucrat, or, Everyone Needs Something to Do

Have you noted as I have how agencies, once established, endure well past their function? Consider the work of the foley artist.

This sound-effect job was birthed with radio, giving depth to radio drama, drawing the listener in to the action. With the advent of movies and television, though, the foley artist continued. Once a job is made, the enterprising continue to work hard to find their niche.

The same goes for the bureaucrat. Once graced with a budget, an enterprising bureaucrat will work hardest to justify his or her continued necessity, even perhaps at the cost of emerging needs. How does one go about disbanding an agency that has outlived it's usefulness? There will be protests and pain, for sure, as its supporters mourn it's loss.

An agency that may have outlived their origins for example, is the Victorian Order of Nurses (Florence Nightingale's practical nursing has proved itself more useful). In their history linked here, the VON use emotive language like "vital" and "treasure". Is there any service unique or valuable that the VON provide that could not be absorbed in to regular nursing? This is an example of an agency, budget, and bureaucracy that frankly, isn't needed.

Squirreling out obsoleted bureaucracies and agencies is one way to keep taxes low while improving service levels. This is not painless or simple though. There will be loud, emotive protests. This is the sort of activity that a new government may want to consider in the early days of their administration, before re-election looms.