Monday, March 31, 2008

Illusions of rationality

Anyone who's been paying attention (or even just breathing) knows that people do not always make decisions in their own best interest--from the working stiffs who vote for politicians in favor the elite class, to people who purchase $20 worth of books they don't need to save $3 in shipping fees.

A fascinating article in a recent New Yorker pointed to a new book titled Predictably Irrational in which an M.I.T professor in behavioral economics, Dan Ariely, reveals that "our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless--they are systematic."

In countless experiments--including one in which he asked kids to trade Halloween candy and found that they generally choose something that is "free" over the better deal, chocolate-wise--Ariely "offers a taxonomy of financial folly," according to Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the New Yorker article. One fascinating experiment involved having subjects write down the last two digits of their Social Security number, then write what they would be willing to pay for a list of items. The results showed that those whose SSN ended in a larger number would be willing to pay more than those whose SSN ended in a smaller number.

This effect, called anchoring, shows that price is not just related to intrinsic value or to supply and demand; in some way the stated price establishes the value of the item. It's an interesting concept for retailers, who often ponder whether raising the price of their goods might make them more appealing. Similarly, Ariel's Halloween experiments and others like it belie the argument that "you're not fooling anybody" when you offer free shipping but jack the price of the item. Apparently, as marketers have long known, you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Etsy's antique mall

Sometimes I dream I'm antique shopping, often with my friend Laurel, whom I don't see much any more but who is the slowest, most thorough browser I have ever met. In these dreams, I am always about to make "the find," which as all vintage aficianados know is the thing that gets your heart racing, that keeps you coming back again. Interestingly, very rarely do I dream about buying; just about shopping.

Well, today is Saturday, estate sale day, so I'll make this brief. The picture above shows a vintage Treasury I made for Etsy, a combination of beautiful items that I "curated," which means I poured through different vintage shops like they were a huge antique mall and came up with these "finds."

These are all items sold by members of the Etsy Vintage Street Team, a group of some 65 sellers who sell vintage items or items made with vintage components. We've got a blog, and a section in the Vintage Buyer and Seller Community, (a larger networking community). It's a great way to meet people who are way more knowledgeable than I am about all things vintage. A great way to learn more and, of course, to shop.

Fictional characters I have known (part I)

My first boss out of college was an enormous man, well over 300 pounds, but with dainty feet encased in expensive black loafers. He had thick white hair puffed up in a pompadour, and gold chains around a neck that looked like a melting layer cake. Most arresting of all, his left eye was nothing but the white, the sclera, with a pale blue iris barely visible underneath, like a blue plate seen through a poached egg. His other eye was a vivid blue, and he combined them to great effect, leering and bugging the good eye, or squinting with a practiced devilishness, while the other, the poached egg eye, gazed blankly into nowhere. It was transfixing.

He had a patch—brushed leather with gold initials—but rarely wore it. “When I go on a sales call,” he explained to me one day, leaning forward in a rush of cologne, “I come in, shake hands, and sit down with a smile. But all they can do is look at the eye. They’re hooked. I don’t need a killer opening line or a gimmick to get their attention—I’ve got it. I keep it. And the next time I call, they remember me.”

During my first few months there, I often had to contend with his pathological need for an audience. He even concocted some pretense for having me sit through a court hearing so he could impress me with his testimony, delivered slowly and dramatically à la William Shatner. In this case, one of six or seven in which he was embroiled, he was suing his landlords because they were trying to evict him for not paying his rent.

Sexual harassment hadn’t yet crept into public awareness, and I had no idea what was going on, not until the day he yanked me onto his lap and kissed me. “I may be an old man,” he said, his mismatched eyes half closed in a twisted imitation of a sultry look, “but I’ve still got it. It’ll be fireworks, baby, all night long.”

That I was surprised, even shocked, at his attack shows how young and naïve I was. I mumbled some excuse, some demure protest, and fled, spitting to get the taste out of my mouth. Then, as women have done for thousands of years, I went back to work—disgusted, angry, but ultimately passive. It never occurred to me to do anything about it, to quit in protest or horror (I wasn’t that traumatized) or to complain to anyone, not even his wife, a sweet, pretty woman who, even through her habitual fog (probably from Valium, that decade’s happy drug of choice), already knew about her husband’s philandering.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Celluloid buttons in black and cream

I just got in this exciting batch of celluloid buttons--this is about half of them, but some of the more interesting. My kids of course think I'm nuts for getting into this stuff, but look at them! Some are beautiful, some are totally hilarious. I've already decided on one combination for making a button pin (the modern-looking zig zag button near the top left, placed on top of a black button with a beautiful border). What I haven't decided is whether to sell it or not--may need to keep it for myself this time. The others I'll take my time with.

Now, does this remind anybody of the I Spy books? You have to have kids to know them, but I love them too--it's like looking through an antique shop. OK, find the button that's shaped like penne pasta. Now find the one that looks like a pause button on your DVD player.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ugly wins the day

We have a winner! Voters in the Ugly Necklace Contest have overwhelmingly chosen We Three Rings necklace, submitted by Jane of AdlensKrafts. She explains in her entry: "A friend of my daughter's wanted a necklace out of these three wooden rings from an old handbag. Well I tried. Maybe I was asleep when I made it."

We Three Rings practically swept the competition, but other necklaces had their detractors as well. The runners up, in order, were:

One Damn Big Ship, submitted by girleddycreations.

Spring Has Sprung, submitted by shelialk.

These Are the Voyages, submitted by sailorjenny.

And finally, Eeek a Bug, submitted by AnnieHowes.

Significantly, each of these ugly necklaces had at least one person say they thought it was pretty cute. So there's hope for all us who have ever made or tried to unload ugly jewelry!

Congratulations again to the winner. She'll be receiving a pair of lovely bobby pins from Callooh Callay. For the rest of you: Better luck next year.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Etsy conspiracy

American casinos are well known for their tricks to keep people from leaving. Once you enter, there are no indications of what time of day it is--no clocks, no windows to see the sky turn dark. The music is in a continuous loop, no lyrics, to keep you in a trance-like state. It's safe and cozy, like a womb, with free drinks and the promise of hitting it big.

I believe that Etsy, the online marketplace for all things handmade and vintage, has a similarly devious strategy in the way it's designed. Consider:
  • Even if you don't sell anything, you can accumulate "hearts"--little rewards from fellow members to give you hope and keep you putting your quarters in the slots.
  • The forums are open 24-7 for chatting, eavesdropping, combat, and titillation.
  • To keep things interesting and patrons happy, the management adds new games every now and then (such as Alchemy) or moves things around to make them seem fresh.
  • Just as casinos give their big spenders free rooms and airfare, big sellers and the particularly talented at Etsy are rewarded with perks such as featured artists position on page 1 or, more deliciously, a plug on the Martha Stewart Show.
Tonight I had one of those heart-racing moments on Etsy when one of my steampunk pendants was featured in a front page treasury (currated by the talented MissKnits). For more than 2 hours the views stacked up (from 110 to 480 views on the featured item), the hearts accumulated, the anticipation mounted. And even when it failed to sell, the adrenaline kept me going for a while--the knowledge that more than 370 people visited my site, and more than 50 marked the shop or specific items for future reference.

The only thing missing was a hostess in a skimpy outfit serving me drinks. (Maybe my husband will be home soon.)

Anatomy of a Steampunk Alchemy

Yesterday I finished up my first commission for an Etsy customer, through a new (or resurrected function) called Alchemy that allows sellers to bid on requests for handmade items. In this case, a steampunk necklace. My particular take on it incorporated a beautiful vintage button.

Here's what I started with: my buttons (yes, there must be a better way to organize) and a pile of watch and clock parts.

I segregated a number of pieces to play around with, and came up with a configuration I liked. The picture on the right shows the pieces just arranged together--no gluing yet. I uploaded this for the client to approve. (I don't think this step is strictly called for in the rules, but it seems like a good idea to me.)

Well, she loved it, so I finished off the piece (lots of stinky glue) and attached the leather cord. This took several days because of all the parts involved (eight different clock parts, plus I added an extra, thin button on the back of the celluloid one for stability). Et voila! I still need to clean it up a little, and Monday it ships.

I love this new feature on Etsy. It gives people a chance to get noticed whose shops otherwise might not be found; it inspired me to try something a little bigger and wilder than I might have otherwise (and this necklace looks pretty awesome on). And it allows people to purchase exactly what they want (we hope).

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Etsy love

A couple of fab Etsy artists have features on Callooh Callay this week. Let's give it up for Maria from Vintageholic Frog and for Todd from Torchwood Studio. Take a visit and check out the great things they have going on.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The waste diet

Did you know that the average American generates about 66 pounds of landfill waste each month? For a family of four, that 264 pounds a month, or 3168 pounds a year. Disgusting, yes? Last week a friend of mine yesterday turned me onto a website by one of her neighbors who is trying to do something about it.

This nuclear family of two working parents, two children, and two pets is challenging itself--and its website readers--not just to follow the three R's of reduce, reuse, recycle, but to keep a chart. Weigh the garbage and the recycling. Continuously seek ways to reduce waste.

"Just like going on a food diet, you'll have more success if you can adopt a diet change you can live with for a lifetime," explains the author of the website, titled The Waste Diet. "So that has become our goal to create a lifetime plan to reduce waste without changing our lives (too much)."

Their experiment is entering its third month. In February, they cut their landfill waste by almost 12 pounds (to 27 pounds below the national average) and recycling waste by 27 pounds--all through relatively simple steps like buying larger quantities to reduce packaging, repairing items rather than throwing them away, shopping at thrift stores, and avoiding excess paper products.

Other steps, like composting and becoming a vegetarian, require more of a commitment. But as the website's author advises, "Make a goal how to improve, even if it’s just one thing at a time. Doing something is better than doing nothing at all. "

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tagged again

I was tagged again last week, by ThePeachTree. "Tagged" means (by law, again) I have to reveal seven random facts about myself and then pass it onto someone else (usually seven more people, but I'm going to flout the law this time).

My seven:
  1. My only celebrity autograph is from Petula Clark (remember? Don't sleep in the subway, darling).
  2. When I was a kid I loved English boarding school books.
  3. My garage is full of recycling.
  4. Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me. My view of human nature greatly improved, and I read Proust.
  5. I might have gone into geology if it weren't for the math.
  6. I'm currently reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Wonderful and very strange.
  7. My dog's name is Stella. We sound like Stanley Kowalski when we call her.
This time I'll tag Sarah at No Title Necessary and Kerry at Chasing Moonbeams. Enjoy!

Friday, March 14, 2008

I've been steampunked!

I'll admit it. I'm not proud. Three months ago, I didn't know what steampunk is, and now I'm proudly represented among some fine examples of the style. This Treasury (an Etsy term for a collection of items "currated" by an Etsy member, in this case Fairies and Treasures), has the usual hallmarks of the style--the vintage-future-techno punk. But that's not all that it's about.

My investigations of steampunk began when my dad gave me a couple of boxes of old watches and clocks that he dismantled 20 years ago for one of my mother's forgotten art projects. It was a great find, but only a superficial aspect of the style. Still, as I read more about it, I realized how well the steampunk aesthetic fits with the other vintage items that have so captivated me lately.

Steampunk had its origins in science fiction of the 1960s to 1980s and still exists as a fictional movement, but also as a subculture, as a musical genre, and as a style. It's been applied to movies, anime, graphic novels, computer games, and even computers. Steampunk--sometimes referred to as neo-Victorian--hearkens back to the days of steam power, before electricity, combining a touch of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with a cyberpunk aesthetic, with lace and machine parts in equal measure.

One blog devoted to the style, The Steampunk Home, describes it beautifully: "It's finding a way to combine the past and the future in an aesthetic pleasing yet still punkish way. It's living a life that looks old-fashioned, yet speaks to the future. It's taking the detritus of our modern technological society and remaking it into useful things."

Other definitions and applications of steampunk abound, and I don't pretend to have more than a beginner's knowledge of what it's all about. But it's exciting to explore.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Seller's remorse

Everyone who's ever bought a swimsuit or an American car knows the feeling of buyer's remorse. Lately, though, I've run across its opposite: seller's remorse.

Here's a little dog I shipped off yesterday--glad to have the sale, of course, but as I bubble wrapped him him, I remembered buying him, more than 15 years ago, in a little place called the In and Out Shop that was simply crammed with junk like this (if it was still open, I'd make a fortune). I felt kind of sad to see him go, but he spent the past ten years in a box in the basement, so I must not have needed him that badly.

I've had similar bittersweet reactions when I've sold my jewelry, even though, for God's sake, I'm making it to sell! Here's one of the brooches I made out of antique buttons, and the first sale from my Etsy shop. I was thrilled with the sale, a week or so after I opened shop, but so sad to see this button go, with its fun textures and buttery yellow.

This reluctance to let go of things is not peculiar to Americans, but we undoubtedly suffer from it more than many nations. Our closets are crammed, our basements stacked, and if we do manage to let go of anything, it is with some regret. The upside of this anal retentive impulse is that I have boxes and boxes of old junk that may turn out to be craft worthy. The downside is that I have boxes and boxes of old junk.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hurray for contests!

Before Etsy I never won much of anything, and now I've won two contests (out of maybe five I've entered)! Nothing like freebie art.

My latest coup is a beautiful polymer clay pendant from Rebecca of the blog Rebecca's Annex and the Etsy shop RGCreations. She calls this one Inca. The contest itself was easy-peasy--visit her lovely blog, e-mail answers to a simple question, and wait for your name to be drawn. (Sorry to all those who lost. I'm sure you were deserving.)

Here are couple more of my favorites from Rebecca's shop:

There are a lot of contests on on the Internet, as everyone tries to increase their traffic. And in that vein, may I call your attention to my own humble Ugly Necklace Contest, which at this point has a few entries, but could use more. Follow this link for details, and remember: Contests easy. Free stuff good.

Monday, March 10, 2008

All politics is local

All politics is local, as the late great Tip O'Neill said, and last weekend we got involved in local politics.

My husband had the harder meeting to go to. A month ago a disaffected black man in our small, Ozzie-and-Harriet suburb shot the mayor and killed two police officers and three city officials at a city council meeting. The fact that he was black is not irrelevant, for since his rampage (and consequent death) the anger has poured forth from a segment of the community, a historically black neighborhood, that has felt overlooked and unrepresented by local government. At the same time, plans for an April 8 mayoral election are going forward, even though the candidate that many of us supported as representing new ideas and inclusiveness was among those killed. The inevitable mayor, our only choice, is a good man, no doubt, but not the change agent many of us seek.

It's a long story, more complex than this brief paragraph (I've written a bit about it before). At any rate, last Saturday a group of community leaders (citizens, not government) brought together residents from all races and economic strata to discuss how we can heal the rifts in this city. My husband took part in these discussions, which were only the beginning of attempts to grapple with racial tensions that extend even to the most seemingly placid suburbs.

Meanwhile, I attended a meeting across town that focused on how citizens and city officials can work to reduce their community's carbon footprint. A speaker from Kansas City, Missouri (not Portland or Seattle or one of those cool cities, like you'd expect) was there to tell us about their sweeping and successful initiatives and ways that we can push for progress in our own communities to do combat global warming, while we wait for our federal government to wake up (sometime, we hope, in early 2009).

Both these initiatives are nascent, as far as my small town is concerned. Our mayor (recovering in a rehab facility after being shot in the head) signed the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, but little else has been done since. With elections for new city council members in April, along with (I hope) growing citizen awareness of the necessity of being involved, I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Shit I'm it

I had just figured out what “tagged” meant when it happened to me. Stella of Paint Floats tagged me on Friday, which requires me (by law!) to reveal seven random and personal things about myself and then to pass it onto others.

1. My feet have very high arches.

2. I’ve been to Carnivale in Rio, but I can’t samba. I can, however, drink caprinias.

3. My poor gecko is dying of old age. We've debated the ethics of gecko euthanasia but probably won't do anything as long as he's able to eat. His name is Gilda (named before we figured out how to sex a gecko).

4. I thought I would like gardening, and when I look at my crappy yard I wish I did, but I don’t.

5. I live by railroad tracks. It's annoying and cool.

6. My basement is full of old computers that my son said he was going to sell on ebay, but he hasn’t.

7. In my book group the other night, four of us didn’t like Away by Amy Bloom, and three of us did. Only one of us didn’t like the wine.

And now is the time on Sprockets when we dance. I tag Anna Cox at purtygirldesigns, missfire, cheerup cherup, and Karessa and Gene at thescenicroute.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Two months at Etsy

Today is my second month anniversary since I opened shop at Etsy, trying to sell my humble little buttons—two months marked by fun and frustration in equal measure.

It’s also now roughly 3 months since I had the, uh, genius idea that maybe I could make money as an artisan (since it’s even tougher for a fiction writer, and I’m so bored with editing I could eat my keyboard).

Here’s what else I’ve done over the past two months:

  • Started a blog (duh) and started figuring out ways to make it successful
  • Been inspired by some amazingly talented artists
  • Spent way too much time in the forums, chatting, learning, promoting, and also eavesdropping on hilarious, revealing, and frankly snarky conversations
  • Tried not to whine
  • Won a writing contest on an Etsy artist's blog
  • Was featured on another Etsy artist's blog
  • Wrote the words “cute” and “sweet” more times than in the past ten years combined
  • Created a new emoticon, for mooning: ( )( )
  • Created a male version of that emoticon (you figure it out)
  • Found out there are lots of Alice in Wonderland fans out there
  • Learned a lot more about all things vintage by hanging out with the cool folks at Etsy Vintage Buyer and Seller Community and the Vintage Street Team
  • Bought a red pleather toilet kit with a Shriner’s logo for my husband
  • Bought more buttons (sure, I needed them)
  • Felt very old and mature at times, at other times like I was back in junior high hoping the cool kids would like me
  • Neglected my real (i.e., paying) work
  • Neglected the house
  • Forgot to eat (the most amazing feat of all)
  • Stayed up late to snag a treasury; made it to the front page once
  • Decided that drinking and talking in the forums, late on a Friday night, isn’t always in one’s best interests
  • Killed more than one thread
  • Sold more jewelry to my mother-in-law than anyone else
  • Learned that wtf just about sums it all up

Sunday, March 2, 2008

An Etsy collaboration

This beautiful hat reminds me of a bygone era, of Barbara Stanwyck and dames who didn't take no guff. It was hand blocked by Emily of Moesewco, an Etsy shop that specializes in hats and embroidered goodies. Emily's hats are made entirely by hand, finished to the last detail, and in this case that included a pin by Callooh Callay!

Emily purchased one of my favorite pins to adorn this beauty, a popular item in my shop and one that I really hated to let go (as sometimes happens). It's made of three vintage buttons, a dark, mottled brown base with scalloped edges; a lovely light mauve button with a raised, swirled design; and a mother of pearl in the midddle.

Visits moesewco's Etsy site for a closer look at this hat and others, and visit their website, Discriminating Weirdos, for a fascinating look at the hat blocks Emily uses (and the ones she covets).

The moss in the woods

Today was a beautiful spring-like day, 75 degrees outside, lovely light breeze. So I prised myself away from my computer and took a two-mile hike in the woods, just me and my friend and a few dozen other people thrilled to be outdoors. There are no leaves out yet, but the ground and rocks were covered with mosses, dark velvet green, spongy brown, and lacy white.

Tomorrow it's supposed to snow, so this was just a teaser. Something to make us even more anxious for the final break from winter, probably three or four weeks away. For now, it was enough.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Ugly Necklace Contest

Send me your overwrought, your color blind, your clunky messes yearning to be seen. It's the first annual Ugly Necklace Contest. How about it? Can you beat this (the mother of all ugly necklaces)?

Entering is easy: just post a link in the comments here, or e-mail your file to me at, or convo me at Etsy. I'll save them all (first, I'll laugh at them), then in a few weeks post them for everyone to vote on a winner. The deadline is two weeks from now, March 15.

The necklaces can be either vintage (20 years old or older) or something you made (not the new necklace Aunt Mabel gave you for Christmas, and definitely not the monster you saw on someone else's website). Assuming there are enough entries, I may split it into two categories.

OK, so the rules are a little vague. Still, what have you got to lose? In addition to the bragging rights involved, there's a prize! I was going to send the winner my ugly necklace, but then I saw one of the same series on ebay for $28, so screw that. Instead you'll get a nice pair of bobby pins made from vintage buttons, like the ones in my shop. Much better, eh?

I think I've made this clear enough, but let me know if you have any questions. And may the most atrocious necklace win!