new media

The paradox of thrift

The economy is on everyone's mind, it seems, and I'm seeing an increase in blog postings on thriftiness, craftiness, DIY projects, and other related topics. 

Household debt is down, for the first time since 1952, in the US.  It seems that many people want to tighten their belts and pay down those credit cards and other obligations when faced with uncertainty on this scale.  I know I am.

But it seems that this state of affairs isn't necessarily good for the economy.  Economists refer to something called "the paradox of thrift": being thrifty is usually encouraged, but not during an economic downturn, when spending needs to increase in order to fuel the economy.

While I may know that spending more might help the economy, I feel almost as if I have an allergy to spending.  I scaled back at Christmastime, choosing to spend my money with independent artisans through the online craft marketplace Etsy, and I've put off clothes shopping for a few months now.  I put away my credit cards over the summer, and am trying to buy everything with my debit card, so I'm not even carrying much cash around. 

And I find I'm bookmarking and clipping more and more web articles and blog posts related to the economy, personal finances, and unexpected opportunities that are arising from the financial crisis. Maybe it's just me, and what I'm paying attention to.  I've put together some links you might find interesting, and if you find any others you think I'd enjoy, please send them my way:

Why we're focused on thrift in the first place.  Widely blogged op-ed from this week's NYTimes: "The End of the Financial World as We Know It" (part 1, part 2).  The upshot:

OUR financial catastrophe, like Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme, required all sorts of important, plugged-in people to sacrifice our collective long-term interests for short-term gain. The pressure to do this in today’s financial markets is immense. Obviously the greater the market pressure to excel in the short term, the greater the need for pressure from outside the market to consider the longer term. But that’s the problem: there is no longer any serious pressure from outside the market. The tyranny of the short term has extended itself with frightening ease into the entities that were meant to, one way or another, discipline Wall Street, and force it to consider its enlightened self-interest.

If you feel a bit peeved at any of those jokers for ruining the economy, you can suggest adding their names to the website "People Who Deserve It:  Socially responsible reasons for punching someone in the face."  Just suggest the name, don't actually punch them, though, OK?

A surprising consequence of thrift: During economic downturns, the public's physical health usually improves.

Thrift in the kitchen

  • "Things I find in the Refrigerator Soup."  I can attest, soup and stews are a great way to get your veggies, eat healthily, and save cash.  A sub-blog of Apartment Therapy called The Kitchn has a series throughout January on eating light and frugally.
  • Mark Bittman's column in this week's NYTimes was widely shared--it gives a set of tips for getting off to a new start in the kitchen, many of which are cost-saving practices. Buy dried beans, spread a smidge of olive oil with your fingers rather than use aerosol spray oil, make your own simple salad dressings...
  • Go Muji-styleMuji is a Japanese company that sells simple and minimalist housewares, paper goods and clothing.  (Their website, however, is a bit unnecessarily overbuilt.  You can get an idea of their products just by watching the items scroll, rather than pressing "play".)  If you're in NY, too, you can check out their products in person at the MoMA store and at the new Muji Store on 8th Ave in the Times Square NYTimes building.
  • In the kitchen, and throughout the home: switching from store-bought cleaning products to home-made solutions is also cheap!  Given the concerns about the potential effect of household chemicals on our health and the environment, we've started cleaning with more natural substances, such as diluted white vinegar,  baking soda, and lemon juice.  Recipes and instructions here.

The politics of relative thrift.  Nate Silver, at, thinks that Obama's got an interesting strategy re: the stimulus package.  "The Price Is Right":  Obama starts low, lets the Democratic Congress build it up, doesn't spend as much political capital convincing the country, and continues to build his credibility among moderates.  Meanwhile, the Congress grows the package, gets to put in what it wants, and wins.

Control, psychology, and thrift.  There's a game on Facebook that is taking that social networking space by storm.  It's called "Futuregame," and essentially you make a guess as to whether stocks will go up or down, in 30 second increments (real stocks, real time).  Get it right, and you begin a "streak."  Win enough times in a row, and you start to win real money.  I played for all of 10 minutes or so, and was hopeless.  There's some comfort, at least for me, in taking control over what I can control--my own budget and financial decisions, and not leaving it up to the instability of the market.

Thrift as a productivity practice.  Leo Babauta, who has a great blog called Zen Habits, focused on increasing your productivity through simplifying, has a new book out called The Power of Less, which is accompanied by a free downloadable ebook "Thriving on Less: Simplifying in a Tough Economy." Two useful posts on his blog: 73 Great Debt Reduction Tips, and The Cheapskate Guide.

Thrift and technology?

  • David Pogue, NY Times technology columnist: column on how to save money with technology.  Includes tips like cancelling cable and streaming your TV through the internet, buying refurbished computers and other gadgets. 
  • Send HP your old technology--get cash!  (well, for some things)
  • 12 Good Gadgets for Hard Times.  I think I'll get the water bottle with the built-in filter for my "go bag."
  • Using the web to find cheap/free goods.  Many of you probably know about Craig's list and Ebay, where you can find other people who want to buy or sell things.  There's also groups that exchange through "freecycling"(check out, organized through Yahoo Groups: sign up and get posts about stuff that's available for free, and post things that you want to give away).  This kind of web-facilitated direct consumer exchanges is only growing.  A new one to the scene:  BoxCycle.  Need a box?  Get one free or cheap.  Have a box?  Give it away or sell it.

 So while thrift might not be so good for restimulating the economy, it does seem to stimulate people's creativity, make us draw upon our resourcefulness and ingenuity.  Apartment Therapy's blog has a post entitled  "Inspiration: Design Thrives in Hard Times."  Within it, there's a great quote from Paola Antonelli, design curator at MoMA, about the current economic crisis:

What designers do really well is work within constraints, work with what they have. This might be the time when designers can really do their job, and do it in a humanistic spirit.

I like the idea of thrift propelling design, stimulating problem-solving, creating opportunities for new practices, instead of deprivation.

Update (Jan 11):  I forgot to include a word about what got me started thinking about thriftiness and creativity about 6 weeks ago: the "Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary" exhibit at NYC's Museum of Arts and Design.  Unfortunately, the museum doesn't allow you to take pictures within the exhibit, so I can't give you a taste--but it's well worth a trip.  Artists have taken all kinds of everyday materials--vinyl records, plastic buttons, beer cans, clothing labels, and turned them into amazing and beautiful works of art. 

One of my favorites is by Paul Villinski, who has taken his LP record collection and, after listening to each album, cut it into a beautiful butterfly and created a sculpture of them by attaching them to a wall, as if they were in flight. This image is from his website.

The blog "Re-Nest: Abundant design for green homes" had a piece about an artist who uses recycled PET bottles for her art.  And the result is just beautiful--check it out, here.  Another post from that same blog was about repurposing wine bottles--a company in Colorado cuts off the bottom part and turns them into drinking glasses.

This kind of possibility is all around us--if we just adjust our vision, and think about the long life of objects.



What is tagging?

You may have heard folks talk about "tagging" or seen the word "tags"  in connection to information on the web.  Tagging is fast becoming a common way to organize information--basically, it just means  attaching an identifying keyword, label,  or category title to something, like a webpage, a file, or other content.   Tagging is a kind of filtering, or sorting.

If you're looking at a webpage, and you see a bunch of words to the side of the page, they probably indicate "tag cloud" or a "tag index."   Here's an example, from the home page of Wordpress--it shows the top tags being used at the time I took this picture.

Each of those words, and the size of the words, tells you about the content on that site.  The tags tell you what topics people are writing about, and the size of the word gives you a relative sense of the number of items that have been tagged with the same word.  The bigger the word, the more items have been identified with that tag.  This can be a helpful visual description of what a website focuses on, and can give you a quick sense of whether that site has the kind of information you are looking for.

In most cases, when you see a tag cloud, you can click on the word and it will then link you to a list of all the content that is tagged with that word.  Sometimes the tag cloud is static, and is therefore only a descriptive device, not a navigational tool.

Using tags:  navigating, organizing, and discovering

Tags can be used in at least three ways.  First, if you are visiting a site, and want to see what's there, you can click on words that interest you in the tag cloud, and access the content that way.  You could think about that as "navigating through tags."  For example, you can click on the tags in the right-hand navigation menu on this page, to access content with a particular label.

Second, there is a way to use tags that you could think about as "organizing through tags."  This second way is more related to generating or organizing content, rather than looking to see how someone else has organized it.

Some blogging programs allow you to tag your posts, which are aggregated to create a tag cloud for your blog; the program I use, Squarespace, has a list of tags, instead of a cloud (see right-hand navigation menu).    Another common way that people use tags to organize content is with web-based programs like Flickr (online photo albums) and Delicious (online bookmarking website). If I am surfing the web, and I have a Delicious account, I can bookmark webpages and tag them; if I collect hundreds of bookmarks, it's easier for me to organize that content by using tags rather than putting bookmarks into lots of folders.

Say I've spent a few days looking at non-profit organizations focused on hunger issues, and I've also been trying to figure out what my taxes might be this year so I saved a bunch of websites about tax calculators and tips on deductions...and I also am weaning my household off of toxic chemicals and using all "green", eco-friendly (and people-friendly) cleaning products, so I've been finding some information about that and bookmarking that too.  If I've been tagging each site as I bookmark it with one or two keywords, then it's easy for me to go back to my Delicious account and click on the right tag, without scrolling through a long list, or having to put bookmarks into a system of folders.  The other very cool thing about Delicious is that your account is on the web, not attached to a particular computer, so you can bookmark anything wherever you are, and access your bookmarks from any computer.

Finally, tagging can also be "social" (more on this in a future post), which means that many of these services allow you to share content with friends or the larger public, whichever you decide.  This sharing capacity allows you to use tags to discover websites that other people have already found interesting, already bookmarked or's like Googling something, but pre-filtered because the content has already been sifted and sorted.  If you are on Flickr, and you want to find a picture of tornado, you can type in "tornado" into the search box, and Flickr will pull up all the photos that have been tagged with "tornado."  If you are on Delicious, and search for everything that's tagged "Ani DiFranco," Delicious will pull up all the pages that have been bookmarked and tagged with that name.

An interesting neologism associated with social tagging is the notion of a "folksonomy"--like a taxonomy, or system of categorization, but a system that is created by masses of people.  The categories themselves are generated by the people who are creating the content, and categories emerge as people use it.

A more recent twist on tagging is something called "geotagging," which is using a physical location, like longitude and latitude coordinates, as a tag.  This can give you precise information about where something or someone might be, and can allow you to associate files or other data with specific locations.   Google Earth allows you to post photos that are tagged with locations--creating an ever-growing, user-generated, photo enhancement of the satellite image of the world.   Geotagging has interesting social applications--there are programs that can allow you to see what other people have written about a particular location when you are in that location, such as "Don't eat at this place!" or "Amazing sculpture near the river!"  People can "tag places" just the way that they can tag websites, and mobile access to the web can allow us to see this additional layer of information about the world around us.  (Good read:  William Gibson wrote about geotagging as an artistic practice in his latest book, Spook Country.)

rss feed readers, and why to love them

Good friends of mine will remember, fondly or not so, my near-constant newsreading during the 2008 election. I was tethered to the computer, checking in with a range of websites, jumping from one to the other, scanning for updates, breaking news, smart analysis...I'd finish the circuit, and then start all over again.

Then I finally sat down to figure out this RSS reader thing I had heard about.  And what a lovely thing it turned out to be! If you visit a bunch of websites that have content that is updated relatively frequently, you might find  RSS a handy tool, as well.

So what is RSS?

RSS stands for "real simple syndication".  That still doesn't tell you very much, unfortunately.  Lots and lots of websites now have a symbol that looks like this:   RSS symbol When you see this symbol on a website, it means you can "subscribe" to that site, and get a "feed" of the ongoing updates from that site.  Those feeds are collected into something called a "reader."

The good folks at CommonCraft have put together a 2 minute video overview of what a RSS reader is and does:

Clear enough?

Basically, RSS checks all your websites for you, grabs any new updates and sends them to one place, your "reader."  That way, you can just go to the reader, which is on the web and can be accessed from a computer or accessed through an application on a mobile phone or other device.  So you go to the reader, and scroll through all the posts from those websites--and you're all  caught up lickety-split. All you have to do is choose a RSS reader, tell it which websites you want it to check for you, then...well, then all you have to do is read! And after you get a reader, any time you see that RSS symbol, you can click on it, and add that website to your list of feeds.

Why would you want to use RSS?

One reason why a RSS reader is useful is that it can save you a lot of time:  you check the reader when it fits in with your schedule and you see all the posts that you haven't read yet.  You don't have to visit a bunch of websites and scroll back to see if you missed anything.  In addition, most RSS readers have an easy way for you to then flag/star a particular post so you can return to it later, and a way for you to email a link to that post to someone else.

Say you like sewing, and sailing, and cooking.  You could subscribe to websites about those topics, and get good tips and learn new stuff about those topics.  Or, maybe you are interested in the economy, and green products for the home.  You could subscribe to websites about those things.  It's like tailoring the web just to your particular interests.  And you don't need to be someone who checks out websites all the time--you might look at your reader only once in awhile, whenever it's convenient for you.

If you want to subscribe to this blog, you can click on the symbol up there to the right, and my new posts will be sent to your feed reader.

Examples of RSS readers.

I've been experimenting with a couple different readers since I got my iPhone in September, and am happy to report that there's plenty of free, reliable options out there.  Here's a quick overview of two of the readers I've tried and their pros/cons, in my experience.

Google Reader.
Google's RSS reader is great.  You can sign up for a Google reader without signing up for a Gmail account, so no worries there.  It's easy to add websites/feeds to your reader, to organize them and delete them.  What's cool about Google Reader is that, in addition to highlighting posts you think are interesting and want to keep, you can also easily email, tweet, and "share" posts with friends.  So it's a "social" technology,  in the way that much of new media applications are shared with friends and other people.

Another cool aspect is that you can "tag" a post with identifying terms--say it's an article about chocolate and it's beneficial effects on the brain.  You can tag that article with "food", "health," and "brain"--it's like creating categories for the article.  And if you save a lot of articles or posts and tag them, you'll be able to sort those articles by their topical categories.  This is a new way to organize content--which we need, given the explosion of information made available by the web.  I'll talk more indepth about social media and tagging in another post. The only drawback I've found with it is when I use it on the iPhone--on the iPhone, you access the Google Reader on the web, and there isn't a way to browse through your feeds and read them if you aren't connected to the internet.

Here's what my reader looks like.
On the left, you can see a list of all the websites I've subscribed to (and the folders and tags I've organized them with).  On the right is the most recent post from one of the political websites,  At the bottom of that post, you can see what you can do with the post after you've read it, if you want:  star, email, share, tag.   If you use Firefox, you can also add an extension that integrates Twitter into your Google Reader, so you can directly tweet articles and postings as you read them.


This is another very good option, and, unlike Google Reader, NetNewsWire downloads all the content to your mobile device for offline browsing.  This set of applications are related, but it can be a little confusing.  You access Newsgator on the web, you download FeedDemon to your computer, and you use NetNewsWire on mobile devices.  If you like to read your feeds on a handheld, you can "clip" a post for later reference; these are then accessible when you're on your computer, which is handy if you want to bookmark or blog content that you find.

In theory, one account is synchronized across all three platforms, but I did find that some changes I made in one platform were not automatically updated in the others.   Also, it's got fewer social features than Google, as you can see in the below image--at the bottom of the post, there are only options to "mark as read," clip, tag, and email.  NetNewsWire, as a mobile device reader, works well in most repects, but doesn't allow you to add feeds--you have to go to NewsGator or FeedDemon to do that, which is limiting. Here's my NewsGator reader:

Both Google and NewsGator are solid and versatile, and I don't know how I'd keep up with all the things I want to learn about without them--but neither are perfect:  I'd like one reader to incorporate everything:  ease of adding, deleting and organizing feeds; ability to mark read/unread, star, email, tag, share and tweet posts; and an option to download all posts to the handheld, to read content offline.  Actually, I'd like to be able to integrate Wordpress with one of these readers, so I could just send links directly to my Wordpress account, into some sort of drafting space...oh, one can only dream.  Maybe something like that will come along, maybe even next week...

I also like Manifesto for the iPhone (thanks Andy Ihnatko!)--it's easy to use, beautiful, and you can import feeds from your Google Reader.  If it was two-way, that would be perfect.  Until Google Reader gets offline capacity...which I don't know if that's even a goal...I think I'll be stuck using two systems, one for the iPhone and one on the computer.   If you sign up for a Google Reader, lemme know.  I'd love to share with you.  That means that you'd be able to see posts that I chose to share, and vice versa.