Blog Categories, Taxonomy, and the Dewey Decimal System

Ever pondered the list of blog categories any particular author uses to aggregate his or her posts?  Ever tried to categorize your own?  Easy, the first time or two.  But before you have very many posts at all, you have almost as many categories and you can’t quite remember why you put any one post in any particular category in the first place.

In an attempt to maintain some control and consistency in this website’s categories, I thought about who had been “doing categorization” longer than blogs have been around–librarians.  I spend more time in the local public library system than I do in university libraries, so the Dewey Decimal System was a natural choice.  I copied off the categories from Wikipedia and started editing the list, removing the topics I am pretty sure I’ll never write about.

The list itself makes for interesting reading:

000 Computer science
001 Knowledge
002 The book
003 Sex
004 Data processing & computer science
005 Computer programming, programs & data
010 Bibliographies

Now, I can see how “sex” and “the book” fall into nearby branches of a taxonomic tree, but I suspect a lot of people would be more likely to link “sex” and “the TV,” if they had to pick a communications medium.  Suddenly, a possible source of the idea for the movie Lars and the Real Girl takes shape.  (An aside:  see the movie if you’ve ever worked as, or near, computer programmers.  Also recommended is The IT Crowd, a comedy TV series from the BBC.)

Moving to the next set of shelves, we come to Philosophy.  While I might be seen to have a somewhat philosophical approach to some areas of my life, it’s not a topic I spent any time on in school.  The topic might well be served by deleting everything but the top level identifier.  (Missing numbers indicate the list has already been pruned.)

100 Philosophy & psychology
110 Metaphysics
114 Space
115 Time
116 Change
117 Structure
118 Force & Energy
119 Number & quantity
120 Epistemology
126 The self
127 The unconscious & the subconscious
128 Humankind
129 Origin & destiny of individual souls
130 Paranormal phenomena
135 Dreams & mysteries
137 Divinatory graphology
138 Physiognomy

But darn it, there’s “graphology” (and is “divinatory” graphology different from and shelved elsewhere than forensic graphology?) near the bottom of the list, and “physiognomy,” and that’s where librarians put the “facial analysis” books (I think), and those are both interesting areas of non-scientific reading that feeds intuition. But will I actually write about them, enough to need their own category? Would readers understand the connection if I did write a post about handwriting analysis (met someone who does forensic graphoanalysis in Linkedin Answers the other day) and then categorized it under Philosophy?

Questions like this keep taxonomists up late at night.

Religion is easy. Don’t expect a lot of posts about the topic on this website and should any appear, they can all go into the same bucket.

Social Science, which is a topic I would have said I don’t cross paths with much (my clients tend to be natural scientists), contains law, education, economics, and communications. This is going to take some thought.

Language falls like religion. Not a lot of posts (given that “communications” is a subset of Social Science, not language), and any that do get written can go into one category. (Ditto Literature. Thinking about the difference between Language and Communication and Literature makes me wonder what it was like to sit in the committee meetings when the system was originally devised… Are the minutes of those meetings available, and where would they be shelved?)

Eventually, I’ll edit the list and then print a copy for the wall next to my PC, and if I’m really on top of my game, I’ll enter the categories I decide to keep into WordPress so I don’t have to think about this every time I write a post.

And then I’ll go back through what I’ve written so far and recategorize.

Cash Register Kaizen

My corporate life was consumed by Six Sigma and process improvement.  While we rarely used the term “kaizen” (the tiny incremental changes that have been used to drive long-term improvement in factories), we nevertheless thought about the behavior constantly.  In my private practice, I support clients in the slightly more informal “Lean” office design, which is an apple that hasn’t fallen too far from the Six Sigma tree.

I was looking at my Sam’s Club receipt this morning and I noticed the sentence, “comment, continued on back…” I turned the receipt over to see: “items sold=2, the standard paragraph about doing a survey, the date and time stamp.” Although I have seen two-sided receipts before, generally they only contain standard boilerplate text that is printed before the paper is loaded into the cash register. This receipt had been printed on both sides, on the fly, as my purchases were rung. I thought about what it took to print receipts on both sides. It requires some changes in the cash register. It also required an investment in programmer’s time to write a routine that could determine how long the receipt was, then divide that length in half and print half of it on each side of the paper.

Receipts printed on two sides of paper use exactly half of the paper of standard receipts.  Sam’s Club must print an enormous lineal footage of receipt paper in the course of the business day. Halving the number of receipts they print is a guaranteed 50% reduction in the cost of receipt paper.

  • A little bit of research shows that receipt rolls cost $.40 each in boxes of 24; presumably Sam’s Club can get them, in bulk, at a lower price.
  • Additional research at my local grocery store indicated that a cashier can expect to change out a roll at least once a shift.
  • A rough estimate of register hours per business day at my local Sam’s Club yields approximately 70 hours; at eight hours per shift that’s roughly 10 shifts minimum*.
  • Wikipedia tells us that Sam’s Club had 713 locations in the United States in 2008.
  • That’s about 2 1/2 million rolls of receipt paper a year (713 stores * 10 shifts / day * *1 roll/shift * 363 days / year)
  • Allowing $.25 per roll and cutting the total in half comes to something like a $500,000 savings per year. That will buy a couple hours of programmer time**.
  • In addition to the absolute cost of paper saved, Sam’s Club would be able to save the cost of the cashier time lost to changing rolls, the customer dissatisfaction engendered by roll changing delay, the amount of paper they need to keep on hand, the cost of shipping that much paper etc. etc. and so forth.

I do what I can to be green in my life. I write on both sides of the paper. I printed on recycled paper I get from someone else’s office. I save water in the shower and I have a low flush toilet. However, it would not have occurred to me to invest very much effort at all in trying to reduce the amount of paper that goes through a cash register receipt. While I am not accustomed to thinking of the Wal-Mart empire as a bastion of traditional kaizen, I have to step back and take this little observation as inspirational. There are many tiny incremental improvements I could be making in my own life and work, things that require a small investment to get right in the first place and then reap the benefits thereafter. I will be looking harder for them.

2/2011 Update

This post was written in December of 2009.  Sometime between then and now, I met a district manager who managed 12 Sam’s Club stores.  I asked him about the value of the double-sided receipt printing.  He said, “millions.”  I have clearly underestimated all the costs of managing register tape.  One element not included in the list above is “waste.”  Clearly, register tape cardboard cores do not take up a lot of space in the trash, but Sam’s Club has made a major effort to increase the density of products they sell, thereby reducing the number of cartons they have to get rid of.  The manager told me they’d gone from twice-a-week to once-a-week trash pickup, which is a 50% reduction in hauling costs.

*Estimate derived by counting the number of registers open at the various times of day I shop.  It’s probably much higher because I will avoid the store if the parking lot is crowded, and one presumes that more registers are open when the parking lot is full.

**May we also assume the company that supplied the cash registers picked up most of the cost of making the programming change?

Book Design Matters

I finished War in the Boardroom, by Al & Laura Ries, last night. In the reading, I noticed that I found the book a bit more compelling than its content warranted, given that I am not now and will never be a “marketer,” per se. But I kept reading, long past when I should have been asleep. When I logged War into my reading list this morning, I noticed

Designed by Renato Stanisic

on the copyright page. Hmm. You don’t usually see designer credits on the copyright page. I googled Renato, found a Linkedin page, a Facebook page, and then a shout-out from The Waiter (Waiter Rant, vastly entertaining).

That makes two books in three days that I simply flew through, engaged, entertained, and informed, both designed by the same person. Now, I can’t argue that both books had excellent content. But LOTS of books have excellent content. What I know is that I’m reading a dozen books at any one time, and these two drew me in to FINISH. In contrast, I have to WORK to face a book about organizing that crammed far too much content into far too few pages and resorted to 6-point type to make the page count. My eyes hurt every time I see another pull-out quote in that book.

Design matters, even, or perhaps especially? when it comes to book content. I have self-published myself, and many people in the consulting fields are turning to self-publishing, and IMO, they could do well to give a bit more consideration to design than some of them are doing. I know the field is in disarray, with e-books and kindle shaking up the formats. However, I don’t believe an author can “give up” the points that accrue to good design. I don’t know what Mr. Stanisic makes to design a book; it’s not enough and it’s still more than most POD authors can afford. However, a badly designed book will simply NOT garner the same quality of review as something that reads well.

Most of us give a thought to our appearance before we go to a networking event. We should give the presentation of our thoughts the equivalent amount of attention.

See also: Richard Hendel, On Book Design, Yale University Press, 1998.

PS: I wrote a note of fan mail to Renato via Facebook; he replied and provided a list of the books he had designed. I think I’ve read a few.  Since then, I’ve added “designer” to the list of data elements I keep in my “Books Read” list.  More and more books identify the designer on the data page after the Title page.