Archive for December, 2009

News Widgets: a brief introduction

A widget is a small, single-purpose application. Widgets are a great way to deliver small amounts of information efficiently.  The widgets I’m currently most familiar with are those that reside on my Mac’s “dashboard”: a clock, a calendar, a calculator, and a display of the weather in Los Angeles.  Recently I downloaded google’s news widget, which is now the fifth item on the dashboard.  This widget has four categories, “World,” “U.S.,” “Business,” and “Sci/Tech.“  The widget culls breaking headlines from a variety of sources—right now, I see that Rush Limbaugh has been rushed to the hospital.

I installed the google news widget as part of an investigation into the news widgets available on the web.  I quickly learned that the widget landscape is ever-changing and definitely untamed.  Widgets are available for the computer desktop, for mobile phones, and for various web applications.  To make matters more complicated, some desktop widgets require a mediating application, also known as a “widget engine”  (  No single widget engine dominates the scene at the moment.  Popular examples include the Mac Dashboard application and the Yahoo!widgets application, which is free and can run on Macs and PCs.  Finally, multiple independent websites exist that collect widgets for downloading or allow users to design their own widgets. 

If you have a widget engine or platform that you already use, you can google its name and then explore the “news” category.  For example, news widgets for the Mac Dashboard are located at  

If you’re less interested in a particular platform than a certain new source, you should know that several now provide widgets for displaying their content.

Here are some links:

The New York Times (requires signing up for the website):

The Wall Street Journal:

The Washington Post:


The BBC:

One major newspaper that has not developed its own widgets is the Los Angeles Times.  For this paper, and many others, you can probably find free widgets created by third-parties with a little patience.

Comments off

Getting the Most from your Charitable Donations: Focus

It’s a daunting task to begin taking on the challenge of figuring out to be more effective at making a real difference in the world, so I’m going to start slow, and spend the first few articles talking about a few simple ideas for using donations as a more effective tool for activism.

The first thing I’ll suggest is focus.  Simply put, “don’t spread your donation dollars too thin.”

There are an enormous number of tragedies and injustices being done in the world, and an enormous number of ways of making the world a better place. But if you are going to donate $250 dollars total in a year to different causes, there are a couple problems with spreading that out into twenty-five ten dollar donations. » Continue reading “Getting the Most from your Charitable Donations: Focus”

Comments off

the effects of coming out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual

Many people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual struggle with the question of when and whether to come out to friends, family, and community. [1] I have often heard that it’s important to do so in order to change minds in favor of LGB rights. But quantitatively, what are the impacts of coming out? In a given case, it undoubtedly depends on a whole host of factors regarding the individuals and circumstances involved. But I decided to look at the average effects of knowing someone who has identified themselves LGB on a person’s attitudes about LGB political and social issues.

If you want to skip to the punchline: coming out has a substantial favorable impact (at least 10 percentage points on average) on the attitudes of others about LGB issues. The size of the effect varies in terms of the relationship between the people involved and their demographics, as well as the issues involved. Coming out can also have an effect on prejudice against other groups, not just LGBs. For details and citations, keep reading.

» Continue reading “the effects of coming out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual”

Comments (2)

Visual Explanations of Politics

Some controversial policy questions, though deeply divisive, are at least easy to understand as questions.  Arguably abortion and same-sex marriage fall into this category.  I think that most people understand the policy decisions that are at stake and they can quickly offer moral arguments to support their views. 

However, whenever the issue involves a cost-benefit analysis, or the comparison of complex institutions, ordinary citizens can be at a loss.  And, for the record, I count myself in that category. I am interested in finding innovative ways to educate myself (and others) about complex political issues.  This post is, I hope, the first in a series I will make about self-education and the resources that are available, especially on the web.

 One current example of a complex issue is health care reform.  Yes, there are aspects of the debate that everyone probably understands—like whether or not abortion will be covered.  But what about the different possible plans and the impact each will have on the different sectors of society?  Even if one particular plan is chosen, it’s good to know about what options were rejected.  And if legislation doesn’t pass, the issue may crop up again.

 Of course, there is plenty of written material about the ongoing wrangling in Washington, but I am looking for something more immediately accessible.  My first thought was to find a vivid visual depiction of the issues at stake. 

 I quickly discovered that a citizen-based project to put together a film called “Health Care: A Visual Explanation” failed to secure funding back in September.

Here are a couple of less ambitious projects that were executed:

 At the New Republic, a chart of the current health care system:

On the blog Digital Roam, health care is explained “on the back of a napkin”:

Finally, in the course of my search, I also discovered this blog, which looks like a good general resource for innovative visual depictions of information.

Comments (1)

buying frozen

I hear a lot about how to be better — in terms of a number of factors, but largely sustainability — about my eating habits.  Buy organic.  Buy local.  Eat less meat.  Buy wild fish — caught sustainably — instead of farmed. But here’s one I hadn’t heard before — buy frozen.

Some recent research (NYT article— may require login; Environmental Science & Technology paper – requires subscription; Ecotrust press release — freely accessible) indicates that, in terms of salmon, buying fish that is flash-frozen at sea prior to shipment (instead of shipped fresh to markets or restaurants) makes a bigger environmental impact than any other factor.

The reason: Most salmon consumers live far from where the fish was caught or farmed, and the majority of salmon fillets they buy are fresh and shipped by air, which is the world’s most carbon-intensive form of travel. Flying fillets from Alaska, British Columbia, Norway, Scotland or Chile so that 24 hours later they can be served “fresh” in New York adds an enormous climate burden, one that swamps the potential benefits of organic farming or sustainable fishing.

» Continue reading “buying frozen”

Comments (6)

Petitions: effective?

One of the first things I wanted to investigate when I was thinking about this blog was the effectiveness of petitions — particularly online petitions.  They just seem so useless to me.  And yet, a number of major non-profit organizations who generally seem to know what they’re doing sometimes ask me to sign online petitions.  Maybe there was something to them, after all.

I emailed a few non-profits to ask about the effectiveness of petitions as well as other forms of activism.  The answers that I got (which I’ll discuss more in future posts) did not address petitions specifically, and most of them said something along the lines of, “It’s hard to measure these things.”  I decided to do some of my own research — by which, for the moment, I mean “I used Google so you don’t have to.”

» Continue reading “Petitions: effective?”

Comments (3)

Welcome to Effectivism!

Hi there!  I’m Lauren.  I’m a lazy activist.  That means that there are a lot of things I want to change about the world, but I often don’t want to spend a whole lot of time working on fixing things.  Even more than that, I often don’t know where to begin — I feel a bit overwhelmed by the number of organizations asking for my time and money, and the number of actions they ask me to take.  Plus, I often feel doubtful about how much of a difference some of these actions could actually make.  Starting this blog is my way of starting to address all these issues.

The name of this blog comes from my looking for ways to be an effective activist.  I want to find out how I can most effectively spend time and money on causes I care about, and how I can measure the effects of things like calling my representatives, writing letters to the editor, signing petitions, or contributing money to various organizations.  I figure other people might want to know, too, so I might as well share what I find out.  I’ll also share any reference and research tools I find that provide information about how to take political action (like contacting representatives), how to see where your money goes when you donate to charities, and so on.

Beyond political and social activism, I’m also interested in how I can make a difference in the every day choices I can make in my day to day life — the transportation I take, the types of foods I eat, the way that I consume resources like water and electricity, and so forth.  Again, though, I find that I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of information out there about various choices — like eating organic/local/non-hothouse/vegetarian/etc. — and trying to quantify the effects of those choices.  This blog is about all of that as well, and whatever else comes up that seems to fit.

A lot of the answers are probably going to be variations on “We’re not sure,” and “It depends.”  But I and my coauthors will share what we do find out, and this blog will also be an ongoing process of finding out more.  We welcome your questions and ideas as well, as we go along.  Welcome!

Comments (2)