Low tech calendar stuff

I work for a small consulting firm and the partners are often on the road. It’s helpful to know where we’re going to be and what company equipment we’re going to need. I guess large companies use Outlook or maybe web-based calendars for this sort of thing, but we get by with a couple of paper calendars that sit on a desk in a common area. One of the calendars keeps track of us and the other keeps track of the equipment. Because we’re small and don’t need too much space to write down our information, monthly calendars are sufficient.

Today, for example, I’m on a one-day trip to Denver to inspect a piece of equipment for a client. After making my travel arrangements a couple of weeks ago—and printing up an HPDA trip card—I wrote my initials in the December 12 box of the People calendar and “point micrometer” in the same box of the Equipment calendar. If someone else also needed that micrometer today, we’d either negotiate or decide it was time to get another point mike.

I’m not suggesting this is a particularly clever way of keeping a community calendar, but it works for us and takes very little effort to use. It’s always tempting (for me, at least) to go for computer-based solutions, but these are often more difficult to set up and provide, at best, marginal advantages. Computer solutions are the best choice when you need some combination of

  1. permanence of data;
  2. easy retrieval and searching of old data;
  3. easy editing;
  4. multiple copies;
  5. clean presentation; and
  6. access from several locations (this usually means web-based as well as computer-based).

The company calendar needs none of these. The calendar is meant to plan the future, not memorialize the past (we have time sheets for that), so permanence and retrieval are unnecessary. When a trip gets cancelled, we scratch out whatever was written for that day. It’s a bit ugly, but it’s fast and nobody sees our calendar but us. Because they’re kept in a common area, we only need one copy of each calendar. And while I can imagine a situation where knowing my partners’ schedules from the road would be useful, I haven’t actually run into that situation in the 11+ years the company has been in business.

Of course, I can’t stop myself from adding some small bit of computer work to the mix. So instead of buying a couple of nice monthly desk calendars from At-A-Glance or DayMinder, I print our calendars using the pcal program.

Pcal has an absurd number of command-line options for controlling fonts, sizes, shading, and so on. It’s really meant to work with a “date file” to create annotated calendars with events neatly printed in the day boxes, but I use it without a date file to create blank calendars.

(If you’re interested, the format of the date file is basically the same as that used by the old BSD calendar program, which comes with OS X. Calendar is sort of like the remind program that’s been discussed at Lifehacker and 43 Folders. I used calendar and pcal to keep track of my personal calendar back when I was using Linux.)

You can download the pcal source from its sourceforge page and compile it. I used MacPorts (née DarwinPorts) to download, compile, and install in one fell swoop:

sudo port install pcal

If you’re a Fink user, you’re out of luck; Fink doesn’t have a pcal package.

Pcal creates PostScript that it sends to standard output. A few weeks ago, I printed a 12-page calendar for the upcoming year with this command:

pcal -C Equipment -S 1 2007 12 | lpr

The -C option sets the centered title at the bottom of each page to “Equipment.” (I did another one with a title of “People.”) The -S option suppresses the printing of mini-calendars for the previous and subsequent months. The three numerical arguments tell pcal to print 12 monthly calendar pages starting at January 2007. The output is then piped to my default printer via lpr. Out comes a year’s worth of monthly calendar pages in landscape format.

If you want a PDF of the calendar saved on your hard disk, you can issue these three commands:

pcal -o 2007.ps -C Equipment -S 1 2007 12
ps2pdf 2007.ps
rm 2007.ps

This will leave you with a file named “2007.pdf” in the current directory. Ps2pdf is part of the Ghostscript suite of programs and is typically much faster (on my iBook, anyway) than Preview is at turning PostScript to PDF.

Pcal, when used with a date file, can be handy when you need to print up a bunch of schedules where the events are closely spaced—a little league season schedule, for example, that you want to hand out to all the kids’ parents. If you don’t try to get too clever with recurring events, the date file’s format is easy to use and easy to remember.