Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Alternative Housing: Unusual Choices and Emergency Shelters

I've written in the past about small houses and alternative housing structures (see: Small House, Big Benefits; Prefab and Modular Housing: Solutions to the World's Housing Crisis?; and Alternative Housing: From Small to Quirky). Here's more information I'd like to share with you.

WebUrbanist has an eight-part series on "Crazy Houses" that includes a few small homes we've already seen along with others we haven't (rev: see credit below for photo at left). The series includes links to some "Crazy Condos" that are worth a look. A search through their architecture archives will turn up some outrageous homes of all sizes and shapes. Not all are suited for the socially and environmentally conscious builder or buyer, but it's always interesting to see extreme houses and take away the ideas that could work for the rest of us. The post on 16 Excellent Temporary Emergency Shelter Designs should be mandatory reading for any group or agency working on housing people after a natural disaster.

A post on Gizmodo features a five thousand dollar "paper" house that accommodates eight people in about 400 square feet. Nigeria and Angola have placed orders for the house. The blog refers to it as "the world's swankiest hobo pad" and many who commented made fun of the feature that allows for slaughtering animals on the veranda. Reading the comments revealed how little many people know of the housing needs in third world countries (and, sadly, in some rural parts of our own country).

But the concept of alternative housing goes beyond innovative design or unusual building materials. During this time of economic crisis, several generations of a family may end up living together; people may rent out rooms in their homes to get extra income; and some "planned communities" are now more appealing because of the extra emotional and financial support they offer. We'll explore these options further in another post.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On the Radio: Mortgage Meltdown

If you'd like to take a break from watching the inaugural festivities on Tuesday, please tune in "Experience Talks" from 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. Pacific Time on KPFK-FM, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, or streaming live on the web. If you're glued all day to your television or computer (or out in the freezing cold in D.C.!), you can always listen to a podcast later.

You'll hear an interesting show featuring Christopher Kennedy Lawford, son of President John Kennedy's sister, Patricia, and her husband, actor Peter Lawford. He'll be discussing his latest book, Moments of Clarity.

Also on the show will be Fabrice Florin, founder of, a social news network that helps find and share good journalism online.

And, at the end of the show, you'll hear my essay about the mortgage meltdown.

Click here for more information. And thanks for listening!

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Service

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first observed as a federal holiday in 1986. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the King Holiday and Service Act, challenging Americans to transform the day into one of citizen action and volunteer service in honor of Dr. King. The results are annual service activities across the nation.

If you’d like to find out what’s going on in your community or around the country, you can sign on to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service website which has over 11,400 projects registered. The slogan for the day is, “Make it a day on, not a day off.”

Even if you can’t sign up for a volunteer project in your neighborhood, there is one charitable thing that I know you can do: spend the day packing up your unnecessary clothes, dishes, toys and everything else you can get your hands on and take it all to your local charity shop a.s.a.p. There’s not much good economic news out there and, as I’ve discussed in the past, if you have any extra stuff around your home, this is definitely the time to let it go. Plenty of people who have never done so before are now turning to charities for help, so the demand for goods is high.

I’ve started my own weekend purge of extra stuff in order to donate as an act of service and to stay on track to complete my 365 Item Toss Challenge. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here.) I’ve gathered up everything from extra office supplies to a few old videotapes to a bunch of perfectly serviceable old clothing to more candle holders than anyone should own -- 43 items so far and there will be more to add tomorrow. I’ll post the entire list at the end of the year, but I already know that I am not going to miss a single thing that I’m giving away and this is from a household that has pared down quite efficiently over the last few years. If you take a look around your home, I’ll bet that you’ll find some opportunities to be charitable, too. And you’ll reap the rewards of a less cluttered home.

The holiday also prompted me to wonder what opportunities for service on a larger scale are available to us. Fortunately, some programs that started back in the sixties have expanded the work they do. If you’d like to accept the challenge that President-elect Obama has put forth to make service a part of our daily lives, check out the Corporation for National Community Service to learn more about AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, SeniorCorps, other programs and special initiatives. There are many other charities that could use your help, too. Scroll down the blog to take a look at the list I’ve posted on the right side of the page. You probably have favorite charities of your own that might appreciate some volunteer help.

I’m hopeful that soon we’ll see a significant change in the way we view ourselves in this society. We’re not just consumers, as advertisers would like us to believe; we are citizens, with all the benefits and responsibilities that entails.

So, if you’re struggling to make ends meet or feel like you’re on a treadmill without a moment to catch your breath, it’s okay to ask for and accept help. The whole point of a society is that we’re all in it together. Sometimes the most you can give is a smile to the grocery clerk or a hug to your kids.

But if you’re among the fortunate, and are honest with yourself, you'll agree that there’s enough to go around for everyone. Together, we can help re-write the lyrics to that famous old Billie Holiday song, “God Bless the Child.” Ms. Holiday and her partner, Arthur Hertzog, Jr., wrote, “Them that’s got shall get.” Let’s change that to, “Them that’s got shall give.”

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Power of Marketing to Kids

I know that the holidays are a big deal when you're a kid. But I'm also an advocate of parents knowing where to draw the line when it comes to gifts. (Easy for me to say; I'm not a parent!)

Yet, every child wants something special -- maybe a pricey bicycle, an expensive musical instrument, or a hard-to-find toy. So every parent who can afford to, and many who can't, do their very best to accommodate their children's wishes. In holidays long past, parents might buy the item second-hand and that often was just as satisfying as one that was brand new.

Today, techno-toys (anything from computers to fancy phones to game machines) seem to top the list for a lot of kids. Because technology changes so rapidly, second-hand goods in this category are usually going to be outdated and not an adequate substitute. Also because of the rapid changes, many new technology-based gifts will require expensive upgrades, usually more quickly than parents expect. You can also bet that they'll get discarded more quickly than parents expect, too, when the next new toy comes along.

So I was interested to read a blog post by my favorite marketing guru, Seth Godin, called "When Marketing Goes Nuclear" and watch the associated video showing the reactions of various kids, each opening a gift that turns out to be a Nintendo Wii. According to Seth, the video shows what happens when "scarcity plus Christmas plus social pressure plus greed plus kids = critical mass." He found the video disturbing; I'm on the fence about it. I would hope that some kids would be equally excited to find a less expensive gift that they also wanted, but maybe that's no longer realistic thinking.

When did marketing to kids take over to the point that "every" kid wants the same thing, and wants it desperately? Does it go all the way back to Tickle Me Elmo? Cabbage Patch Kids? Shirley Temple dolls? When did a techno-toy become the most important thing to have? Are girls and boys equally excited about them? At what age does the techno-toy desire kick in?

I've got a million more questions.

What do you think of the video?

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, January 01, 2009

An Unclutterer Challenge: The 365 Item Toss

It's the dawn of a new year and a new opportunity for all of us to become more thoughtful about our consumer habits. The collapsing economy has made things look pretty bleak, so most of us are probably doing a pretty fair job of cutting back on unnecessary spending. However, there's a tendency during times of economic insecurity to want to hold on to stuff we already own, even if much of it is clutter. What if we need it someday? How can we sell it now when we won't get the best price for it? If we'd just fix it up a little bit, it would be perfectly fine to use.

That's faulty thinking. Hanging on to clutter will do nothing to improve our lives, but if we let it go, not only will we benefit, but other people who need the usable stuff will benefit, too. I wrote a post six months ago called
Embracing Charity in Tough Economic Times in which I talked about the importance of letting go of unnecessary things even when times are difficult. Take a look if you'd like a little boost for your motivation.
Also six months ago, Dave Bruno started his 100 Thing Challenge on his blog to see just how much less he could live with -- in his case cutting back to 100 things. He has a few special rules that give him a little flexibility (for example, underwear and socks don't count, nor do shared family items like the dining room table), but the overall idea is to simplify his life to the point that he can live comfortably with a minimum amount of stuff.

In spite of its enormous appeal to me, cutting back to 100 things seems pretty daunting at this time in my life. So I've come up with an alternative that's less drastic: I'm going to challenge myself to dispose of 365 things over the course of the next year. Obviously, that's one thing a day, although I'll bag up a bunch of stuff to donate at one time, so I won't be driving to my local charity drop-off every single day. I'll have a few "rules," too:

1. General trash doesn't count. The only things that count are individual items that are tossed (something useless that's been sitting around for awhile due to my inertia), or items that are donated or sold.

2. Handing things off to friends or relatives counts only if they really want the items or the items belonged to them and were left here.

3. Following Dave's lead, if I do buy something new, I'll throw away the old thing first.

4. I will count as one item tossed the entire box of old tax papers I will be able to shred once this year's taxes are filed. All the effort involved in disposing of that much paper should be worth something. These are the only papers I will count because I would otherwise reach 365 Things Tossed in a couple hours of paper purging.

5. I may need to modify or add to these rules as I get the process started, but I vow not to violate the spirit of the challenge.

I'll mention my progress occasionally in my usual blog posts on various consumer issues throughout this year. If any of you would like to join me in this challenge, please do so. If you feel like commenting on your progress, I'd enjoy hearing about it.

And, to close with something for you to ponder further, here's a bit of dialogue from Garrison Keillor's 2007 book, Pontoon, set, of course, in Lake Wobegon, featuring a feisty character named Evelyn talking to her daughter, Barbara, whom she didn't want to burden after her death:

"When I die," Evelyn told her, "I want you to be able to sweep out the place, take the sheets off the bed and the clothes out of the closet, clean out the medicine chest, and hang out a For Sale sign. Two hours and you'll be rid of me. I'm a pilgrim. I travel light."

When you get down to the basics, we're all pilgrims. So, here's to a simpler, saner year for all of us as we work toward travelling as lightly as we can!

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob