Use Postcards Instead of Greeting Cards to Save Money and Make a Connection

July 27, 2011

Greeting cards are expensive. They’re also usually either obnoxious, sentimental, or excessive. I like the idea of marking birthdays and other special occasions with a personal note, but I don’t need cards that play “happy birthday” when you open them or bad jokes about the turning 30, 40 or 50.

Now I give people postcards instead. Postcards have many advantages over greeting cards:

Dr No postcard

I picked up a collection of 50 movie poster postcards a few years back and have been using them ever since. This one's for my Dad's next birthday. Photo (c) MGM Studios.

  • They’re cheap. I can pick up two to three postcards for the same prices as a single greeting card. You can also buy collections of postcards from $10 to $20; this often comes out to three to 10 postcards for a dollar.
  • They’re efficient. Every part of a postcard does something. One side has the picture/photograph, while the written message goes on the other. A greeting card uses twice as much space to do the same amount of work (outside picture/photo, inside page one, superflous inside page two, wasted empty back). Also, with a postcard you don’t have to worry about writing enough to fill up two empty pages.
  • They’re earth-friendly. Giving someone a postcard uses half the paper that a giving a person a greeting card of the same size does. If you send a postcard, you’re using one-fourth of the paper since you don’t need an envelope.
  • They’re personal. The sheer variety of postcard subjects allows me to easily buy cards that show a connection with my friends, family and other people in my life that I can’t quite do with a greeting card. Here are a few subjects of the cards I’ve been able to give recently:
    • A vintage map of Paris for the birthday of a co-worker from France
    • A reproduction of Klimt’s mother and child painting for my Mom on Mother’s Day
    • A vintage poster from the sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet for my movie-buff father’s birthday
    • A photograph of a roaring polar bear for my brother for Christmas
  • They’re fun. A postcard stands out in the mailbox or even among a stack of greeting cards. And I’ve come to enjoy hunting for postcards or thinking about how I can use a new postcard.

Two collections of postcards I bought a few years back (“Movie Posters Postcards” from the Museum of Modern Art and illustrations from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series, both discontinued) have formed the basis for my postcard collection. You can find many collections on Amazon in the $10-$20 range. I’ve also come across great postcards for sale at bookshops, art supply stores, comic book stores, museums and art galleries, and, yes, even greeting card stores.

Leaping woman

With the right message, this could work for a friend or family member getting a new job, graduating from college, or celebrating a birthday. Photo (c) Richard Avedon.

Beer postcard

In a pinch, this could work as a birthday card for 90% of my friends. Photo (c) Nouvelles Images.


Awesome music from around the world, Part 4

March 25, 2011

After just over a year, Stretchyourmind is back, with five (and then some) new awesome songs from five new countries. This batch includes Ugandan mwooyo, Brazilian new wave, and  self-effacing German rock.

31. Somalia: K’naan – Wavin’ Flag


Somalian-Canadian artist Kn’aan wrote this song to call attention to the bloodshed and upheaval that have plagued Somalia and many other African countries for decades. Coca-cola went and sponsored a new version of the song for the 2010 FIFA World Cup that kept the hook but replaced any reference to poverty and unhappiness with lines about about happy people waving flags. Both versions are still miles above other versions of the song featuring Will.I.Am or Canadian supergroups.

32.  Brazil: CSS – Move

This is a fun electronic/rock number. Dressed up like a bunch of Carrboro hipsters, CSS (short for cansei de ser sexy, or “tired of being sexy”) drive around the countryside taking some impressive but technically dubious photos using trick photography.

33. Germany: Die Prinzen – Deutschland

Die Prinzen (“The Princes”) crafted this catchy little number that manages to tweak German habits and culture (they aren’t being entirely sincere when they sing about the joys of German cars or about Germans being the friendliest people on Earth) while also working as an anthem celebrating Germany. Shades of “America, F— Yeah,” anyone?

34. Uganda: Maurice Kirya – Boda Boda

Maurice Kirya races through Kampala to get to his loved one in this sweet example of  the mwooyo (according to Kirya’s website, a blend of soul, Afro-fusion and R&B) genre. Kirya deliberately chose a woman with albinism to play his soulmate in this video to show albinos in a positive light and to reduce stigmatism associated with that condition in parts of Africa.

35. Panama: Los Rabanes – Commanding Wife

Los Rabanes, a cumbia/rock/reggae/ska band, often sing in a blend of Spanish and English, reflecting the strong influence the presence the U.S. military has had on their country. In this boisterous, bouncy, infectious tune, the singer describes the problems that come with having a life partner who “wants to destroy my life.”

35.5 Zimbabwe: Tinashe – Zambezi

I already covered Zimbabwe’s Tuku Mtukudzi in a previous entry, but in the interest of sharing great world music I had to include this entry as well. In this haunting song, Minashe recounts the story of a doomed young couple, originally told to him by his mother. You can also catch the more upbeat, visually appealing, thematically inappropriate video of the song here.

Awesome Music From Around the World, Part 3

March 22, 2010

My ongoing series of great music (and music videos) that I hope will eventually include every country in the world continues. Part three features Ghanian hip-hop, Norwegian indie rock, Venezuelan acid jazz, and seven other entries. Enjoy!

21. South Africa: Freshlyground – Pot Belly

The video accompanying this song works on its own as a short film. This song, from Freshlyground’s 2007 album, pairs lead singer Zolani Mahola’s exquisite vocals with a wonderful melody and back-up guitar.

22. Norway: Kings of Convenience – I’d Rather Dance with You

This Norwegian indie duo channel Wes Anderson and a bit of Napolean Dynamite for their biggest hit, a sweet, charming melody on acoustic guitar and piano. Or perhaps they’re channeling Flight of the Conchords (or are the Conchords channeling them?)–isn’t New Zealand on the exact opposite side of the globe from Norway?

23. Iraq: Acrassicauda – Garden of Stones

This heavy metal band formed in 2000, under the final days of Saddam Hussein’s regime (apparently they were even forced to write a song praising him). They developed and played in Iraq during the war with the United States until 2006, when they fled to Syria, and then to the U.S. Since then, they’ve been the subjects of the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, received signed guitars from their Metallica, and have recently been featured in Newsweek. Their single, “Garden of Stones,” is great head-banging music–raging guitars, heavy beats, and lyrics shouted over black-and-white footage of wrecked cities. This song is as powerful and subtle as a sledge hammer to the face.

24. Austria: EAV – Ding Dong

This video opens with an animated weasel having a panic attack, a Rutger Hauer look-a-like wooing a transvestite, and a hot dog in a birdcage. Then it takes a turn for the bizarre. This is a very silly, deliberately fun video, with the band obviously having a great time. The song itself that could be used as a textbook example of an ohrwurm (literally, “ear worm”) that gets stuck in your head over and over after just one listen.

25. Ghana: Obour – The Game

Ghanian hip-hop artists Obour, Okyeame Kwame, and Richie take on their country’s music establishment in their most recent single. But you don’t need to understand the politics of Ghana’s music industry (something about artists having a tough time getting their music out?) to enjoy the bouncy beats of this great song.

26. Israel: Kele 6 – The Way of the King

This fun take on The Wizard of Oz by Kele 6, one of Israel’s older hip-hop bands, is marred by the director’s decision to place the camera angle so that it aims either directly at Dorothy’s breasts or up her skirt. This points to a director who is either a pervert or who is quite insecure about establishing this obviously beautiful woman as attractive? He ends up doing everyone a disservice–effect is off-putting and slightly creepy. Still, this song is very catchy, and the players and costumes are charming. Still, this is definitely one of the better Israeli Wizard-of-Oz-themed rap videos out there.
27. Venezuela: Los Amigos Invisibles – Diablo
Los Amigos Invisibles blend dance music, disco, and Latin elements to create very catchy, dance-worthy music, especially in this song. And the video director knows how to film sexy women without being invasive or taking away their dignity (director of the Tele 6 video, I’m looking at you…)

28. South Korea: Super Junior – Sorry Sorry

According to wikipedia, Super Junior is the world’s largest boy band, coming from a country that has embraced the genre (when the Koreans do something, they do it whole-heartedly and then some). “Sorry Sorry” is an infectious pop number with some great dancing that has been emulated by, among others, the Filipino “Thriller” dancing prisoners and members of East Chapel Hill high school’s Asian club. [EDIT: YouTube Vogon Squad has disabled direct embedded viewing of this video, so you’ll have to click on the text link (the words by the 28).]

29. Dbanj: Nigeria – Fall in Love

Dapo Daniel “D’Banj” Oyebanjo took home the MTV Africa Artist of the Year and Listener’s Choice Awards for this 2008 hit. In this sweet video, D’Banj woos his sweetheart by, among other activities, losing to her in Mortal Kombat.

30. Argentina: Los Fabulosos Cadillacs – Matador
Argentina’s most famous band, founded in 1985, is currently still touring in South America. Their 1993 hit “Matador” blends rock, ska and big-band music into a potent and memorable song that has been used in movie soundtracks as far as the United States (Grosse Point Blank) and Spain (Matador).

Learning Spanish on iTunes

March 14, 2010

Today, with an iPod or other mp3 player, it’s possible to listen to music and other audio content just about anywhere. In this article, I’m going to talk about how to use that ability to work on and improve your Spanish.

There are plenty of places other than Itunes to get music online. In fact, I typically prefer to buy music from Amazon rather than Itunes because the prices are often cheaper and because the mp3s come without obnoxious DRM restrictions. All of the resources I’m recommending — mp3s, podcasts, videos, and audiobooks are available elsewhere on the Internet.

That said, iTunes does the best job I’ve seen of integrating all of these resources, making them easily available and offering the greatest overall selection of Spanish-language materials.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

Music: As I discussed earlier, YouTube is currently my main portal to finding new music. I don’t feel a need to buy every song I listen to more than once, but if I’m coming back to a song after a couple of weeks, I like to pay for it. Itunes, along with Amazon’s mp3 department, are two locations to easily purchase albums and single tracks, and support the work of Latin artists.

Plaza Sesamo (Sesame Street): iTunes has about 3 1/2 free hours of Sesame Street videos in Spanish in their videos section (look for “Aprende con Sesame”).

Free Podcasts: iTunes has dozens of free podcasts in Spanish, on topics ranging from home repair, to current events, to Latin music, to comedy. There are a few “Learn Spanish” podcasts geared toward beginning learners, but I’ve found that Spanish language podcasts for native speakers have been enjoyable and useful as well. Some of my favorites:

  • Latin Roll, Rock en tu idioma: This 2 1/2 hour weekly podcast features new music from throughout Latin America, as well as news and interviews with various bands (podcasts, videos and other material are also at
  • La Matinal: This is a daily half-hour NPR news program broadcast from Europe. Great, high-quality news with an international focus.

Spanish audiobooks: This is one area where iTunes still outshines Amazon in terms of price and selection. Spanish audiobooks are another great way to learn or relearn Spanish. iTunes’ selection ranges from The South Beach Diet to Don Quixote. I’ve particularly benefitted from Cuentos de Los Hermanos Grimm (Stories from the Brothers Grimm) and Las Aventuras de Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), both of which I knew beforehand, which was an immense help to my comprehension. If iTunes doesn’t have what you want, is another resource.

Audio Learning Programs: There are audio-based programs to learn Spanish, both as audiobooks for purchase and as free downloads (Spanish 101 from DePaul University, in iTunes’ University section. I don’t have any direct experience with these resources, but if other people have experience with them, I’d be glad to hear about it.

Listen, Listen, Listen

A couple of posts back, I wrote about the importance of committing time and energy to any effort to improve your Spanish. The good news is that it’s easy to incorporate audio material into your daily routine: You can put Latin music in the CD player of your car or tune into a Spanish-language radio station on your way to work, and with a mp3 player, you can listen to music as you clean house, go for walks or exercise.

Of all these activities, walking is my favorite for listening. There’s moving scenery and just enough physical activity to keep me engaged, but not enough to distract my mind. And walking functions as a great source of exercise to boot! A few years ago I had a job a couple of miles from home, and every day after taking the bus to work, I’d break out my Ipod loaded with Juanes and El Koala, walk down main street and take a long path through the woods to home. Good times.

Learning Spanish on YouTube

March 7, 2010

Learning Spanish (or any foreign language) can be as easy as opening an Internet browser.

The full potential of the Internet for learning is pretty awesome. Sites like LiveMocha offer online chat groups and social networking to allow users to meet and practice with each other. You can find and order textbooks online, access posted college lectures and learning materials, and tune into online radio programs.

But the site that I’ve used most often to practice my Spanish has been YouTube, where for the past four years I’ve been learning and relearning Spanish by listening to music from throughout Spain and Latin America.

There’s an intimidating amount of diversity to music from these regions. YouTube allows you to access this diverse pool anytime, and if you’re brave enough to venture in, the rewards can be wonderful.

I’ve found three advantages by learning a language through its music:

  • If you can find a genre or artist you like, you’ll enjoy listening to it, and be more likely to make a habit of listening
  • You can listen to music everywhere, making it easy to incorporate music into your daily routine
  • Listening to a song works well for language learners of all levels: beginners can try to pick out individual words and then work on understanding the chorus, while more advanced learners can work on understanding the verses line by line (searching for “letras,” or lyrics, can help you find the words to a song).

To help get you started, here are a few videos that I’ve enjoyed that have (relatively) simple lyrics. (You may also want to check out my  “awesome music around the world” series, which has music from Spain, Mexico, Colombia, and other countries.

Manu Chao – Me Gustas Tu

Elmo – Es Musica

Kumbia All Starz – Speedy Gonzales

Does anyone else have any ways they’ve used YouTube or other online resources to learn a new language?

Learning (or relearning) a new language

March 7, 2010

You don’t need classes to learn (or relearn) a foreign language.

I’ve been studying and practicing Spanish on my own for the past four years. Since then, I’ve gone from reading Dr. Seuss with difficulty to finishing Cien Años de Soledad, and have gone from having difficulty pronouncing basic words to being able to comfortably converse in Spanish while traveling to Uruguay for work and Nicaragua for pleasure.

While I’m not particularly great with foreign languages, I’m proud of my progress. Over my next few blog entries, I’ll discuss how you can learn Spanish with a library card, a mp3 player, and an Internet connection.

I’ve benefitted from the a set of audio lessons as a review of the basics, but learning on my own has taken me farther and deeper than that or any other packaged learning program (I’ve tried several, which have ranged from decent to awful).

Parts of the strategy I’ll be setting out over my next few entries should apply pretty well to any foreign language, but similarities between Spanish and English, and the convenience of Spanish-language materials and Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. make this a lot easier, though French would probably be relatively easy as well.

Here are a few tips for starting out:

If there’s one tip I can offer with confidence, it is to commit yourself. Learning a foreign language is a lot like exercise. The benefits are great, but they only last as long as you commit the time.

If you want to be able to speak Spanish well five years from now, you’re going to need to practice every week (or nearly every week) for the next five years.

I estimate that I need two to three hours a week of practice to steadily improve, and 60 to 90 minutes to not lose anything. That said, there are ways to work on your Spanish (listening, not reading) while doing other activities such as driving or exercising: I’ll discuss some of those methods shortly.

Learn (or re-learn) the basics
I really benefited by having the basic rules of grammar and conjugation down. Learning Spanish is relatively easy compared to some other foreign languages because almost all of the tenses match.

Fortunately, my local library had an old copy of the “Living Language” Spanish lessons on CDs; by listening to these and practicing again and again for weeks, I was able to gradually build vocabulary and re-learn the verb conjugations.

Has anyone else had a similar experience or have any tips you’d like to share?

Read about learning Spanish on YouTube.

Awesome Music from Around The World, Part 2

February 1, 2010

Here’s my second entry in my “Awesome music from around the world” series, featuring great music from India, Zimbabwe, Finland, Iran, and six other countries. Enjoy!

11. France: Carla Bruni — Quelqu’un m’a dit

I asked  a friend about music from France, and she said “everyone loves Carla Bruni.” After hearing this song, it’s easy to see why. Carla Bruni, now Bruni-Sarkosy, is the wife of France’s president Nicolas Sarkosy.

12. Nicaragua: Revuelta Sonora — Tululu (Revuelta remix)

This is another video that works nicely as a short story, this time following a cute but mischevious scamp who steals a camera from a tourist couple and uses it to take photos of his friends, family and neighborhood. Come for the chance to see a glimpse of Nicaragua’s Afro-Carribbean city life; stay for the great music.

13. Japan: X Japan — Okkusenman

The punk-metal band Japan X takes a song from the 1988 nintendo game Mega Man 2 and turns it into a rocking yet wistful rumination on the loss of childhood innocence. The melody holds up well after more than 20 years, and the simple yet effective animation helps to tell the story.

14. Zimbabwe: Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi — What Shall We Do?

Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, Zimbabwe’s most popular musical artist, has been singing and touring for more than 30 years. His song “What shall we do?” manages to be both poignant and hopeful (which is impressive if you know anything about Zimbabwe’s political and economic situation).

15. Finland: Lordi — Hard Rock Hallelujah

Straddling the line between “awesome” and “awesomely retarded,” the Finnish band Lordi is like the drawings come to life out of the notebook of a creepy 15-year-old’s notebook. The band dresses up in full demonic costume for videos, concerts, and interviews and has it’s own elaborate origin story and mythology.

16. Moldova: Nelly Ciobanu — Hora Din Moldova

Featuring traditional costumes, circle dancing, and wide, expansive shots of….fields of sheep, Hora Din Moldova (“Dance of Moldova”), Moldova’s entry for the 2009 Eurovision contest. It’s a little quaint, but everyone–the singer, dancers, and camera crew seem both earnest and proud of their country, and the song is a good one in its own right. I’d choose this underdog over a more slick, polished video that could have come out of anywhere in a heartbeat.

17. Democratic Republic of the Congo: Baloji: Congo

Hip-hop artist Bajoli breaks up his video about his home country into three parts. He starts rapping alone over a spare beat of African drums. He then picks up the pace and breaks out the guitars and backup singers. In the third section he slows down again, bringing out traditional African dancers and a gospel chorus. Great stuff.

18. Chile: Los Prisioneros — El Muro

Corte el muro (“take down the wall”) sing Los Prisioneros, a Chilean rock band who crafted this song protesting the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States. Statistics accompanying the video help to illustrate the harsh conditions immigrants often have to face as well as the benefits workers from Mexico bring to the U.S.

19. Iran: Abjeez –Eddeaa

Melodie and Safoura Safavi lead the Abjeez, a Persian pop band. I have no idea about their video is about (anyone speak Farsi?) but the song is very catchy and the video was good enough to win at New York City’s Tribeca film festival.

20. Northern Ireland: Panama Kings — Golden Recruit

The Traveling Wilburys of Northern Ireland, this group is made up of a number of musicians from other Northern Irish bands, two of whom left the group called The Queer Giraffes. If they join eight more bands with silly names this year, they’ll get their 11th one free.