Brain Pickings

Price Tags of Life

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Money to burn, the world’s most profitable non-retailer, worse than rehab, outmobying Moby, farting sheep, cashing in on karma, how Josh feels about the homeless, and absolutely nothing related to Halloween. Welcome to the Price Tags of Life issue.

CASH FLOW DAM

$Okay, so maybe money does make the world go ’round. But managing it also takes away from our time enjoying the world’s ’round-going. Especially when the average American juggles 13 total credit obligations (9 credit cards and 4 installment loans) for a staggering national consumer debt of $2.47 trillion. So anything that makes that whole money game easier is a welcome crutch in our crippled sprint away from bankruptcy.

Say hello to Mint.com, a totally free, totally secure service that’s out to refresh money management. An effortless way to pull all of your financial stuff in one place and stay on top of things, it takes less than 5 minutes to set up. You just go through a few authentication steps for each of the accounts you add (credit cards, banks, checking accounts, savings, etc.) and you’re good to go. (And just to reiterate for the paranoid types out there, Mint provides bank-level data security. That’s PayPal with a chastity belt.

The minty magic also gives you snapshot of your spending patterns, so you know where you’re blowing your budget, and offers helpful saving tips based on your financial activity. And it saves the average user $1,000 at the first login. Bonus points for the wonderfully Appleish, widgety feel and an interface that’s as hip as anything financial can get.

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It’s been a while since we endorsed something with such lack of reservation and snark, but this one’s a real Brain Pickings Seal of Approval winner. More importantly, it’s also the winner of this year’s TechCrunch 40 grant: that’s a $50,000 nod. Do check it out.

UNTHREADED WATERS

If you’re an aspiring designer, artist, art director or other artsy-crafty type, you’re familiar with Threadless: the Chicago-based website that lets people submit t-shirt designs to be voted on by others, then manufactures the top 7 designs each week and pays the artists $2,500 a piece. Last month, Threadless opened their first retail store in Chicago, taking the nontraditional to a whole new level. They’re even staying away from the “store” label and calling it a community center instead, a “project” rather than a “business”.

The two-story, 1,700 square-foot establishment carries a maximum of 20 t-shirt designs at a time, changing them up every Friday regardless of their popularity. And we’re talking about the first floor.

The second floor is actually merchandise-free, providing instead a space for group classes, random gatherings, or just a WiFi getaway. This kind of community-centric model fully reflects the founding philosophy of the 7-year-old company.

And it has become no small hub of creativity: with over 500,000 registered members and 1,000 weekly design submissions, Threadless spends over $1 million a year compensating artists for their designs. At $15 to $17 price tag for t-shirts, we guess it’s safe to say these folks must be on to something. In fact, their global annual sales have now topped $17 million — no small feat for the 35-employee getup whose primary contributors are starving artists.

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So whether you’re into entrepreneurism, art, or fashion, Threadless is worth taking a look at. Even if only for the not-so-remote possibility that it may embody the future of retail.

SELLOUT BOY

Frankly, it’s a bit dizzifying when everyone and their mother is throwing beat-up terms like “indie”, “commercialization”, “sell-out,” and “Bob Dylan is a soulless fucking hypocrite” at us. Sure, lines are blurring. And money is being made. But the whole marketplace of licensing tunes to advertising is leaving fans, and some Washington Post staffers, kinda bitter.

So one such indignant guy came up with The Moby Equation: a very, very precise mathematical formula using very, very subjective quotients to measure how much exactly an artist has “sold out.” (Not that you’re wondering, because it’s so blatantly obvious, but just in case: the name was inspired by the legendary licensing bonanza that landed just about every track on Moby’s 1999 Play album in a commercial.)

So we decided to see how “nonconformist” Regina Spektor fared with her “Music Box” stint for JC Penny (a.k.a. Saatchi’s attempt to infuse the bland retailer with some lovemark juice.) The formula spat out an impressive Moby Quotient of 312.56. But there seemed to be some kinda bug: although you can calculate the quotient, you can’t really submit a comment as clicking the “submit” button gets you to that oh-so-familiar standard error page.

So much for our snarky remark about Regina’s only chance in life to out-something The Clash.

BIG IN JAPAN

And on that note, those of us who’ve seen Lost In Translation know a thing or two about the Japanese commercial exploits of Western celebrities. One YouTube user took to bursting Hollywood’s sacredness bubble by compiling an extensive library of such Japanese commercials, spanning over 20 years and featuring dozens of A-listers.

The clips range from the laughable (please keep those towels on, Harrison Ford and Japanese sauna-mate) to the mildly offensive (who thought Jack Bauer was a calorie-conscious kinda man) to the grossly bizarre (hey there, naked Homer and Bart shilling C.C. Lemon).

Go ahead, indulge your makes-them-look-so-much-less-enviable craving with the complete collection.

UNTRIVIA

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We’re doing something a little different this week. This Untrivia edition is less about what people are doing, saying or thinking and more about what they should be doing, saying or thinking in light of some interesting facts, ranging from just plain odd to pretty damn disturbing. Consider them little tidbits of eye-opening stuff, stuff to inspire you to make simple changes, or just stuff to make you look smarter next time you’re trying to pick up an eco-hippie. Here we go:

  • Americans use 60,000 plastic bags every 5 seconds
  • It takes 25 bath tubs (1,250 gallons) of water to make a single half-pound beef patty (and 417 gallons for half a pound of tofu)
  • In the US alone, over 1 billion bottles of water get shipped on trains, trucks and boats, resulting in 37,800 18-wheelers guzzling the roads to deliver it
  • People chug over 30 billion throwaway bottles of water a year, enough to go around the world 150 times with an end-to-end chain of the used bottles
  • Cattle and sheep pass so much gas they account for a mind-blowing 18% of all methane, one of the greenhouse gases
  • Mining gold for a single ring creates 20 tons of waste rock, leaking cyanide (used to separate metal from ore) and other heavy metals into the environment

So what’s an average Joe to do? Cut back on the Sloppy Joes, get a Brita, start shopping with a canvas bag, get over that must-wear-gold ego and, for God’s sake, give those poor cows some Beano.

PROFITABLE KARMA

Say what you will of eBay, but we can’t deny the media empire started out with a very utilitarian, user-need-centric mentality. Skype and PayPal definitely fit this model. But the latest addition to the family is truly revolutionary in vision and functionality.

microplace1.pngMicroPlace is on a remarkable mission: to alleviate global poverty by letting everyday Americans invest in businesses run by the working poor. It’s called microinvesting and besides helping those in need take their small business ideas to market, it also gives investors a financial return on their humanitarianism. We see it as the ultimate giving back.

You choose the region you want to invest in (Africa, Eurasia, Latin America or Southeast Asia) or the specific country: to help you pick, MicroPlace gives you some (pretty scary) info on the country’s mortality rate, HIV prevalence, population, life expectancy, and percentage of population earning less than $1 a day. You can start with as little as $100, which may be just a Halloween outfit for you, but will help some woman (most traders, farmers and craftspeople in the developing world are female) earn a living wage with her own brain- and hand-child.

We’re all for smart symbiotic relationships and smart solutions to big global problems, so this one’s a real list-topper on our all-things-smart collection. Be your own judge.

AS SEEN IN PHILLY

First, some background so you can put this week’s sighting in context: on the ramp connecting the Chestunt and Market Street bridges to the Schuylkill trail, there’s a certain bench that, for the past couple of years, has been permanently occupied by a homeless man. Most of the time, by one particular, particularly smelly homeless man. (But with 3,000 homeless cramming Philly’s handful of shelters and another 300 roaming the streets on an average day, this poor guy isn’t even a blimp on the city’s homeless radar.)

Passing by it the other day, we were startled to find one upright citizen by the name of Josh had taken matters into his own too-much-time-on hands and erected the following radical homeless-deterrent over the bench:

not the answer

Of course it’s not the answer. And of course it’s not the humane thing to do. But what it is is part of the social conversation about a clearly hot-button issue. So while Josh may not have the solution, we firmly believe that real solutions are arrived at only through serious, intense and, yes, uncomfortable conversation. Because a society with no controversy and conversation is just a tad too Orwellian for our tastes.

But we can’t help pondering the moral implications of investing time and money in such a blatant Band-Aid when this same expenditure could’ve been used towards a (tiny) stab at a cure.

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