Gift Guides 2008

Black Friday has come and passed. The holiday shopping season is in full swing. By now, you’re either finished (congrats) or catching up. Here’s a few gift guides we recommend, because unlike a lot of year-end round-ups, they don’t simply list what’s new or flashy, but in most cases make a compelling case for why the stuff’s interesting, fun and worth considering. If you have any other great guides you’d like to share, please let us know which ones and why via the submit page or the comments below. Happy hunting, giving and getting!

– Steven Leckart

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Uncle Mark Gift Guide and Almanac

The latest iteration of this previously-reviewed guide is chock full of truly satisfying variety: boardgames, spatulas, watches, child strollers, iPhone apps and more. Plus, a few tips and How-To’s that have nothing to do with shopping or consuming.

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Make Magazine

This year the makers of the DIY bible have fine-sliced the zine’s goods and content into a few little fun guides, including those for Music Makers and Chemistry. There’s some overlap here and there, but nevertheless, each are worth a look…

Robots!
Everything from fully-assembled $300 bots to $25 DIY solar-powered cars and various other automata kits.

$20 Gift Guide
Little, inexpensive DIY trinkets galore. Build your own LED felt tree ornament, LED mini menorah or both.

Arduino Gift Guide
DIY microcontroller kits and boards for as little as $12! Plus, a Getting Started guide for beginners.

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TreeHugger
One of the RSS feeds I regularly check offers up 11 different giftee categories like “health nut” and “foodie” all viewed through the lens of modern green. Like a museum gift shop, there’s something for pretty much everyone.

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Scott Kelby’s Gonzo Holiday Gear Guide
Kelby’s third annual list of high-end cameras, lenses, portable drives and accessories for photogs and aspiring image jockeys, plus his short take on why they’re worth the high price tags.

 



Cabela’s

Cabela’s started out as a premier mail-order source for hunting gear. It is still known for that, but its coverage has expanded far beyond hunting, far beyond camping, to include anything remotely connected to the outdoors. Its pages overflow with boating tools, trailer hitches, smokers, meat processing equipment, kayaking stuff, binoculars, remote cameras, tent gadgets, tons of clothes, pet gear, RV supplies, and so on. The range of tools sold is staggering. It is a catalog of outdoor aspirations. In general the stuff they sell works as advertised, so one can use them as a pretty good guide to what’s useful.

Candid customer reviews of purchased items makes shopping at the Cabela’s website almost as good as Amazon’s. But you really should get your hands on their 500-page master paper catalog. No one is as keen on web shopping as I am, but the Cabela’s master catalog is prime evidence that sometimes a big fat paper book is better. You cannot grasp the totality of what Cabela’s has to offer on its website, nor can you zip through it in browse mode as you can while flipping through its 500 crammed pages. It would take days to do the same on the web, and you’d still miss stuff.

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A big fat paper catalog can be a big environmental waste mailed out each season. Cabela’s has engineered an interesting experiment wherein they display scans of the catalog pages with embedded links to the online item. You get the browsability of the paper catalog and the convenience of web ordering. What you don’t get is speed. This method is currently too slow to be enjoyable, but it is a handy option. I still take the paper version.

-- KK  

Free from Cabela's

Sample Excerpts:
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Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog

Lehman’s is a 50-year-old company in Ohio’s Amish country, with a unique bunch of well-made, carefully selected and useful tools for “sustainable” living. Emphasis is on cooking, homesteading, farming, gardening, and doing things for yourself. Country living for sure, but some of this could appeal to urbanites who want to bring some country into the city. Kitchen equipment, canning supplies, copper kettles, cheese-making supplies, grain grinders, toboggans, kerosene lanterns, axes, water pumps. A large selection of wood-burning stoves, as well as cookstoves. Old-time farming and gardening tools (for old-time skills still viable)-on and on. Most of their items are USA-made.

The hard copy (172 pp. catalog) is way better than the electronic version. If you’re into this stuff, and/or you live in the country, you’ll end up reading it like a book. We’ve had their catalogs around for over 30 years and I still find myself leafing through one from time to time.

-- Lloyd Kahn  

Lehman's Non-Electric Catalog $3 Available from Lehman's Or free w/any order



Goodwill Online Auctions

Thrift store hunting isn’t just a pastime. It can be an honest living. Finding and flipping used goods for profit has been the main source of income for one of my friends for more than a decade. Though picking through racks of clothing, bins of electronics and boxes of watches — or trolling eBay and Craigslist — can be fruitful, another weekend-thrifter friend also swears by Goodwill’s online auction site, which features 18,000 items daily that have been handpicked by several stores nationwide. You’re getting access to the cream of the crop, but not every storeworker knows the value of what they have or how to describe it — and every bidder doesn’t necessarily know either (the market for vintage Levi’s has become so lucrative that people try to pass off faux-jeans to less-discerning eBayers).

Whether you’re looking to join the flip economy or you enjoy stumbling on old, rare, cheap stuff, Goodwill’s site is a great resource. Here’s a bit of what I found recently (followed by current bids): Kodak Colorburst 50 Polaroid ($4.99), Ronco Rhinestone & Stud Setter ($5), Harley-Davidson Men’s Boots – size 11 ($11), Nintendo 64 System ($15), Hohner Student IV Accordion w/Case ($9.59), and a Minolta Hi-Matic F 35mm ($8).

Warning: Shipping can be expensive. Also, items are purchased ‘as is’ and cannot be returned.



ExpandOS

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Packing material is part of a vicious cycle. No matter how much holiday shopping and shipping my household does, the supply of bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts stashed in our garage just keeps replenishing. Hate to throw it away, but can’t toss it in the recycle bin either. ExpandOS, on the other hand, are 100% recyclable. Essentially small cardboard pyramids — made from 30% recyclable paper — the shapes are engineered to fit together to create a stable environment for whatever’s being shipped. As the picture above shows, each pyramid has ridges along its edges and holes in the face of each side, allowing a box of these suckers to lock together into a lattice-like structure.

ExpandOS are intended for commercial use, but I’m posting this in the hope that more businesses will give it a shot.

They way it works is you a purchase large flat sheets of specially-cut cardboard (made from 30% recycled paper). Each sheet gets fed into a special machine that separates and crimps small strips and spits them out in their folded, triangular form. You lease an “Expander” machine (pictured below, note: there are various size units). The machine is free to use if you order four or more pallets of sheets per month. If you order less than two pallets per month, you pay $300 for the machine. One pallet = $1800 = 16,660 sheets. Depending on the size of an order, the cost supposedly breaks down to about $1.50 – $1.80/cubic foot.

I discovered ExpandOS when my wife ordered a piece of pottery from Heath Ceramics in Sausalito. When I emailed Heath, a rep for the company told me they’ve been using ExpandOS for a year with a very low breakage rate. They say they’ve eliminated all peanuts, bubble wrap, foam inserts and pillows, and that they’re budget for packing materials is roughly the same as it was before (if not reduced). Better yet, their packing time has dropped “dramatically.” When they ship multiple items in one package, all they do is place a cardboard sheet between items in a stack, tape them together and surround them with ExpandOS.

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Brown Paper Tickets

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Ticketmaster sucks. Consumers hate having to purchase tickets through them because of their outrageous pile of excessive and phony fees. Hosts hate them because Ticketmaster’s effective monopoly demands everyone play by their heavy-handed rules. Venues and fans feel totally stuck with them.

However if you are putting on an event and want to sell tickets, you have an alternative that will be cheaper, better, faster than Ticketmaster.

Brown Paper Tickets is one of several alternative online ticket vendors for anyone hosting a ticketed event. Might be a ball, a fundraiser, a race, a concert, or an exhibit. At Long Now we’ve used them and can recommend them highly.

Brown Paper Tickets bills themselves as “fair-trade” ticketing. What that means is that they offer a fair deal to both the consumer and the venue. BPT provides the lowest consumer fees on tickets (99 cents and 2.5%), with no add-on overcharges, and free first class postage. For hosts setting up an event, they offer fantastic 24/7 live-person phone support, a clean usable website, and cheap (10 cent) printed secure tickets. They offer venue hosts other goodies too. You have control over when to stop sales, how to customize the ticket, ways to manage multiple events, means to offer media tickets, assigned seating, and so on.

Plus, they give you real-time sales, and pay up promptly! Try that with Ticketmaster.

If you are running an event, it’s crazy to use the old monster; if you are a fan, petition your venue to switch to Brown Paper Tickets.

-- KK  



Money-Band

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Instead of an uncomfortable wallet in my back pocket, I use this rubber band to carry all of my essentials — credit card, debit card, driver’s license, work ID, insurance card. I really was skeptical of spending $3 for a 5-pack* of rubber bands, but I gave it a shot. The bands are a bit shorter than the standard office variety, so you can put one around your credit cards on the narrow end without having to double it over. As is, it provides a snug fit. They’re also very tough, about as thick and robust as the kind used on lobster claws. I’ve been using my original band for the past seven months. My “wallet” can now fit easily in my front pocket at all times with no discomfort.

-- Eric Doherty  

[NOTE: The manufacturer indicated a newer version of the Money-Band is available for $3 for one single band, not a 5-pack. Additionally, the manufacturer indicated the newer vision is a bit thicker little and about 1/8-inch wider. -- SL]

Money-Band
$4 (includes shipping)
Available from Money-Band.com



It’s All Too Much

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I moved to California hauling a lot of boxes still unopened from at least two previous purges of epic proportions. Sound at all familiar?

It’s All Too Much is a terrific book that inverts the typical approach to dealing with existential kipple. Rather than helping you find new places and novel ways to “organize” all your crap, author Peter Walsh encourages you to explore why you ever kept all that junk in the first place. Does it reflect a fantasy waistline or a long-abandoned career? What about this “priceless” relic of a late loved one that’s been sitting in a moldy trash bag for 10 years? Be honest: what place do these things have in the life that you imagine for yourself? Because, if the stuff you accumulate isn’t actively helping get you closer to a life you truly want, then it’s getting in the way, and it needs to go. Period.

The biggest change in attitude this book made in my life was to teach me not to generate false relevance by “organizing” stuff I don’t want or will never need. Organization is what you do to stuff that you need, want, or love – it’s not what you do to get useless stuff out of sight or to manufacture makebelieve meaning. For me, this is about the opposite of organizing; it means disinterring every sarcophagus of crap in my house and, item by item, evaluating whether it’s making my family’s life better today. And if some heirloom really is precious to me, can I find a better home for it than a shelf in the back of my garage?

You can’t believe how emotionally complex this process is for a craphound like me, but once I get started, it’s completely exciting – the illusion that all this junk is making me happy melts away with every scrap of paper or broken piece of equipment I can get out of the way.

That’s been this book’s revelation for me: this is about calculating the very real cost that clutter incurs every day, then deciding what you can tolerate _not_ doing about it. The mindless junk of your past crowds out opportunities and sets pointless limitations. Move out the junk, and you create room for the rest of your life. Ultimately, it’s not just a question of tidying your house; it’s a question of liberating your heart.

– Merlin Mann

Merlin Mann‘s review turned me onto this fantastic book. We’ve rethought our household because of it. We were reminded that life is not about stuff; it’s about possibilities, which the right tools can enable. For a world of expanding stuff, this book is the necessary anti-stuff tool. If you are reading Cool Tools, you need to read this. It will help you distinguish between that which is fabulous for you personally and that which is just more junk to organize. I’ve learned so much from the author that I’ve excerpted it generously in the hope that even if you don’t read the book, you’ll glean a bit of its wisdom.

– KK

 

It’s All Too Much
Peter Walsh
2007, 230 pages
$11

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Imagine the life you want to live. I cannot think of a sentence that has had more impact on the lives of people I have worked with. … When clutter fills your home, not only does it block your space, but it also blocks your vision.

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You need space to live a happy, fruitful life. If you fill up that space with stuff for “the next house,” your present life suffers. Stop claiming your house is too small. The amount of space you have cannot be changed — the amount of stuff you have can.
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I know it sounds strange, but if you start by focusing on the clutter, you will never get organized. Getting truly organized is rarely about “the stuff.”
This is the bottom line: If your stuff and the way it is organized is getting you to your goals… fantastic. But if it’s impeding your vision for the the life you want, then why is it in your home? Why is it in your life? Why do you cling to it? For me, this is the only starting point in dealing with clutter.

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If it’s taken you ten years or more to accumulate your mess, it’s impossible to make it disappear overnight. Letting go is a learning process. You might need to start slowly, and it may take time to discover that not having things makes your life better, not worse.

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Most things that you save for the future represent hopes and dreams. But the money, space, and energy you spend trying to create a specific future are wasted. We can’t control what tomorrow will bring. Those things we hoard for an imaginary future do little other than limit our possibilities and stunt our growth. When I urge you to get rid of them, I’m not telling you to discard your hopes and dreams. It’s actually quite the opposite. Because if you throw out the stuff that does a rather shabby job of representing your hopes and dreams, you actually create room to make dreams come true.

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It’s easy to accumulate things, but hard to let go. Trust me–if you always add and never subtract, you will eventually bury yourself. You need to set limits, and the limits are easy to create. They are determined by the amount of space you have, your priorities and interests, and the agreements you make with other members of your household.

Clutter takes over. One thing that constantly surprises me is that regardless of the amount of clutter in a home, the homeowners often express some surprise at it being there — almost as though someone filled their home with stuff while they were away on vacation! People freely admit that it is their stuff, but in the next breath they tell me they are confounded by how it got that way.
You own your possessions. What you have is yours, or is in your case. It’s your responsibility. It’s your doing.

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Get rid of the trash to make room for the treasures. Let the things that are important take center stage.

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In my experience, close to half of what fills a kitchen has not seen the light of day in the last twelve months. Face facts: If you haven’t used an item in the last year, it is highly unlikely that you really need it or that you are going to ever get enough use from it to justify it cluttering up your home. Take the plunge and get rid of it!

If you’re tempted to keep something because it was expensive, remember the difference between value and cost. Value is what something is worth. You spent a lot of money on it. To throw it away would mean admitting that the money was wasted. Now you need to think about the cost. What is it costing you to keep this item? How much space? How much energy?

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There are only three options for each and every item you come across in this, your initial purge:

1) Keep. This is the stuff that you want to stay in your home. You use it all the time. It’s crucial to the life you want to live. Or (let’s be honest) you don’t really use it, but can’t bear to part with it just now.

2) Trash. Remember that every bag you fill is space you’ve created to live and love your life. Everything you decide to throw away is a victory. Make it a competition to see who can fill more trash bags.

3) Out the door. So you’ve had trouble getting rid of stuff because it’s “valuable”? Well, here’s your chance to either make a little money or let someone put it to real use. The items that go into the “out the door” zone are items that you are either going to sell–a yard sale, on consignment, or even online–or you are going to donate to a charitable organization. Other items here include things that are being returned to their rightful owners or to someone who has a real use for that item. Once in this pile, the item never comes back into your home.

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Instead of “Why don’t you put your tools away?” ask “What is it that you want from this space?”

Instead of “Why do we have to keep your grandmother’s sewing kit?” ask “Why is that important to you? Does it have meaning?”

Instead of “There’s no room for all of your stuff in there,” say “Let’s see how we can share this space so that it works for both of us.”

Instead of “Why do you have to hold on to these ugly sweaters your dad gave you?” ask “What do these sweaters make you think of or remind you of?”

Instead of “I don’t understand how you can life with all of this junk,” ask “How do you feel when you have to spend time in this room?”

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Mementos are not memories. Just because it was a gift does not mean you must keep it forever. If it is important, then keep it in a condition that shows that it is important.

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When the purpose of the room is lost, clutter inevitably follows.

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Put your relationship first. Preserve your sense of peace. Enhance your sleep. Find another place for it. Even if you live in a studio apartment, you must create a separate, sacred space for your bedroom. Put up a screen or a curtain. Use a bookshelf to create a wall if you can’t afford to have one built. This is too important to ignore.

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When it comes to clothes, it is seldom an issue of not enough space–there is never enough space. The real issue is simply too much stuff, and that’s where we need to look for the solution to the clothing clutter.

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Every single time I help organize someone’s closet, I find clothing that still has the original sales tags on it, clothing that has never been worn. When I ask about it, the response is always the same: “It was such a bargain, I couldn’t pass it up!” A Bargain. It’s hanging in the closet, unworn. Please explain to me how exactly that is a bargain? If you have unworn clothes that have been in your closet longer than six months, you should either give them to a worthwhile charity or sell them online where they will fetch the best price. Get them out of the closet and clear some space for the things you love and wear.

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Reality check — Giving to charities
Goodwill receives a billion pounds of clothing every year. Ultimately, they use less than half of the clothing they get. Clothing is cheap, and the cost of sorting, cleaning, storing, and transporting the clothes is higher than their value. If you wouldn’t give an article to a family member, it’s probably not good enough for charity. Sure, it’s great to get the tax deduction and it makes you feel like you didn’t waste money buying the clothes, but if you’re truly charitable, be sensitive to the needs of the organization. Charities aren’t dumping grounds for your trash. Talk to your local charities or visit www.charitynavigator.org. Find out what they can most use. Although giving to charities is a great way to get stuff out of your house, it’s far better not to let stuff into your house.

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Reality check — Collections
It’s a collection if:
it’s displayed in a way that makes you proud and shows that you value and honor it.
looking at it brings you pleasure.
you enjoy showing it to others.
it is not an obsession that is damaging your relationships.
it is not buried under other clutter.
it doesn’t get in the way of living the life you wish you had.

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Holiday in/out
Remember the In/Out Rule — you don’t want more to come in than goes out. But holidays tend to be one-way. Items come in, in, in! What goes out? Now’s the time to examine your haul and see what items of equivalent size and use can go.

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My job may be all about organization and decluttering, but I cannot say enough times that it is not about “the stuff.” I have been in more cluttered homes than I can count, and the one factor I see in every single situation is people whose lives hinge on what they own instead of who they are. These people have lost their way. They no longer own their stuff–their stuff owns them. I am convinced that this is more the norm than the exception in this country. At some point, we started to believe that the more we own, the better off we are. In times past an in other cultures, people believe that one of the worst things that can happen is for someone to be possessed., to have a demon exercise power over you. Isn’t that what being inundated with possession is– being possessed?




Farewell, My Subaru

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These days there’s a glut of first-person reportage centered on alternative lifestyles. Some narratives come across as self-righteous and self-indulgent. This book is not one of those. When 30-something journalist Doug Fine buys a plot of land in New Mexico and vows to live as “green” as possible, his self-deprecating, humorous outlook kicks in. He never denies he’s in over his head. Quite the contrary, which makes every misstep and subsequent triumph all the more gratifying. From rearing goats found on Craigslist to garnering rainwater harvesting tips via — what else? — http://harvestingrainwater.com, and Googling a VegOil auto mechanic, Fine’s journey is exactly what it professes to be: “green, Digital Age living.” No substitute for the rigorous how-to’s penned by experts, this entertaining, heartfelt journey is a testament to what’s possible with a Web connection and heaps of determination. Indeed, the path to alternative living truly begins at our fingertips. Even if you could care less about going green, living local or starting-up solar, there’s inspiration to be had. Plus, delicious recipes highlighting some of Fine’s homegrown stuffs.

Farewell, My Subaru
Doug Fine
2008, 224 pages
$19

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

I had been reading almost nothing but goat literature for a month, much of it contradictory. As usual, books failed to prepare me for real life. The classic goat-care bible is David Mackenzie’s 1957 tome Goat Husbandry, and thanks to the line: “The nature of the goat is disciplined, co-operative and intelligent,” I had started my career as a gentleman rancher naively thinking that raising dairy goats would be easy. I mean, I’d throw them some hay, breed them, and soon enough they’d be giving growth hormone — free milk, with enough left over for me to barter locally for things like hay, buffalo meat, and massages. How hard could that be? Now, with five minutes under my belt as a goat owner, one of my kids was kicking me in the pelvis as I tried to get her into my car.

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I relied pretty heavily on the first line of Jim Corbett’s book Goatwalking, which stated definitively that “Two milk goats can provide all the nutrients a human being needs, with the exception of Vitamin C and a few common trace elements.”

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The actual vegetable oil pump, tucked between seven hundred porta johns, looked like gas station pumps used to look when my dad was little: quaintly oval, with an old-school gauge and actual physical numbers that turned as you fueled. I asked Kevin [Forrest of Albuquerque Alternative Energies] if this would be a normal fill-up. “Yeah, except if you hold the fueling handle long enough — ow! — it might burn your hand. Feel.” I clasped the handle. “Yeah, ow! Hot,” I agreed. I guessed correctly that the pump was kept at scalding temperatures to prevent artery clogging in its lines. With my palm still, I reached for the nozzle again with my shirttail as a potholder. I wanted to put the first vegetable oil into my truck even if it cost me a hand. I mean, filling up with a clean fuel from a totally old-school pump. How cool was that? I felt like ordering a grape Nechi. I unscrewed my gas cap and aimed the nozzle at my normal fuel tank. “Whoa whoa whoa!” Kevin shouted, breaking me out of my reverie. “What?” “If you put the vegetable oil in your old diesel tank, this truck’ll never drive again.” “Right.” Just what I needed: two fuel tanks to think about. But a few minutes later, with eighty gallons of oil in the correct tank and a second-degree-burned hand, I did a little mileage calculation. If I got the same eighteen miles per gallon on VegOil that I got on diesel, I wouldn’t have to fill up for the next fifteen hundred miles. That would get me halfway across North America. I was good to go for months, and I wouldn’t have to fill up with actual diesel, well, almost never. With diesel prices up twenty cents per gallon in the three days since I arrived in Albuquerque due to some kind of pipeline sabotage in Nigeria, I was already rubbing my palms together. It’d be so simple: when I ran out of veggie oil, I’d simply get more at the Mimbres Cafe. That was one of two small eateries in my valley, known for its mastery of both traditional New Mexican dietary staples: fried corn products and fried flour products. I could still tool around in a car, that ultimate American symbol of freedom. My gas would be free and clean. Sure, i would have to calculate and pay my own fuel taxes on the honor system next April. But that was a lot better than that last $67 diesel fill-up I had just endured on the nearby tax-free Indian reservation. I was carbon neutral, and it felt right.

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Sometimes having a “grid inter-tie” system, that is, a solar- or wind-power setup that is still connected to the energy company’s power lines, can be even more effective than moving off the grid entirely. In many states, utilities are required to buy back any surplus energy you produce with your home solar panels or wind generator. Instead of receiving an electric bill, you can receive an electric check.

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If the local government bought my story about trying to be a legitimate local food producer (which I was just starting to buy myself), it’d mean a savings of probably a thousand dollars per year over what the previous owner had been paying in taxes.

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Seven hours after my vow to avoid box-store shopping, I sat atop the Funky Butte in a semi-lotus, with ubiquitous Sharp Desert Stuff turning me into one of those bed-of-nails swamis. With Arkansan chicken still in my belly, my thoughts moved through the day’s events at the Funky Butte Ranch. The runaway LOVEsubee. A new herb garden. Suddenly a firm resolve hit me. I had been doing things half-baked; conducting my relationships, catching salmon, shopping for dry goods. I wanted to do things fully baked. No, wait, that didn’t come out right. What I meant was I was going to dive into this experiment with everything I had. Although I didn’t realize how literal that “dive in” pledge would soon prove. I would do it one project at a time. Maybe after a year, I’d see some real reduction in the oil in my life. But it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. At the moment, even with solar panels, I would survive as long as crunch co-ops imported tomatoes and box stores provided preroasted protein.

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I don’t like to think about dying, either. But if I had stopped to look at my overall survival ability when I embarked on this experiment, I concede that it would look like a I had a death wish. Without any of the skill sets that allowed earlier pioneers to eke out a life here, I chose New Mexico for the project, both because I love the mellow culture and vast wilderness, and because I thought it would have some of the best solar power potential on the planet… Extremely hot weather actually makes solar panels operate less efficiently — you get about 0.5 percent less production for every degree centigrade increase in temperature.




Getting Paid

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Scott Kirsner has compiled an online list of the best ways to sell your video creations online. Everyone is making video, but few figure out how to sell them. Kirsner gives you 21 different sites that pay videomakers and dissects the monetary deal each one offers. I haven’t found anything as useful anywhere else. It is the equivalent of the first version of a “Writer’s Market” for digital video producers. This list is free, part of a longer downloadable e-book he hopes you will buy, the Future of Web Video. I did; the rest of the book is a bargain for anyone serious about peddling a video of whatever length. I hope he keeps the list updated.

-- KK  

Getting Paid: Sites that Help Filmmakers and Video Producers Make Money Free Available from Scott Kirsner