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Brain Pickings

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Context vs. Controversy

You’re a clichè, lots of skin, stuff that killed people, stuff that will kill you, policing the police, what Hitler is finding painfully unfunny, which European is holding suburban America hostage, how to get $80,782 from people who like you, and why the paparazzi are finally out of business.

BEYOND NASCAR

Making waves with a new website launch is so hard these days, what with taken domain names and beaten been-done-before concepts. Alas, newcomer Stuff White People Like, having dodged both 2.0 kisses of death, is off to a critically acclaimed start — and we think it has sprouted a new trend we like to call “affectionate stereotyping.”

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But sensationalist title aside, the witty blog doesn’t actually talk about race at all — it’s more about a certain economic subset united by the common gene for Christopher Guest movies, “The” bands, Whole Foods, Nordic furniture, and Obama. And, somehow, it manages to capture those tastes surprisingly well, indulging the shared disdain for certain mainstream pastimes (say, television) to nail the exceptions (say, The Wire.) In fact, it does it so well you should consider yourself warned: you may end up feeling like a far too common, albeit culturally elitist, walking clichè. Do you have bad memories of high school? Listen to public radio? Got a lot of t-shirts? Hate “The Man”? Recycle? Then you’re a figurative “white person.” They even got us on the Michel Gondry front. Shame. See the full list, then join us in a disillusioned head-down retreat to the “white person” factory. But, in all seriousness, this is easily the smartest blog we’ve come across in a long time. Between all the “affectionate stereotyping” and the captivating, witty voice, it somehow manages to ask all the big questions of identity, society, culture, politics and life. Plato couldn’t have done it better himself — despite his quintessential ancient white personness.

LARGER THAN LIFE

Campaign for Real BeautySpeaking of social trends, could fat be the new phat? We’re not talking about the acclaimed but oh-so-over- discussed Real Women of Dove, who are actually quite the hot stuff. We’re talking way, um, realer.

Like the “models” British celeb megaboober Katie Pierce, who goes by the alter ego Jordan, used in the launch of her eponymous lingerie line. The 29-year-old Anna-Nicolesque Brit tapped girls from her fan club to do the job — we’re resisting a joke about her “biggest admirers.” Unsuccessfully.

bigballet.pngThen there’s the Big Ballet — another U.K. phenomenon that, Turkey Lake jokes aside, has been said to put good ol’ skinny ballet acts to shame. In fact, the tour has gotten so big the ensemble is extremely hard to book.

But, really, there’s a King Pin in fat town. Big Fat Deal has been around since 2004, dissecting with snark and irreverence the pop culture portrayals of weight and “hottyness.”

But the blog, written by the mysterious duo of Weetabix and mo pie, has enjoyed a recent spike in popularity. It’s even got a Facebook group. We’re pretty ambivalent about the premise here — BFD works under the “fat acceptance” mantra — given our tax dollars are paying for the costs of obesity. But we must admit good questions are being asked and good points are being made. Like how come fat women feel betrayed when a fat celebrity gets back into shape? And why are fat people expected to slim down, but get mocked when they exercise?

Trans-fat-loaded food for thought, have a bite.

MEMOIRS OF NOSTRADAMUS

We like the present. Mostly because it’s a lot like us: egocentric. So we’ve always dug indulgences like Today In Music History. But because we’re all about making people uncomfortable this week, we turn to times when the present was less of a gift: a “today in disaster history” dose of morbidity brought to you by The Living Almanac of Disasters.

Earthquakes. Fires. Floods. Crashes. Eruptions. Collisions. Bombings. It’s got it all. Twenty-eight years ago today, for example, 22 members of the US boxing team died in a crash in Poland. Or on our birthday, when in 1945 the Empire State Building took its first hit by an airplane.

So check your birthday. Your anniversary. (Like you need another disaster on that date.) The day you lost your virginity. Hey, let’s go crazy: the day you had your first prostate exam. Superstition stopping you? Phsh.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gif If all the disaster talk got you paranoid, here’s a refreshing reality check about what could actually kill you and with what likelihood. Because common availability bias (our tendency to overestimate the statistical prevalence of things we’re bombarded with in the media or have experienced ourselves) can really do a number on your objectivity. So here are your chances of dying from select non-health-related causes in the U.S.:

  • Motor vehicle accident: 1 in 100
  • Homicide: 1 in 300
  • Fire: 1 in 800
  • Firearms accident: 1 in 2,500
  • Electrocution: 1 in 5,000
  • Asteroid/comet impact: 1 in 20,000
  • Passenger in aircraft accident: 1 in 20,000
  • Flood: 1 in 30,000
  • Tornado: 1 in 60,000
POLICE POLICE

And now for some real controversy — how much transparency should there be in government? According to Rate My Cop, an online forum where people voice raves and rants about police officers, a lot.

Under the tagline “You have the right to remain informed,” the privately-held website aims to do just that — keep citizens informed about the positives and negatives of the police force serving them. Because, after all, the police is a public service — so giving the public a say is only natural. Especially in light of the infamous Cop vs. Skater video of uncalled for police brutality that garnered over 4 million views in under a month.

The site encourages people to rate — anonymously but responsibly — each encounter they have with a police officer. And while we dig the concept of citizen empowerment through information and conversation, we wonder whether in this day and age of American Idol text voting and mass bandwagoning just for the sake of it, rating something as serious as the national police force may become a petty game of saying anything just to avoid saying nothing.

URGE TO PURGE

120 Funny Swastika CartoonsOur product pick this week is the latest book by famed New Yorker cartoonist S. Gross. We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons is, from the paradoxically comic title to the very last page of stellar artwork, an exercise in purging some of history’s heaviest burdens through humor.

In the publisher’s own words: “These witty, beautifully rendered images gleefully stomp through the darkest moments in history and remind us that humor can diffuse our unspoken fears and deflate an overwrought icon.”

Which resonates nicely with one of our favorite quotes by author and humorist Mary Hirsch. “Humor is a rubber sword — ” she says, “it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” That, and it’s funnier than watching other people’s cats fall in toilets on YouTube.

LITTLE CHOP OF HORRORS

Found Saw disturbing? Thought No Country For Old Men was gratuitously violent? Then don’t go anywhere near what’s already being dubbed this year’s most disturbing film: Funny Games. It’s the latest work in English by acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke of Caché fame, starring (of course) the supreme Naomi Watts.

It’s about a well-off all-American family forced to make excruciating decisions about each other’s fates as they are all taken hostage by a ruthless duo of psychotic young misanthropes. And it’s already making waves in the critics circles.

Now, we’ve done a few brief stints in the psychology of violence and its effects on human thought, especially children. So we’re often thrown off by the gratuitous violence of today’s entertainment. But it’s interesting to see something that puts violence in the context of moral choice, making people extremely uncomfortable not by virtue of the violence itself but by posing the big, uncomfortable human questions.

Get uncomfortable starting March 14 at a theater near you.

OUTMANNING THE MAN

As if there isn’t enough controversy in today’s music industry already, one artist is doing the unthinkable: Jill Sobule is asking fans to fund her next record. That’s all the clearly talented singer-songwriter could do after she got dumped by two major record labels and two indie ones went bankrupt on her tenure. (Her ego must be on life support.)

She’s offering 12 levels of “pledges” fans can donate to: for $10, you get a digital download of the album once it’s made; at the $200 “silver level,” you get free admission to all her shows this year; then there’s the $500 “gold level” wherein Jill gets to mention your name in a song — you can upgrade that to the $750 “gold doubloons level,” which Jill says is “exactly like the gold level, but you give [her] more money.” (Gotta love it.) Or, you can go all-out with the $10,000 “weapons-grade plutonium level” in which you get to actually sing on her CD.

 width=We give her points for extreme inventiveness. But points don’t get you published — she set a $75,000 goal. Well, guess what — in a little over a month, she more than met it and capped out at $80,782. How’s that for proving Kevin Kelly’s brilliant 1000 True Fans theory right?

And we must say this ultimate power-to-the-people thing is pretty awesome — traditionally, fans have always played a huge role in the music industry because their buying power ultimately decides what succeeds. But why not empower them even further back in the music production process, letting them decide not just what sells but also what gets made in the first place? Smart, we say, smart.

IMAGE AND LIKENESS

Alison Jackson has been on our radar for quite some time. We weren’t sure what to make of her work — she shoots celebrity lookalikes in classic paparazzi scenarios to a strikingly realistic effect, indulging us with what we secretly hope to see our favorite celebs doing. But then we heard her rather thought-provoking TED talk (aren’t they all?) and had a thought:

Her work is being criticized for glorifying the cheap business of tabloid and celebrity even more, but it actually does the very opposite: it makes us really think about why we’re drawn to celebrity culture in the first place. It makes all those pop culture idols seem like nothing more than packageable images. And it’s those superficial images we consume, not the real values of the people behind them — otherwise, why would lookalikes elicit the same emotional responses from us that real celebrity snapshots do?

Take a peek.

BP

Re:thought

Sprouting phones, The Junkyards, corporate rarities, Emile Hirsch murders his wife, what film icon is going into Hollywood’s “other” film industry, how your mom scammed you, and why salad is the fundamental folly of capitalism.

GEECO COOL

Geeks and eco-freaks alike rejoice: you can now both be happy as larvae in chicken poop and call each other on the world’s first sustainable cell phones. Because, despite their ubiquity — or perhaps because of it — cell phones are given very little thought between the store and the dumpster. Out of the one billion phones produces annually across the globe, only 10% are recycled — the rest are swapped for a new one every 18 months, ending up in all the world’s landfills.

So Nokia researchers, inspired by a bit of cultural anthropology, technology…and, okay, maybe a bit of pressure from Wall Street, set out to change things. Whatever the motive, we dig the latest concept phone from the world’s largest mobile-phone maker: the Nokia Remade.

It’s a cell phone made entirely of recycled waste: aluminum cans for the shell, plastic bottles for the chassis and car tyres of the key mats. And we think it’s quite the looker, too. Think of it as the Simple of cell phones.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0uG-BaZ7Tk

Then there’s the even more technologically outlandish and ecologically brilliant concept of the Bamboo phone: one of the top entries in the 2008 Core77 Green Gadgets Design Competiton.

Bamboo PhoneIt’s not just made from eco-friendly materials like corn-based bio-plastic and bamboo. It’s also entirely biodegradable and, once you remove the battery and antenna, the case can go in your favorite compost pile. There, it decomposes withing a few weeks. Then — no joke — it actually grows bamboo shoots: the case is filled with seeds.

So could concept phones be the new concept cars? Great in theory, but never really hit market in any sort of world-changing way? We hope not — cause we’ll take the Remade over the iPhone any day. Better yet, Steve Jobs, save that Diet Coke can — it’s back to the lab.

DRIVING MUSIC

And, hey, why stop at technology? Repurposed materials are a brilliant fit for art. Case in point: the Car Music Project.

It started in 1994 with the slow yet noisy demise of a certain old Honda Accord. Except that particular shackwagon was American composed Bill Milbrodt’s faithful old Honda Accord. So he decided a junkyard end was not enough: he envisioned a resurrection of the car, one that turned it into music multiple musicians could play and interpret.

Car Music ProjectSo he got a team of auto experts to take the car apart, then hired metal sculptor Ray Faunce III to hand-craft musical instruments from the parts. The result — a stunning orchestra of brass, wind, percussion and string instruments.

Fast-forward to today. The U.K. division of Ford used the Car Music Project in commercial work for the Ford Focus which, granted, does take away from the project’s street cred but it also introduces a whole new wide audience to this novel way of thinking. The resulting TV spot, if you can abstract yourself from the mediocre vocals, the music video cliches and the awkwardly forced presence of the car, is an impressive testament to Milbrodt’s revolutionary brilliance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbQRJxxRGzk

Although vaguely reminiscent of a fantastic Cannes-recognized spot for, coincidentally, Honda — at least to the extent that it “plays” the car — it’s truly a rarity of unconventional thought. Well played, Milbrodt, well played.

DRIVING ART

More cars and art: we’re pretty cynical about any kind of corporate-backed art endeavors, but we’ve had our eye on the Scion Installation Art Tour since it first made waves 5 years ago. After all, the quirky car — the ultimate four-wheel tribute to the subjectivity of taste and beauty — should fit right into the irreverent, revolutionary corners of the art world.

Which it has — since 2003, the Installation has toured nearly every major cultural epicenter in the US.

Andrew PommierLast year, it embarked upon its 4th annual tour titled “It’s a Beautiful World” — and starting this weekend, it’s making a stop right here in Philly. Between March 7 and March 21, cutting-edge new talent across collage, painting, photography and sculpture will be showcasing mind-bending work at the F.U.E.L. Collection, better known as “the Real World house,” on 3rd and Arch.

The featured artists hail from a ton of backgrounds, mindsets, nationalities, disciplines and perspectives. So it looks like a phenomenal show. And to wrap up the season, all the art will be auctioned off at the Intstallation’s last stop in L.A., with 100% of proceeds going to art-related charities.

So who’s joining us at F.U.E.L. this week?

DEJA VU GIVES YOU VERTIGO

We’re suckers for Hitchcock and don’t think the current debased state of Hollywood culture could ever outdo him. Which is why we dig Vanity Fair’s 2008 Hollywood Portofilio, the centerpiece of their 14th Annual Hollywood Issue: it pays creative tribute to Hitchcock, forsaking the illusion of outdoability and embracing instead a vision of redoability.

Four Vanity Fair photographers worked their magic with 21 top contemporary actors to recreate 11 iconic Hitchcockian scenes.

To our ultimate delight, one of our favorite actors, Scarlett Johansson, was cast in our favorite Hitchcock: Rear Window. Which we also find to be a perfect metaphor for the entire project: the voyeurism that backbones the film’s plot blended with the inherent voyeurism of today’s celebrity culture.

The full lineup of talent: Casey Affleck, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Julie Christie, Marion Cotillard, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Foster, Jodie Foster, Emile Hirsch, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James McAvoy, Omar Metwally, Gwyneth Paltrow, Seth Rogen, Eva Marie Saint, Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts, Tang Wei, and Renée Zellweger.

See all 11 photographs, watch how the magic happened, and rent some original Hitchcock this weekend. Which of his timeless characters would you play?

IDEA BUG IN ACTION

More celebrities and film: guess what Isabella Rossellini is up to these days. Nope, it’s not Hollywood — it’s more Sundace Channel meets Discovery. After last week’s exploration of the biosphere’s creative potential, we’re glad to find Rossellini joining us…although she skews less ornithology and more pornithology.

The iconic model- slash-actor-slash- filmmaker is writing, directing and starring in Green Porno — a Sundance Channel series of short films on the sex life of bugs. Clad in various insect costumes and humping cardboard decoys, she somehow gets the magic of it across in a brilliant way, shot with a mix of childlike simplicity and German Expressionism.

Weird? Perhaps. Avant-garde? No question. Tremendously insightful, enlightening and inspiring? Absolutely.

Here’s to another cultural artifact that blends the science and art worlds in a strikingly refreshing way. And, um, those house flies are getting us all hot and bothered…not in their usual midsummer rotting garbage way.

NAUGHTICAL ADVENTURES

Aqua EroticaIf all the humping bugs got you in a certain mood, then you’re in luck: our product pick of the week is just the thing. It also happens to be a world innovation in, um, bookbinding. Because Aqua Erotica claims to be “the first-ever waterproof book for adults.”

(Wait, there was a waterproof book for kids? One more thing we missed out on in childhood, thanks mom.)

We’re not quite sure what to make of all the boastful claims veiled in amusingly cheesy tropes. But, hey, be your own judge — whatever floats your duckie.

UNTRIVIA

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We love Wired. We love eye-opening data. We’re also health freaks. So this week’s Untrivia borrows from the good folks at Wired — this nifty data visualization from January’s issue is just too good to not share. Not because we didn’t already know the healthiest foods are found on periphery of the store and the obesity-propagating stuff of insane energy densities lurks in the middle. But because this visual representation drives a bigger point home:

Nutritional Values (via Wired)

The point: there’s something fundamentally broken in our economic model. How come the healthiest foods are also the most expensive on a cost-per-calorie basis? All the government aid to the poor seems moot: food stamps to barely afford those cheap unhealthy foods, then medicare to slap a Band-Aid on the obesity-driven results.

Why not just cut back on those corn subsidies (hello, corn syrup, you number-one obesity culprit) and pour a bit into, say, organic farming? The recent Farm Bill gave $42 billion in subsidies to commodities (yep, those Reese’s Cups and Pringles would be it) and a mere $1.6 billion to fruit and vegetable.

Seems like the government can learn a thing or two from Michael Pollan.

BP

Living Design

Ornithology is the new Adobe, happy misers, Satan, Art Deco geeks, Kenneth Cole, what Whitney Houston and monsters have in common besides Bobby Brown, how the sun can save Africa, and why inflation is a good thing.

NEST OF ART

Until recently, the main criticism of the Internet’s capabilities was that it was didn’t allow for fast and precise image editing online, at least not at a beyond-red-eye-removal professional level. No more.

AviaryEnter Aviary, a brand new suite of high-level Internet applications “for people who create” — smart, useful stuff for pretty much any kind of artist. All the tools are free, aim to inspire collaboration among artists, and come with cool bird names. Although still in Beta and invite-only, you can request an invitation — we got ours pretty quickly, and we’ll just say it was more than worth the wait.

The tools span the uber-creative, the geeky and the biz-minded, making for a comprehensive suite that helps create, distribute, manage and sell creative products. The creative side alone is impressive enough: there’s Phoenix, the image editor; color swatches and palette creator Toucan; algorithm-based pattern generator Peacock; Raven for vector editing; Hummingbird, the 3D modeller and skinner; Myna, an audio editor; music generator Roc; Starling, for video editing; Owl, the desktop publishing layout editor; Penguin, a word processor for creative writers; painting simulator Pigeon; Tern, the terrain generating minitool; font editor Horus; and Woodpecker, a smart image resizing minitool.

Geeks will have a field day with Eagle, a smart online app that reads the pixel patterns in an image and is able to identifies complex data about it, like which specific camera it originally came from.

ToucanAnd because 2.0 creativistas want nothing to do with the “starving artist” stereotype that haunts their traditional brethren, Aviary provides just the right kind of tools to propagate the business of creativity: Rookery is a free, unlimited-traffic file system network accessible to anyone for data storage and management. It’s also what powers Aviary‘s file search engine. Hawk is a marketplace for digital content, allowing artists to showcase and sell their work. And Crane is a custom image product creator.

Here’s the biggie: unlike other online image editing tools, Aviary is layer-based (like Photoshop), far more powerful than any image-processing web software, supports limitless revision, and has an entire suite of apps that communicate with each other.

Something else huge for artists: Aviary helps with copyright and royalties, tracking — forever — all sources used in a work and where a work is used by others. And that’s something even Creative Commons can’t claim. Which, come to think of it, is not surprising given Aviary is the brain child of 12 international top-notch artists who know all the joys and perils of creativity inside and out.

Phoenix screenshot

Once you get invited, you can access Phoenix — the first of the tools being made available to Beta testers. All the rest, though, are flying in soon. We’re still pinching ourselves, but it does seem to all be real — you can find out more about the individual tools on the product blog. And, speaking of blogs, we love their Idea Blog where different members of Aviary‘s team get to dish on various design and creativity topics — like this particularly refreshing take on the foundations of good design.

Enough from us, just go experience the instinctive self-pinching for yourself.

UNTRIVIA

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Here’s a blast from our psych class past: the “misery is not miserly” phenomenon — the tendency to spend more money in negative emotional states, particularly sadness — is now confirmed by a new study. Powered by researchers from four academia big-wigs (Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Pittsburgh University), the study exposed some participants to a sadness-inducing video and others to a “neutral” nature video. They then asked the subjects to spend any amount of their $10 participation incentive on a reusable sports water bottle. Here’s what they found:

  • The sad group spent an average of $2.11
  • The neutrals spent $0.56
  • The sad group used significantly more self-referential expressions (“I,” “me,” “my,” “myself,” etc.) when writing a brief essay on the seen video

What explains the glaring difference? Turns out, sadness makes people enter a “self-focus” state: an insecurity-driven self conception that leads us to believe we and the stuff we own are worth little. So, we’re willing to spend more to make our stuff appear more valuable, thereby making ourselves feel better.

Even more interestingly, this phenomenon occurs with pretty much zero awareness — subjects, despite the clear data suggesting otherwise, vigorously denied the video-induced sad emotions had anything to do with their spending amount. So it’s something different from retail therapy altogether, wherein we consciously try to make ourselves feel better with a, say, Mac Air. (Yes, we do have a tendency to go overboard — we must be watching all the sad sap of the cinematic world.)

What’s our point? Stay happy, stay rich. Meh, easier said than done — who are we kidding, it’s back to the Apple Store tonight…

THE DEVIL’S IN THE RETAIL

If you do anything online, you’ve come to appreciate the importance of tags — all those coveted keywords and labels can make or break your content’s success. “Tags” actually take their name from the eponymous little things that hang off various types of merchandise in the offline world. Fashion retail, in particular, is one place where offline tags are nearly as important as the 2.0 kind in selling stuff.

We’ve long been fascinated with label-tags on clothing, ranging from the plain bad to the plain to the mediocre to the brilliant. So we’ve been collecting ones that are exceptional in some way — a good design, a clever use of materials, an unexpected touch, you name it. And here are a few of our favorites, in no particular order of preference, plus the reasons we heart them. (Click the image to magnify.)

Tags

  1. adidas — call us geeks, but when we buy performance apparel we like to know exactly what makes it…well… perform. This little 6-page booklet managed to crunch in all the geeky info while keeping the design super sleek and adidasey. The free 3-week trial for professional online training was just the cherry on top.
  2. Hydraulic Jeans — they may not believe in search optimization, but their tags have that grungy-cool feel of hard cardboard, twine and old-school type. Bonus points for the feather-filled sampler bubble on a down jacket.
  3. Buffalo Jeans — with an edgy delicacy you can expect from a European designer, this tag for David Bitton’s denim line says it all. Too bad you can’t feel the canvas-meets-paper texture.
  4. Tyte Jeans — some of the boldest use of colors we’ve seen in a while, plus we’re suckers for non-plastic tag strings.
  5. GLO Jeans — not quite our taste here, but we have to give them props for doing something that speaks to their target of bubbly teenage girls and 35-year-olds who like to think of themselves as bubbly teenage girls in lieu of better aspirations.
  6. 7 for all mankind — boring colors, sure, but the design is clean and the texture is its own beast: a fascinating contrast between the soft matte canvas of the tag and the glossy satin string.
  7. Cosmopolitan — what better way to play off the brand name than by paying tribute to the ultimate cosmopolitan accessory, the credit card? The plastic tag, complete with those vibrant colors, is just the kind of thing a girl would have a really hard time throwing out.
  8. Jou Jou — despite the contrived and illegible type, the tag challenges the conventions of size, shape and material. The hard-canvas texture and the thick string are a refreshing touch.
  9. Tapemeasure — never mind being sold off by Liz Claiborne, never mind being unfindable online. These guys are certainly not never-minding tag design. Easily our favorite here, there’s something intangibly French about the red-white-and-black, super-clean design. Also of note: the matte texture embossed with tiny matte circles. Best touch: the miniature tapemeasure tag string. Genius.
  10. GAP — say what you will of the (RED) project, but we love the oversized metal hoop on this otherwise slim, soft tag and the understated color design. More street c(red) than the usual blah GAP tags.
  11. BONGO — neat play of space and borders, complete with a super-hard, metallic red surface that feels strangely glam-rock.
  12. Industry — yep, those are real stitches right on the cardboard and that’s real fabric. We have to respect a break from the conventions of materials segregation, but then again they’re French — it’s a whole nother conventions ballpark anyway.
  13. Levi’s — ah, the mother of all denim. There’s something strangely comforting about a pair of Levi’s, so it’s only natural the tag would exude that same vibe of approachable timelessness. A soft fabric tag with just the right amount of fringe, complete with subtle graphics, clean type, and a hung with a delicate string.
  14. YUKA Paris — we’re not crazy about the serif font, but the round black tag with silver type has a luxurious feel that really captures the brand’s signature heavy woven-silk fabrics.
  15. HOLDEN Outerwear — another favorite, and another shameful underestimation by image. The beauty of this tag is in the tactile experience of etched graphics on hard matte cardboard, although the color choice is elegant enough to be its own delight.
  16. Ymi Jean Co. — again, not exactly our taste, but we have to respect the bold use of dark denim and white lace, and in a tag of all places. Fresh. Young. Like the brand’s product.

So next time you go shopping or get a gift, stop and smell the…tag. We don’t care much about the Devil, but we do know the good stuff is always in the details.

HIGH-CONCEPT DESIGN GEEKERY

Design Museum If retail is too low-brow for you, you’ll love the Design Library at the London Design Museum. It’s a tremendous, get-lost-in- it-for-hours resource on architects, technologies and designers featured in the museum. There’s a lengthy profile on each designer, complete with images, interviews and biographies that can put both Wikipedia and your fashion textbook to shame.

You can find designers ranging from the obscure but great to the vaguely familiar to the ultra-famous, from product designer Tord Boontje to Eileen Gray, the mother of Art Deco, to the needs-no-introduction Christian Dior.

Go, dig in, brag.

SOCIAL DESIGN

And while we’re dabbling in fashion design, let us simultaneously dabble in what we call “thought design.” Take Kenneth Cole’s new Awareness Blog — a long-time-coming forum for the same issues the socially-conscious designer has stood for in the past 25 years. Out of Kenneth Cole Productions and Electric Artists, the blog churns out compelling daily takes on issues like politics, human rights, well-being, sustainability and more. Through them all runs a thread of being just the right amount of uncomfortable to really make you think.

The contributors are all big thinkers from various industries and walks of life, including the designer himself and the founder of our favorite magazine, GOOD. And it’s not just talk — it urges readers to get involved with one (or more) of 20 organizations that span everything from AIDS research to disaster relief to mentoring.

There’s also a YouTube channel chock-full of teaser videos united by the tagline-turned-platform “We all walk in different shoes.” Words that scream “word.” Refreshing to see this kind of initiative in society, and especially refreshing to see it coming from one of the most unscrupulous, whatever-it-takes industries: fashion.

THE JOY OF UGLY

Daily MonsterIf you find yourself overwhelmed by the monstrosities of the real world, why not take a break with monsters more likely to delight than derail? That’s exactly what you’ll find on Daily Monster — the talent-child of German-born, California-based graphic designer Stefan G. Bucher.

Each daily stop-motion film shows Stefan creating a new monster — he starts with a paint-dipped toothbrush, swashes a bit on a blank page, then squirts some high-pressure air on it to create a shape-defining splatter. Then, he attacks it with various drawing tools — pencil, Sharpie, fine-point pen, color marker — and draws his monster out of that shape.

Daily Monster #161Currently on monster # 161, he’s been going at it since November 2006 when Monster # 01 emerged from the fun-meets-darkness abyss of creativity.

It’s the kind of cool stuff you end up doing only after having done stuff across all levels of coolness: lived in Oregon, worked in advertising, designed album covers for Whitney Houston and Sting. And he must be doing something right — there’s a book coming out, plus the monsters have had cameos in Business Week and Wired. And, of course, Brain Pickings.

Update: The book, 100 Days of Monsters, is out — and it’s just as fantastic as we expected it to be.

SUN SNATCHER

When gadget design meets lifestyle design meets the design of Earth’s future, it’s a beautiful thing. Which is why we dig SOLIO — the universal “hybrid” charger. “Hybrid” because its powerful internal battery can be charged by plugging in the conventional socket way or by exposing the 3 glorious solar panels to the sun. And universal because it can charge anything — an iPod, a GPS, a digital camera, a cell phone, a game device, a BlackBerry and more.

Sure, it’s an enormous lifestyle treat — pop it in your hiking backpack, in your beach bag, in your carry-on to really take advantage of that window seat, in your city-dwelling purse…the possibilities are oh-so-indulgent.

But where SOLIO can really make a difference, we think, is in the third world. In poverty-ridden, infrastructure-deprived areas with no electricity, where the ability to boil water alone can save thousands of lives by preventing many an infectious disease. Where the presence of a single lightbulb could increase quality of life tremendously, help stave off crime, and extend agricultural and manufacturing productivity beyond the limits of daylight.

The simplest models run under $100, which is significantly less than many questionably effective humanitarian aid efforts spend per piece.

Then, of course, there’s the environmental angle. It’s pretty obvious — more solar power means less electricity means Al Gore likes us — so we no need to preach to the choir. Point is, SOLIO is as nifty a gadget — and lifestyle aid — as they get. We diggidy dig big time.

HIPS AHOY

Our product pick of the week — form (and boy oh boy what form it is) meets function. Salute the inflatable bikini life jacket — beyond its obvious drown-prevention capacity, it also ensures you’re the first one saved by that hunky lifeguard trampling children and little old ladies as he beelines for you.

‘Nuff said.

BP

Get Stuff Done

Feigned sobriety, unopposable thumbs, mornings done right, obsessive winking, sweet-talk for hire, how we’re always right, why red is better than apple, and whose rack we were ogling while almost getting arrested.

ART OF THE HOW

We’re inept. Or at least that’s what the recent surge in how-to sites and services is telling us. But it’s okay, because we are indeed inept. About some stuff, that is — you know, that whole the-more-you- know-the-more-you-don’t-know thing that comes with the curious mind — so it’s great to have resources on how anything is done.

HowcastOur favorite so far: Howcast, the brain child of ex-Googlers and YouTubers. It’s user- generated content curated by the editorial eye to bring you super useful how-to videos on anything from chilling a 6-pack in 3 minutes, to lying and getting away, to making your bathroom eco-friendly. Better yet, it’s all high-quality and free. And even better yet, the Howcast vision is all about giving emerging filmmakers a chance to get experience and exposure, then fusing it all with content distribution and smart advertising. We dig.

Then there’s Quamut (Latin for “how to”) — an enormous how-to library, complete with printable charts written by experts and reviewed by fact-checkers. A Geekipedia, if you will, that’s both super accurate and super useful. Quamut comes from Barnes & Noble, which means, of course, there’s a price sticker somewhere. But it’s not too bad — you can view everything online for free, you just need to suck up $2.95 if you want to download a PDF of something. And if you’re really compelled to go old-school with all the bells and whistles, you can scurry over to an actual Barnes & Noble store and cough up $5.95 for a laminated copy of select Quamuts. (This is where we point, laugh and remind you of Howcast.)

Finally, let’s not forget the power of collaboration and popular wisdom: wikiHow is a wiki-based resource where users can contribute to the how-to’s of various subjects. Think of it as collaborative how-to manual that’s much like a hands-on Wikipedia. It’s got a Creative Commons license, comes in 6 languages, and has a decidedly philanthropic feel with a vision of improving quality of life through practical knowledge.

So if you ever find yourself wallowing in ineptitude, do check out one of these great resources. Now we’re off to learning how to make a water gun alarm clock for those can’t-get-out-of-bed mornings. (Which are NOT due to not having seen the very amusing yet informative “How To Fake Being Sober” video.)

DEMOCRACY OF THUMB

And speaking of popular wisdom, Rules of Thumb offers all sorts of nifty, well, rules of thumb, each rated on a usefulness scale (1-10) by the populus. The whole thing is searchable and browsable by subject. And we dig their definition of “rule of thumb” — turning information you have into information you need.

More importantly, we dig the fact that what they’re doing seems to aim at taking the error of many out of the whole time-tested “trial and error” paradigm by learning from the error of a few.

That’s where we make our very lame indeed pun about giving it the thumbs-up. What, we held off for an entire paragraph.

WHAT YOU FEEL IS WHAT YOU GET

And of course, getting stuff done has to always start with getting in the right mindset. Which often involves starting the day off on the right foot — and what righter foot than a feel-good outlook?

feelgood.pngThat’s where the feel good initiative comes in. It’s a very simple, very smart concept: every day, there’s a new song uploaded along with some quick extra stuff (mostly artist’s website). That’s it. The idea is you start your morning there and listen to the daily song along with your coffee and newspaper. Some days, the song will be a response to a previous day’s. All days, it’ll be inspiring, refreshing and sure to put you in the right mood to face the day.

And if you’re not the surprise kind of person, if you have a specific craving for a song you already know, there’s Songerize — a supremely basic site where you just type in the name of an artist and/or song, and it just pulls it up and starts playing. Brilliant.

It’s the stripped-down version of the also brilliant SeeqPod music search engine, there to make your music wishes come true at the click of a mouse. Plus, it actually works — it found all but one of the tracks we tested, including stuff on the off-mainstream side (like our latest obsession, Kate Nash). So what are you craving to hear right now?

STALKER 2.0

It starts innocently enough. You need to look up a friend’s mailing address. But then before you know it, you’re digging up dirt on your ex, your “good girl” coworker, your nasty brother in law, and worse yet, you get all crazy-eyed and jittery with excitement about it. If you don’t like that image, proceed with caution. And if you’re screaming “GIMME!,” indulge. Now onto the goodies:

There’s the everyone-knows-this White Pages reverse phone number lookup — great for those could-be-mysterious-could-be- creepy missed calls. Then there’s Zaba Search, the free people search that digs up all sorts of public info on your searchee, including address and date when the address was recorded — so when you get multiple listings for someone, you can spot their current residence. Good idea, but didn’t work for many of the people we tried. (What, it was research…)

Which is how we get to our favorite: Wink. Wink searches over 330 million people across pretty much all existing social networks — on many of which people list their full name, address, school, workplace, interests and more.

And you can search by even more variables: full name, username (love this one), city, state, zip, country, province, career, tags, even keywords based on the person’s interests. We tried it and it’s no joke how much our friends reveal online — we were able to find every single person we searched, most complete with mugshots. And Wink doesn’t just search regular folks. It’s integrated with news services, so you can get the latest scoop on your favorite celeb.

So next time you get all hot and bothered over your MySpace conversation with cutehottie4u, you can track down the 43-year-old computer programmer typing away the hot stuff from his cube in Ohio. And if you get all Wink-obsessed, you can get their plugin and search straight from your browser anytime, or download the Wink widget, which lets you tell people where you are online all the time — particularly useful if you’re trying to promote yourself in the digital world. Better yet, you can create a Wink profile for yourself to really manage your online presence and how it’s presented to the world.

Smart, nifty, and oh-so-handy. We love.

REPUTATION REMEDY

But what happens if you just Winked yourself and found some, um, less than presentable stuff? Worse yet, what if there’s a public record of your careless youth somewhere on the web where you have no control? That’s when DefendMyName comes in — think of it as a reputation management program that specializes in removing negative listings about you and replacing them with good stuff. Using search optimization and a few other strategy, DMN promises to mitigate negative blog posts, customer reviews, news stories and other public info about you or your brand.

Hands down, we’re not crazy about the idea — whatever happened to transparency and the whole authenticity shebang? We get enough of politics as is. But we gotta give it to those guys for finding a clever, however ethically questionable, way to exploit the combination of people’s propensity to fuck up and the ever-growing power of the Internet.

UNTRIVIA

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Some time ago, we made a big bold claim that consumer reviews were actually the real beginning of social networking. And now, thanks to the good folks at eMarketer, we have even more proof for just how much importance consumers place on each others’ opinions and recommendations when shopping. Turns out…

  • …22% of consumers always read reviews, 43% do so most of the time, 33% read them occasionally, and only 2% never do.
  • …the majority (68%) require 4 or more reviews before they make a decision to buy, and 22% won’t settle for less than 8
  • …64% place peer reviews on their wish list for all websites, above anything else, including special offers and coupons
  • …product reviews by peers are the most frequently visited (55%) product research tool, trumping comparison charts (22%), expert reviews (21%) and shared shopping lists (1%)

No wonder last year, for the first time in retail history, customer satisfaction with online retailers surpassed that with brick-and-mortar stores. By 12%, which is a lot. On a 100-point scale, online retail scored 83 points and offline got an underwhelming 71. And Amazon, the mother of all reviews, topped the chart with 88 points. Could the reviews have something to do with it? (You’re nodding vigorously now, right? Just making sure.)

PICTURE THIS

After last week’s huge upgrade to the image search process, we seem to be on a roll. This week’s hot pick: retrievr, an experimental color recognition system that lets you draw with colors on a digital canvas and delivers image results from Flickr that feature the space/color combination you sketched out. Or, if you’re not into drawing, you can upload an image and retrievr hunts down images with similar space/color schemes.

retrievr.jpg

Although the algorithm doesn’t recognize shapes (say you sketch the rough outline of an apple), it does match colors and the colors’ spatial position within the image.

Sounds awkward and complicated explained, but it’s actually incredibly simple and brilliant — so see for yourself.

BP

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