Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Overspent American

Some favorite excerpts from Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American:

Twenty-seven percent of all households making more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need. Nearly 20 percent say they “spend nearly all their income on the basic necessities of life.” – p6

For centuries, aristocrats passed laws to forbid the nouveaux riches from copying their clothing styles. At the turn of the century, the wealthy published the menus of their dinner parties in the newspapers. And fifty years ago, American social climbers bought fake “ancestor portraits” to hand in their libraries.” – p8

Daily exposure to an economically diverse set of people is one reason Americans began engaging in more upward comparison. – p10

By 1997, well into the stock market boom, nearly 40 percent of all baby boomers had less than $10,000 saved for retirement. – p20

Georg Simmel’s classic contribution depicts fashion as an ever-shifting process in which high-status individuals attempt to keep a step ahead of low-prestige imitators. Alison Lurie’s popular account, The Language of Clothes, reminds us of the long history of clothing as an indicator of social position. In ancient Egypt, only those in high positions could wear sandals; in Greece and Rome, even the number of garments a person could wear was prescribed. Throughout the Middle Ages, all manner of dress was regulated. By the eighteenth century, these sumptuary laws were in decline and social position had come to be inferred from the cost of garments, indicated by the type of materials, the extent of unnecessary ornamentation, and the quality of the cut. The infrequency with which people repeat wardrobe choices is another class marker–at a special occasion, to have one’s dress remarked on as a repeat is an embarrassment among the better-heeled. – p37

Souvenirs, high-class or low-, are part of how we make visible the latest not-too-visible status items. The important of these markers can become almost comical, as research on museums shows. Watching buses pull up to museums, Robert Kelly reports that one-third of the visitors, “upon being discharged from a tour bus…entered the museum foyer; searched for and found the museum shop; purchased some object in the museum shop representative of (usually labeled by) the museum or its best-known objects; and then returned to their bus without ever entering the museum galleries.” – p48

A caption describing a Chanel lipstick in a recent newspaper article puts it bluntly: “A classic shade of scarlet, scented with essential oil of roses, in Chanel’s signature black and gold case. Perfect for preening in public.” One of my down shifters has less expensive taste (and less money than the typical Chanel buyer), but she conforms to the same principle: “I have fifteen dollar lipstick I only take out in company,” she tells me. – p50

But while 70 percent of the sample described “the average American” as “very materialistic,” only 8 percent felt they were materialistic themselves. – p83

Many Americans deplore the entry of soft drinks and fast-food outlets into poor countries because they contribute to comerciogenic malnutrition: the poor spend their few pesos on soft drinks or French fries, forgoing nutritious food and becoming sick in the process. On the lighter side, we can chuckle at Peruvian Indians carrying rocks painted like transistor radios, Chinese who keep the brand tags on their designer sunglasses, Brazilian shanty-town dwellers with television antennae but not TVs, or the Papua New Guineans who substitute Pentel pens for boars’ nose pieces. – p90


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Jim Henson

Via Jeremy P.:

“If you don’t know how to end a scene, have one character eat the other or blow something up.” – Jim Henson

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Email reading comprehension

I was complaining to my sister about an email correspondent of mine who appeared to have zero reading comprehension. Writing shorter emails, using simpler language–none of it seemed to help.

My sister lit up. “I totally know what you mean, because I have the same issue. Bullet points work well. Numbers too. And I end sentences with question marks even if they aren’t questions–that gets people to read them.”


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Mike Tyson

Fun: Mike Tyson Quotes: The Song.

Quote: “[He] called me a rapist and a recluse. I’m not a recluse.”

See also Charlie Sheen Quotes: The Song.

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Trash bags

“The United States spends more on trash bags than ninety other countries spend on everything. In other words, the receptacles of our waste cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world’s nations.” – Business writer Polly LaBarre

h/t Dan Pink & Eric Barker

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Cell phone availability

I’m no visionary, but I’m pretty sure this needs to happen:

Right now, your cell phone has two modes: on, so you’re constantly interrupted, and off, so you can’t be reached at all. I think we’ve all found ourselves in that situation where it’s not a good time to answer the phone, but feel we need to because “it might be important.” Perhaps you, too, have lost karma points with your beloved mother by answering the phone at work, then failing to find a sufficiently politic way to say “I answered the phone because I thought this might be important, but apparently it’s not.”

Our workarounds rightnow are pretty unsophisticated. We answer virtually all calls, wasting time or focus. Or we ignore virtually all calls, using voicemail as a makeshift screening mechanism. We try to guess what the caller is calling about. We say to ourselves, “If it’s really important, he’ll call again in a few seconds and then I’ll know.” We even get pre-call texts like “Free to talk?” or “Call me when free”–a pre-call call, almost.

So, there should be some call-screening settings based on your current availability, like:
Setting 1: Open availability. Caller gets through immediately.
Setting 2: Limited availability. Caller is told that it’s not a good time, but if it’s a quick and/or time-sensitive matter, he can get through by pressing a button.
Setting 3: Emergency availability. As above, but for urgent matters only.

Optionally, there could also be settings based on who is calling, whether it’s a whitelist (“allow family members only”) or a blacklist (“don’t allow that one guy”).


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I’ve had high cholesterol all my life, and all my life I’ve been told to stick to a low-fat diet. I grew up on fat-free cheese, fat-free milk, fat-free egg whites, even fat-free “butter” and “mayo.”

Over the past few years, though, I’ve begun to question this thinking, thanks to books like Good Calories, Bad Calories and the growing popularity of Paleo.

And now the stats are in:

  • Cholesterol level growing up on a studiously low-fat diet: 232.
  • Cholesterol level now that I eat meat, cheese, eggs, nuts, butter, and dressing: 193.

Thanks a lot, medical dudes.

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