Real Headlines that Sound Like Mad Libs

I forgot I had started this post until the osprey headline. I’ll keep adding new ones at the top as I find them. There is nothing erudite here; these just all cracked me up.

May 28, 2017: Osprey rescued after toe caught in clam. Photo courtesy of Thomas Krueger, who posted it from his local paper. Online news story is here, but the print headline is so much better. No automatic alt text available.

April 18, 2017: Bewildered Beaver Becomes Accidental Leader of 150 Curious Cows

September 8, 2016: Errant Cannon Fire from Niagara Deflates World’s Largest Rubber Duck

July 12, 2016: US government plans to use drones to fire vaccine-laced M&Ms near endangered ferrets

Knowledge Curation and Design: Gardens, not Stained-Glass Windows

“It’s a garden, not a stained-glass window” is a metaphor I came up with to talk about knowledge management, content management, ongoing curation and database management, and iterative design processes. I think I started using it about ten years ago. A few different people have recently told me how much this concept has helped them, so I’m putting it here on my blog for intellectual property/attribution reasons.[1]

Many ideas in U.S. corporate culture come from industry and manufacturing. Objects and processes in a factory, mine, or construction site have to be perfect in some ways—they have to fit in a specific slot and happen at a specific time, or other things will go badly wrong. This interchangeable parts/assembly line/standardized processes way of thinking has created efficiencies and opportunities for expansion beyond the wildest dreams of the artisanal producer.

But this industrial mindset also (in my opinion) warps our way of thinking about other kinds of work. In my professional milieu (focused mostly on knowledge management and web content strategy), many things can’t ever be perfect, or finished. I used to find this frustrating. I like finishing things: making something polished, and checking it off a list. I used to feel panicked letting something go when I knew it could be better.

We also live in a time when few things are made to last. A stained-glass window in a Gothic cathedral had to be as perfect as possible; it was made to last a thousand years, unchanging. I used to feel the same way about my work—that it would be a permanent reflection of me, or of a moment captured out of time.

Then the metaphor came to me: These are gardens, not stained-glass windows.

This metaphor encapsulates and summarizes a lot of other thinking—from “the perfect is the enemy of the good”; to artistic or aesthetic traditions that acknowledge transience and imperfection (Arachne’s hubris, wabi-sabi, the apocryphal-but-appealing imperfect stitch/Persian flaw/humility square); to Seth Godin’s “Ship!” concept.

Recognizing that you need to constantly change things doesn’t mean you failed in the first place. A garden is never “finished.” You plan, and you plant, and you tend. Dig up weeds, or leave them be. Carry water, or wait for rain. Become the mother of mantises. Some things grow better than you expected (make a bigger bed for them, next year). Sometimes things don’t go well; your soil has an invisible pathogen, and all the cantaloupe plants turn to rot. A tree next door dies, or your neighbor builds a new fence, and the light in your garden changes. You have an early hot spell, and all your lettuce bolts and turns bitter. Maybe the people you are feeding suddenly become allergic to eggplant, or decide they don’t want to see another turnip until next year.

So, a small practical example: You worked hard on that user manual. You took every function into account, organized it in a way that made sense to you, and crafted the instructions carefully. But your work is not done: Watch to see how (or whether!) people use the manual. What challenges can they still not solve themselves? What questions do they still ask? Check your readability; are your sentences too complicated? Do you use words they don’t know? Check your information architecture: Do people not understand your category names or chapter titles? Maybe they don’t want a 300-page reference book at all. Maybe they want a “Top Five Tips” sheet.

Another: You made a website. People used to come to the homepage and click through the navigation to find what they are looking for; more often now they come to a specific page from Google or Facebook. They look at one thing, and they leave. Do you try to force them through the homepage—make them come through the garden gate, walk past the things they don’t want, dig for the things they do? No. You change your page aliasing, check your metadata, submit a sitemap for crawling, make sure your site search works well. Or you push new posts straight to social media. This delivers your goods to the people who want them—sometimes before they are even inside the gate—wherever they are coming from.

Your audience changes, or they want something different. The environment changes. Information changes. You can—and must—adjust to those changes. That’s how we tend the garden of human knowledge. That is the process that creates culture. It’s what knowledge management, writ large, is for. It’s how we survive, thrive, and build a better world.

[1] Like everything else on this blog, I’m offering the metaphor under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license. This is my metaphor, my meme, my idea. You can use it, if you want, as long as you say it it is mine, and you’re not trying to make money from it. More details on my Fine Print page. [Go back up to reference point.]

Children’s Song: Green Grows the Mistletoe

[Edit: I’m updating this post on May 1, 2017, significantly enough that I’m going to re-post it with a new publication date.]

I wrote this in January 1999, as a nursery rhyme for my then-baby godson Aiden. Its tune and structure are borrowed from “Green Grow the Rushes-O,” which dates back to at least the mid-1800s. It’s traditionally sung as a call and response, but that’s totally optional. I sing it by myself all the time.

I posted the lyrics as a Facebook note in May 2013, and moved them to this blog in August 2016. At this re-writing, in April-May 2017, I am grieving Aiden’s untimely death. In considering whether I could sing this at his memorial gathering on April 29, 2017, I was worried about choking up. I started experimenting with Garage Band so I could sing along with myself to get the song back in working vocal memory. During a day of practice in the car, I realized I was often dropping in little bits of harmony, so I recorded those as a separate track. I’ll probably do another more-polished version with more harmony lines eventually, but this one’s OK, and at least it’s complete.

Green Grows the Mistletoe, Take 3 with improv harmony track, April 25, 2017 (see P.S. for Take 1…)

Lyrics:

I’ll sing you one, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your one, o?
One Great Wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you two, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your two, o?
Two, two, for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you three, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your three, o?
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you four, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your four, o?
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you five, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your five, o?
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you six, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your six, o?
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you seven, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your seven, o?
Seven returned from Caer Sidi*
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you eight, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your eight, o?
Eight for the kinds of poetry**
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you nine, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your nine, o?
Nine for the woods on the Beltane fire
Eight for the kinds of poetry
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you ten, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your ten, o?
Ten, for Brigid and her maids
Nine for the woods on the Beltane fire
Eight for the kinds of poetry
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star,
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so!

* “Except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi” is a line in Robin Williamson’s version of The Spoils of Annwn, a poem attributed to Taliesin.

**I don’t know where this came from, so it might be totally without documentable basis, but I have the lore in my head that bardic poetry has eight purposes: Arbitration, blessing, cursing, worship, prophecy, remembrance, praise, and mockery. (This one is blessing, worship, and remembrance.)

P.S. Here’s Take 1 because Franklin asked for it. It’s a partial take and ends with a funny mistake. (I would have re-recorded it anyway, because I wasn’t warmed up and was trying to sing very quietly/not disturb neighbors late at night, so I’m not pleased with how long it took me to find the tuning/breathing.)

Sassi Saucier vs the Terpenoids (Anniversary Edition)

This piece was originally published as a three-part note on Facebook, March 21-26, 2014. Facebook’s “Memories” feature helpfully reminded me of the anniversary.

Part One

Where does this tale begin? The struggle with the Terpenoids only lasted a day, but the roots of the story go much deeper. I can’t tell every tale starting with the universe that came before it, though. It would help if you knew me, a little—that I approach cooking from sacred and social and scientific perspectives, and that for me it’s only partly about eating, and feeding others. It’s also about taking pleasure in technique, and honoring what has come before: the struggles of various collections of molecules to find joy in the processes of survival and creation. Continue reading Sassi Saucier vs the Terpenoids (Anniversary Edition)

Blogging about Commas

My site description says “knowledge management, good Web content, duck confit, odd bits of beauty, general nerdliness, and the Oxford comma.”

While I *use* the Oxford comma on this blog, I am not sure I have really blogged about it, per se. My brother-in-law Seth  called me on this the other day–and then a lot of people read this news story and told me it made them think of me. I’m quite proud.

I am a staunch, steadfast proponent and defender of the Oxford comma. None of the arguments against it make sense to me, when weighed against the arguments for it. I’m not going to try to convince you, though. You can do that for yourself. (Just Google “Oxford Comma” and be amazed at the nerdery and vitriol.)

Lynne Truss’ lovely Eats, Shoots & Leaves calls the comma a “grammatical sheepdog” that “tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising [sic] words into sensible groups and making them stay put.” Ms. Truss acknowledges the pro vs con argument and advises “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

Funny examples:

Times when a comma (not always Oxford) made a difference in the outcome of a court case:

Sassi Saucier, Cookie Butter, and Magic Bean Water

TL;DR: This is complicated, even for Sassi. Simplified individual recipe links (which won’t work until after the “Continue reading” jump): Cookie Butter Shortbread (Vegan) | Sticky Pumpkin-Cookie Butter Blondies, Maybe? (Vegan) | Hazelnut Meringue Cookies (Vegan!!!)

The Saga of the Pumpkin Noisette Fancies

When it comes to holiday baking, I have a mission: Bake something delicious for the two vegans on my team. Bake sales and dessert buffets are sad for vegans unless someone is looking out for them. I’m a militant omnivore, but I like to take care of my people, and I like the challenge of baking without eggs or dairy products. Continue reading Sassi Saucier, Cookie Butter, and Magic Bean Water

Data: Singular or Plural?

Over the years as a writer and editor (and interrupted linguist), I’ve mellowed quite a bit. From a young age through my late 20s, I was a strict prescriptivist/pedant: “These are the rules; I am going to follow them, and I am going to get an A!” Gradually I’ve shifted toward descriptivism: “All usage is in some stage of flux; I just want to write clearly for my audience, so I can convey ideas as accurately as possible.”

But there’s one usage about which I am adamant: “Data.” Is it singular, or plural? The answer I accept is “Ask your audience.”

Here’s my argument:

(1) Are you speaking or writing Latin? “Data” is plural.

(2) Are you speaking or writing English? Ask yourself: How does my audience expect me to treat “data”?

(a) “Data” is neither singular nor plural in essence, but a mass/uncountable noun (like “furniture” or “traffic”–or “audience.”) Nevertheless,

(b) If you are writing or speaking to an audience of scientists (especially social scientists, but not computer scientists), you should use plural verbs and markers with “data”–otherwise, they will consider you unsophisticated, and possibly think less of your expertise. (I don’t think that’s a fair leap to make, but it’s a fact of life.) 

(c) If you are writing or speaking to a general audience and/or computer scientists, use “data” with singular verbs and markers. Otherwise, your audience is quite likely to think you are being pretentious. (If you *want* them to think you are pretentious, have at it. Just be aware of the effect this choice can have.)

(d) If you don’t know enough about your audience to make an informed choice, rewrite the sentence to avoid having to use “data” with a marker of grammatical number.

The argument that “data” is the plural of “datum” holds no weight with me, because:

(i) I can’t remember the last time I heard “datum” (rather than “data point”) in common parlance; and, more importantly,

(ii) English is not Latin. Once English has accepted a word from another language, the grammatical rules of the root language no longer control that word. “Opera” in Latin is the plural of “opus,” but in English “opera” is most frequently used as a singular noun. Most people use “agenda” in English as a singular noun as well–“Do we have an agenda?” “Hold on, I’ll send it to you.” 

Come at me.

How I Woad: Using Woad for Body Painting

…and for dyeing, in a modern reenactment context. (This is mostly about body painting, but if you like you can skip down to the bit about the colors you can get using woad as dye.)

Caution: Woad can cause allergic reactions and irritate eyes and other sensitive areas. Your use of any techniques or instructions herein is at your own risk. Be sensible.

I’ve been using woad as a body-painting pigment for nearly 20 years, in the context of an Iron Age Celtic reenactment/living history group. I’m writing up my experience for use at an Arts & Sciences class at Pennsic XLV.

Pennsic is an event of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). My group, Clanne Preachain, is an independent “non-Kingdom ally”—many of our members are also SCA members, but I’ve never been a card-carrying SCAdian. I will update this post after Pennsic with photos (and possibly more measurements) from the hands-on portion of the class.

Michelle Beck, with woad, in firelight at the Aerie of Tir Thalor, Pennsic XLIII (used with permission)
Michelle Beck, with woad by me, in firelight at the Aerie of Tir Thalor, Pennsic XLIII (used with permission)

These are my notes about how I adapted woad lore and research for use in the modern reenactment context. My goal here is to share what I do—not to convince you that insular Celts and/or Picts definitely, for sure, really did use woad as body paint and/or tattooing pigment. (Maybe they did. Maybe not. There are strongly differing opinions and contradictory research.) But “The ancient Britons painted themselves with woad” is traditional lore in England. I learned it as a child, as “part of the rich tapestry of our island story” (as P.G. Wodehouse might put it). If anyone wants to argue about this during class, we can—but putting that question to rest is not my primary goal.

Master Vortigern (Danny Hansen) with woad by me, 2014. Photo by Master Ursus (Tim Tyson), used with permission.
Master Vortigern (Danny Hansen) with woad by me, in Anglesey camp at Pennsic, 2014. Photo by Master Ursus (Tim Tyson), used with permission.

The most useful summary of sources (including many of the controversies over translation and source reputability) and techniques that I have come across is Gillian Carr’s “Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain” [see note 1]. I read the paper some time ago, but it was recently brought to my attention again by Laurah Jurca, who is the motivating force behind me teaching this class (and who has made this “Woad Map” handout with a lot more information).

Clanne Preachain is not a reconstructive archaeology group; we strive for a tribal, mythopoetic, and artisanal authenticity from a practical, modern standpoint. For example, we do much of our cooking on braziers, but our Pennsic kitchen also has a propane camp stove. Sometimes we cook things we gathered, grew, raised, or hunted; sometimes we go to Costco. I bring my woad kit and a drop-spindle to events, along with pharmaceuticals, dental floss, and whisky.

Preachain accumulated a great deal of experience with woad as body paint before I joined in 1997. The group had tested several techniques. Mixing mediums included egg whites, water, saliva, beer, and beef fat—none of which were ideal in our context (for hygienic and aesthetic reasons). Some practitioners used brushes for application; others used cosmetic grinders, fingers, or charcoal smudge sticks.

Cosmetic grinders from the British Museum
British Museum: Bronze cosmetic grinder, mortar component. 2001,0801.1, AN821342001. Image from museum website used under standard Creative Commons terms of use.

These approaches had many drawbacks in our modern reenactment context. Typically, in our group, many people want to be painted within quite a short time, so a bulk grinding technique is necessary. The designs need to dry quickly. Most of our events take place in much warmer climates than insular Celts would have had to deal with, and some materials spoil too rapidly in the heat. I didn’t like the smudge sticks as an implement (both for their modern appearance and the quality of line). I tried several different approaches before settling on my current techniques and materials—and I encourage you to do the same. Here’s what I do.

Materials

  • Kit containment: You’ll want a basket, a box, or at least a pouch to keep your kit in. (Pouches tend to mash brushes, though. Mashed brushes are hard to paint with.)
  • Powdered woad pigment: The Limner’s Guild booth at Pennsic has carried pure Scottish woad for years (and the new management assures me they will continue to do so). Woad should be available from the Guild’s website shortly as well. Other sources include the Woad Center and All About Woad (both in the U.K.). {Tangent: If you want to grow your own woad, excellent instructions for extracting woad pigment (“indigotin”) from the leaves can be found on the “All About Woad” site’s Woad Extraction page. I have never extracted woad myself. Woad can be grown successfully throughout much of the U.S., but check with your local agriculture extension service, as in some places it is classified as an invasive. My sister Michelle Parrish is a natural dyer and master weaver, and has many posts on her blog about her adventures growing and processing woad. [Side note from the tangent: I am intrigued by this “Ancient Blue crystal woad,” which is a stain as opposed to a surface pigment—it’s made by interrupting the extraction process before the pigment precipitates. It’s derived from indigo, not woad (same pigment, different plant), and I haven’t tried it.]}
  • Mortar and pestle: I tried a museum reproduction cosmetics grinder (very similar to the one at top right in the museum photo above); it worked very well, but only on tiny amounts of pigment at a time. For the number of people and the scale I usually paint at, it wasn’t enough. I eventually settled on this “mushroom” style. Most stone or ceramic mortar and pestles (mortars and pestles??) would work, I think, but I imagine the tactile clues to a perfect grind would be different.
Mortar and pestle, made of marble; the pestle is shaped like a mushroom.
Mortar and pestle, made of marble; the pestle is shaped like a mushroom. This image comes from Amazon.com, https://amzn.com/B00X3KTPPA . I’m not trying to get you to buy anything; this is just for proper image attribution.
  • Whisky: It’s not documentable to Preachain’s period (which is just pre- and post-Roman contact among the insular Celts), but high-proof liquor is my favorite mixing medium/solvent. I use whisky. There is evidence of distillation in Mesopotamia as early as the 2nd millennium B.C.E, but nothing documented for the British Isles until the 15th century A.C.E. Alcohol evaporates quickly off the skin, so the pattern sets quickly—important to our context of “Everyone get woaded and go somewhere together!” I think whisky’s slightly resinous quality does nice things for the paint consistency; vodka hasn’t worked as well for me. Alcohol also evaporates out of the woadbowl before any noticeable nastiness develops. It leaves something quite similar to ink-cake, that can be re-used just by adding more whisky. What not to use:
    • Ammonia. Don’t do it. Despite persistent and passionate rumors to the contrary, it does not make the woad stay longer on your skin. It could irritate your skin very badly. And it’s nauseating to paint with.
    • Wine, beer, and other alcoholic liquids with residual sugar get sticky and itchy on the skin, attract insects, and can mold or turn to vinegar in the bowl. Not desirable.
    • Egg white and egg yolk flake off the skin once dry, and foul the bowl quickly unless you rinse it out frequently, which wastes an awful lot of woad.
    • Saliva on its own is loaded with potential ick.
    • Water is OK, but drippy to paint with and takes a long time to dry (which is fine if you’re lazing around painting all afternoon; not so much when everyone is trying to get out the gate).

      Me, with paintbrush, painting one kinswoman while having my hair done by another.
      Me, with paintbrush, painting one kinswoman while having my hair done by another. Photo by Derek Nestell, used with permission. (I also enjoy and am slightly embarrassed by the jumble of modern and period-appropriate stuff in this picture.)
  • Powdered rosemary: Optional. A pinch of rosemary in the grind takes the edge off woad’s pungent, wet-dog odor, toning down the more objectionable notes. Adding it into the grind, not the mixing bowl, ensures that it doesn’t affect the coverage quality. If you’re at Pennsic, Auntie Arwen and Brush Creek Wool Works might carry powdered rosemary. I get mine from Penzeys. Another woad-painter I know used to put a couple of drops of lavender oil in her woadbowl for the fragrance, but I didn’t like what that did to the coverage quality (for me—her woad was always beautiful). Now one of my campmates is anaphylactically allergic to lavender, so it’s not an option.
  • Gum arabic: Optional. A couple of years ago (2012 or ’13, I think?), Johann Blau (a longtime SCAdian and armorer of some note) was watching me paint, and asked if I ever use fixatives. I said “Like what?” He said, “Well, my mom is a limner, and she uses gum arabic.” I got some at the Limner’s Guild and tried it. It works well: A bit in the painting-mix makes the coverage smoother and less apt to rub off accidentally. Gum arabic is documentable to antiquity as a trade good in North Africa and the Mediterranean—not very likely to have made it to Britain, but not impossible. I just read that gum arabic is insoluble in pure ethanol, so though it seems to dissolve well in the woadbowl, I’m going to test different batches—one with the gum added as I have been doing, and one with the gum dissolved in water first (hoping to get that test done during the first week of Pennsic). EDIT: I did, in fact, test this out, though I failed to document it thoroughly. I took two small corked glass vials. Into each, I put 1/4 tsp of gum arabic. To one I added 2 tsp water; to the other, 2 tsp of whisky. I corked both vials and shook them up thoroughly. The gum dissolved readily in the water, forming a very slightly cloudy liquid. The gum did not dissolve right away in the whiskey; it formed a little stubborn glob. I shook the vial every 8 hours or so, and after about 36 hours the gum had dissolved fully. So now I carry a little gum-mixing-vial in my woad kit, and mix it down with whiskey, and add about 1/2 tsp of the solution to my woadbowl. I’ll try to get better measurements/proportions/photos next time…
  • Woadbowl: I don’t like to paint straight from the mortar, because it’s heavy, and I have tendon problems in both hands. The painting-mix is a little bit sticky, and can make the next grind clumpier and more difficult if you make the mix in the mortar. For your woadbowl, find something non-porous that fits your hand comfortably. Ceramic or glass cups, small bowls, or scallop shells work nicely. (The one I use is from Maggie the Potter at Feed the Ravens.)
  • Storage jars/vials: Up to you. I use small corked clay jars from Dancing Pig, corked glass vials from Bitty Bottle, and a birch box from Feed the Ravens.
  • Brushes: Cosmetics grinders have been put forth in the scholarly literature as all-in-one grinders and applicators, but I didn’t enjoy them as an artistic tool. They don’t offer enough control for the kinds of designs I was after. I have tried a lot of brush types. My favorite: the Winsor & Newton Squirrel Mop series. My not-very-deep inquiry suggests that the Egyptions, Greeks, and Romans used squirrel brushes for painting and cosmetics, but I don’t have research to support that (yet). Squirrel mops are widely available at art supply stores and online. I like the look of them. With their wire-wrapped goose-quill ferrules, they aren’t obviously modern from a few feet away. I use size 000 or 00 for faces, and size 1 for larger body pieces. They hold a lot of color, and the line quality works well for my style of painting—I don’t feel like I’m fighting the brush to get the line I want, most of the time. Oddly, squirrel mops are not featured on Winsor & Newton’s USA/Canada site, but they are on the UK site and on Amazon.com.

    Winsor & Newton squirrel mop brushes
    Winsor & Newton squirrel mop brushes
  • Chopstick or scraping stick: There’s a fair amount of scraping and chipping of dried woad involved in this process. Using your brush handle is tempting, but the chipping wears the handles down and makes them prone to splitting. I have a special carved stick that I got from Feed the Ravens. A wooden chopstick with a tapered shape would work fine.

Grinding

I have found woad pigment for sale in two forms: Chunks, and powdered. The chunks take longer to break down, but even the pre-powdered form is not fine enough for my liking. The grains clump and leave visible streaks. I developed a wet-grinding technique to overcome this. It is best learned in person; the clues to a correct consistency are tactile. I start with a packet/5g of woad powder in the mortar, and add a pinch of powdered rosemary. Then I take a sip of whisky and spit it into the mortar. I could measure as I do this, I guess…but I think the saliva is important. (If you aren’t comfortable getting a little bit of my spit on you, I’m not the painter for you. This is a tribal-identity activity we’re talking about. Friends and family.) Grind carefully—the mixture oozes and blurps over the edge of the mortar easily. At the beginning, you can feel/hear the grittiness of the grain size. After about 10-15 minutes (?) of grinding, the mix changes and takes on what I call a “silky pudding” consistency—the grittiness feels suddenly gone. At this point I scrape the paste into a holding jar. It’s very concentrated, and it doesn’t matter if it dries out.

Mixing into Body Paint

Put about 1/2 tsp (?? I’ll measure, next time…) of paste into your bowl and add a bit of gum arabic. I measure the gum arabic with my brush—about an inch of gum along the brush handle. This would be easier with photos. [EDIT, 2017: Following last year’s experiments, I now use a gum arabic/whiskey solution which I prepare in advance instead of the powder.] Then, take a sip of whisky and spit it into the bowl. Mash the paste into the whisky with your stick, then mix with your brush until smooth. You’re going for a consistency between ink and poster paint. Test it on your hand to check the coverage quality. I’m sure that’s a personal preference.

Painting

Advise first-time woad recipients that woad can cause allergic reactions, and that if they get more than a tiny bit itchy or have any other allergic symptoms they should wash the woad off, take some Benadryl, and seek medical assistance as necessary. (I have painted hundreds of people, and have seen two instances of allergic reaction–one immediate, and one that didn’t emerge until the next day.)

Don’t paint above someone’s eyes during the day or on a warm night unless they know what they are getting into. Woad in your eyes stings.

This process will not stain skin, but it can be difficult to remove completely all at once. It can typically be removed with a baby wipe or with soap and water. Woad comes off oily skin more easily than dry skin. The woad can get rather deeply into some people’s pores, and take a couple of scrubbings to remove. It will rub off onto your bedding (or your partner) if you go to bed with it still on—but in my experience it washes out quite easily. (It generally won’t stain fabric permanently unless you use a mordant and/or dip the fabric/fiber in the woad vat before the color has precipitated out.) I have seen woad designs stay on skin for as long as four days before the detail is all rubbed out, leaving a dove-grey shadow. If you re-paint the same design in the same place for several days, or just one day with a lot of sun exposure, you can get woad tan lines/shadows.

A by-appointment piece for the Warlord of the Free Company of Anglesey, another non-Kingdom ally, in 2015. This piece took about 90 minutes.
A by-appointment piece for the Warlord of the Free Company of Anglesey, another non-Kingdom ally, in 2015. This piece took about 90 minutes. Photo by Amy Ripton, used with permission.

Sunscreens and makeup can make the woad bead up and not stick well. I am considering some tallow-and-beeswax experiments for daytime use (thinking that a lip balm/wax pencil kind of texture might work better than the alcohol suspension over sunscreen and makeup, as well as on oily skin). But grease never dries all the way, making it more likely to smear and get on other things. Maybe a chalk powder over the paint to set it? [EDIT, 2017: I’ll do more experiments…]

The design style is completely up to you. I started with freeform doodles, then got more serious with typical La Tène motifs from coins, stonework, and metalwork. I have gradually developed a personal style that works with musculature, bone structure, and light. I think it’s recognizably “Celtic,” but I can’t make any claims to documentation (except for “Get out the gate!!” woad–for that I tend to use simpler patterns, very much like those on the coins in the research paper cited above).

Bonus! Woad as a dye plant: Much more than just blue.

As noted above, my older sister Michelle Parrish is a natural dye expert. Years ago, when Preachain was still doing public living history demonstrations at Celtic festivals, Michelle made me an amazing gift: A sampler of hand-dyed, hand-spun wool, with a key to the plants, insects, mordants, and processes she used to dye each sample. Fifteen of the samples—ranging from a pale green through many shades of blue and a couple of rosy-pink-taupes—are colors derived at least in part from woad.

Hand-spun, hand-dyed wool samples by Michelle Parrish of Local Color Dyes
Hand-spun, hand-dyed wool samples by Michelle Parrish of Local Color Dyes

Key: I started typing these out, but they’re very difficult to parse. Here’s a tiny, hard-to-read photo of the key. When I have time I’ll try to do a mouseover image map of this. [EDIT: Mouseover image map is beyond my skills, sorry.]

Descriptions of the dye plants/insects and mordants used to produce the colors in the sampler above.
Descriptions of the dye plants/insects and mordants used to produce the colors in the sampler above.

I think Michelle would want me to note that many of the red samples are dyed with cochineal, which the Celts would not have had (as it originates in South America). However, another insect, kermes, produced the same color and was a common Mediterranean trade good in antiquity. It’s comparable to the switch from woad to indigo as primary source of blue. (Woad and indigo both produce “indigotin” pigment—it’s chemically identical, but it’s more concentrated in the indigo plant and less labor-intensive to extract.)

[1] OXFORD JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGY 24(3) 273–292, 2005; © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street Malden, MA 02148, USA. The copyright terms of this paper are such that I may not link to it from a public website or distribute it via listserv. I am allowed to email single copies for personal use, though.  Go back up to reference point.

Web Writing for Beginners: Simone’s Top 10 Tips

Approx. 5-minute read | I’ve received a lot of requests for these tips, most recently on the email list for the Global Health Knowledge Collaborative. This is not a formal work product yet, so it doesn’t have my project or organization branding on it — it’s what I think, based on more than 15 years of writing on the Web. EDIT, 10/6/2016: It is a formal work product now! Read a slightly more serious version for the knowledge management context on The Exchange (K4Health’s Medium publication), or download a 2-page abridged-for-print version from K4Health.org. 

Consider Your Audience

1. Think about your readers.
 Before you begin writing, put yourself in a reader’s shoes. People read on the Web to find solutions to problems, get information, be entertained, or be moved or supported emotionally. What are you trying to convey? Is it useful, interesting, motivating, or energizing? Make reading worth their time.

2. Be careful with jargon. Jargon and abbreviations can be useful shortcuts with the right audience. With the wrong audience, they are actively alienating. Jargon and abbreviations can also be hard to translate, if translation is a concern. Use plain language and spell out your abbreviations.

Jargon tangent: I recently did an informal survey asking friends how they felt about “thought leadership”—an expression I hear quite a bit in my professional sphere. 78 people responded. 10% felt neutral or grudgingly positive. The other 90% felt negative: They found it pretentious, confusing, or Orwellian.

People react to the phrase "Thought Leadership" with words like "Unease", "Orwellian", "Not down with it."
People react to the phrase “Thought Leadership” with words like “Unease”, “Orwellian”, “Not down with it.”

Write Well

“Writing well” is a huge undertaking —far beyond the scope of this tip sheet. The tips below are the pieces of “writing well” that are particularly applicable to writing for the Web. They can be especially helpful for people who are used to writing in a more academic or specifically-professional style (e.g., reports to a particular funder, papers for a known group of experts).

3. Find your own voice, and use it.  Within whatever style guide you might be held to, express your own ideas or build an argument from your own perspective, but in words your readers will understand. Imagine reading your piece out loud: Does it sound like you? If you read it aloud, would people listen? Readers recognize authenticity when they see it.

4. Condense your sentences.
 Check your writing with a readability tool (like this one). Keep your average sentence length down (15–20 words is a reasonable range, depending on your target audience). Vary your sentences — break up long sentences with short ones. (Write music.) Even people who have the patience to read a 40-word sentence on paper may give up after 20 words on the Web.

5. Watch the details. This includes proper grammar and punctuation. Check your spelling. Small mistakes will distract some readers from your ideas. (Imagine grit in a salad. Is the salad still good?) Also, double-check sources and quotations. It’s tempting to illustrate your point with a supporting aphorism from a famous person, or a quote from a colleague—but make sure they really said it. A misattributed or inaccurate quotation can be a big embarrassment.

Web Writing Specifics

6. Don’t paste from Word. Word is full of background formatting code that does not play well with most websites. If you wrote your piece in Word, copy and paste it into a plain-text editor (like Notepad or TextEdit) before putting it into a website content management system (CMS). Yes, you’ll have to re-do all your links—but that’s much less work than cleaning out incompatible code. If you must write in Word, and you’ll be sending your work to a content manager for publishing, it’s polite to include the URLs of any embedded links, so the content manager can reconstruct the links when s/he strips out the formatting.

7. Be conscious of length. 
This tip used to be “Keep it brief.” Experts used to recommend 300 to 700 words as a guideline for blog posts . Over the past ten years, with the rise of Twitter and mobile, very short-form writing became popular — but then there was a backlash in favor of more in-depth writing. It’s not uncommon now to see online posts of 3,000-5,000 words. If you think your piece needs to be longer, consider turning it into a series or a different type of publication. It’s a good idea to put an estimated read time at the top, and/or a summary of the key message of your post (some people call this the “TL;DR” — “too long, didn’t read”). Here’s a tool that calculates read time.

8. Make your piece scannable. Most people don’t actually read on the web. They skim through a page, looking for headings, keywords, and bullets that interest them. Would a reader still learn something from your piece if they read only the first few words, and skimmed through the highlights?

9. Make links meaningful.
 Links stand out — so make them mean something. A link to a video of a cute kid racing an otter is more meaningful and scannable than one that says to click here — even though they both go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9APqLA2YKs. (Don’t use bare URLs like that on a web page; they are not meaningful to humans, and they clutter things up.) Meaningful links are also an accessibility issue for people with disabilities. Many people with impaired vision use a “screen reader”—a device or app that literally reads website text aloud. In some modes, the screen reader only reads header and link text — it skips all the paragraph text until the user asks for a paragraph. Imagine the difference between hearing “a recent study about injectable contraceptives…today’s statement by the World Health Organization”, versus hearing “click here … here … click here.”

10. Write a good title. If someone were to try to find your piece with a search engine, what would they search for? Are those words in your title? Are they in your piece? Search engines tend to rate things more highly if the words in your title are also in your text. (Read my colleague Liz Futrell’s To Click or Not to Click: The Art of a Good Title.)

Sassi Saucier and the Potluck Revelation (Two Summer Salads, Good for Potluck)

Originally posted as a Note on Facebook, June 7, 2014. (I’m gradually moving my oeuvre from there to here as other life priorities and the material tolerances of my arm tendons permit.)

TL;DR: Don’t make boring things for potluck.
Skip to the recipes:
Watermelon, Feta, Watercress
Vaguely Southwestern Roasted Vegetable Salad

We had a potluck at work recently. I signed up to make a salad, and then I specified: “Watermelon, watercress, feta cheese, red onion.”

I had a moment of nervousness about that. In my 20s, I thought potluck food had to be “safe”—something I could count on most people being OK with. I think I underestimated other people’s palates, or undervalued my own. I would bring basic salads, or interesting but not terribly challenging cheeses.

Continue reading Sassi Saucier and the Potluck Revelation (Two Summer Salads, Good for Potluck)