Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Cloud Collector's Handbook and Clutter

You may think this topic is a bit off-base for The Thoughtful Consumer, but stay with me!

Yesterday I read an article in the Science section of the NY Times entitled, "A Guide to Entice Heads into the Clouds," by Cornelia Dean. It's about Gavin Pretor-Pinney's new book, The Cloud Collector's Handbook:

"The book teaches readers how to identify clouds they have seen and gives them a place to record the sightings, just the way birders create life lists of the birds they have spotted. It even has a scoring system, in which cloudspotters receive 10 points for ordinary clouds like nimbostratus, the more or less featureless rain clouds people typically have in mind when they say clouds are depressing; 40 points for a cumulonimbus storm cloud, the anvil-shaped 'king of clouds'; and more points for more exotic formations.  His goal, Mr. Pretor-Pinney said in an interview, is to help readers escape the tyranny of 'blue sky thinking' and to understand and appreciate the beauty of a cloudy day."

I happen to like looking at clouds, so I would have enjoyed the article anyway. (I think even sunny day lovers will like the spectacular photos in this gorgeous related slide show.) But there are two observations in the article that I want to share with you. First (italics are mine):

"True, [Pretor-Pinney] acknowledges, clouds are ephemeral, 'magicked into being' by the atmosphere and constantly changing. And, of course, they cannot actually be gathered up and stored away. But as Mr. Pretor-Pinney sees it, you don’t have to possess something to collect it: 'You just have to notice it and record it."'

Learning to look at something you'd like to have for yourself and then walk away from it is a skill that's mandatory to develop if you don't want your home to be overrun with stuff. But I'm particularly fond of the idea of recording something as an alternate way of collecting. A collection without a collection!

I've been doing something similar on Facebook. Because I'm interested in vintage advertising and packaging, I've collected many photographs of old fashioned typewriter ribbon tins. The graphic design on such a small package is clever so I decided to use them as profile pictures. My collection exists only in digital form but, like any true collector, I'm enjoying sharing it with my Facebook friends.

And here's another wise observation from Mr. Pretor-Pinney's cloud collecting handbook:

"'Happiness does not come from wanting to be somewhere else,' he said. 'Happiness comes from finding beauty and a stimulation or interest in the everyday surroundings in which you find yourself."'

How can we find beauty, stimulation or interest in our everyday lives if we always want more stuff and our lives are filled with clutter?

Let's live uncluttered lives so we can take time to look at the clouds!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: MarcelTH at Stock.Xchng

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Feeling Pressure from Technology

Just a couple of weeks ago, nobler souls than I celebrated the second annual National Day of Unplugging during which they disconnected from all technology for a twenty-four hour period. The idea comes from a group called Sabbath Manifesto, who advocate unplugging for one day each week. They're not anti-technology; in fact, they're on Facebook and Twitter. They even have an app to help you detach. Their admirable purpose is simply to get us "to slow down our lives in an increasingly hectic world" and reconnect with other people on a more personal, meaningful level.

A complete voluntary detox from all technology for even a day can seem pretty daunting to most of us who depend on being wired, probably far more than we realize. And yet, one of the common complaints in contemporary society is a feeling of being overwhelmed by technology and its effects. I can barely remember a time when I didn't feel pressure to pay attention to multiple sources of information. In the mists of ancient history, I do recall not having a cell phone, not even having an answering machine. There was no cable television and only a handful networks and local stations. No personal computers meant no Facebook, no e-mail. You couldn't Google something; you had to go to the library and search through reference material. When you got together with someone, you talked, uninterrupted by text messages. I love the benefits that technology brings us, but I do have a certain nostalgia for that unfettered, unpressured feeling I had when I wasn't constantly available or constantly beseiged by information.

And it's not just the unrelenting flow of information resulting from current technology that's an issue. Digital cameras make us feel pressure to capture every moment of our lives. If you've ever been the designated photographer at an important event (even in the pre-digital era), you know that taking pictures can remove you emotionally from the experience; you feel everything second-hand. Now not only does the photographer feel that way, but the subject can have his experience and memory of the moment replaced immediately by a digital image. Dave Pell wrote on Tweetage Wasteland about the impact of this in a post called "We All Have Photographic Memories:"

"For his third birthday, my son had a surf-themed party at a way too cold beach in San Francisco. I’m sure he had created a self-image of how he looked in his rash-guard and shades as he balanced on a freshly waxed, beach-bound longboard. Like most parents, I felt compelled to go paparazzi on my son and his friends from the second we unloaded the car. And because he is a child of the digital age, my son followed nearly every snap of the camera with the same request: 'Can I see the picture?' The instant my son looked at the image, his imagination-driven perception of himself was replaced by a digital reproduction of the moment he had just experienced.

"During a presentation on happiness at the Ted Conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Digital photography gives additional dominance to the remembering self. At his birthday party on the beach, my son almost leapfrogged over his realtime experience. He was no longer imagining what he looked like on that surf board. He was looking at what he looked like. The wave of emotions, senses and reactions that made up his initial experience were swept away by the undertow of a single sense: what his eyes saw on a two inch viewfinder."
I love the benefits of digital cameras, but what happens to us when we don't savor our experiences because we're so busy documenting them and reviewing the documentation that the experience itself gets lost? What happens when we barely get to create our memories in our minds before they're created digitally, then often distributed to friends and "friends" before the moment has fully passed?

NPR's "All Tech Considered" picked up another fine post by Dave Pell, this one about the effect of creating our very public images online, something we're pressured to do to participate in social media networking: For Sale On the Web: You! And, yes, we are selling ourselves:

"I need you to know how full my inbox is, how great my marriage is, and what an awesome workout I had this morning.

"Friend Me. Follow me. RT me. Like me. @ Me. Poke me. Forward me. Buy. Buy. Buy.

"The age of subtlety is dead. So we all push the product nonstop and the product is us."

And then, he points out, we check the stats to see if we've made the sale. How many comments did we get, or re-Tweets, or "likes?" Did we build our "brand?" To be always on, always selling is a lot of pressure.

How does pressure from this technological overload affect us as consumers? Online pressure directed at our public selves can make us feel insecure or competitive, perhaps like we need something more to make our images appear as successful as we'd like to be, so we acquire more stuff.  Pressure just to keep up with technology itself can make us feel unsatisfied and that makes us vulnerable to wanting to acquire stuff to make us feel better -- sometimes more technology. Pressure to be wired and fully informed can cause us to spend more time attempting to do that rather than doing other things that are more important and more satisfying, like connecting on a personal level with our family and friends -- or making and keeping our lives uncluttered.

I definitely feel the pressure and the sense of being overwhelmed that many of us share, but overall, I like spending much of my time online and I like all of the benefits technology gives us. And yet, more often than I'd like to admit, the availability of technology in my life hasn't always necessarily resulted in the best use of my time. Like now, when I've avoided uncluttering some stacks of papers by writing this blog post.

Did I feel pressure to write something? Of course. Did it contribute to the task at hand: uncluttering my my life? Unfortunately, no. Did I enjoy writing it? Absolutely!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob

Related Post: Consuming Time: Kids and Adults Overwhelmed by Technology

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Alternative Housing: Lighthearted Links

The sun has set on McMansions according to real estate writer Steve Bergman in an article for NOLA.com. The decline of the appeal of gigantic homes began in 2006, but the collapse of the real estate market over the past five years has resulted in a change in housing priorities:

"The median-sized home being built today is smaller," reported Paul Bishop, vice president of research for the National Association of Realtors. "And our survey of homebuyers indicates that as well."
Problems getting financing and expenses involved with the upkeep of larger houses have contributed to their lessening appeal, but I'd like to think that an awareness of how much space we really need has fueled the increasing interest in smaller homes.

"Homeowners feel the days of appreciation are not coming back so they are not going to be purchasing homes just for the sake of investing," said Kermit Baker, chief economist with the American Institute of Architects and a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "Homebuyers are purchasing because of how they intend to use the home, on the basis of what they need. They are treating their home more like typical consumer goods rather than investment goods."
Although I've devoted many posts to housing and I think it's a topic worthy of serious consideration, sometimes it's fun to take a break and think of shelter in a completely different way. 

Eve Politanoff at What's up! trouvaillesdujour has three posts about treehouses along with an assortment of great pictures on her blog, including the "castle" above from Portland, Oregon, and an airplane hotel suite at the Costa Verde resort in Costa Rica.

Dai Haifei, a young Chinese architect, recently graduated and unable to afford the high cost of housing in Beijing, built a mobile egg-shaped, solar-powered house that he lived in for two months on the sidewalk near his employer.

Joyce Wadler at the NY Times wrote about Derek Diedricksen, who makes micro-shelters out of salvaged junk. His RelaxShacks blog provides more information about other building projects, his book, YouTube series and Tiny Shelter Building Workshop set for this summer.

Fast Company offers a post about a 90-square-foot minimalist loft with walls covered in . . . 25,000 ping pong balls! The space serves as a part-time bedroom for Daniel Arnshem, partner in the firm, Snarkitecture, where the loft is located.

And, finally, Strictly Paper offers an apartment made entirely out of cartons, white paint and black marker! It's a great artistic statement and timely social commentary.

Please click on the links to see many wonderful photos and learn more details about all of these clever "alternatives!"