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Breaking the Pattern of Thought August 19, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, Edward de Bono, how to, Lateral Thinking, Other, vocabulary, writing.

I’ve been re-reading Edward de Bono’s wonderful (if clumsily written) Lateral Thinking recently, while searching for new-but-manageable programming projects that I can do between semesters (so that I can keep learning programming skills). Naturally, de Bono gave me an idea (never fails).

Lateral Thinking‘s first couple of chapters argue, convincingly, that peoples’ thoughts run along established patterns that can make creativity difficult. The remainder of the book presents de Bono’s grab-bag of thinking tools, helpful methods for breaking out of these patterns when necessary (when the vertically-reasoned ideas are not working).

One technique, “Random Stimulation,” helps in a brainstorming process. It works like this:

Randomly select a word from a dictionary and just run with it, trying to connect it to the problem you are working on, for three minutes, following whatever chain of silly connections you follow. Hopefully, out of that massive, ill-considered spray of concepts, something emerges that will help solve the problem.

Here’s de Bono’s example:

The numbers 473-13 were given by a table of random numbers and using the Penguin English Dictionary the word located was: ‘noose’. The problem under consideration was ‘the housing shortage’. Over a timed three minute period the following ideas were generated:

noose – tightening noose – execution – what are the difficulties in executing a housing programme – what is the bottleneck, is it capital, labour or land?

noose tightens – things are going to get worse with the present rate of population increase.

noose – rope – suspension construction system – tentlike houses but made of permanent materials – easily packed and erected – or on a large scale with several houses suspended from one framework – much lighter materials possible if walls did not have to support themselves and the roof.

noose – loop – adjustable loop – what about adjustable round houses which could be expanded as required – just uncoil the walls – no point in having houses too large to begin with because of heating problems, extra attention to walls and ceilings, furniture, etc. – but facility for step-wise expansion as need arises.

noose – snare – capture – capture a share of the labour market – capture – people captured by home ownership due to difficulty selling and complications – lack of mobility – houses as exchangeable units – classified into types – direct exchange of one type for similar type – or put one type into the pool and take out a similar type elsewhere. . . .

From this example may be seen the way the random word is used. Often the random word is used to generate further words which themselves link up with the problem being considered. . . . The word is used in order to get things going–not to prove anything. [174-5]

O.K., so it doesn’t always work. At least I am not convinced that the “housing problem” was adequately addressed through this method. I have used de Bono’s “Random Stimulation” method, however, with excellent results.

So, I developed an online resource that loads a randomly generated word, with its definition. Just click the linked picture below.

So now you don’t have to generate random numbers and hunt for a big dictionary. Indeed, I kept the webpage very small, as well as javaScript-free, so that it can be accessed by web-enabled phones.

Folding a Letter-size Sheet into 3 x 5 Inch Shape – Single Pocket January 31, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, filing, H-PDA, Hipster PDA, history, how to, index cards, information management, lifehack, Moleskine, Origami, Other, Wordpress.

I was chatting earlier this week with prairieflounder, and I mentioned that WordPress had upped the capacity for individual blogger accounts to three gigabytes. I noted that I had purchased some extra capacity from WordPress last year, because I was moving quickly up towards the limit. Pf pointed out that he hadn’t noticed a lot of pictures here. That’s because there are a couple of different types of people who visit this site. Most of the visitors I get are still people looking at folding diagrams, believe it or not. About 90 percent, on average. And the people who don’t visit for those pics, tend not to even notice them.

And that’s O.K., but here’s another post for the 90 percent.

My first funded year in graduate school I ended up grading papers for a brilliant-if-cranky professor who, despite being only 35ish, still took notes on 3 x 5 cards. I’ve noticed that a lot of the history professors who attended top-ten schools (which he did) do this, and I even know one attending a top-ten school right now, who uses 3 x 5 cards. The guy I worked for would often photocopy articles, however, and cut out the relevant sections, parts of a work that he might later cite or quote in his own work, for example, and tape them to a 3 x 5 card, folding them several times, if need be, so that they would fit in his 3 x 5 file.

Yeah, it didn’t look all that elegant. It was pretty messy, actually. But the guy wasn’t all that elegant himself; he was well-published and highly regarded, however.

It has troubled me for some time that there is no elegant way of folding a normal (in the US) 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper so that it stays nice and flat and can be filed away with the rest of your 3 x 5 cards.

Until now, that is. This method is so simple that I hesitated to post it. It is based on the simplest and most common letterfold. But I can’t seem to find any posts of it anywhere else, so here you go:

Start with an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper (all of the pix below expand into their own, larger, window when you click upon them with a mouse or similar rodent). This is especially nice paper made by Gold Fiber, which is not only a pleasing and frightfully absorbent texture, but has lines on one side and a grid on the other. Notebook paper doesn’t get much nicer than this, I’m afraid.


Put a 3 x 5 inch index card in the middle of it, roughly, and fold the top down so that it looks like this:


Then fold the top down, like this:


You want all of these folds to hug the index card as closely as you can. Next, fold the bottom up like this:


Then fold one side in over the card like this:


And then the other, like this:


Then take the card out and unfold the whole thing so that it looks like this:


Fold the top and bottom towards the center so that it forms a flattened tube eight and a half inches wide, and then tuck whichever side is smaller into the inside of the tube on the opposite side, which will, presumably, be larger and more accommodating. In this case, the right side was slightly larger. One side always is, for some reason.


Then, keep sliding it in until the whole thing is flat. If done perfectly, it will be only slightly larger than a 3 x 5 index card, so that not only will it hold index cards itself, it will still fit into files that hold index cards of that size, or even the cool little pocket in a moleskine notebook, like this one.


Not that this history professor could have been bothered to make things tidy like this. But you like to keep things neat.

Keep Your Passwords Safe December 6, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, how to, information management, lifehack, Memory, Other.

I just read this post on Lifehacker today and was a little surprised how few people keep passwords the same way that I do. Aggregated from an interview with Bruce Schneier at the Freakonomics blog (New York Times) it advises that you write down your passwords. He has some sort of password generating and encrypting program that he also uses, and I don’t have any idea what that’s all about, or why anyone would need such a thing. Over at Freakonomics they like the counterintuitive nature of the advice, I guess. But I agree with the idea in principle.

I have worn quite a few different hats at work in the last five years, and so, like many people, have literally dozens of passwords that I have to remember, and another couple of dozens that I use in blogging and my personal stuff. I write them down, but can usually remember them without referring to the written versions. And I have no fear that the written versions will be used by spies or snoops, because they are encrypted with my own system.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Come up with some sort of mnemonic trigger for your password. My Netflix password might be the title of my favorite movie, for example. Say, Casablanca (which is not my favorite, but has the advantage of . . . well . . . not being my favorite and being one word long.)
  2. Then come up with a two or three digit number that has no particular significance for you, but which you will remember to use in all of your passwords. How about 892? Commit to always putting the 8 after the first letter and the 92 just before the last, for example.
  3. Decide to use some odd, yet consistent method of capitalization. Commit, for example, to capitalizing the second-to-last letter of each password.
  4. Integrate all three of the above into a password: c8asablanc92A.

My Amazon.com password might be the name of a book that I bought from them and hated, which will become o8ddthoma92S.

Now, write down all of your passwords, but do not write down the algorithm that converts them into the actual passwords. On a slip of paper, or with a sharpie on your wall or desk, your forehead, write Netflix: Casablanca. Write Amazon: Odd Thomas (you’ll know that there should be no space in the actual password, of course.) Any luck and it will look more like a shopping list than a bunch of passwords.

How to Fold a Westie December 4, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, Dogs, how to, Maggie, Origami.

A while back I posted a response to the 19 Things Meme that revealed that the header image you see above is actually a picture of a mirror in my house that has little origami dogs standing on top of it, all facing the same direction. Somebody (Diane) posted a comment a couple of days ago requesting instructions for creating these little origami dogs, and I am more than happy to comply.

I have always felt that the West Highland White Terrier (Westie, for the cognoscenti) is the pinnacle achievement in dog breeding. And this easy-to-fold origami stand-in seems, somehow, proof of that belief. No other dog is so recognizably rendered with a sheet of paper (not to mention the fact that for most every other dog you would have to use colored paper) and a few simple folds. They are the platonic ideal of dog-ness. They are friendly, smart, determined, persistent, cute and fun. And they fear nothing.

I didn’t invent this origami dog. I suspect that like many of the more simple diagrams it was invented quite a while ago. But I here render the folding sequence as a public service to those who would beautify the world with more of such likenesses.

Start with a piece of white paper, the thicker the better. I’ve folded hundreds of these out of business cards, while mired in pointless, endless meetings. Business card stock works really well. First find the center by folding and creasing in the middle so that it looks like the diagram below. (Click to enlarge. I am using paper printed with gridmarks to make the folding easier to follow.)


Then fold all four corners towards the center.


Then unfold two opposing folds. Fold one outward and one inward, as shown below–near the one-third mark.


Then fold the whole thing in half. It is beginning to look like a dog already. A headless dog . . .


Then fold from one corner to the other, one side at a time. This forms the ears.


Then the other side.


Then unfold the front legs, which are now tucked inside the dog.


Finally, you have to unfold the beard, and crease it flat.

It should look like this:


Notice the resemblance to the real thing (I didn’t have a current action shot of Maggie, who is now a little too big to play table tennis, so I used a shot from last year)?


Tri-fold Paper Wallet with 5 Pockets September 26, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, how to, index cards, lifehack, Origami, Other.

This is just a variation on the other five-pocket index card wallet I designed a few months ago.  I made one because I was traveling out west this hot southwest summer, and decided that I wanted something smaller than 3 x 5 inches to carry around, something that would fit in the pocket of a pair of shorts.  It just needed to be big enough to carry credit card, ID, a couple fo business cards, and some slips of paper to write on.  I find myself continuing with it because I have found that, given my lifestyle and profession, I am rarely far from a larger piece of paper.

Perhaps the best part of this one is that it folds neatly from a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper, the US standard.  For the most durable results, use vellum.  One of these lasted me all summer, touring the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Mesa Verde, and the harsh environs and lifestyles encountered visiting Casa Flounder in Colorado.  The example below uses Southworth 100% cotton, 32# paper, which has been printed on one side with design elements of Persian rugs.

Make some marks 1 3/16 inches in from the two short sides, with the side you want showing up.  Make two other marks 1 3/8 inches up from what will become the bottom of the wallet.  (Click pictures to enlarge.)


Fold the short sides at the 1 3/16 marks and crease.


Fold the long side at the 1 3/8 marks and crease.


Fold the other long side into the crease you made at the 1 3/8 marks and crease. Then tuck this part into the slot made by the short sides.


 Here’s a side-view of that.


And then fold into three more-or-less equal sides, et voila!


Business cards fit, with easy access.  Credit cards can go in the side you fold in, for maximum security.  And you can either cut 3 x 5 cards in half, for note-taking, or you can purchase them that way.  Somebody makes them now, and I’ve bought them at Office Max.

Sticky-note Page Corner Bookmark Redux September 8, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, how to, lifehack, Origami, Other.

Back in December of last year I posted instructions to making a sticky-note page corner, but somebody who calls himself DyNama, King of Post-its commented today about the sticky part touching the pages of the book, which is not something that I would want to happen to anybody.  So, naturally, I had to check it out.  Unfortunately, my original instructions were a little hard to follow.  It took me a while to reproduce what I did in December.  So I’m going to try to clarify a little.  Just doing my bit for Royalty.

Take a square sticky-note and put it face down with the sticky part down and on the side farthest away from you like this:


Fold the side closest to you so that it meets the side farthest away from you and crease it like this:


Then unfold, so it looks like this:


Then fold it in half left side to right, like this:


And unfold that, so it looks like this:


Now flip it over so the sticky part now faces up, but it is still on the side away from you, like this:


Then fold the Bottom Right corner to the top left like this:


And unfold that, so it looks like this:


And fold the bottom left corner to the upper right corner like this:


And unfold that. I have marked the folds that have sticky stuff on them with numbers 1-4, so that it looks like this:


If you fold corners one to corner two, and corner three to corner four, you will get a thing that looks like this:


Then you can fold the stuck together corners into an arrow-like thing like this:


Then put it in a book like this:


And there you go.  Is that any better, DyNama, King of Post-its?  Or is the sticky part still connecting with the book?  That didn’t happen when I tried this again, so I’m hoping that my instructions were so unclear the first time that they just misled you.  If so, I’m terribly sorry.

Update on Sink July 16, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, how to, Other.

I put my DIY sink clips to the test this weekend as I learned some lessons about how to cut stainless steel.  Franke’s sinks are typically made from 18- or 16-gauge, 18% chromium/10% nickel stainless steel, which they call “type 304.”  So, naturally, I asked myself “what, exactly, would one use to cut that sort of thing?”

Well, a cutting tool, obviously.  There are all sorts of high-speed cutting tools on the market these days, and I bought a cheap one a while ago for a very different purpose.  I needed a bit, though, since all of the bits that came with the thing were designed for cutting stuff like drywall and wood, which are pretty soft, compared to type 304.  At a well-stocked home and garden supply retailer or hardware store you can find bits that have a picture of a stainless steel sink on the package.  The package says that it will cut stainless steel, and that it costs $17.  Sold.

So I got this thing home and drilled a hole in the sink with a very hard drill bit (because the lable on the titanium bit that I just purchased says quite clearly not to use it as a drill.)  It took a while, but I got through.  Now all I had to do was cut a 1 1/4-inch circle, using that hole as a starting point.  I traced a little pattern with a “C” type battery, which is almost exactly the right size.  I put the bit in the cutting tool and started cutting. 

In a conversation with my brother last weekend he warned me that it was going to be hard to control the direction of the cutting.  I figured that this stuff was so hard that I would have all sorts of time to correct the course if I was cutting the wrong direction.  I would have, too, were it not for the distraction of the cutting itself.  See, what they don’t tell you is that these cutting tools are not the appropriate device for spinning the little titanium bits.  If you use one of these cutting tools for that, you will find that titanium, or chromium, or nickel or iron, or the mixture of all of these things, subjected to the intense heat of the spinning, will cause the bit to turn instantly red-hot, and sparks and flames will shoot out of the hole you are attempting to cut.  I don’t know, maybe if you get anything hot enough it will burn and throw sparks.  I’ll have to ask my brother about that.  He’d know.

So the cutting got a little out of control, I guess.  I stopped and drew a different circle, which I hoped would incorporate the actual hole I had started, but would still be in roughly the right place for the spigot.  I tried again, with the results depicted below (click to enlarge).


Lovely, I know, with the scorch marks.  It was probably for the best that the bit sheared into two pieces at that point, burning a little hole in the cabinet below the sink (but thankfully not hitting any bystanders). 

At that point I decided to look up on the intertubes how to do this sort of thing.  RTFM, I know.  It’s usually my second step.  Turns out that you should lubricate the bit while you are cutting, with some sort of oil.  Turns out that you need to push very hard, and that the bit should spin at less than 300 revolutions per minute.  Now, how fast does one of these cutting tools spin?  Turns out that they go about 30,000 rpm–only one hundred times as fast as needed.  Even at the lowest setting these things go forty times too fast.  I don’t remember which setting I used, but it doesn’t seem to matter. 

My old, decrepit, drill worked O.K., and the direction was much easier to control, so long as I pushed as hard as I could, sometimes in directions 90 degrees removed from the direction in which the bit wanted to go.  And, by the way, with all of the pushing, sparks and flames, the sink didn’t move at all.  And it had every incentive to run screaming from the kitchen, believe me.

The Kitchen Sink July 9, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, how to, lifehack, Other.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was having trouble finding clips to install my new kitchen sink, so I thought I’d explain. The reason I don’t have clips to install the sink is because I didn’t actually purchase the sink. If I had bought it new I probably wouldn’t have this problem. Because I would just take it back to the place I got it. But I found it.

I was driving home from church or something one day about a year ago and was close to Route 3 in Bedford, Massachusetts. I saw, on the side of the road, put out for the garbage people a stainless steel sink. Normally, I would have just driven past, but our house was built in 2004, and it had really, really crappy sinks and fixtures (the faucets squeak when you turn the knobs). Our place was not custom-built, and it is really nice in many ways, but the kitchen and bathroom fixtures are where the builder cut corners. There are worse places to cut corners, but it has bothered me that the kitchen sink is shallow and small. I wash most of the dishes in the house, and most will not even fit in said sink. And this sink, the one by the side of the road, was really quite nice.

We had just purchased a new faucet, bouyed by optimism when my wife achieved tenure at the University, but I didn’t want to just install it in the crappy, shallow sink. So I grabbed the one by the side of the road (turns out somebody threw away a sink that retails at about $500, but I didn’t know that at the time). This sink, in perfect condition, otherwise, only had two clips attached, and one of them was broken. And these things are very specific to the manufacturer.

Suddenly, with my wife and son on a road trip, I found myself last week with the prospect of some additional time on my hands, and nobody to complain if I didn’t do dishes until I solved the sink problem, so I dove in. I tried to order the clips, but the suppliers online weren’t able to promise I’d even get the clips for three weeks or more, so I decided to just make them. Pretty much used up the whole weekend, plus part of Friday, doing that.

I bought a bunch of brass picture hooks, and routed out the hole where the nails go, widening it enough to accept a #6 sheet metal bolt, 3-inches long (see picture below-clicking to make it bigger).


Then I clipped these things to the bottom of the sink and threaded them through holes made in the aluminum bar, put a wing-nut on the bottom (see picture below, blah, blah).

And then the thing worked pretty well (click to enlarge). Turns out that the whole picture-hanging machine screw set-up is very similar to what Kohler sink clips, although I didn’t know that until after I made my first six.

I think it was, after all, worth the effort. I’m ordering some from the factory anyway, to make the whole thing even more secure. But in the mean time, there is no danger of it flying away.

Shamrock Book Corner/Mark June 12, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, DIY, how to, luck or time, Origami, statistical analysis.

I find a lot of four-leaf clovers, which some people consider to be lucky (um, not the finding, I think, but the possession thereof).  The first couple I found I gave away as presents, after laminating them, but there was nothing particularly elegant about lamination.  And I have quite a few, now–I stopped counting at thirty. And laminating is boring and expensive. 

So I’ve been looking for some other way of presenting them to people.  Because what am I going to do with all these things?  It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that I could put them inside paper, onionskin or tracing paper, possibly translucent vellum, so that they could be used as bookmarks.  Problem was that unless you put some sort of tassel on them, they will stick out of the book and part of the mark will get mushed.  They might get knocked loose, which would also suck.  Anyway, yesterday I finally happened upon a solution, which is to make book corners out of them. 

The design for this is that of a letterfold, the K-Letterfold, which is diagrammed here, at my favorite letter and envelope folding site.  I don’t use the K-Letterfold much for actual letters, because it comes out too small to actually post through U.S. mail when you use paper of standard dimensions.  But it is perfect for this particular purpose (see below, click to enlarge).

Front View

Back View

The book is Nicholas Rescher’s Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life.  Much better, printable, concise, instructions and diagram are at this site (look under K-Letterfold on the side-bar), but I am putting step-by step instructions below so that you can see where the shamrock goes in the folding process.

Step 1: I started out with a 6 inch by 8 inch (15.24 cm x 20.32 cm) sheet of tracing paper.  The pictures below are for the same size white sheet, which shows the folds and the position of the shamrock.  It is best to fold the thing first, then unfold it and place the shamrock (or whatever flat keepsake or flower or whatever) inside and refold it.  It is less likely to damage the delicate dried plant if you wrestle with the paper and crease it first. 

Step 2: Fold one corner snug against the side.

Step 3: Fold the top side down to meet the edge of the paper.

Step 4: Fold paper in half and then unfold.  Then fold it in a quarter towards the crease in the middle.  Yeah, I know that’s two steps.  Second one is like 4 and 1/2.  O.K.?

Step 5: Fold the other quarter to meet the center crease.  Now comes the tricky part. 

Step 6: Tuck the pointy part at the bottom into the slot in the middle.

Step 7: Then slide it all the way to the top inside, so that the little crevasse (seen in the picture below in a not-quite-closed-but-almost-closed state) closes as completely as it can.

Step 8: Turn over and tuck the remaining untucked corner into the other inside slot . . . carefully.

Of all the letterfolds this is one of the most stable.  It simply does not open accidentally, even when sent through the mails without any adhesive devices to keep it closed.  And as you will see, it can be used vertically or horizontally, so that the side with the clover is always on the page that you are attempting to mark. 

Don’t Like the Color of that Pen? Change It. May 21, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, how to, lifehack, Other.

O.K.  I know you are going to think this is a little strange, like “why would anyone want to do this?”  So I’m going to rationalize it a little bit for you . . . so you can be certain that I am strange. 

I started writing in a journal on a daily basis back in the summer of 2002.  My first one was a Moleskine, one of the small pocket-sized journals, and I stuck with these for a couple of years.  Then I used three of the larger kind, then some people gave me journals as presents a couple of times, and so I used these.  I’ve filled up sixteen during the last five years.  They are full of all kinds of stuff, which I use to remember ideas, to record for later reference what I was doing at a particular time, to try to find connections between things, you know, the things people use journals for. 

Recently I was at a Barnes and Noble store and found a refillable journal that I liked.  I needed one and it was inexpensive, and I decided I was going to attempt to make the refills myself, later, because they looked pretty easy to make, and I have a bunch of discarded letterhead that has the wrong logo on it and a high cotton content.  Chop off the logo and fold and bind the paper and it should work really well.  I’ll let you know how that goes. 

The paper that came with the journal was really rough, which I liked.  It has different color threads in it and it is not a bright white.  Lovely.  But the roughness of the paper is a problem for fountain pens, which I love to use in journals because you don’t have to press hard and wear out your hands.  The ink won’t flow, like writing on sandpaper.  I tried a couple of other pens, too, but the only thing that seemed to work well was porous-point pens, like sharpies and markers.  What worked particularly well is one of my favorite marking pens, the Bravo!, by Pilot.  Only problem was that the color looked wrong.  They make them with a lovely blue ink and a dark black, and a beautiful green and a bright red.  None of the colors seemed right on the page, because the paper has this natural look to it, warm muted tones, and all that. 

So naturally I wondered if I could put different ink in one of them.  Turns out it is not all that hard.  You just need a drill with an 1/8 inch bit, some plumber’s putty, and some good water-based ink (I can recommend either Waterman’s fountain pen ink or Higgins Sepia Calligraphy.  Probably others work just as well.  I like the Waterman’s Havana color, which is very close to sepia in tone, but it is not waterproof at all.  It is also very expensive.  The Higgins stuff is very warm and nice, less than half the price, and won’t smear so easily after it dries. 

Step 1: Start with one of these Pilot Bravo! pens.  Take the end cap off the back end, like shown in the picture below (click to enlarge.)  I suppose this might be difficult for some to do by hand.  If you use pliers, take care not to change the shape of the cap, because that will ruin the seal, and the pen will get ink all over everything. 


Step 2: Drill through the back end plug into the ink reservoir.  Obviously this would be best performed after the pen has already run dry.  Since these pens run through a lot of ink very quickly, this has not been an issue for me.  I go through one every couple of days.

Step 3: Fill the reservoir with the ink you want to use.  The tricky part here is that the ink must sometimes be coaxed into the reservoir.  I use a thin nail to ensure that the hole stays open and, thus, lets the ink into the reservoir.  It will take a lot more ink in it than the pen contained when you bought it.  More than twice as much.  Stop filling when you get about a third of an inch from the back end (you need room to reinsert the plug.)

Step4: Make a worm out of a small chunk of plumber’s putty, rolling it in your hand until it is pliable and warm. 



Step 5: Wrap the worm around the lip of the plug as tightly as you can.


Step 6: Put the plug, as slowly as you can, back into the pen.  The putty will squish out.  That’s O.K.  Keep pushing the plug back in until it is difficult to tell whether there is any putty left in the seam.


That’s it.  It will take a little writing for the new ink to show up.  Some of the ink will be forced into the buffer zone between the tip and the ink reservoir.  But that will gradually drain out.  I’ve never had one leak yet.  And I have refilled one of these things five times now.  The tip is starting to get a little too worn, partially because the paper I use it on is so rough. 

Here’s a picture of the journal, with some incomprehensible notes on normalizing databases (click to enlarge).


Nice and warm, iznit?