Great writers versus great posts

I do most of my on-line reading via a feed reader. For years I used Google Reader, without even really worrying about the risks. After Google ruined it, I experimented with several alternatives. I’m happy enough with a couple of the options, so I’m not so unhappy with how things have turned out (with Google having announced that it is canceling Reader). But the surge in interest has prompted me to think about how reading feeds is different from reading things via social media. Social media helps you find great posts. Feed readers are for when you’ve found a great writer.

I notice this whenever someone shares one of my pages (either here or on Wise Bread). I’ll get a surge of traffic to one post. Some of those people will read another post, or even a few. Only a few seem to become regular readers of my work—and fewer now than before.

Back in the old days—let’s say, five or six years ago—there was more of the latter, and I think it was because more people used feed readers. It was wonderful to find a great post, but it was much better to find a great writer. Then you could add their feed to your feed reader and read everything they wrote.

I still do that. Every time I find a great post via Facebook or Twitter (or whatever), I look at other stuff the guy has written, with an eye toward adding the feed to my feed reader.

I’m puzzled that more people don’t seem to do the same. Finding a great writer is way better than finding a great post.

The wonderful Spurlock Museum

Plaster copy of Venus de Milo.
Plaster copy of Venus de Milo.

A hundred-odd years ago, a lot of towns and cities had their own museum. In those days, international travel was beyond the reach of ordinary people, and museums saw it as part of their mission to bring the great artistic and cultural works of the world to a place where ordinary people could see them. To support that, a whole industry existed making molds of the great works of European sculpture, and then casting plaster replicas of those works to be displayed in museums.

After all, the Venus de Milo can only be in one museum, but should only people who can get to the Louvre be able to see it?

A few decades later, fashions changed. Air travel and other changes made it possible for ordinary people to get to Europe after all, so they could see the great works of European art and culture. Rather suddenly, it no longer seemed like a great service to show people copies of the greatest works of art and culture.  Museums decided that they should show people originals—even if they could only afford 3rd rate originals.

julius caeser
Plaster copy of bust of Julius Caeser

Thanks entirely to great good fortune, at the time that this shift was at its peak, a budget crunch at the University of Illinois had virtually shut down the museums that are now known as the Spurlock Museum. They had so little money, they were unable to hire a director, meaning that there was no one in authority to throw out the plaster copies of the great works and replace them with 3rd rate originals.

At museums all over the country, an incredible number of these excellent copies—quite literally museum quality—were simply thrown away. But not those belonging to the Spurlock Museum.

Among other things, we have a fairly complete set of replicas of the Elgin Marbles, made from molds taken before an ill-fated attempt at cleaning did serious damage to the originals. Scholars come from all over the world to study our copies.

elgin marbles
Plaster copy of frieze blocks from the Parthenon

I was going to the Spurlock Museum today, to attend a meditation class by Mary Wolters (an excellent workshop, by the way), and decided to catch an earlier bus so I’d have half an hour to look around the collection. I’d several times wished I had a picture of one or another items from their collection to use to illustrate a Wise Bread post, and I figured this would be a good chance to get a few photos.

Having taken a few, I thought I’d share some here.

spurlock scupture

If you’re local, don’t miss the wonderful Spurlock Museum.

Interviewed on Navigating Your Money

Mike Tierney of the Navigating Your Money podcast interviewed me last week and has already put the show up. Listen to me natter on about frugal living here:

Episode #19: Live Like You Have More, On Less

I haven’t actually listened to it. I find the idea of doing so fills me with dread. (I’ve heard other people say similar things, but am a little surprised to find myself so strongly affected.)

Wise Bread’s Will Chen has assured me that I sound reasonably articulate:

I especially like the part where you explained that a budget is not a limit but rather a tool for showing you what you CAN have. The part about sharing tools is also a really awesome part. You did great, but the host is also really good. He clearly has read through your material and gets your philosophy.

So there you have it. If you’re interested in what I’ve been saying, but you want to hear it in my voice rather than reading it on the screen, here’s your chance.

My shameful integer posts—and my shameless ones

You know what integer posts are—the ones where the title starts with an integer. I scorn them when I’m reading, so I tend not to write them. I’ve ended up writing a few, though. Seriously—sometimes they just pop out.

I knew I’d written three, but looking back over my list of Wise Bread posts, I see that I’ve actually written six, a fact that I’m somewhat ashamed of:

These last two are sliders. For one thing, the integer is spelled out, not written as a digit. For another, the posts are organized as a logical sequence, rather than as a lame list. I don’t know if they count or not, but the title begins with an integer, so I’m including them.

This next list, though, don’t count. They’re posts that quite legitimately include a number in the title because it’s part of what the post is about:

Those I’m not ashamed of at all. I mean, 401(k) isn’t even an integer!

Oh, and I almost missed this shameful integer post, because I’d hidden the integer in the middle:

And what about this one?

Shameful? Or shameless?

Sadly, integer posts do seem to work, if by “work” you mean “get more reads.” Perhaps the title of this post should have been “7 Shameful Integer Posts”! Hmm?

Soldierette mention

My Wise Bread post Have Style, not a Lifestyle picked up a mention on the blog Soldierette as one of 5 Unmissable Personal Style Tips.

I spent a few minutes poking around the site. There’s a lot to like there. The fitness stuff in particular caught my eye. (I’m always trying to balance staying motivated enough to get my exercise with avoiding injuring myself by training too much or too hard. I find fitness-related writing helps with both aspects of that.)

I’ll be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World tomorrow

I’m going to be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World (America’s #1 Travel Radio Show) tomorrow (Saturday, May 19th). I’ll be on at 11:43 Eastern time for five minutes.

If you want to hear me talk, you can:

They want me to talk about my Why I Hate Points Wise Bread post.

I’ve been interviewed before, but usually either by a reporter who’s gathering info for a story, or else by email where I can compose my replies. This’ll be my first live interview.

Lunch boxes

Various containers for carrying lunches
Photo of lunch boxes originally taken for Wise Bread.

I took this photo specifically to illustrate my latest Wise Bread post, which uses lunch boxes as an example in a discussion about how to choose between buying disposable versus buying to last. The editor ended up going with a different image, but I kind of liked this one, so I figured I’d use it here.

Turns out I have a lot of containers for carrying lunch.

The right-most one is Jackie’s tiffin carrier. Some places in India, wives produce fresh hot lunches for their husbands in the late morning and use a delivery system to have the lunches delivered at lunch time in carriers like this. We sometimes bring it to restaurants so we don’t need to ask for a box when we want to bring leftovers home.

Next to that is a brown paper bag, which I contend is a perfectly reasonable choice for brown-bag lunches: paper is cheap, made from renewable resources without requiring large amounts of energy, and is bio-degradable.

The blue container next to that is the lunch container I actually used to bring my lunch to the office for years. It’s insulated, so food from the fridge would stay cold enough to remain fresh, and then I’d heat it up in the office microwave.

Behind that is a metal lunch box printed with a Hindu pantheon. (The other side has a rather terrifying picture of Kali.) As best I can recall, we’ve never used it to carry a lunch. I think Jackie stores some sort of textile-related tools in it.

At the far left is an awesome thermos-brand lunch carrier that’s basically a big thermos bottle. I won it in a raffle at  Motorola company picnic. (It’s got a Motorola logo printed on it, although it was made by Nissan which I gather bought Thermos some years ago.) It’s a very clever contraption. Clearly someone put a lot of thought into it. There are four stackable containers inside. The bottom one is made for soup, and has gasketed lid to keep liquids in together with a little valve that lets pressure equalize as the soup cools. The next one up is a big container for the main dish—rice, pasta, whatever. The lid of that container is insulated. The next container up is supposed to be used for salad (kept from getting hot by the insulated lid below it), and the top container is for desert. I don’t think I ever used it as intended, to carry both hot and cold dishes, but it worked great as an alternative to my blue insulated carrier to carry cold dishes that I could heat up in the microwave. (And I might yet use it as intended, if I ever want to carry a hot lunch someplace that doesn’t have a microwave.)

As I was setting up for the photo shoot, I kept thinking of more lunch containers that we own. We actually have at least two that didn’t make it into the picture.

Some years ago, my dad gave us a picnic backpack. It’s for rather higher-class affairs than lunch at the office. It came with a tablecloth and place settings for two, together with a cutting board for serving bread and cheese, and a corkscrew. There’s a sleeve suitable for a carrying a bottle of wine. The pack has two compartments, one for the implements and then another insulated compartment for the food.  (I think it’s this one: Picnic Backpack at REI.) I never brought that into work for lunch, but Jackie a couple of times packed up food for two and came to join me at the office for lunch.

The last is my “rack trunk” for my bicycle. It’s sized to fit on top of the bicycle’s rear rack, and is basically a big plastic tub lined with insulation, and then covered with nylon. It’s just the right size to hold a six-pack of soda (turned sideways), with enough room left over to hold a sandwich, along with a couple of granola bars, Reese’s peanut butter cups, or what have you. Jackie packed my lunch in that pretty often as well, during summer bicycling season. (If you don’t try to fit in a six-pack, there’s plenty of room for a proper meal.) They don’t make this sort of rack trunk any more. The new ones lack the rigid plastic tub, and just get their shape from the structure of the fabric—they’re not nearly as nice as mine.

I’d had no idea I had so many lunch boxes, until I started gathering them up for that photo shoot.

Another view on frugal living

One of my fellow Wise Bread writers, Nora Dunn, has been posting some of the financial details of her travel-heavy lifestyle, including this post on her 2011 Income. (It’s got a link to her earlier post on her 2011 spending, and promises a forthcoming post on why she chooses to earn this much money and not more.)

It’s pretty interesting for anyone who’s thinking about the sort of issues that I write about in my Wise Bread articles—how and why to spend less, and how and why to earn the money to support that frugal lifestyle (and not some other lifestyle).

Drew Breunig on “Content” Creep

I think of myself as a writer, not a “content creator,” so I find Drew Breunig’s warnings of doom to anyone whose business is built around “content” to be hopeful. Those same warnings ought to terrify the owners and managers of those businesses.

My writing for Wise Bread has given me a particular perspective on this. The Wise Bread admins have done a pretty good job of seeking out and paying for high-quality writing. They have fallen prey to the idea that winning in this niche is all about SEO and monetizing, but that’s not so bad.

The SEO thing tends tends to work in favor of a writer who wants his work to be read. A Google search for budget categories finds my article Refactor Your Budget Categories, despite a lot of other articles on budgeting. (I was going to say that I wouldn’t do so well if I just posted the article on my own blog, but when I tested that theory, I found a Google search for rich country finds my article How to Have a Rich Country just fine. Maybe I could do as well on my own site.) In any case, there’s nothing wrong with SEO, as long as it’s in service of good content—good writing.

The monetizing thing is more of a slippery slope. If you let your browser do so, it’ll run scripts from at least 15 other domains every time you load a page on Wise Bread. I haven’t looked at what they’re all for, but most of them either serve ads or provide some sort of analytics or tracking of who’s viewing what. As a reader, I don’t care about any of that stuff, so I generally don’t let my browser run those scripts. As a writer, I tolerate it as a way to make more money, but I don’t think it makes my posts look better. (Wise Bread does at least avoid the very worst of the interstitials and floating boxes that cover the page and so on.)

So, as I say, I hope Drew Breunig is right. I’d very much like to see the revenue potential of a content farm article fall to zero. Or, at least, low enough that there’s no point in paying some semi-literate buffoon a nickle to cobble together a few paragraphs that look like prose and are stuffed with keywords. Not that I begrudge the semi-literate buffoons their nickles; I’d just like to see the incentives in the system shift so as to make it pointless to hire writers who can’t write.

It would take a lot of those nickles to add up to a reasonable wage, but there are a lot of those nickels. A world in which we swapped 10,000 worthless articles for one worthwhile article—and paid one writer $500 instead of a thousand buffoons 50¢ each would be a better world.

How to have a rich country

What makes a country rich? Hint: It has nothing to do with natural resources. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan prove that.

What makes a country rich? Hint: It has nothing to do with natural resources. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan prove that. (See also: How to Get Rich by Being Evil)

We’ve known how to have rich countries for a while now; Adam Smith laid most of the ground work in 1776 with The Wealth of Nations, and we’ve improved on it modestly since then. You need three things:

  1. Private property
  2. Free markets
  3. Rule of law

None of those things have to be perfect for a country to get rich. Look at what China and India have done over the past twenty years. Allow a little private property, reduce government regulation a little, and you unleash a lot of entrepreneurial activity. Pretty soon, you have a bigger economy, higher incomes, and a richer population.

What’s interesting to me is how important that third point turned out to be.




As the Soviet Union began to collapse, a lot of people were offering advice on how to free the economies of the formerly communist countries. Most of the advice had to do with getting state property into the hands of ordinary people in ways that would allow the greater productivity that private property and free markets allow.

There was a lot less focus on how to imbed the rule of law into the system. It was almost as if people figured that the shift from a police state to the rule of law would be easier than getting there from a state of anarchy. (A dumb idea, once you think about it.)

So, thanks to the unhappy experiments in Russia (and other places) we now know what happens if you have (some) private property and (moderately) free markets without the rule of law. You don’t get a rich country; you just get a lot of rich people.

This insight has been guiding me politically for a while now. Obviously, it would be great to be a rich person in a rich country, but few of us have that option. Pretty much by definition, most of us are going to be somewhere in the broad middle. But if you’re going to be in the broad middle, it’s a lot better to do so in a rich country.

Happily, we know how to have a rich country.




Note: This was originally written for Wise Bread, but they decided it wasn’t for them, so I’m posting it here. I’ve kept it just as I’d written it, including the “see also” link back to Wise Bread. And, since it was written for a monetized market, I’ve gone ahead and put some ads in this post, even though I don’t general monetize my blog. Somehow, the post seemed lonely without them.